If we were not here… the show would play to an empty house, as do all those falling stars which fall in the daytime. That is why I take walks: to keep an eye on things. — Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk
Imagine an art studio in the hayloft of a barn. A Carolina wren hops through a crack in the rough planks. Clasping fine grasses in its tweezers-like beak, the bird flies up to perch on an easel’s paint-splotched crossbar. From there it flutters among jars of worn brushes to a shelf where it weaves the grass into a nest already brimming with moss, long strands of horsehair, and sticks splayed left and right. All the while grunts of cattle along with a musty aroma of dung waft in from the open window. A lone bat hangs torpid from the rafters, napping until dark when it’ll fly off to forage.
There’s no such thing as the middle of nowhere. Everywhere is the middle of somewhere for some living being. That was Suzanne Stryk’s mantra as she journeyed through her home state on a mission inspired by the reflective, encyclopedic sensibility of Thomas Jefferson’s book Notes on the State of Virginia.
Now imagine a covey of artists in this unconventional workspace: they perch on stools, lean over paintings, brushes in hand. All are completely okay with the wren and the bat, the fecund pasture smells, and a barn cat plunking down on their sketches. Jennifer arranges a stag beetle—a new kind of painter’s model for her—on the table. Sean hums a Talking Heads tune as he layers glazes on his cicada picture; Rebecca’s long purple hair matches her painted heart, valves and all. Deanna stands back from her easel, tilts her head as she checks her composition. Srikanth takes a break from teaching yoga to bow over a painting of a red flame within a hand.
This is a scene from artist-teacher Elizabeth Sproul Ross’s Shenandoah Valley farm, where she invites artists and art students to share her rustic studio for weeklong retreats. Her roots here reach back to the 1700s, when Scots-Irish ancestors settled this land. Now paintbrushes replace plows, as it’s become a getaway from city life for those seeking new skills.
And with each group, this spry 70-plus-year-old still climbs the hill behind the barn, funky knee and all, camera strapped around her neck, to fulfill the ritual of visiting an ancient apple tree. I, too, have now hiked to that wind-swept tree. Because in 2011, after seeing my images of flying feathers tangled with strands of double helixes, she invited me to demonstrate painting at this farm where ideas are seeds, art the harvest.
Week over, I stood alone on the farmhouse porch watching the mid-May sunrise. On that unseasonably chilly morning, I clasped a hot mug of tea with both hands, touching its heat to my cold cheek. In the meadow before me, Black Angus nibbled shoots of fresh grass. I thought: Right now, in each blade of grass, some tiny green disc snatches a ray of sun, a spot of water, a molecule of CO₂ from the air, and—presto!—the plant makes its own food. In the process, the leaf tosses out useless oxygen, ironically providing life-giving breath to animals.
“Photosynthesis” sounded too studied for such magic, so I searched for something better when a line from a Dylan Thomas poem sprang to mind. Still leaning on the porch rail, I whispered: The force that… through the green fuse… Umm… drives the flower… drives my green age….
I inhaled, conscious of breathing a living equation: Sun + Water + CO₂ = Sugar and Oxygen. Breath and Life. The green fuse.
Whack!—the screen door slapped behind me. I turned to see John Sproul, Elizabeth’s brother. It’s his habit to swing by for some morning coffee and fresh-baked bread.
“What’ya looking at?” he asked, his big eyes twinkling.
“Oh… just watching the sunrise,” I murmured.
We stood in silence, gazing toward John’s farm about a half mile away, nestled in hilly meadows now hidden in morning mist.
“Bee-u-ti-ful.” John’s calloused thumb and index finger clasped the delicate handle of a porcelain coffee cup. As we continued to gaze past the old springhouse, we spotted Elizabeth crouching low, her camera’s long lens fused to her silhouette, reminding me of a long-beaked bird. She crouched to get her “rabbit’s-view” perspective. I could have guessed she’d return to the redwing blackbirds’ nest we’d discovered the day before. And that she’d rise early to capture it while fleeting drops of dew hung from each grassy leaf.
After breakfast—home-baked bread with scrambled eggs fresh from the neighbor’s free-range chickens (school-bus-yellow yolks)—I knew what I want to do first: draw.
“Matthew found a dead kestrel. He saved it for you,” Elizabeth had told me earlier. Matthew’s a college student with a big heart and a keen eye. The little hawk was floating in a watering trough. Did it drown trying to capture a swallow swooping for a gulp? We’d never know. Its death was just one drama among billions every day on this farm alone that would, in Annie Dillard’s words, “play to an empty house.”
I picked up my sketchbook from the smokehouse-turned-cabin for visiting artists and walked to the barn-turned-painting studio. After the week’s hubbub (everyone gone home now), the quiet was palpable. I fetched the kestrel from the barn fridge. Unwrapping cold sheaths of plastic released a death smell like sour cookie dough. Pulling on latex gloves to spread the bird on a Styrofoam meat tray, I pinned its wings as if stretched out in flight. Feathers quivered as a gust of wind blew through the hayloft. Except for its sunken eye, the bird looked ready to escape with a few rapid wingbeats.
As I drew, I noticed that each feather’s black spot formed a stripe as it aligned with the adjoining feather’s spot. For what purpose? At that moment, it seemed designed to dazzle my eye alone. But no, I suspect this intricate pattern evolved so a vole hunched in grass, nibbling seed, might not notice doom hovering overhead. Evolution is the greatest artist of all.
Late that afternoon a gentle rain fell, so I pulled on my new rubber wellies from Southern States. With a neon-orange poncho over my head, I trudged across land owned by the Sproul clan. But kestrels, voles, and black snakes also own the land. This turf belongs to the yellowthroat warblers who’ve been asking wichita wichita wichita? down by the creek for centuries, long before Scots-Irish settlers staked their claim. A meadowlark declared its ownership broadcasting de de da dedaleeeeee atop a snag in the emerald pasture. Same for grasshopper nymphs snap-hopping away as I brushed through soggy leaves of grass. Spittlebugs cowered in their foamy cover-up busy sucking plant juices with their straw-like mouths—they, too, hold a deed in their DNA.
All of these lives plug into the green fuse.
Drizzle turned to downpour. I ducked into a dilapidated pigsty that hadn’t heard oinking for decades. While rain hammered the rusty metal roof, I stood scanning the dirt floor in dim light. Mementos of human lives scattered on the dusty hard-packed earth like a canvas of found objects: an old leather shoe with metal eyelets, a dirt-encrusted cell phone (“Got to finish fixing the fence. I’ll be late for supper”), square nails, corroded chains, a red plastic comb with missing tines, and rusty remains of farm implements.
I knelt down to gather these artifacts, hearing John’s dream: “Someday I’m going to make a museum in the barn with all sorts of old farm equipment.” If anyone could do it, he could. Because John could identify the smallest corroded fragment of a reaper, plow, or harness. Holding a piece of tarnished buckle (from a draft horse’s halter?), I thought: All of these implements were fashioned to harvest the green world.
To jot that down, I reached in my jeans pocket for pencil and paper but found only a crumpled dollar bill. A “greenback”—funny. Not “ha-ha” funny, but funny in the sense of how weird it is to think of money as “green.” Perhaps the greatest human illusion—for sure the one leading to environmental catastrophe—is that life depends not on plants but on money. What a different world it would be if the truth were wired into us early. Planted in our brains at the ripe age of five or six should be the understanding that our lives depend on chlorophyll’s alchemical green magic. And that the same is true for the grasshopper and meadowlark, the Black Angus and deer, the hawk and panicking vole running for its life under a tuft of grass. The spittlebug and I have so much in common.
As I knelt on the earthen floor examining a constellation of small ivory bones, the sun broke through the clouds, sending a shaft of light through the wall, illuminating my discovery. Shards of brilliant green pasture glowed through gaps in the wood planks, like a stained-glass window in a cathedral honoring the living world.
When the rain let up, two chirping barn swallows swooped in, flying to their mud-caked nest fastened to a rafter. How did I not notice it? Spotting me, they plunged toward my head, chattering worry. Air currents from their beating wings fanned my face—would they really peck my head? It seemed so! One frantically circled the dirt floor, so I walked over to see why. There in the corner, a fallen nestling with purplish bumpy skin stuck with tiny quills struggled to hold up its wobbly head to peep. Its enraged parents dive-bombed me again. How to explain I didn’t steal their baby from the safety of its nest?
I scooped the helpless chick from the dirt, clambered up some old stacked boards, and placed it back into the nest to join its siblings still inside their eggs. A whorl of striped down feathers lined the cup, which I recognized from my morning’s drawing: the kestrel. Imagine, a predator’s feathers softening the nest of prey.
Squall over, time to leave, but not before stuffing my backpack with the leather shoe, as many hand-forged nails I could gather, and a few select shards of rust, all crumbling in the slow process of decay. Yet so much couldn’t be stuffed into a pack: the thrum of rain, the dizzying green light through broken slats, the chattering distress of bird parents.
“Okay, you’ll be happy to know I’m going now,” I told the swallows perched on a beam overhead, their flat little heads twitching this way and that, nervously waiting for this intruder to scram. I emerged into the sunlight, and the sweet scent of rain made me heady as I waded through wet grass back to the farmhouse.
Suzanne Stryk is an artist who finds equal fascination in the natural world and the visual arts. Her conceptual nature paintings and assemblages have appeared in solo exhibitions throughout the United States, and her portfolios and related writings have been featured in Terrain.org, Orion, Ecotone, and the Kenyon Review. She is the recipient of a George Sugarman Foundation grant and a Virginia Commission for the Arts fellowship for the project Notes on the State of Virginia, the precursor to The Middle of Somewhere. She lives in southwest Virginia.