Monday, September 10, 2012

A Sense of Place

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it."

                                                                                                             -- Norman Maclean

If we're lucky, some of us have an opportunity to travel to faraway places where -- because of the exotic geography, unfamiliar language and customs, alien weather, and culinary surprises -- we experience an acute, unique awareness of Place. In such unfamiliar surroundings it becomes quite easy to become aware of the details and specific nature of Place. But, with a little effort, it isn't necessary to travel far afield to become intimately away of Here and Now. Everyplace has its history, its geography, its climate, and its culture. And, with a little practice, we can all discover wonderful stories -- right in our own backyards -- worth recording, and worth sharing with others.

Some time back I was looking for a theme for a sketchbook project I planned to enter in a popular national exhibition, and I was looking for a way to introduce my youngsters to the marvels of the natural world. I found the solution to both in my own back yard; a stretch of river (more stream really) all but hidden by the old hardwood trees that lined its banks, the Clear Fork of the Trinity River.

Our little stretch of the river is one of the few sections that wasn't "channelized" by the Corps of Engineers and the water authority during the 60s and 70s. And one of the first things we learned about our little ecosystem was that where you find vegetation and water you find insects -- cicadas, spiders (in all shapes and sizes), walking sticks, damsel flies, and dragon flies.

And where there are water, flora, and insects we found birds -- aquatic plant-eating ducks, seed eaters, and raptors.

In the spring we were treated to wildflowers that carpeted the flood plane that connected the river to the ponds of our wildlife refuge -- Indian Paintbrushes, Evening Primroses, Bluebonnets, and a dozen other species that arrived one after the other. We drew them, mapped their location, and sometimes pressed them in our journals. 

During our explorations we would occasionally discover old, rusted artifacts -- a fallen barbed wire fence, a line of weathered fence posts hidden in a patch of trees, and old, long-forgotten padlocks. So we researched the ares history and learned that what is now suburban neighborhoods was, not to long ago, a huge working ranch that stretched along the Trinity River from what is now downtown Fort Worth to the town of Benbrook. 

We also discovered that where there is a diversity and abundance of plants and insects, and clear-running water, there a variety and abundance of fish -- and that if you "catch and release" it will stay that way.

We looked at the trees, tried to identify them, and researched their history. We learned that some were a prolific source of high-nutrician, free food, others provided excellent, renewable building materials, and still others had long-ago developed formidable defense systems to protect themselves against ravenous herbivores that went extinct long, long ago. 

Most of "our" Clear Fork is shallow enough that we can explore its length and breadth in calf-high rubber boots -- discovering giant tadpoles (that tickle your hands), crayfish, fresh water clams, and several species of turtles.

We found a weir (which the kids called their "waterfall") that was built in 1914 and a limestone outcrop that once been part of an ancient seabed, replete with a diverse cache of 50 million year old fossils.

And we spent long hours (that seemed anything but) marveling over insect hatches and the "creepy-crawlies" that live under rocks of the stream bed.

So, the next time you're preparing for a globe-trotting adventure and you want to fine-tune your skills before you go, think about trying what we did. Begin in your own back yard!


"The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters."
                                                                                                                __ Norman Maclean


NOTE: For brevity's sake I've only included nine of the double pages from the original Clear Fork journal. If you'd like to see all 38 pages of the complete journal, cover-to-cover, I invite you to click here

PRODUCT MINI REVIEW & A TRICK OF THE TRADE: The sponsors of the aforementioned sketchbook exhibition required all participants to use the sketchbook they provided for the project -- a plain 5.2" x 8.4" Moleskine Cahier. The Cahier sketchbook is produced in a handy pocket size and sold in an economical three-volume set. The paper is well suited for dry medium (graphite, carbon, and color) and will handle some fast-drying inks (ballpoint, roller ball, and gel). But it is not intended for particularly wet medium (a limitation that the exhibition sponsors should have taken into consideration.  While using pen & ink, marker, or watercolor will almost certainly result in bleed-through and some paper buckling, there are creative solutions for those who wish to work with this handy little notebook. In my case the solution was to draw/write on two facing pages, skip the next two facing pages (because of bleed-through), write/draw on the next two, and so on. After the sketchbook had been filled and all of the pages were completely dry I pressed the book to reduce page buckling and then -- using Tombo Mono archival two-sided permanent adhesive tape -- pasted the facing pages that had not been drawn on together. This eliminated the bleed-through problem and effectively doubled the ply, or weight, of each page. 




  1. What a beautiful record of nature's blessings.

    1. Thanks Jean. And I really think there are plenty of similar blessings and treasures for each of us to discover if we can simply slow down enough to see them. :-D

  2. Wow! I am so in awe of your journey and your journal. What a wonderful way to spend time with your family and learn about your neighbourhood's history as well as explore nature. These are memories that your kids will take with them through their lives, with or without the journal. This is just so amazing!

    1. Thanks Ana. It's an experience that I would HIGHLY recommend for other families too (and a delightful, fresh-air alternative to computer screens, Game Boys, and Xbox 360! ;-D)

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