Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sydenham Woods

"Sydenham Woods" oil on canvas 12 x 24 in.
22 September 2016 found me painting the slope of a forested ridge, southeast of Alvinston, Ontario. Yesterday we drove in to a waypoint we'd been given, thinking it was a rendezvous with the Ontario Nature field team, driving in along the narrow track through mature Carolinean forest to prospect for a painting site. We drove back out again to find the field party on the opposite side of the river, and there I painted the Sydenham Sycamore. So on this day we parked outside the woods and walked in to the site we'd selected for the second commissioned painting - the trunk of a majestic Burr Oak, the great smooth trunk forking above my head, and the scene looking down through the sun-splashed woods toward the unseen Sydenham River. 

As we'd walked along the clayey ridge with a cornfield on the north side and the woods on the south, we'd seen a black phase Grey Squirrel, busily demonstrating its species' dominance by removing all the nuts and acorns from the ground. I stopped to photograph three 'gone-to-spores' Giant Puffballs in a tight group, each one larger than my head.  A movement beyond the painting site caught my eye - sleek dark Turkey hens were running up the slope to cross the track. I counted five as each crossed. I stood stock still, waiting for the tom to cross. He paused to look in my direction for a few moments, then turned and faded away -  crossing the road a little farther on, where the movement of his crossing could hardly be seen.

As I stood soaking in my surroundings and writing a few notes, the forest was roofed with chirpy popping sounds, as if there were tiny carpenters building houses in the leafy tops of trees - "pip, pop, pup", here and there, some high flock of migrants were keeping track of each other while foraging. Then they were gone, replaced in the soundscape by the echoing voices of Blue Jays calling "eeear" to each other... then only the rustling of Fred searching for snails beside me, and collecting squirrel-cut leafy twigs to document the identity of my painting subject. 

Looking down into the valley, patches of sunlight glitter on the leaves of forest floor herbs, and unseen splashes of sun on tree trunks cast their warm glow on neighbours. As I set up the easel, a Black Walnut clattered from branch to branch and thumped down on the leaves at the foot of my Oak. As my brush coaxed gray and tan trunks of distant trees over the red oxide tint of the canvas, and laid patches of shadowed and sunlit vegetation between them, Fred moved off in a westerly direction to investigate the steeper north-facing slope behind me and to the west. At the bottom, a muddy rivulet trickled, its damp flats patterned with Raccoon and deer tracks among Clearweed.

The Ash trees in this valley are mostly dead, having had their green underbark destroyed by the networks of trails left by larval Emerald Ash Borers. But here, Black Maple is filling in by growing up into the dead crowns of the Ashes. Much of the soil surface is bare under the forest floor herbs, (evidence of lots of Earthworms), with scattered small plants of Garlic Mustard, the ferny leaves of Geranium, and the dominant herb in these woods - some sort of Solomon's Seal whose smooth pointed leaves I was painting, trying to economize my brush strokes. An airy ground cover, its leaves held out from either side of smooth arching stems. It reflected the sky, glowed or flashed in patches of sunlight, and tinted the shadows of my painting. 

Although the alien invasive Garlic Mustard was all through the Sydenham woods, we noticed that it was not as solidly dominant as we've seen it elsewhere, and we wonder if there may be some truth in rumours we've heard about a natural biocontrol Weevil having taken it on.

Bitternut Hickory nuts are being processed by the squirrels. There's a Woodchuck burrow partway down the north-facing slope, lots of Christmas Fern there, a Redbelly Woodpecker calls and taps on variously-sounding trunks and branches, and the nasal "ankh, ankh" of a Whitebreasted Nuthatch fills in the air spaces.

Fred’s field notes as I was painting:

"I took a snail shell sample from leaf & twig & bark talus at the foot of the slope, and up to the crest of the slope, which was 40 m elevation difference by GPS - twice the hoizontal distance. No Salamanders under numerous pieces of bark - Lots of Cepaea nemoralis and Neohelix and other Polygyrid snails. One bout of calling by a Spring Peeper, and 2 bouts by a Tetraploid Gray Treefrog, and I saw an unstriped juvenile Wood Frog.

"Then I sample the steep S-facing slope below the painting site and found many fewer shells than N-facing slope - only 1 Neohelix and that towards the top of the ridge. Two 2 tiny Deroceras reticulatum slugs were the only living Gastropods. Again no Salamanders under wet/damp cover of various kinds. Desmodium (Tick Trefoil) sticktights not in fruit. 

"Seeing this difference between the slopes, I headed for the S-facing slope behind the painting site. There were big concentrations of shells at the bottom, but no Neohelix, no Salamanders, no slugs. The sample ended at the crest of the slope at a cornfield. There were caches of predated Cepaea nemoralis under Black Walnut bark - a lot of these nut trees, which make up a significant fraction of the forest, seem to have died fairly recently.

"The herp list concluded with a juvenile American Toad, active in Clearweed near the muddy rivulet at the foot of the slope. So the whole survey was accomplished without seeing any Plethodon, (Redback Salamanders), supposedly the dominant Vertebrate in these woods. We saw a few under especially dampish cover on the other side of the river, but we assume that here the drought must have driven them down well below the surface here, and that they hadn't come up for their autumnal activity."


In the last hour or so of my onsite work, I painted faster and faster, to bring it to the point where I could have confidence in its eventual success. Then we packed my gear and walked back to the truck, planning to take a sample of drifted shells on our way out, from a log jam Fred had noticed under the Pratt Siding Road bridge over the Sydenham River.

Fred hasn't yet sorted the snail shells, but he's excited by both the difference in species on the north- and south-facing slopes, and that the non-native Cepaea nemoralis show so much more evidence of predation by Shrews than the native Polygyrids do.

Dear supporters and patrons of my art,

This 12 x 24 inch oil painting is now part of the collection of my work at Ontario Nature.

Sales of my paintings support our research and conservation work. I am happy to receive commissions, especially for tree paintings!


No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think of this painting, and what do you know about the subject that I have painted?