A Little Chaos

A Little Chaos

The watercolor shown above is a project of two years in planning and commemorates a time and place that defies accepted lawn maintenance practices and aesthetics. What follows is the story of A Little Chaos. 

People who know me know I changed addresses a lot (12 times, to be exact) since 2008 when we lost our first house in the mortgage-backed securities debacle. 

Where ever I’m living, I encourage a bit of wildness.

What people who know me don’t know about me is that for every place I moved into, I encourage a bit of wildness to be a part of my stay there. The staple is feeding the birds, which usually turns into, by default, feeding the rabbits, turkeys, ducks, and squirrels. When I could garden, I planted native plants for pollinators. I love watching the bumble bees, their bodies too big to logically fly as physics tells us, their hypnotic buzz vibrating in the key of C. 

The yard is too dangerous to mow.

The biggest wildness happened when we occupied the last house we would rent before buying one of our own. As tenants, we were responsible for yard maintenance. The front and side yards were straightforward. However, the backyard was an uneven gauntlet of obstacles. My husband and I looked at each other, our eyes stating the obvious, “This yard is too dangerous to mow.” We said nothing to our landlord about this. Instead, we let the backyard go wild.

large vertical brilliant green detailed watercolor illustrating backyard landscape artist Kristin Maija Peterson let go wild.

A Little Chaos. Watercolor on 300lb Fabriano Hotpress Paper. 29.25” x 21” Unframed.

I sincerely hope Aspens exist in heaven.

I fully expected a suburban landscaping aesthetic to kick in. It never did. Instead, I watched as nature took over. There was some cultivation in play — Hosta growing around the base of an Aspen tree, Japanese Pachysandra encasing an old tree stump, and lots of ferns spreading where ever they wanted to. The yard held tall Aspen and Pin Oaks, plus four sad little Blue Spruce trees along the neighboring fence. If I could have moved them to a more suitable spot, I would. In time, Aspen saplings started to spring up, their thin reed-like trunks waving golden green leaves in the breeze. It’s another affirmation that I sincerely hope Aspens exist in heaven.

As the backyard returned to wild, various plant species took root among the grasses. Most people would label them weeds. I suspect many were either edible, medicinal, or both. I discovered what the invasive garlic mustard looks like as one started blooming among the ferns. They really are an attractive plant. However, knowing so many volunteer their weekends to pull them out of the ground, I reluctantly did the same.

Detail views of A Little Chaos.

To the rabbits, the backyard was a giant salad bowl.

The rabbits certainly appreciated the wild greenery. To them, the backyard was a giant salad bowl as well as habitat. It had turned into a lazy sanctuary where I would catch the rabbits sprawled out under the kitchen window after a warm afternoon, with no barking dogs or high fences to contend with.

Then there was JoJo.

Then there was JoJo, a spunky chestnut-streaked chipmunk we befriended. Chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family, highly territorial, and despise their own kind but will take a shine to humans. There was some getting to know each other. At first, I thought JoJo was male. Then one day, she stood up on her hind legs to reveal that, in fact, she was expecting. From then on, we called her Mama JoJo. 

Feeding her by hand was an electrifying experience.

As she grew more and more comfortable with us, we started feeding her by hand. She had an affinity for black sunflower seeds. Then I read feeding chipmunks black sunflower seeds was like providing them with a steady diet of chocolate bonbons. So I switched to offering her unsalted, organic, if possible, variety of nuts, all of which she took readily. There are people who preach the downfalls of feeding wild animals. I understand where they are coming from if not wholeheartedly agree with them. Still, there is something thrilling and so surreal as Mama JoJo put her little paw on my hand while taking her presented nuts and stuffing them into her cheek pouches. It was an electrifying experience. 

With food, there should be water, too. I placed a small desert bowl of fresh water that once held crèmes brûlée on the steps leading out of the three-seasoned porch. It was the perfect size for Mama JoJo. And it became the perfect-sized watering hole for others, too. During the heat of the summer, just about everyone showed up for a drink, even butterflies.

Then the fireflies showed up.

There were many afternoons that I would hang out in the backyard observing the birds, the insects, and the way the light filtered through the trees. It was lush and quiet (with the exception of Mama JoJo’s insistent barking to protect her territory). Most of all, it was a wild oasis among manicured and chemically induced lawns. One reward for letting the backyard run wild was when the fireflies showed up. The backyard appeared strung with little lights, twinkling off and on in the night air. The thick vegetation kept the night air moist and humid, creating a suitable environment for fireflies to congregate. 

I saw fireflies all the time growing up. I recently learned their numbers have fallen to endangered status due to urban-suburban development, drained wetlands, and light pollution. Fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate, find a mate, defend territory, and fend off predators. I’m glad we could provide a little refuge for the fireflies that summer among all the yard lights and mowed lawns on either side of our rented house. 

The Nest Generation. Graphite + Watercolor. 16 ” x 20” Framed. Gifted to our landlords.

A peace offering.

When it came time to move out, I wrote a detailed letter to our landlord explaining why we let the backyard go wild and how much I loved it. I wrote about its potential and all the things they could do back there that did not involve mowing. As a “peace-consolation” offering, I gifted a drawing that the landlord’s wife had seen exhibited at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts and expressed how much she loved it. 

The landlord’s response to “our not mowing the backyard” did not align with my sentiments. In short, he was pissed. But that’s what security deposits are for. A portion of it went to cutting back all the wild we had let happen. While I feel sorry for the loss of habitat and all the natural beauty I experienced, I feel sorry for the landlord for losing a secret garden he will never know. 

I knew I would probably never have this experience again and wanted to memorialize that wild backyard and all that it had given me. It was two years before I could define my approach and carve the time needed to make a piece that could speak to the importance of creating and keeping wild spaces wherever we can. By doing so, we nurture the wild side of ourselves, too.

If I were to attempt such a project again I would think to include the birds, the rabbits, and of course, Mama JoJo. Let your eyes do the imaging. They’re all in there somewhere.

It’s Cultivated. It’s Complicated.

It’s Cultivated. It’s Complicated.

WARNING: This post begins as a real-life downer, yet gets lighter with delights, ending with a shot of hope. Stay with me.

This week environmental news (though it comes as no surprise) came on two fronts. The first came from one of my favorite environmental news digests, Treehugger News. It reflected on what I have been feeling all summer long. Fewer bugs on the windshield, fewer frogs in the lake, no insects in my garden except for a small band of diligent bumble bees, and way fewer birds.

I am not alone. This is the case everywhere. The reason, according to the World Wildlife Fund, is due to land-use change, the process of converting wild ecosystems into residential, commercial, or agricultural land. Around 30% of all land that sustains biodiversity has been converted for food production. Agriculture is also responsible for 80% of deforestation and 70% of freshwater use globally.

I feel like I am witnessing this in real-time. I live in a suburb, albeit an outer-semi-rural-farm suburb. However, in terms of land-use change, there are new high-rise apartments, senior homes, and strip malls being built everywhere I turn. More people. Need for more food. Less space for wild vegetation and animals. There goes the neighborhood.

Depressing, isn’t it?

The second comes from a new report from Greenpeace that the recycling rate is getting worse. Much worse. The so-called “circular chemical recycling” is a big fat lie. I have known about the Recycling Myth for years, but this takes what once was a way to conserve natural resources like wood, ivory, and tortoise shell into a freaking ubiquitous monster. Still, people invented it. People can slay it.

Enough With The Bad News.

I had to get that out. It has been weighing on my mind all week. It’s tough news for people to comprehend how bad things have gotten and what to do and for artists like myself who really loves wild and uncultivated spaces and places.

But There Are Always Festivals To Attend!

Maybe it’s post-pandemic-panic fallout, or festivals have always been happening. Still, I feel I could attend a festival every weekend of the year if I wanted to. The thing about festivals is they have been around since pagan times. Those hedonist heathens would gather about every six weeks for festivities, celebrating and catching up with each other. That, and drinking a wee bit too much mead. Can’t blame ’em. Hell, life was hard. Festivals did serve a more conventional purpose, though. Pagans didn’t have a written calendar to follow, and their gatherings marked notable times of the year. Not a shabby system if you enjoy a party.

Art at the Acreage at Osceola - wildflower meadow with mown path leading to metel made art structure
Art At The Acreage at Osceola

One Particular Festival.

Fast forward to the present day for the “festival of festivals” held last month (September 2022), namely, Take Me to the River organized by ArtReach St. Croix. My partner and I took a road trip to The Acreage in Osceola, Wisconsin, a place open to the public once a year and part of this year’s festival event roster.

SIDE NOTE: I considered traveling to The Acreage as an “artist date” as defined by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way. Having never heard of the place before, The Acreage was a new place to experience. Artist dates ought to be a place or experience one has not had before as a means of recharging the creative spirit.

Land art sculpture by Tom Bierlein as experienced at The Acreage at Osceola, September 17, 2022. Very Zen vibe to it. It was lovely sitting with his work.

A Place to Gather and Learn. (Just Like a Festival)

The Acreage at Osceola is made of 360 acres of woodland and prairie habitat situated on the bluff above the St. Croix River. It embodies the vision and legacy of Horst Rechelbacker, founder of Aveda and Intelligent Nutrients.

It once served as Horst’s residence farm and retreat. Today the historical property serves as a model for sustainable conservation methods, a center for land and water stewardship, a place to learn, and a gathering space for creatives, visionaries, and change-makers.

There’s also a gallery featuring an eclectic collection of art from India and Eurasia. Classical-style statues preside over the land. A family of goats takes care of invasive species, like the infamous buckthorn. On a sprawling swath are tender tree seedlings of mixed variety.

Local beekeepers from Bone Lake Meadows Apiary did a show-and-tell about honeybees and how they keep them healthy and able to survive over winter. (No mention of mead, however. It was a family-friendly primer).

Places like this give me hope. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, quiet except for the sounds of birds, insect hums, grasses waving in the breeze, and people mingling. The land felt balanced, not stressed or overworked. A living project, working by example on how things can be done better for everyone.

tall marigolds growing in greenhouse at The Acreage at Osceola
Cala Farms grows celosia and Marigolds (or cempasuchil) at The Acreage at Osceola. Marigolds are an essential flower during the
Dios de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival. The photo is confusing. But that’s what the sign said was growing. The marigolds (tall as well)
are probably right out of frame. So much for my photojournalism skills!

It’s a place to cultivate, too. There’s evidence of it in the greenhouses, even this late in the season. One example is Cala Farms, organic, founded by two brothers from Mexico City. In cooperation with The Acreage, Cala Farms grows celosia and Marigolds (or cempasuchil). Marigolds are an essential flower during the Dios de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Festival, happening November 1st-2nd. The bright yellow flower is believed to help guide the spirit of lost loved ones to colorfully decorated alters during the festival. I can go for this cultural tradition better than I can our Halloween.

While Marigolds aren’t a staple on most dinner tables (yes, you can eat them!), what I love about the presence of Cala Farms at The Acreage is they bring their story and culture to us. At the heart of making something better and resilient, based on equity and economic fairness, people need to talk, be open and kind, and share ideas and experiences. Kind of like how a democracy should work, right?

There is a Drawn By-Product.

In a roundabout way, this leg of the festival cultivated my latest piece. It’s been a while since I took on a large drawing and those curious bumpy pumpkins I found at The Acreage gave me the nudge. Discovering I had a stockpile of Twin Rocker handmade artisan papers stashed in my studio (surprise!) gave me the nudge beyond the nudge. If you have never heard of Twin Rocker papers, their origin story is worth a gander.

Marina di Chioggia Heirloom Pumpkin Grahite Drawing © Kristin Maija Peterson 2022
Maria di Chioggia (Italian Heirloom Pumpkin) Graphite Pencil on Twin Rocker Artisan Handmade Paper. 22” x 27.5” Unframed. © Kristin Maija Peterson 2022.

Ever curious, the best backstory I could find about my bumpy specimen is it’s an Italian heirloom whose name comes from a seaside village of Venice, Maria di Chioggia (also called Chioggia Sea Pumpkin). The bulgy rolls are the result of sugars building up under the skin. I could say the same happens to humans after too much Halloween candy.

pumpkin varities orange sage and green sitting in greenhouse at The Acreage at Osceola
One big Cucurbitaceae Family hanging out at The Acreage at Osceola.

The Cucurbitaceae Family, for you plant nerds, comprises pumpkins, squash, and gourds. There’s a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes originating from Cucurbitaceae because they all happily cross-pollinate with one another. It’s always about sex with plants.

I may have to start a whole series devoted to what we cultivate. The heirlooms, the seed keepers, civilized botanicals, the opposite of my wild and messy scapes within landscapes. They are part of the environmental story, too. The paradox is we all need to eat and have a whole lot of people on this planet to feed. At the same time, what we are doing to the Earth is making it harder and harder to grow food reliably.

For every horror story about corporate farming, clearing the Amazon for agricultural use, and abusive raising of livestock, there are more and more stories of people working the land using restorative ways and practicing humane husbandry.

What can the average Joe and Jane, who, of course, eat, do? This is stating obvious and yet a movement in the right direction. Support and shop local farmers’ markets — many are like festivals in and of themselves. Grow your own vegetable garden (and compost) if possible. Support local farm cooperatives. Educate yourself as you go about what is going on agriculturally in your area.

One Last Thing and This Should Lead You to Hope.

If you haven’t seen the film, check out the documentary Kiss The Ground (2020). Narrated by Woody Harrelson, it’s the story of soil and how it’s one of our best sources of optimism in the face of climate change and putting food on the table.
And it’s good. Really, really good.

There will always be bad, shitty news. They most likely will always be festivals. In the end, we can still all talk with one another, get stuff done, and make the world a better place.

Listen to Whispers

Listen to Whispers

Photo Credit: Warrior Publications

Things come to us quietly, in whispers, as it should be. Most of us recoil from loud noise or when someone or something is shouting at us. But whispers, like serendipity, are something I pay attention to — not in a “woo-woo” sort of way (I’m seriously allergic to woo), it’s more about patterns, nudges, and asking “why does this keep showing up” sort of thing.

Braiding Sweetgrass is just one such whisper. It first came to my briefest attention back in 2013 when I was taking a writing class at The Loft. The Loft is housed inside the Minneapolis Center for Book Arts where I have also taken classes in letterpress and bookbinding. There is was, in the lobby, this simple, elegant introduction to MCBA’s Winter Book, Minidewak Readings from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. There would be a reading event and author’s reception. Did I attend? I wish I had been brave enough. I was fearful of driving at night in winter and even more reluctant to attend events solo. At the time, I don’t even think I entertained the idea of going, even though it was free and open to the public. The question I always hold on to is “would I fit in, enough to be present and enjoy myself?”

Mididewak Readings from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Minidewak means “they give from the heart.”

But I held on to the little printed piece promoting Minidewak. It remains displayed in my studio as if a reminder of something I hadn’t figured out yet. I didn’t even look up who the author was or what her life’s journey was that lead her to write her book — which is so odd. I’m naturally a very curious person.

It wasn’t until almost another winter had ended six years later, that I ran across Wild Ones Minnesota Annual Conference being held at the University of St. Thomas in February. It would have been a wonderful conference to attend, even solo, but a waiting list and my poor timing blocked the possibility. One of the conference speakers was Robin Wall Kimmerer, Ph.D., who would talk about healing and restoring our relationship with nature. There was her name again from the little printed piece I have sitting in my studio.

This spring, April to be precise, another artist’s talk and reception caught my attention. It was for Riverlines, a new exhibit of abstract paintings illustrating the deep connection with the Mississippi River by artist Annie Hejny on display at the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO). (Now through July 1st)

There in the online write-up about the exhibit, it noted Hejny’s inspiration for her work — the teachings of the Honorable Harvest as recorded by Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. There was her name again and the title of her book, just as it was on the little printed piece sitting in my studio.

So now I have a little over six years of whispers and a certain amount of FOMO* setting in. It hurts being an anxious introvert at times. Latent curiosity aside, I really wanted to find out what was it about Robin Wall Kimmerer and her work that kept coming into my view.

* Fear Of Missing Out

I wrote her name on a yellow post-it note and headed to the local library. I find books easily enough in the Fiction section but things get fuzzy finding a title in the Non-Fiction stacks. Luckily, a young librarian had just finished helping another patron stopped and asked “can I help you find something.” I showed him my post-it and it was if he had actually met the author. He knew exactly what I was looking for. A quick check on his mobile declared the library didn’t have a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass and it was on hold at another branch. (Some days I feel like my whole life is on hold). Had I heard of Hoopla, he asked, “you can download the audio book, it’s read by the author and her voice makes it worthwhile listening.” He had obviously listened to her book before. It was like another whisper.

So now I’m in my studio, working on a large drawing, listening to Robin Wall Kimmerer read from her book Braiding Sweetgrass. The young librarian was right. It’s not just a worthwhile listen, it’s wholeheartedly worthwhile.

From what I have gathered from all the whispers is that Robin Wall Kimmerer has inspired a lot of people, not just artists. I for one, would embrace living in a gift economy based on reciprocity and gratitude. It would flip the whole wage economy, consumerism, and private property on its head. Imagine Congress commencing its session with the Thanksgiving Address. Things might actually get done in an equitable and just way for all people.

I don’t mean to exaggerate that shifting our mindsets to those Robin Wall Kimmerer so eloquently tells in story would cure all our country’s ills, but it would be productive, healing place to start. It would have to be a collective mindset to happen of which I’m not certain we are ready for but am hopeful that a majority are moving towards knowing that living in balance with nature will be our saving grace. Listening to her words has opened me to a way of thinking and being in the natural world that I’ve always felt but never effectively articulated.

You could say whispers are gifts.

Originally posted on May 6, 2019 at kristin-peterson.com, our old debunked website. Moving a few good posts over here.

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I am thrilled and honored to have my work published in EYEWITNESS: Minnesota Voices On Climate Change in celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day — a collection of stories, poetry, and art from Minnesotans on their experiences with climate change.

This new book is a demonstration of literary activism with a mix of works from prominent and ordinary people. Organized into themes that mimic the emotional trajectory of our climate experience (gratitude, loss, responsibility, resilience, and hope), Eyewitness speaks to the urgency of the climate crisis in a heartfelt way and demands a bold call for action. — Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy

large detailed drawing of bull thistle flower head by kristin maija peterson
BASKET has been selected to appear in the upcoming publication of EYEWITNESS.

Climate Generation is also hosting a virtual book launch and Storytelling Slam on Earth Day, April 22, 2020, from 11:00 am to 12:30 pm. You can hear personal stories and musical performances all from the comfort of your home and still be a part of something big, standing strong together for climate action. You can register for this event here. Even if you are not from Minnesota or if you are, I hope you can join in! This is all about building a strong community.

Original Post Date: April 1, 2020 from our old website kristin-peterson.com

Let’s keep in touch! Subscribe to Terra Kind Studio’s “A Creative Life” Blog and received posts about art, the art process, life as an artist, and exhibit news right to your inbox. No worries. Post frequency is around twice a month so I won’t overwhelm.

Does It Love You?

Does It Love You?

Does it love you?” It’s an opposing question to “Do you love your art?” from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” Artists will say, of course, they love their art, the making of art goes to the very nature of who they are. But does art love you back? Now we get into the area of wanting proof. An artist’s life is not easy. It’s fraught with rejection and frustrations. Putting ourselves out there, showing our work, we’re at our most vulnerable.

The proof, however, is found in how art pushes you to get better, to hone your style and technique. It wants your time and attention. Art makes you look and see the world, then allows you to interpret it in a thousand-million ways. Art is about tough love, but she wants you to become the best artist you can be because the world will be better for it. We all benefit from the many voices and visions of artists in profound ways. Art gives us hope. We may not always realize that we all need art. Our souls depend upon it.

Since the beginning of civilization as we know it, artists of all disciplines have found their source for ideas and inspiration in nature. When people are asked (not just artists) the question “Do you love nature?” the answer invariably is a resounding “Yes!” Ask the question: “Does nature love you back?” People will stand looking down at their feet. Again, it’s that wanting proof.

It’s the same question Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and an author who teaches environmental biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York, asked her earnest young environmental students, all eager to save the planet. Every student announced they love nature. Not one had evidence to say yes that nature loved them back.

Our problem is we feel nature is indifferent to us. How can we heal a planet with urgency and care when we believe it doesn’t give a damn about us? It’s like trying to love a parent who is cold and distant.

Ancient people, indigenous people, and Native Americans don’t see it this way at all. They have always operated with a sense of being in a reciprocal emotional relationship with their physical, natural environment. Whether they felt that nature was rewarding them or being punished by her, they were in constant conversation with her.

As modern people, we have become so disconnected from nature that we have lost the art of having conversations with her. We are taught to believe nature is separate from us and has no inherent sentience. Yet, there is hope this mindset is changing. People are waking up, wanting to have that conversation and an honest relationship with nature.

I can recall all the moments that nature has gotten me outside of my head, slowed me down, eased my monkey-mind worries and heartache. My proof nature loves me is that if I am patient and still, she will show me her wonders, up close and personal. It’s like she’s saying, “here I am, let’s dance!”

If you want proof that nature loves and cares for you, I found evidence of that working on a project a few years ago for the Minnesota DNR’s Arbor Month Celebration promoting the many health benefits trees provide us. The flip side of this is we are discovering trees have their own emotional lives, communicate with one another, share nutrients and knowledge, supportive interactions are between trees of various species. Trees of one species don’t necessarily compete with other tree species. They all get along.

Now we are discovering and acknowledging that all creatures living on this earth have an emotional life, have relationships, feel pain, and in their way, express love. That understanding may be our doorway to regaining a dialogue with nature. Because we have feelings and are understanding nature herself feels, we can engage in a reciprocal relationship. Nature gives us the seeds, we plant the garden. Having this awareness is fundamental to saving our planet.

However, we are all living amidst a global pandemic. Viruses, grown in a lab or not, are nevertheless organic. They are a part of nature. And nature is dishing out one whopping dose of tough love if there ever was one.

“Our great mother does not take sides, Jake; she protects the balance of life.”
~ Neytiri, Avatar, 2009

Nature is trying to wake us up. Messing with her organisms in a lab, “pulling a Frankenstein,” has serious repercussions. Intending to use her as bio-warfare, she will smack you down hard. Still, I cannot lose sight of the levels of suffering and the thousands of innocent people lost. It’s become a lesson too hard to bear, let alone understand.

I’m learning about the gifts people express the virus is presenting, odd as that might sound. Artists and writers who do a lot of travel for speaking engagements, live performances, book signings are relieved to stop and stay at home. It’s become a great time of reflection, a time many people do not want to go to waste. Families scattered around the country are talking to each other more often than ever before, finding common bonds despite differences. Artists around the world are busy making art to connect us, uplift us, and bring us hope.

Through the thick of it all, winter ended, the weather warmed. Nothing is open but the great outdoors. Nature is there to ease our anxious hearts. Ultimately, we will heal each other.

Recommended Reading:
BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ve personally read it. Her book was cited during the Women’s Art Institute Summer Studio Intensive course at the University of St. Catherine’s that I attended in June 2019.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Better yet, get check out the audiobook on Hoopla. Hearing Robin read her book is so soothing. It was also helpful to me to hear the pronunciation of native words.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben After reading this book, I haven’t looked at trees the same way since. It’s both entertaining and fascinating.

Let’s keep in touch! Subscribe to Terra Kind Studio’s “A Creative Life” Blog and received posts about art, the art process, life as an artist, and exhibit news right to your inbox. No worries. Post frequency is around twice a month so I won’t overwhelm.

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