Friday, January 24, 2020

Life as a Prickly Pear Cactus

    If you were a cactus, and wanted to live in many places, you'd be an Opuntia. Home is almost everywhere in the Western Hemisphere, but prickly pear have been introduced by humans into every area of the world. They quickly became invasive pests in many places, taking over millions of acres of land in Australia alone. Now they are truly world citizens, comfortably living and reproducing easily everywhere they can get a root-hold.

   As a child wandering the sandy Wisconsin River valley, I found prickly pear once in a while. They seemed mysterious and almost magical; the idea of cactus living in Wisconsin seemed impossible to me at the time. They even bloomed. But it was hard to imagine them living under the cold snow in our long winters. Many years later I learned they have grown in those sandy areas for a very long time and had prior experience high in the Andes and at the far end of Argentina; they are very cold hardy and were right at home.

  Visiting the Sonoran desert this winter, it was quickly apparent that opuntia are even more at home here, and there are a great many species. They suddenly became more interesting. You probably think of 'prickly pear' as the cactus with flat green pads that seem pegged together, one stacked on the other. That's what all the pictures show, and they are iconic images for desert scenes, along with the saguaros. But that commonly seen cactus is only one of almost countless prickly pear family members.

   In Sonoran desert towns, cactus are garden plants. Walking about in city neighborhoods is a great way to see many different cactus. Some are very old, their large nopales (pads) towering overhead. Many are cultivated for different uses. They interbreed easily so identifying them can be difficult.
(This reminds me of trying to identify lichens. If you follow my lichen blog, you'll know about trying to identify lichens...not for the faint of heart!)

Opuntia aciculata-cowboy whiskers prickly pear
    The more I look for prickly pear cactus, the more I find. Sometimes it seems that they have taken over the whole land, as far as one can see. I started sketching them to better remember who they are;  a challenge somewhat like trying to remember all the relatives at a family reunion who haven't been seen in decades.
   Remembering one or two characteristics of each does help sort them out.

Prickly Pears
   Almost all prickly pear are edible. All are used by every living being around them, from ants and iguanas to humans and deer, birds, and rodents. Even elephants in Africa eat them. There is a spider named for her close relationship to a prickly pear cactus ( Theridion).

   Prickly pear flowers come in many colors, and like most cactus, are spectacular and well worth the long wait for a good season of blooms.

Prickly pears-some fruit and blossoms

   In North and South America, where people have lived with prickly pear for thousands of years, the fruit is harvested but the pads or nopales are also used for food. Added to almost every type of recipe, they are a staple in many traditional diets.
Some prickly pear plants have large, tuberous roots that can be dug up, dried or roasted and eaten.

    Finally, the prickly pear is cultivated as a host for the cochineal insect that is grown for the carminic acid they produce. This acid makes the red dye used in food coloring. Large farms of closely packed prickly pear nopales are seeded with the insects, which feed on the cactus.

   Prickly pear have been in the Americas for thousands of years, growing different types of spines and shapes of pads, slowly learning how to live as far north as British Columbia and as far south as souther Argentina and Chile.

  Cactus physiology has modified what being a plant means. Their skins do the photosynthesis because they do not have leaves. Or maybe they stopped having leaves because they figured out how to use their skin and save all the work of making and caring for leaves in the hot dry climate. Leaves were modified into spines, and they have many functions since freed from the work of photosynthesis.

   Cactus spines are not thorns, and are all sharper than you can imagine. Some are brittle or even a bit soft, but they are very, very, very sharp. My habit of leaning against things when standing has been quickly modified by a few walks in the cactus forests. I'm not sure 'forest' is the correct term for cactus-land, but to me the Sonoran desert, with tall, columnar cactus towering over shrubs and smaller cactus is a forest without a canopy. What do you think it looks like?

   Opuntia are one of the plants that have developed a long, mutually beneficial relationship with humans as well as making themselves comfortable in almost every environment on their own. Even in the midwest, keep a look out for these inconspicuous but complex cactus. They might be your neighbors, no matter where you live.

Thanks for visiting! Please 'like' and 'share' if you know someone that might be interested.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Sonoran Sketches

Sketch of Ocotillo plant

   The ocotillo is one of my favorite plants, since I first met them while living in California many years ago. After all the time I've spent in the deserts, it is only in the last few days that I've learned they are not cactus. I sure feel dumb! But an easy mistake to make; they grow where cactus grow, they have thorns. I confused thorns with spines; they are not the same thing.
Ocotillo is interesting to draw; many textures, and sometimes small green leaves for contrast and of course the beautiful long curved thorns. Very red flowers crown her stems in the spring.
   Ocotillos bloom in the spring, often even if there is no rain. They provide a dependable food source for migrating hummingbirds with their regular blooms. As with many desert plants, there are numerous ways that humans and other animals use ocotillos.
    A spray of their branches rising up to twenty feet from the rocky ground, topped with trumpets of crimson is a beautiful sight.
    Making sketches here in the desert seems challenging if one is unfamiliar with the terrain. Everything has a spine, thorn or sharp tooth. But it is really not much different to wander here than at home in the Driftless hills. There, checking for ticks before and after sitting in the forest is similar to taking a look around for cactus spines or residents better left alone, such as scorpions and rattlers. 
   So after finding a nice flat rock and a good view, sketching here is rewarding. Every plant has a unique and different shape. Trees, cactus, vines, shrubs, lichen, moss all grow here. There are over 2,000 plants in the Sonoran desert so there is no shortage of subjects to draw. This desert is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Yet zooming by in a car, we see almost nothing but a few tall cactus and a monotone flat land.
   Artists in this area often use very bright colors. Some of that is because of the Spanish and Mexican influence. Brightly colored buildings, blankets and pottery are part of this region's history.  The people who have lived here for thousands of years also developed dramatic and colorful art. But beyond that, the land itself holds an amazing amount of color. Cactus display every color from green to purple, to red, yellow, black, white, browns and some turn purple with cold temperatures.

   Saguaro cross section, above, has a core ring of woody ribs that support the water filled, fibrous body. An old saguaro can weigh thousands of pounds and is a world of food and shelter for many other desert residents.

   The Golden Torch cactus is from South America. Grown in botanical gardens here, it's quite arresting to see when backlit by the sun. Did you know cactus are Western Hemisphere plants? They live from southern South America to northern Canada. There may be one or two species in Africa, but this is home for them. We have cactus in Wisconsin; prickly pear grow in the sandy areas along the Wisconsin River valley.

   The desert, like the prairies, once visited can be hard to forget. They are hidden worlds, full of diverse and unique life, colors that change constantly and a beauty that we have mostly forgotten is how the world should be.
                                                                                  desert beauty


Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Old Road Walking Into Beauty Reception

Sumac Silhouette - Walnut Ink and Watercolor on Paper
     The Old Road paintings and poetry are now on display at the Viroqua Healing Arts Center, 224 Court Street in Viroqua.
     Come by this Saturday August 10, 11am-1pm for our reception. Wander through the building and enjoy a new perspective on the Kickapoo Valley Reserve's favorite trail - the Old 131 Trail, or as we call it,
The Old Road.
    If you have seen this exhibit at VIVA or other locations, here's a chance to enjoy it again, and if you missed it earlier, this is a great time to catch up! Get your veggies at the Farmer's Market, then come on down the street and we'll inspire you to explore the Kickapoo Valley Reserve's endless beauty.
     The Old Road project includes paintings and poetry about what Joanne and I love on The Old Road, a book compiling the paintings and poems, and notecards.
     Part of all proceeds go to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve programs.

     We look forward to seeing you on Saturday!

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Old Road Exhibit at Healing Arts Center Viroqua

Bridge 13   Walnut Ink on paper - Susan Cushing

Bridge 13

For years Bridge 13 has 
     spanned the river,
withstanding high waters
     that sometimes rise
over its base.

A passageway on the Old Road,
     framing in rusts and grays,
in every season,
     the wildness of its surround.

Stepping forward over the bridge
     onto the Old Road,
one can become lost,
     absorbed into the all…
vital and free.

Joanne Adragna Shird

The Old Road Walking Into Beauty exhibit of my walnut ink paintings and poetry by Joanne Adragna Shird is now at the Viroqua Healing Arts Center in Viroqua through September. 
Stop in anytime during business hours to view the show. If you missed it at Viva gallery, come enjoy the journey through the Kickapoo Valley Reserve's 'Old 131' trail with us.

Each painting is paired with an original poem to tell of the beauty surrounding The Old Road.
This trail is the old highway along the Kickapoo River between Rockton and La Farge. Long before it was a white man's road, it was used by local peoples and long before that by all the animals that shared the valley. Walnut trees are long time residents here, and have shared their bounty and talents with humans for centuries. I chose walnut ink to represent that long connection between land and people, making the ink from walnuts gathered here. Each picture is framed in a hand made solid walnut wood frame, harvested from local trees. The walnut's lightfast durable ink has been used for centuries and so we have used it to note the continuities between people, land, river, plants and animals, through time and in place.

As I write this, that old river has risen again, to major flood stage. In the past few years the river has been making changes to the landscape with each rise and fall through the valley. Our expressions of what we know and see here every day is changing and so some of these pictures are becoming a record of a certain time in this place, maybe to be compared to a different scene in the future. This is an attribute we had not thought of when creating this project.

There will be an ARTIST RECEPTION on Saturday, August 10th between 11am and 1pm at the Viroqua Healing Arts Center, at 224 East Court Street.
Please join us to celebrate the Kickapoo Valley Reserve beauty, enjoy a unique display of art and poetry, and home made refreshments. 

Saturday is Farmer's Market day in Viroqua. Some fresh veggies and beautiful art are a good combination for your day in town!

An addition to the paintings and poetry, The Old Road Walking Into Beauty project includes note cards and a small book of the paintings and poetry. These are always available at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve gift shop, on etsy and at the Viroqua Healing Arts Center reception.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Painting and Paddling the Kickapoo River

   Now that the flood waters have receded and the mud has settled, the Kickapoo runs clear. A few days ago I was thinking that there was only one day of paddling for me this year. Thinking of paddling inspired a look at photos I'd taken of the river, between Bridges 8 and 14. Each time the river is different. My favorite time to be on the water is just at daylight or as twilight turns to night.

Moonlight on the Kickapoo

   My favorite paddling trips were done for 'bat monitoring'. A full moon night, a flat bottom boat, the amazing and wonderful Bat Monitor ( which gives us both the bat calls in a frequency humans can hear, and a visual pattern of their calls) and a few friends with canoes floating into the magical dark tunnel carried us into a river journey hard to imagine during daylight hours.
   The water was dark, the banks were black, the cliffs were empty vaults of anything we could imagine. Then we would round a bend in the river and the rising moon poured liquid white light into everything that was a moment ago invisible in darkness. One moment we could see nothing but blackness, the next, nothing but light.
   Each time we followed the river's bends into and away from the direction of the moon, we glided from total dark to blinding light.

   During the day, light and how it plays on water and rock, leaf and sand, is much of what I notice when on the river. But color instead of dark and light contrast are daytime's priorities. The cliffs along the river are amazing for the variations in color. Moss and lichen are the most of the source of colors, and they change all the time. One day brilliant red and green covers a large flat cliff close to the water, but later that will be all gone. The colors will be muted greys, browns and greens.
   Here is my November meditation on our beautiful Kickapoo river cliffs. The blues are lichen on the rock; that's really their color.

Near Bridge 8  Acrylic on canvas 9" x 12"
   Now that winter is here, the ice caves are forming and the valley's water puts on a different display, silver, white, grey, making a different world than water makes in the summer. It's fun to go outside and watch the ice form, then come inside and paint the greens, blues and reds of summer.

   Please share this blog if you've enjoyed visiting. Thanks!

   Wishing you happy trails in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, all year round.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Bright Promises  Walnut Ink  & Watercolor on Paper
     The fall colors are quickly brightening up the hills and in the lowlands the always beautiful sumac is taking on deep burgundy, oranges and crimsons. The autumn spectacular is a welcome turn from the mud and broken branches we have been looking at for weeks. When the leaves fall off the trees they will cover up some of that mud.
     If you are out walking in the next few weeks, it's a good time to start looking closely at the twigs of various trees and shrubs. As the leaves fall off, the buds forming for next year will start to appear. They are tiny now, but hold everything needed for next year's leaves.
     Bright Promises is a close view of basswood buds. Their very red color makes a beautiful contrast with the browns of the old leaves and twigs, but you have to get close to appreciate all the color in those small buds. Later in the winter they begin to swell and are more visible. This painting is of the buds in March, at their peak of color.
     There are as many colors in the spring forest as in the fall, the colors are more muted but buds and flowers have a wide range of colors and are well worth noticing.

     You can see Bright Promises and all the other poems and paintings from The Old Road Walking Into Beauty at the Heider Center Gallery through October.
     Our reception is Thursday October 11th, from 6-7:30pm and we look forward to making some new friends in West Salem, so come over and enjoy the show.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Old Road Opens at the Heider Center

   The beautiful  Heider Center Art Gallery in West Salem will host our show 'The Old Road Walking Into Beauty' for the month of October.
    Please join us October 11th for a reception in the gallery. Also check out the performances at the Heider Center; they have a season of events worth attending.
     The Heider Center is just a few minutes from La Crosse.  See you there!

     The paintings and poems can be seen at VIVA Gallery in Viroqua through Saturday September 29th, so if you're in town, stop by the gallery. VIVA artists have many beautiful displays; one of the best galleries around!

Shadow Catcher - Walnut Ink on Paper

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Old Road Book

Map of The Old Road
  First, a warm thank you to the person who purchased The Map of The Old Road. I tried to make it feel like an old parchment map with a little bit of magic and whimsy, so that as it is examined up close, with a lamp softly shining over one's shoulder, memories and imaginings from the forest and water and sky come to mind. Maybe the thought of the walnut trees and the special places found after walking the road over and over will come to mind, and the map may feel a little more alive as the memories and dreams of the beautiful land rise up from the walnut ink's spirit embedded in the terrain of the map.
         Joanne's words so simply and clearly say what The Old Road is about, and what that path through time and landscape mean to so many people. We send this map and poem out to  hold those stories for those in the future who will look, and ponder and then go back out to walk The Old Road.

The Old Road Book

       Making a painting and poem that speaks to your heart yours to take home creates a connection between the artists and those in our community who love the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and The Old Road.
We also made the book of all the paintings and poems, so that you can share the story easily with anyone. Books have already gone to Canada and Australia, Minnesota and Washington. They are a good way to share your experience of the KVR with someone else. VIVA Gallery and the Friends of the Kickapoo Valley Reserve gift shop in the Kickapoo Valley Reserve  visitor center have the book and you can also find it in my Etsy shop.
        We'd love to hear from you about your experiences on The Old Road. Have you walked it at night, or in different seasons? What do you like best? What are you curious about along the trail?
Maybe we'll meet someday, walking on The Old Road.

Shadow Catcher

Happy Trails,

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

VIVA Gallery Guest Artists for September

See you at VIVA!

     Enjoy an excellent meal at Rooted Spoon as well as all the very exciting art at VIVA
gallery anytime during September, as well as see our poetry/painting project on display.
Come for the opening; it's the most fun!

     Joann and I spent several months walking The Old Road together, sharing our art and developing this exhibit. We've published a small book of the poems and paintings too. The book is our way of saying 'thank you' to the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, and to offer this whole body of work to you, to be enjoyed as any art should be; slowly, over time.

If you know the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, we hope these paintings and poems will remind you of the great gift of that land. If you have not been there, we hope that you will be inspired to go, and walk out among the marshes, hills and trees and all the beings that live there, and find your own special places of beauty.

See you on the trails!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Sketch Books

   After the long hours working on The Old Road walnut ink paintings/drawings, doodling around in a sketchbook is relaxing and allows my brain to sort and plan for future paintings. A while back I found very nice little sketchbooks at American Science and Surplus. This is a fun catalog and store for finding a wide variety of things you didn't know you needed until seeing it in the catalog. These sketchbooks were just the right size, about 6 x 8" with very white paper that is heavy enough to take ink pen work. Three books for a price worth taking a chance on.
Old Maple Tree
     After I started playing with this tree drawing, the rest of the book seemed to follow the theme, and just this week I finished the last page, and all the sketches are of trees, from places as far away as California, but mostly the trees are all neighbors or old friends of mine from nearby.

Peter's Orange Pig

     Now that the sketchbook is full, the next painting is getting more attention. So here are some more from the sketchbook, and I'll be back with something new in a while......

A row of eucalyptus trees in California

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Old Road - A Last Look

   The Old Road-Walking Into Beauty will be on display at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve through Friday, May 4th.  Take a leisurely walk through the exhibit to see the paintings and poetry, (and don't forget to check out The Old Road book, in the gift shop) then enjoy the burst of spring flowers along The Old Road itself (Old 131 Trail). This trail is always open, so even if the other trails are too wet from all the rain this week, the birds and flowers and more will be easy to see along this paved trail.

Map of The Old Road

   Many birds are here now, and every day more are coming in for a rest or to stay for the summer. The Old Road takes you to the ponds, marshes, fields and woodlands of the KVR. This may be the best place to see the most variety of birds.

A Morning Walk

   After our exhibit leaves the KVR, it will be shown again later in the summer and fall in La Crosse,
West Salem and Viroqua. We hope to see you again!

Susan and Joanne

Life as a Prickly Pear Cactus

    If you were a cactus, and wanted to live in many places, you'd be an Opuntia . Home is almost everywhere in the Western Hemi...