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Sketchbooks, Rare Birds, and a Tribute
Wait, Was That An Ivory-Billed Woodpecker?
This isn’t exactly breaking news, but it’s good news, and we can all use some of that: the ivory-billed woodpecker, a rather hefty twenty-inch-long bird with a wingspan almost a yard long, might not be extinct after all. This big, weird bird once lived throughout the pine forests of the southeastern United States, until we cut the trees down and forced the birds into a smaller and less hospitable habitat.
The bird hasn’t been credibly sighted since 1938, or 1944, or possibly 1967. One reliable recording was made in 1935 (you can listen to it here). Since then, occasional grainy footage turns up, like Bigfoot sightings here in the Northwest, but unlike Bigfoot sightings, they’re taken seriously and teams of ornithologists rush out to try to find the bird.
Is it still out there? We don’t know for sure. I like to think that it is. I like to think that there’s a small contingent of ivory-billed woodpeckers out there in some bayou, merrily picking away at beetle larvae in rotten logs, having some babies, far away from the video cameras, microphones, and binoculars of eager ornithologists.
For now, there’s just enough of a possibility that it might be alive to keep officials from declaring it extinct. We’re not giving up on you yet, ivory-billed woodpecker.
Three Cheers for James Wong
I only recently discovered charming British botanist James Wong and his gorgeous Instagram account. Most of his TV shows are not available to us, due to the entirely unreasonable difficulties in having all of British television at our fingertips, but you might be interested in this course on terrariums, miniature living walls, and other such artistry. Or it might make a nice gift for someone!
But I really wanted to point you towards his “City in Nature” series about Singapore, made entirely for Instagram, and available to watch on his Instagram reels page. (Scroll down to the City in Nature episodes) Now, it does look like he had some tourism bureau sponsorship for this, and the videos definitely have a “come visit Singapore” vibe, but if I had a trip to Singapore coming up, I’d be very happy to plan a trip around his tour of botanical highlights.
One of the challenges for people who make stuff is figuring out what form that stuff should take. Is it a book? A podcast? A documentary series? A YouTube channel? Or, in this case, a series of highly produced Instagram reels?
Nobody ever figures it out for good, it’s always trial and error. But he finds interesting ways to put himself and his love of botany out there, so if you’re into botanical geekery, check him out.
On Sketchbooks and Unfinished Paintings
I started this painting from a photo I took at the Christchurch Botanical Garden in New Zealand. This isn’t the approach I always take, but it’s one that I do often: first I toned the surface (in this case, an illustration board) with a peppy color that I thought would peek out behind the blue and green and make them pop. I think for this one I used Holbein Acryla Gouache in Luminous Red. Then I blocked in the darkest shadow areas with a dark blue (same brand, Navy Blue)
After that I brought in some base layers of color, starting with the biggest shapes—the sky and water—and working down to the smallest shapes, like those orange and red trees. Acryla Gouache dries quickly, so each of these layers are meant to be covered by the next layer without actually mixing with it.
Then I stopped. It looked pretty cool, just like that. This is actually always what you want with a painting: ideally, at each stage, it “reads.” Meaning—you get the vibe, even if all the details aren’t there. In this case, I don’t think the initial block-in with the dark blue paint was all that interesting, but it did read, more or less.
But I liked that next stage, with the colors blocked in, so much that I didn’t want to do another thing to it. So I did a few more things (I couldn’t help myself!) but then I decided to set it aside and start over.
So this last version, the one on the right, is the do-over. Since I was doing it a second time, I make a few tweaks from the first version, and took it as far as I wanted in terms of detail—which was still not terribly far. It’s a pretty loose painting regardless. (And if you’d like to take it home with you, it’s available here on my website.)
And that half-finished painting? It’s going to hang around for a while because I think it’s interesting to look at, but after a while I will have looked at it enough and it’ll just take up space. In hindsight, I wish I’d done a couple of small versions in my sketchbook first, because then I would’ve tried a few versions, in various stages of completion, stopped a few at this interesting earlier stage, learned a lot, and they’d be stored neatly in a sketchbook where half-finished ideas belong.
Having learned that lesson, I immediately pulled out another illustration board and started another painting, without first doing any quick sketchbook studies. Stay tuned for the next installment, when I try yet again to learn the thing I should have just learned.
Remembering Paul Reubens
(I drew his portrait in crayons, I feel like he would’ve appreciated that.)
About ten or fifteen years ago, I recorded a TV show that never aired. It was Ricky Jay's show--he had an idea to do a show about hoaxes and tricks, and one episode was about botany. Jesse Dylan, son of Bob, was the director. We filmed it at his brother Jakob's house. The other guests were David Wilson of the Museum of Jurassic Technology (one of the best weird things in the world, please go see it if you never have), Tony Shalhoub, Tom Waits, and Paul Reubens, who just died at the age of 70.
As you can imagine, it seemed completely insane to me that I was sitting around a table with this group of guys. Wicked Plants had come out recently, I think, and a casting director had been tasked with the job of coming up with someone who could talk about botany without being totally boring. I’m sure I was #7 or 8 on their list, but they got to me eventually.
Anyway, these stars were all incredibly nice and went out of their way to treat me like I was, somehow, one of them. Ricky Jay let me sit right next to him, so I could watch his sleight-of-hand tricks close up.
Tom Waits borrowed a pen from me and told me about the tomato sauce he makes from his garden. He also gave me a piece of advice I have forever followed: the crew wanted me to take off the jacket I’d brought, and Tom leaned over and said, “I always wear the jacket. Makes me feel smarter.” Jackets do make you feel smarter, and the key is to know when you’re walking into one of those situations where you need to feel smart. Thanks, Tom.
Tony Shalhoub told me a story about his father bringing the family's yogurt culture, soaked in cheesecloth, to America by hiding it in his armpit the whole way over.
And Paul Reubens told me all about his tropical garden in Florida. It was kind of magical--I mean, I knew I was in the presence of someone who had a weird maniacal comic genius to him, but he was also just so happy to be a regular person and tell me about what he was growing around his patio.
The show never aired and that footage is all on a hard drive somewhere. This was in the era before streamers, when a show either went to live TV or it didn’t. Today, I think a show like that could have a nice little 8-episode run on Netflix. If any of you happen to run into a Dylan—you know, Bob or one of the kids—tell them that it’s time to resurrect this thing and give us one more glimpse of Paul Reubens, perhaps a side of him that many people never saw, the gardener and appreciator of tropical plants, not to mention Tom Waits looking very smart in his jacket.
I might have a little bias in favor of this newsletter
My husband is a rare book dealer. For some time now, he’s sent out a new arrivals list on most Mondays. At first, he’d write a paragraph or two introducing the list, but mostly it was just a link to new and unusual stuff he’d listed for sale.
The paragraphs got longer and turned into interesting observations on the ins and outs of the rare book trade. Now he’s moved his newsletter over here to Substack, which makes it a little easier for people to find.
So—if you’re interested in the finer points of the antiquarian book trade, or you’d just like to browse a list of rare and obscure bookish treasures, I hope you’ll talk a look at.
What Are You Reading?
I never read this book when it came out, despite its wild popularity. But lately I’ve gotten into running a little bit, and you don’t have to be very serious about running to suddenly find it an interesting subject. Runners like to talk about running, even someone like me who just runs at an unimpressive pace for 20 minutes or so.
So this memoir is of course interesting to runners, but it’s also interesting to writers, because you get little doses of Murakami’s writing life. (He’s so modest—he’ll talk about having a job in Boston and it’s like, dude, are you teaching at Harvard? You can say Harvard, it’s OK.) And really, it’s interesting to anyone who enjoys any kind of private little pursuit that requires practice and persistence. If not running or writing, it could be music or knitting or yoga.
Anyway, it’s light and lovely and you’ll probably enjoy it. I’ve been trying to put all my newsletter recommendations in one place—check out the list-in-progress here.
The Bit at the End
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