Once again, I find myself painting birch portraits. I turn to other subjects again and again, but always, sooner or later, return to the individual birches in the boreal forest that surrounds my home.
Since returning from Denali Park in mid-August, I have been wandering through the woods, watching them turn dramatically, rapidly, day by day, to autumn. Already, the leaves are mostly golden, and the ground is covered with those that have fallen. The understory is bright with the reds of rosehips, highbush cranberries, and their brilliant leaves. The musty smell of the cranberries permeates the air in the forest, and drifts from it.
For me, as for many others here in Interior Alaska, this is a favorite time of year. Despite our awareness that it will all-too-rapidly climax, fade, and give way to the long, hard winter--or perhaps in part because of that knowledge--we revel in the brilliance of the season and its fleeting glories. And so day after day, I walk in the woods, and then I return to the studio and I paint the beautiful, individual, striking trunks I find there.
The sun, as we rush toward the autumn equinox and equal parts daylight and dark, is still bright in the forest, and the trees are luscious, sensual in the warm fall light. I think of them as bodies, their skin soaking up the warmth of the fading summer and reveling in the chiaroscuro of light and shadow while it lasts.
I am still getting to know the few hundred birches that surround my home, and as Missy and I planted scores of shrubs on the bank behind our house, and a dozen lilacs at the woods' edge, I kept wandering into the grove to see new trees in new light. The birches around us are tall and thin, swaying deeply in the sudden winds that blow when fronts come through. Chickadees and redpolls, juncos and white-crowned sparrows flit ceaselessly from the branches to my feeders and birdbath. Flickers are nesting in a standing, broken-off trunk, and robins reared young this summer in a high nest nearby. We see downy and hairy woodpeckers almost every day.
With the onset of fall, we also hear, far above the forest canopy, the creaking call of cranes, the honking of long skeins of migrating geese, and regularly this year, the haunting trills of solitary, passing loons.
August Birch is just one of several oil on paper paeans of praise to individual birches in our little grove that I've painted this early, glorious fall.
For many years, I couldn't wait for winter to arrive. I longed each fall for the first snow on which I could ski, and I reveled in the number of times I could ski on my birthday, in early October. I'm more patient now, in part because I've learned deep in my bones how long that winter will be, but also because I've come to enjoy each season in its turn.
So I don't long for winter, but I don't dread it, either. I have been surprised to find myself in the studio this month not just celebrating the fall, but anticipating being back on the trail above my house, skiing through the low-sunlit forest at dusk, with the early winter sun blasting its way through the trees. It seems all I can do is climb the stairs to my studio each morning, change my clothes, and begin to paint. It's not until I see what happens there that I learn what's on my mind and in my heart.