The Pict family had two birthdays to celebrate within six days of each other. My oldest son turned 14 and my 9 year old entered double digits. Since both birthdays occurred during Spring break, we decided to take a couple of days off to travel and explore a little further afield.
Our first destination was the Pole Steeple Trail. The trail is in Pine Grove State Park and abuts on to the Michaux State Forest and all not too far from the Appalachian Trail (which we really should have a wee wander on some day). The trail is pretty steep and, with the sun blazing, I realised fairly quickly that I have gotten a bit too mushy over Winter with my lack of outdoorsy rambles. It was pretty exhausting ascending by clambering over rocks. At least, it was pretty exhausting for Mr Pict and I; the kids were sprinting ahead without much difficulty and were even burning up extra energy by jumping from rocks and climbing up trees.
It did not take too long, however, before we reached Pole Steeple This is a dramatic rocky outcrop that dangles over the landscape. I had been very much looking forward to the view from the summit. The view was supposed to be my reward for huffing and puffing my way up the trail. Unfortunately, I was way too scared and anxious to get close enough to the edge of the slanting rocks to take in the view and appreciate it*. Sometimes my fear of heights is very limiting. Of course, as soon as my kids realised that I was having palpitations moving around on the rocks that were not even near the edge, they decided it would be funny to jump around, run, scale up and down different gulches, and at least make it look as if they were teetering on the edge and might fall at any instant. They had a whale of a time. I think the area would be beautiful once there are more leaves on the trees, especially so during Autumn.
Once everyone had finished leaping around like mountain goats and flooding me with cortisol, we headed downhill again. Downhill was so much easier and quicker than uphill. On our descent, we stopped not to catch our breaths but to have a “sasquatch off”, a contest to see who could best replicate the famous Bigfoot pose. Sadly there were no random strangers around who could adjudicate and it made all the squirrels run away.
* As a result of my wimpiness, some of the photos in this blog post were taken by Mr Pict and our kids.
I was beginning to feel like Spring was never going to properly arrive. It’s been a right wee tease this year with some days of warm sunshine and blue skies immediately followed by the return of chilly, damp air and grey skies and flat light. At last, however, it seems as if Spring has finally and fully-fledged arrived. Not a moment too soon either as I was beginning to feel like a hermit and really felt a need – not just a want but a need – to get out and wander around in nature for a good chunk of time.
The kids were vehemently opposed to a long car journey so we stayed local and went for a wander in one of our usual haunts. It felt good to be among the trees and see the sunshine beating through the leaves, plants beginning to bud, and insects buzzing around.
We played Pooh sticks – increasingly competitively and with a little bit of cheating here and there – and the boys climbed trees and clambered across fallen logs. We saw wildlife too. I only managed to capture a turtle on camera but we also saw birds galore, lots of insects, and a running groundhog – which was one of the cutest things I have seen in a while.
The boys were able to get manky and be freely feral and I was able to complete relax allowing them to do so.
It was time to introduce the boys to the Impressionists in the next leg of our History of Art project. The boys were already familiar with Monet which made him an easy choice as an exemplar of the Impressionist movement. We discussed what about their style and approach to painting had made the Impressionists so provocative and we looked at examples of Monet’s paintings from throughout his life.
The boys were most familiar with Monet’s water lily paintings so most plumped to use that subject as the foundation of their own art work. I think it is fair to say that, apart from the youngest, the kids are taking the path of least resistance when it comes to their creative responses to this project. There’s a lot of minimal effort going on and a resistance to trying new ideas or materials. I stated from the beginning that I was not going to force them to adopt a particular approach but I need to increase my degree of encouragement.
My oldest, of course, had to Minecraftify his drawing. There is, therefore, some kind of blocky squid swimming around in the lily pond.
My 8 year old drew a lily pad and flower, at least using marks in different shades of pencil to mimic the brush strokes of Monet but completely resistant to painting.
My 9 year old decided to draw a field of poppies, again using coloured pencil. He is determined to only draw and not attempt any other medium.
My 6 year old wanted to make a lily pad in three dimensions. He, therefore, started by painting on some brown paper bags. Once the paint had dried, he cut out petal shapes from one painted bag and a lily pads shape from the other. He then used a split pin to connect the pieces and I helped him roll the edges of the petals around a pencil so that they would curl.
He also created a lily pad using some of his Gogo toys and a toy frog.
Since I am committed to sharing my art fails as well as my art successes, I will pull on my big girl pants and share my completely rubbish response to the Monet lesson. I decided to set myself the challenge of creating an abstracted water lily image using Dylusion spray inks and crayon for an experiment in wax resistance. It went horribly wrong. The ink colours bled below the dividing line which undermined the composition and the colours to represent water and the plants were not strong enough. I wet the paper in advance to using the inks hoping it would help them spread and look more liquid but instead it just diluted the pigment. Pants. Complete and utter pants. I could have tried to rescue the piece but I was out of time and I also didn’t want to waste valuable resources by investing them in a piece that was already in rigor mortis. Lessons were learned.
The next artist we studied in our project on the History of Art was John James Audubon. I used it as an opportunity to talk to the boys about artists making studies from nature, a visual record of the natural world, and of the idea of making a collection by working in a themed series. We watched the many species of birds that visit our bird feeders for a while so that we could reflect on observation skills. We then looked at Audubon’s prints of the same birds we had seen in the garden plus a few more exemplars. The boys then had free rein to create art inspired by a bird – real or imagined – of their choice and in any medium they wished.
No surprises that my 12 year old decided to draw his study of birds through the lens of Minecraft. It’s a Minecraft chicken I believe.
My 6 year old has a real bug for painting now so he painted a portrait of one of the birds we saw in the garden.
My 8 year old used chalk pastels to create a funky bird from his vivid imagination. He even thought to smudge the chalk pastels to create a tail.
My 9 year old is a fan of the Hunger Games triology so he drew a blue jay and a mockingbird getting married so that they could create a mockingjay baby. It’s bird algebra.
I meanwhile decided to create an ink drawing of a hummingbird filled with doodles.
It has emerged that my two youngest sons love to print. As eager as they are to try block printing, at 5 and 7 they are too young to handle the tools plus those materials are expensive. We have, however, been experimenting together with the gelli plate and making oodles of monoprints. I love this because I thoroughly enjoy creating with them. I like to think that I will inspire them to continue being creative throughout their lives, that they will derive pleasure and satisfaction and a sense of calm from the act of creating something, anything, as I do. I also love creating with them because, frankly, it gives me a much-needed opportunity to do something creative myself. Especially during this lengthy school break, time for myself is in very short supply so working with them, all taking turns, affords me the chance to invest in myself with a little bit of art. Finally, I also love creating with them because they inspire me: they don’t worry about end results, technical hitches or over-think things; they just get stuck in and have a go. I need to be more like that. Definitely.
Recently, the three of us decided to get the gelli plate out and make some more monoprints and the two boys hit upon the idea of using leaves from the garden as masks. I remembered seeing a post on Debbie Osborn’s blog where she used plant materials to create charming monoprints so I knew their idea was feasible. Out into the garden we went, gathering our materials. Despite it having been their idea, the boys soon gave up on using plants and used stencils and their fingers to create their prints instead. I, however, persevered. Initially, my prints were truly mediocre as I forgot entirely that the leaves would act as complete masks and leave white paper beneath and that, therefore, a bit of layering was required. Ultimately, I think my post successful prints were actually the ghost prints made when I used paper to pull the marks that were left behind on the plate by the initial print. None of my results were stellar but experimentation is part of the learning process and I certainly enjoyed myself.
As a follow up to my recent blog post about fireflies, here are some photos of my kids out in the garden catching fireflies. They loved it. Even though they are now seeing them every single night, they are still as excited by it as they were the first time they saw them. They want to go out into the garden every single night with a jar and collect enough to make it glow like a lantern. They think it is completely magical. Every. Single. Time. What I am also enjoying are the bats flying overhead, swooping around and probably eating the lightning bugs but, you know, circle of life and all that. We used to get bats in our garden in Scotland too so it is lovely to see them here in Pennsylvania. Even though these ones might have rabies. Less welcome are the mosquitoes that bite me constantly. I am allergic to bug bites so I swell up into hot, throbbing, red patches of grossness every time one nibbles on me. Definitely not magical. However, this is all about the enchanting wonder of fireflies so here are some pictures of my sons in their jammies collecting the lightning bugs.
PS A friend from back home in Scotland informs me that she has sometimes seen fireflies just a few miles from where we lived. I lived there for over a decade and never once saw them. Glowing little blighters.
The other evening, while watching TV with Mr Pict, my eye kept getting drawn to flashing lights in the garden. However, every time I asked Mr Pict to look, he could never see anything. I knew my eyes were not deceiving me, that I was not experiencing either an optical malfunction or a hallucination, so the next evening, I kept one eye trained on the windows. Not necessarily the most comfortable way to watch telly. As soon as dusk settled into darkness, the flashing started again. The kids had only just gone to bed so I got everyone to gather in the playroom to look. Sure enough, this time everyone else could see what I was seeing: flickering lights gliding upwards from the grass into the sky. And the lights got stronger and more numerous as it grew ever darker.
Despite the fact we do have fireflies in Scotland, they are rare so I had only seen fireflies once before – and that was in America too – but my kids had never seen them. It’s not often that one gets to use the word bioluminescence in general conversation but I gave up on trying to teach the kids the science behind it mid-sentence anyway so that they could just watch and enjoy the spectacle. A teeny weeny wee bit of subsequent research, however, has revealed to me that Pennsylvania has it’s very own firefly – Photuris Pennsylvanicus if we want to be all Sunday name about it – and that the male beetles can fly but their lady friends, who they are trying to impress into getting jiggy with them – remain on the ground. That explained why I had been seeing lights flickering at both levels: it wasn’t that they were moving upwards into the sky but that some were remaining on the grass while others flew around to be show-offs. Some other things I learned about these fireflies is that they are quite fond of munching slugs and have, as such, evolved the ability to track slug slime trails. It makes me think of aeroplanes looking for the airstrip. Also, the larva bites its prey and injects it with saliva that turns the prey’s insides into soup. Pretty cool, eh?
Magical. That was the best thing about watching the fireflies. They were simply magical, like a special effect from nature. We were all completely enchanted.
We moved to Pennsylvania from a relatively remote area on the West coast of Scotland. We were surrounded by nature. We could stroll the banks of a loch, wander a forest trail, scale a hill or potter along the seashore. A walk of a few minutes from home could have the kids playing in woodland and a short drive could have us lost in the landscape. It was one of the things I loved best about living where we used to: all that access to nature, the fresh air, the space.
We are lucky that where we have ended up is pretty green. We have swapped the red squirrels of “home” for grey squirrels who play in our garden – much to the delight of my 4 year old – and instead of rounding a corner of a single track road to find a large deer leering at me we now have a herd of deer who seem to hang out opposite Toys R Us. We have also seen some lovely birds visited our garden, including a red-bellied woodpecker. Nevertheless, we were missing our nature walks so we used the Thanksgiving weekend as an opportunity to explore a nearby state park.
No sooner had we arrived than we saw some a couple of turkey vultures circling above us, using the thermals to drift higher and higher. Some bird watchers thought one of them might be a bald eagle but I’m not going to claim I saw a bald eagle here until identification is certain. We did, however, see a whole load of blue jays hopping from branch to branch as we walked along one pathway. It was a mild and bright day so the sunlight was flashing off their sky blue feathers.
We found a playground in the middle of the walk so the boys could play.
The little Picts like nature when it is red in tooth and clue. It’s not just a “circle of life” thing with them; they are actually quite fond of the macabre. I will hold my hands up and admit this is my responsibility as a parent. I got them hooked on watching animal autopsy documentaries and have encouraged them to study any dead animals we have encountered on our treks. They still speak fondly of the time when we stumbled across an entire red deer skeleton, picked clean and bleached by the sun. It’s science. So the boys were all very excited when we came upon the rib cage, vertebrae and one leg of a deer. It still had hide on one leg while the rib cage was entirely exposed. My 6 year old wanted to take it home with us. Eh… No. I may have encouraged this fascination in my kids but I do draw the line somewhere.
We only wandered in a small proportion of the park land so we will definitely return there to explore some more and indeed we will visit more state parks as we venture out on weekends and holidays.