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I am “Lady of the Lake”

One of the few helpful aspects of social distancing and self-isolation during this horrible time of the COVID-19 has been taking the time, in solitude, to read, write, organize, create, sketch, and to revisit old favorite hobbies, and passions, like art. Back in March, when my university transitioned to online courses, and my state governor issued a Stay-at-Home order, I felt reasonably “ok” with that, since I felt it was a good time to focus on my graduate study, which requires a lot of reading and writing. Last fall, two of my faculty advisors asked me a difficult philosophical question about why researching the topics I’d proposed was important to me–personally--and my answers then seemed flaky, e.g. “I am Lady of the Lake!” So, I have been thinking about how to answer those questions. It seems like I should be prepared to answer thoughtfully.

In May, I received Honorable Mention for my poem, “My Glacial Erratic,” in the 2020 Fish Poetry Prize, judged and selected by former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. My poem will appear in the 2020 Fish Anthology, coming out later this summer. (That’s with Fish Publishing, which holds a number of writing contests each year, based in Ireland.) Since then, I’ve written new poetry, and started drawing images that go with my poetry, and some of it is inspired by recent coursework. Selkies, mermaids, the Irish merrow, bog-women, the Lady of the Lake, and other supernatural female figures in literature (Romanticism as well as other periods, particularly Gothic literature and Arthurian lit) have captured my imagination.

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“Irish Merrow” – one of my watercolors

Enter art journaling. To work through some of my ideas, I’ve started art journaling. It’s now summer, and I’m still self-isolating, and spending a great deal of time at home, on my own, creating. I’ve started working in a blank canvas art journal (Jane Davenport’s supplies).

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Painting on my deck. This piece is one of my mermaid characters from my “Blue Dog and the Sea Fan” series.

It never occurred to me to use my art (and poetry) to think critically about my proposed research, or to answer philosophical questions about my interdisciplinary research. I’d been approaching it methodically, seriously–with critical annotations, a working bibliography, term papers as building blocks, outlines. Now I’m approaching it differently, and I’ve got images of mermaids, selkies, bog-women, and memories of Ireland in my head.

Painting in my art journal– a scene from my trip to Co. Cork, Ireland in 2019

Part of that’s influenced by the research I did on Traditional Ecological Knowledge of seaweed harvesting in Ireland for a term paper. Part of it’s inspired by a Celtic Studies class I’m taking led by Dr. Sharon Blackie. I read her book, Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women (September Publishing, 2019) which I loved.

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I loved this book by Sharon Blackie!

There’s something very liberating about making art. And it’s a good exercise to pick up a different tool–any tool–whether it’s a paint brush or fountain pen–but a physical tool, one that can be held in the hand to transmit ideas from the mind to the page. I love color. I’ve always responded emotionally to color. As a kid, the gift of a set of colored pens delighted me more than dolls or toys. I still love art supplies and colored pens. Recently, I’ve become quite smitten with art supplies by Jane Davenport, an Australian artist and designer, known as an “Artomologist,” a play on her nature photography, and particularly her love for ladybugs, and other insects. I’ve also really enjoyed her books, such as Marvelous Mermaids. Jane Davenport has a series of art tutorials on Youtube, and I’ve really enjoyed rediscovering my love for making art, partly inspired by her wonderful books, tutorials, and using some of her supplies. The “Mermaid Markers” are some of my favorite supplies, a water-reactive brush pen, like a watercolor alternative, that’s been fun to use. But my absolute favorite thing of hers is the fountain pen, an INKredible pen.

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Inkredible ink fountain pen by Jane Davenport and one of my journals

Twenty years ago, I took a watercolor painting class at College of the Atlantic. Prior to that, I was a writing-art double major (or English major, art minor) at St. Lawrence University. For at least ten years, from high school through college, at four different schools, I loved making art. I incorporated art visuals into my poetry projects and liked making books. Then, in 2004, while in grad school at COA, I was living in a small cottage with a 15-year-old water heater, which leaked badly, flooding my little home, and saturating all of my possessions. My draft master’s thesis, which I’d meticulously organized into piles and chapters, along with my notes and data on my living room floor, floated in ankle-deep water on a soggy shag carpet. Even my old Dell laptop was submerged. One of the fatal losses that really crushed me at the time, three full art portfolios containing all of my art from more than four years in studio art classes–drawings, paintings, photography, self-portraits, watercolors, some of which I’d planned to frame someday (when not working on my master’s thesis). All of my art disintegrated. It was so shocking and sad, I focused on other things, like completing my master’s degree, and moved forward with other projects, and left my ruined art and love for making art, in the past.

In recent years, I’ve rediscovered my love for Kettle Cove State Park (southern Maine), and I have been lucky enough to swim in that small cove over an eelgrass meadow, where I swam and toddled around as a baby more than thirty-five years ago.  Recently, I swam at high tide, in the wake of the New Moon Solar Eclipse in Cancer this June.

Kettle Cove State Park, Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Stetson photo

Every time I swim there, I am flooded with sensations, poems, ideas, and epiphanies. I’m rediscovering myself. I’m reinventing myself. Below is a weird “inner self-” portrait I painted, using watercolors and real Maine eelgrass, which coiled and wrapped around my neck and arms as I swam at Kettle Cove in June.

I collected a few blades of eelgrass, which was floating in the water, and coiled around my wrists as I swam to shore. It also washes ashore along with rockweed, so it’s easy to find there. I incorporated the eelgrass into my art journal.

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“Inner self-” portrait,  multimedia,  “Lass in the Eelgrass” LCS  June 2020

Now, twenty years after my watercolor class in spring 2000 at COA, I’ve picked up my paint brushes again. I’ve started making art again, almost on a daily basis, for the past month. At some point, during the process of social distancing, self-isolating at my home in the Lakes Region of Maine, I felt inspired to start sketching some drawings of symbols and seaweed as part of projects, like the one I did for Folklore and Environmental Policy class. Then, I started sketching ideas for other aspects (inspired by literary works by Romanticism-era writers like Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft) while I organized a strategy for doing my graduate research. That led to the idea of starting an art journal that’s connected to the research I’ve been doing as a student in the Interdisciplinary PhD program. I’m a poet and “ecoheroine,” researching the Eco-Gothic and Arthurian lit in a tenacious pursuit of deep Romantic ecology of wetlands.

All of these images and photos are mine. Please don’t share my images. My art is work-in-progress. Thank you!

Chaffin Pond, Stetson Photo

Chaffin Pond, Stetson Photo

Walking around Chaffin Pond today in North Windham with my dog, Sophie-Bea, we kept our ears pricked for peepers, or wood frogs, but didn’t hear them. I anticipate that after today’s afternoon showers, together with this eerily warm spell, the wood frogs and salamanders will make their annual journey back to vernal pools to spawn. I have a vernal pool in my woods at Nixie’s Vale and like to listen to the wood frogs in April. By May, they hop through my woods and over my yard, heading for uplands. At Chaffin Pond, a 13-acre freshwater pond that’s part of the 123-acre Windham Parks and Recreation Donnabeth Lippman Park, there are two identified vernal pools and an educational sign for visitors, explaining the significance of vernal pools. See a map of the pond and park here.  Right now, it’s clear that the local Conservation Corps volunteers are implementing some erosion control measures. Wetlands act as natural “controls” for protecting roads and dry land from run-off and for controlling erosion, however, during heavy rains, the pond’s water can get quite high and overflow onto the trails very easily. Thus it seems prudent for the use of man-made erosion control barriers to protect fish habitat from sediment intrusion, especially during such projects as replanting grass in the park recreation areas.

Erosion control at Chaffin Pond. Stetson photo

Erosion control at Chaffin Pond. Stetson photo

Today’s walk was a little muddy in places, so I recommend wearing the right boots, and staying on the trails, rather than trying to go around certain muddy spots. The 20160401_123203Conservation Corps volunteers built and installed beautiful bridges that cross some of the wetter areas, brooks, including Hyde and Outlet Brook, and crossing through some of the areas that include vernal pools. These pools look shallow but would be deep enough for someone wearing hip-waders to feel that cool water creep into their pant legs. I know the feeling all-too well: several years ago, in 2010, I waded into vernal pools throughout parts of Windham, Maine, as part of a vernal pool mapping and monitoring project with University of Maine, Orono. Along with my monitoring partner, a land conservation colleague, I waded into vernal pools, counted wood frogs and salamander eggs, and took photographs for the projects data collection. (I previously blogged about that experience on Strange Wetlands.)

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Maine’s Beginning with Habitat program has mapped the wetlands of Windham, including those adjacent to Chaffin Pond, including Boody Meadow. I don’t know about you, but I feel like there’s something mysterious and irresistible about wetlands. These maps, while informative, don’t take any of that mystery or lush

Beginning with Habitat Map of Wetlands, Windham, ME (close-up of Chaffin Pond areas)

Beginning with Habitat Map of Wetlands, Windham, ME (close-up of Chaffin Pond areas)

meaning away from these special places, at least for me. Instead, maps serve to identify, aid in the planning, sometimes for conservation purposes, or to show connectivity between waters. While walking around in the woods, it’s sometimes hard to imagine from a bird’s eye view how all of these much smaller waters connect and eventually feed Sebago Lake, an incredibly important drinking water source for most of southern Maine!

Map legends, below, show the various types and functions of the wetlands shown in the map of the Chaffin Pond preserve (at right).

Beginning with Habitat wetland map legend, Windham, ME

Beginning with Habitat wetland map legend, Windham, ME

 

Light green highlighted areas indicate an aquatic bed with submerged aquatic vegetation. Red highlighted areas indicate emergent wetlands, classified as having erect, rooted hydrophytes and usually dominated by perennials. You won’t typically see mosses and lichens in those areas. The dark green highlighted areas are forested or shrub-scrub wetlands. Orange highlighted areas indicate shrub-scrub wetlands, or woody vegetation less than 20 feet tall. These include smaller, young or stunted trees and shrubs. Grey highlighted areas identify rocky shorelines or bottom.

Sophie-Bea noticed some movement in the woods in the preserve by the pond, pointing as she does, when the 50% of her that’s pointer is active. (She’s half dachshund.) We passed a young man fishing for trout and largemouth bass. The

Sophie-Bea points

Sophie-Bea points

pond’s submerged vegetation and shallows along the shoreline make ideal habitat for largemouth bass. There’s no boat launch, however, it’s an ideal spot to put in a kayak or a canoe. (I found the story of a father and son’s fishing experience on Chaffin Pond out of their canoe on the Amazing Fish-a-Metric blog.) What’s interesting to me is how this pond changes from one season to the next. Later in spring, a large area of the preserve will come alive with beautiful green ferns and I like to follow a trail that goes past Boody Meadow, a wetland that filters water that drains into Sebago Lake via Outlet Brook and other unnamed tributaries. Today the brook was running fast and I imagine after this afternoon’s rainstorm, it’s rushing like river rapids on a much smaller scale.

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We love walking there year-round, regardless of mud on the trails. In January, we tromped through slush and last summer, we sauntered through the ferns alongside Boody Meadow, imagining moose and muskrat moving through the wet meadow, unseen, undiscovered, perhaps watching us.

Pretty soon, we’ll return and hear the peepers, after their “Big Night,” a series of rainy nights in early April, when the wood frogs return to the vernal pools by Chaffin Pond, and spawn. These small endangered creatures are vital to Maine’s fish and wildlife ecosystems. Keep that in mind when you’re driving home late at night and see dozens of frogs leaping across the road–something so bizarre it seems straight out of an “X-Files” episode–but as fantastic as it seems, it’s part of real spring in Maine.

Update: Tonight on my way home from the grocery store, a dozen or so frogs leapt across the road –their familiar silhouettes illuminated in the beam of the headlights. I slowed down and smiled.

 

Grampa

Bob Chaplin

I grew up visiting my maternal grandparents in rural New Gloucester, Maine.  Their yellow farmhouse, barn and a hilly pastoral land, rich with streams, wetlands, meadows, fields and forest, was a wonderful place to play and explore.  As the eldest grandchild, I got to spend a lot of time there in (late ’70s-’90s). My grandfather tinkered in his barn and workshop, and when I was lucky, he built things I designed as a little girl, like a wooden key and lock for an imaginary mansion, a mossy ledge hidden in the woods beyond the upper field and vegetable gardens. (I still have this wooden lock and key.) He took my hand-drawn designs on scrap paper and made the wooden key and lock with his skill-saw, taking this sort of request seriously. Then I took this colorfully painted lock and key, and used it to enter magical worlds of moss and meadow. A perennial stream meandered between fields, along with vernal pools and a freshwater marsh, near land he later gave to his son (my favorite uncle) a little ways down the road. The 30+ acres beheld a wellspring for inspiration. (I’ll have to hunt for some photos of their land and add those later.)

A tall, athletic Scorpio, Grampa was a multi-talented Navy man and 32nd degree Mason. As an engineer, he wrote the book on metal removal technology. He was interviewed in Cutting Tool Engineering Magazine in 2005 about his book, Metal Removal Technology, which has since been integrated as a text book in mechanical engineering programs. I remember when I was in grade school, and my Grampa was drafting early versions of his book. He let me play with copies of his draft, thinking I’d be interested in drawing pictures on the blank side. To his surprise, I was far more interested in the side with charts, diagrams and formulas—all that he had devised for teaching employees at General Electric and engineering students in universities. I liked to take these “metal removal technology” spreadsheets on a clipboard with me to elementary school, where I told my classmates I was “working for my grandfather’s company,” and used a highlighter to “go over the numbers.” A few of my third-grade classmates asked me if he was hiring.  I shrugged and told them, “it depends on your qualifications.”

As a long-time musician, he encouraged all of his grandchildren to take up an instrument (or two). I fear I may have disappointed him, as I could never get the hang of the trombone, clarinet, piano or guitar. (Poetry turned out to be my instrument.) Long before I came into the picture, my grandfather led a band, the “Bob Chaplin Orchestra,” which performed throughout Massachusetts in the 1940s. He played lead clarinet. There wasn’t a musical instrument he couldn’t play, and he taught music for many years in Portland, Maine. Several of his students went onto join metropolitan philharmonic orchestras. He composed music in the jazz and Big Band Swing genres in the ’40s and later, composed chamber music for churches in Maine.

Bob Chaplin, or “Grampa,” as I called him, also served on his town’s planning board over the years (late 1960s-early 1990s).  In the 1980s and early ‘90s, he chaired the Comprehensive Plan Committee in New Gloucester, not far from where I live and work. The comprehensive plan cited the “single most important issue was the protection of brooks, streams, wetlands and groundwater,” based on surveys conducted in 1982. His committee’s emphasis on protecting water resources in the rural town only grew stronger in the decades that followed, and more of the town’s wetlands and floodplains were mapped. In this sense, he and his committee were visionaries.  As I become more involved with local projects for my town’s conservation commission, I’m realizing that this civic interest might be inherited. Aside from a passion for protecting wetlands, I also inherited my grandfather’s love for music. Earlier today I posted a piece on classical music, inspired in part by Suzanne Nance’s morning classical music program on Maine Public Radio.

As a side note, I was thrilled that Suzanne Nance mentioned my blog and ASWM this morning (Jan. 18, 2013) on her program. She dedicated this morning’s program to “Leah Stetson and her Strange Wetlands blog,” –and this morning’s theme on her radio show was “Warmer Temperatures and Wetlands.” She played several of the pieces that I wrote about in my blog post, including In the Fen Country, a symphonic impression composed by Ralph V. Williams (1935). See Strange Wetlands: Lutes & Lily Pads: Classical Music Inspired by Wetlands. 

In thinking about what I do and what I represent, I decided to take the next step: an online portfolio of my work as a communications and environment professional. My new website is simply that–an online portfolio–and not a business or advertisement. Blue Heron Editing is my new online home for my professional adventures in communications and environmental protections. My mission is to inspire others to protect the environment and to help others communicate their message.

Growing up on the coast of Maine, I explored estuaries and swam in the Sheepscot River. Great blue herons swooped over my head countless times, stood stoic and elegant, and came to symbolize a few things for me, privately. When I wrote essays or poems at school, the heron showed up as a constant symbol for myself and the things I held dear.

heron silhouette
on iridescent mudflat
darts flash of minnow

My mother used to say that the osprey was her token bird. As a child, I saw the osprey in her persona. She was more of a bird-lover than I was as a teen-ager. But I made an exception for the blue herons. I read an article about a heron that pierced the skull of an ornithologist, who came too close with his camera, and the heron killed him with its long pointed bill.  One day while our family lived on Pemaquid Lake, the summer of ’95, when my brother, Julian, was born, a Great Blue Heron walked along our dock and up to our front yard. Our cat, Taxi, had been sitting in the grass, watching this large intimidating bird advance toward us–and before the heron got too close, the cat bolted for the camp. It should be noted that this cat had been born on Guam, spent her kitten years on a sailboat and had brought down sea gulls with her fierce claws. She’d even fallen into the open ocean. So she was not easily intimidated. But this was different. The Great Blue Heron is a hunter with a sharp eye for detail and a compelling presence. Herons are often used in the logos and imagery associated with wetlands organizations. The national newsletter, Wetland Breaking News, that I edit each month has a heron in its logo, which I designed.  With my roots in Maine estuaries and an eye for editing, I adopted the blue heron as my token bird, so to speak, for my online portfolio. It’s a work-in-progress.

Wetland Breaking News

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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