Vincent van Gogh and Nature

50 Paintings and Drawings at the Clark Museum
Williamstown, Massachusetts

In the web of nature, where van Gogh created his masterpieces, he was transfixed by all that is alive: rocks,  water, trees, humanity. He was able to portray life supernaturally with brush and paint. He wrote, "[i]f one draws a pollard willow as if it were a living being, which after all it is, then the surroundings follow almost by themselves, provided only that one has focused all one's attention on that particular tree and not rested until there [is] some life in it." 1

A sweet euphoria slowly swept through me as I walked through the van Gogh exhibit at the Clark Museum. I had never been there before and it is a stunning facility. The museum is on an exceptional site, green rolling hills frame the contemporary architecture of the building. Cows graze in open pasture behind it just beyond an infinity water pool, where visitors can sit and take it all in.  With the natural beauty of this place in the Berkshires in mind, Richard Kendall, Chris Stolwijk and Sjaar van Heugten curated a superb exhibit.  Included are paintings and drawings on loan from many noted collections -the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands; the Museé d’Orsay, Paris; the National Gallery, London; The Metropolitan Museum, New York; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

As we entered the first room of the exhibit I was drawn into several works on paper. I wish I could hold them all in my mind's eye now, it is a fleeting joy. Although a bit dark in the first room and somewhat problematic to see the work because of that, (dimly lit to protect the delicate works on paper), as we moved through the rooms each piece opened my irises further to the light within the work.  Vincent was so present there, hovering around us.  

His work impresses upon me the Artisan- Priest- Minister that he was and how much of that energy he communicated, his shamanistic side, in the artwork he created.  Van Gogh wrote about his "awareness that art is something greater and higher than our own skill or knowledge or is something which, though produced by human hands, is not wrought by hands alone, but wells up from a deeper source, from man's soul..." 2 It is difficult to separate the paintings from the artist, the tragic circumstances of his struggle to survive mentally, physically and emotionally. Yet there is a revery that he conveyed painting a vase of flowers; a portrait; in the Dutch landscape; in an interior space which holds so much vibration that the work pulses.  Everything is alive and breathing in his later paintings.

In the second room there was a Monet painting that van Gogh had seen in person.  It was beautiful, of course, in a gilded frame as we are accustomed to seeing from that era. At the moment I was observing it, on the top edge of the frame, mid-point, sat a live fly, ever so still as if it had just emerged from the field in the painting.  As I read now the detailed letters that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, I am reminded of this fly on the frame as well as one of the final paintings he made just weeks before he died of a self-inflicted wound.  Landscape at Auvers in the Rain, is the concluding painting in the exhibit.  Years before he wrote to Theo about witnessing a rainstorm:

“Did I write to you about the storm I watched not long ago?  The sea was yellowish, especially close to the shore.  On the horizon a streak of light and above it immensely large dark grey clouds, from which one could see the rain coming down in slanting streaks.”3

In the exhibit, just to the right of the painting, a small Japanese print was included that may have inspired the painting or perhaps it was the earlier experience in Ramsgate, England that he wrote about to Theo. I was touched by his courage as a painter to put in the slanted lines indicating rain.  It was a risk, a risk that worked. Streaked with sadness, it moved me to tears. I could sense that the gallery guard standing next to the painting saw my emotional response, as I viewed Landscape at Auvers in the Rain, and I wondered how many other visitors to the show he had witnessed react in a similar way?  If I were a fly on the wall watching, I imagine, there were many.  Van Gogh said, "surely, the true path is to delve deep into nature." 4 Surely, he did.

In Rain–Auvers (1890, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff), - See more at:

1,2,3,4  from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh


Summer, Struggle, and a Spider's Thread

There is a sweet patio on the first floor of the complex where I live.  It has a small lap pool and a few tables and lounge chairs; flowering trees and rosemary shrubs surround it.  This spring/summer the pool is empty, except for a small pile of dirt and leaf debris collected at the deep end.  I've been hoping it would be up and running soon, but there is an unresolved technical problem.  So today, on a glorious Sunday morning I decided to take a book, a pillow, a glass of water and go down and sit poolside even though the water has gone- missing.

The book in my hand by Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, was published a couple years ago, in 2013 by a non-profit educational organization.  Their mission is to "nurture holistic views of arts and sciences, humanities and healing".  I recommend it to anyone on the path of healing body, mind, spirit.  In the midst of the chapter called Struggle, a thought ran through my mind mirroring the content of the book: "maybe someone else is out doing something more important today to make our environment better or someone else is helping the homeless, maybe that is more evolved than hanging- out reading about changing the world".  With my head more or less in the self-flagellating clouds and exactly at that moment, a hummingbird appeared nearly in front of my face, totally exquisite in form and vitality.  

Eisentein's overview of our current Cartesian dilemma: "[i]n tracing the deep roots of ...programming, ...contained in our basic scientific paradigms.  Not only in Darwinian biology with its struggle to survive, but in physics as well with the doomed and endless struggle against entropy...we reside in a hostile universe in which we must over come natural forces and carve out a realm of security and apply force to impose our design on a purposeless, disorderly jumble."

The hummingbird grabbed my full attention to the perfection of the moment.  I was overcome with a short blissful knowing that maybe the try-harder mentality of self-judgement or competition; conflict, feuding with, straining against, harsh grinding daily responsibilities to produce; jockeying for attention in the work place world; efforted labors, wars, and the ugly rest of it, is unnecessary madness. Eisenstein's point is that we might seek to "look for the unmet need that drives the desire" to do these stressful things to ourselves and put demands on one another with all of the aforementioned campaigns of troubling addictions to our conflicts. His reasonable line of argument being that we claim less struggle in our choice of words and actions when we "address the unmet need directly, it no longer drives the desire that has been so destructive."

As I sat by the empty pool, something I have been resisting for two months- struggling against the gone- missing water and "why don't they fix it"- I noted the heavenliness all around me. A blue sky, all the elements in balance, a slight breeze, a swallowtail butterfly fluttering about, a hummingbird speaking directly to my thoughts and something else overhead. The sunlight hit a single horizontal line so thin at first I did not realize it was a thread of a web, high above me at the second story level, crossing a span between two trees about fifteen feet apart. Remarkable. The thin silvery line moved with the breeze, swinging higher and lower above my head.  I was transfixed with it, as birds flew over and under it like a gossimer jump rope.  It was insubstantial and yet clearly physical enough to be visible, catch the light and strong enough to hold.  Nature never ceases to amaze and inspire me.

How was this possible? What if the effort of the spider to span the distance was no effort at all? What if there was a joyous floating oneness that drew the filament across the space? An invisible "right-effortness" that was neither hard nor a struggle but rather painless.  Is it possible that all of nature is showing us that each day, rather than the "no pain, no gain" mentality that we tend to live by?
Eisenstein says, "[w]e all wrestle the same demon in a myriad of different forms." Be it an empty swimming pool or alcohol, we all struggle and we all desire connection, self-love, easy earthly pleasures, maybe it just takes a leap of faith from one tree to another to find the sweet spot.


Lord of the Feathered Tribe

"Beyond… someone else's land; a terra incognita, holding the suppressed fascination we all have for places just beyond where we know, or are supposed to be."
-Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk


Many photographs of CB, the name my friend calls a sandhill crane she has befriended, depict his regal stature. Crossed bill, crooked beak, that is what Elise calls him,  I prefer to call him Lord of the Feathered Tribe, the name cranes were called in China in centuries past.
In my friend's photos he or she-we do not know the gender of this crane- is often standing in the broken straw colored fields planted by the nature center for the cranes each year.  A field of gold-that's what it looks like in one of the photos and that seems like a fitting habitat for this  royal bird.  A bright crimson mask of fine feathers covers the part of his face between his yellow- orange eyes. His body is so many grey hues like incoming storm clouds.  

Elise has photographed him in the nature reserves of Albuquerque each year when he returns in the fall/winter season for six consecutive years.  This past season he did not show up in his usual places; we wonder about him and hope he has made a family.  In 2013 I had the opportunity to "meet" him when I happened upon Elise standing next to a field with her camera where he was near to the fence.  She told me of his unusual beak, an abnormal crossed beak, that is clearly a disability, making it difficult to eat.  Somehow though he persevered and grew into adulthood, grew into a magnificent bird. In fact, he is more than a symbol of overcoming adversity.

I made a portrait painting of him in the last few months for a show with a theme of the middle Rio Grande valley. He seemed to enter my studio space as I painted his form, especially when I worked on his face, I felt he was with me while the brush was in my hand.

Yet, he remains wild, preternatural to us-just beyond where we know, what we can know. While I completed the painting, Elise drove north to Colorado to see the cranes as they move north again in the early spring, mid-March.  She witnessed 20,000 cranes coming together after the long winter rest.  Maybe her CB was there with the others dancing their ancient rituals, plumed tribes mating for life and migrating north again as they have for millions of years. What do we know about these elegant creatures, about their shared wisdom?

I know this one singular crane has touched me in a way that is something individual, non-ordinary, specific in the cycle of life. And yet, I realize he or she is a part of a collective spirit of cranes. Do they know about the changing landscape, the places over which they travel?  Do they know the details of things from flying along the Rocky Mountains for instance? Do they notice how the winds change the rock formations, the fields and streams they may stop by on their journeys north and south?  Do they communicate with one another what to expect ahead?  This one, this uncommon one, Lord of the Feathered Tribe, holds my imagination and keeps me questioning all that is beyond our human understanding, because he comes from an exclusive tribe for initiates of a certain feathered kind.  His kind is ancient and pulls at me to try and grasp just how long this planet of changing patterns has been in place. 


Contemplation, January 2015

To me everything is supernatural.

-Richard Jefferies,

The Story of My Heart, 1883



2015.  The second day of the new year feels cold outside. A bit of snowfall early in the dawn hours on New Year's day greeted us in Albuquerque.  It is welcomed magic for the soul, a clean slate to begin again. By day two it is almost completely melted away but some dusting remains on the duck pond where I am enthralled by nature this morning.


My friend, Karen, is co-leading an educational workshop for teachers. While most of the class group takes a walk to the river, I stay back with another woman named Deborah and watch the ducks on the pond from a warm spot inside. With cozy chairs and couches, a library to our backs of reference books and bird specimens on shelves, we two are enamored with the feathered party happening beyond the large windows in front of us. Some aquatic creatures viewed through binoculars look like abstract paintings-especially the wood ducks.  Pairs of colorful green headed ducks and their camouflaged mates float in the small area that is not frozen.  Others walk about on the frosty ice leaving their prints and occasional skid marks.  The coots are my favorite, they have a dark grey plumage, a stark white bill and celadon- green lobed feet.  


Ruddy ducks, a stiff tailed duck with a broad bill are amongst the other ducks-they have feet set back on short legs for paddling around in the water but on the ice they are clumsy, almost completely disabled.  I see one struggling to stand up and walk, it is painful to witness. 


Groups of geese fly in and out. A lone coyote curled into a ball next to the edge of another pond we stood near earlier looked out at us from behind low shrubs with one eye, his other eye tucked into a fold in his fur. He is super natural.

Speakers in the corners of the room bring the quacking, honking sounds of the pond like music inside our glass -walled theatre. Deborah and I continue to watch the ruddy duck-we are distressed that she may be distressed- stuck on the thin ice. She sits in one spot with her back to us, Deborah tells someone who works at the nature center about the stuck duck and she let's us know she will keep an eye out for us when we leave. I wonder if the ruddy duck knows she is on thin ice, that underneath is water and freedom?  

Richard Jefferies, a nineteenth century nature-mystic-writer, a British Thoreau, speaks to me across two centuries in words that pull at my heart.  I just recently learned of him from one of my favorite contemporary environmental writers, Terry Tempest Williams.  She and her husband Brooke, reintroduced Jefferies book, The Story of My Heart, in the hope that it will be meaningful to a new generation of readers.  In it Jefferies says, 

"Through every blade of grass in the thousand, thousand grasses; through the million leaves, veined and edge-cut, on bush and tree; through the song-notes and the marked feathers of the birds; through the insects' hum and the colour of the butterflies; through the soft warm air, the flecks of clouds dissolving--I use them all for prayer."

I relate with his revery for nature- everything is supernatural- some great mysterious force in action, beyond our comprehension.  Every thing is cause for prayers, prayers of gratitude.

Later in the afternoon we get word that Ruddy flew off when someone from the nature center approached her at the pond's edge.  All is well. 


A Flight, December 2014

I am at a threshold experience that I long to share. Come with me please to marvel at a bird sanctuary less than an hour from the urban sprawl of Albuquerque where I live.  It is the time of the annual festival of the Sandhill Cranes, they migrate south along the Rio Grande River corridor from northern states to winter in the fields here in New Mexico.  Many who live here or travel to see them love the sound of their unique call as they fly over, reminding us of the ancient cycles of nature as the season shifts.  


We drive into the refuge area, just off the highway to the Bernardo Wildlife Area, I was unaware of this refuge until my friend brought me there yesterday.  We witness the elegant spectacle of hundreds of the Greater Cranes in the fields in the late afternoon on an overcast day, cool enough for a coat and hat.  We walk and talk of personal things, stories of our childhoods, memories of years gone by, while around our conversation a certain crescendo of glory is building up.  We spot a small grouping of mule deer among the cranes, they look toward us, as we look to them.  What does their shy manner speak to the cranes? They do not appear to fear each other as they mingle together in the fields; fur and antlers with feathers and long beaks.  Tenderly, the deer edge out from the trees at the end of the day, magnificent creatures, especially the males with their large treelike racks.  A good writer is encouraged to use descriptive adjectives to feed the reader a sense of the picture, but I know this picture- a technicolor movie really- is beyond my capability to paint in black and white or color, in words or diagrams.  But never-the-less, I am compelled to try. 


We walk awhile and then drive the loop road around the refuge spotting a red-tail hawk and later perhaps the same bird with it's mate on a telephone pole.  Around the horizon of the fields of corn, planted for the cranes to feed on are mountain views-blue violet silhouettes, Manzano Peak to the east. We are only an hour before the fly-in, when the birds move at dusk from the fields to the safety of a marsh to roost for the night.  There they will stand in the shallow waters until sunrise.  This evening ritual is a massive migration as hundreds of these great soaring ones, a nature film of flight, create a spectacle of sheer delight. My friend and I station ourselves at the north edge of one of the observation blinds and watch awestruck as the cranes float in while the setting sun glows dimmer with the last Naples yellow rays streaking the skies.  All the while an unusual rainbow ball of hues-red, orange, yellow, blue- appears to sit on top of the mountain range to the south and incredibly reflects into the marsh waters in front of us like a finger of God. The cranes call a chant to one another in a haunting baritone sound. Their chords touch our souls as we watch spellbound until the black-ink marsh is full with their bodies. Are you with me? Their legs come down to land first as they descend, their huge wings like parachutes glide them into place. They settle in as more then more, surely a thousand crowd together for the night to unfold. I am on safari in a sacred place. As the sun slips away my intuition tells me to turn around and walk away from the marsh to see the last cranes, the later arrivals coming in over head from the east.  At first I ignore this inner voice but it continues and I tell Elise I am going to walk back toward the car. I take a short path to an open field and look up to see their massive wing spans- six or eight feet across-so close I can hear them beat the air above, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. And then, to the east above the purple mountain range I see the full moon has just risen amongst the lavender cloud cover. Brilliant, it slips like a jewel in and out of view:  punctuating eternal.  I stop breathing.  I am one with it all, there is no separation, only amazement.  My mouth drops open as I marvel for some minutes, frozen in place to take it in, this sensory soaring sight. Then I long to share this with my friend; I turn and run back to where she is standing with her camera at the edge of the marsh. "Come quick! Come with me please." Come feast on this extraordinary, non-ordinary reality around us, and be humbled in speechless revery. For a few precious minutes, we transcend the physical, we become cranes and fly.

 Photo by Elise Varnadoe