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Listen to the wind. It tells no lies.

I grew up in the woods of northern Pennsylvania. I was blessed with a feeling of oneness with Nature. That was enhanced by a fascination with the lives of Native Americans whom I could count as my neighbors (Seneca) and who played a role for me through great leaders, in my Boy Scout career (Eagle Scout, Order of the Arrow). Out of this developed a feeling of how it is possible to live in Nature by closely working with it, by not destroying it. I think it was Nature’s destruction that early made me a skeptic. How can “Man” think he is so superior that it is his own ego that he puts on display? And when his own ego is put on display, is it any wonder “truth” is abandoned?

I recently spent almost a month at my family cabin in the woods of northern Pennsylvania. There I focused on the structure of my children’s book Thunder Basin.

After my stay at the cabin, I walked along what is known as the “mall” at Penn State University. As I walked there, I remember being a young skeptic student walking that same route in 1967 — 50 years ago. As a 21-year old, I wanted to find places where I could gain deep knowledge. I still have an essay I wrote back then, parts of which I want to share with you. It reads as follows:

“Suppose that we have approached a thoughtful, erudite young scholar, and have asked him as to why he patterns his educational life such as he does. He may answer that his aim is to learn of the secrets that the earth possesses. His goal in seeking knowledge is to become versed in the affairs of the world, and to pursue the ‘truth’ that lies hidden therein …

[asking about society] But in history, as in the wider realm of which our truth is sought, the logic of the events lies beyond the compiled elements [we recognize]. The locus of truth may lie, for example, in an understanding of the events between those of which we study [. It may lie]  in the behavior of those who created the events … [composing our knowledge. It may lie] in the environment in which the events are staged, in the framework of the society … [which made our] history, perhaps in the direction the events are taking or their predestination, or in a consolidation of all these matters…

Beyond the pine ridge, below the “chin” of Mount Mansfield, is Thunder Basin.

If truth is so elusive in our example of history, then what can be said of the search for the more profound truth?…[T]he whims of men many times are themselves opposed to the aim after which they seek. Many vain attempts by men to grasp truth are hindered by ridiculous adherence to traditional ‘virtues.’ Man seeks condolence, and in his blind adherence to his own petty standards which he originally set up as the absolute morality, finds ease in the solitude of tradition when confronted by facts of truth.”

Where am I some 50 years later? I set out to find “knowledge” and ended up writing a children’s book and working on another. I have tried to belay my skepticism in thinking that the mind of a child can still be the locus of that kind of perception in which the world is seen as a highly connected wonder. In Did Tiger Take the Rain? the girls realize:

“We all live under the same sky…When the sun shines, it shines down on humans and tigers together. When it rains, we share the same rain… We feel the same wind. We breathe the same air…” (p 27).

In Thunder Basin, we are still at that stage in a child’s life when she can rediscover her curiosity, before being throttled into “normality.” Although the obstacle is not so much that of my esoteric 1967 essay, that of “man’s blind adherence to his own petty standards which he originally set up as the absolute morality,” Thunder Basin tries to expose blind adherence to the dictates of a smartphone. It is still no less than adherence of the “whims” of society. For Native Americans, the quintessential character that upsets this complacency is Coyote, the trickster.

Page sketch for Thunder Basin

In my book, the heroine loses her cell phone in the woods and she is suddenly forced to look around her. The objective is to at least provide an alternative world to what she is forced to see on the LCD screen — a world beyond, which she intuitively knows and trickster helps her find: Nature with all its briers and mosquitoes. But also Nature with its unending wonder and beauty.

Snippets of a transition

TB111413Me in Thunder Basin, 2013

First snow fuses together into fluffy big flakes. A snowfall is a real fall, a myriad small flakes like a waterfall; you are immersed in a cold shower that nibbles at your ears and nose.

Vermont. The Green Mountain State. Beautiful, progressive, and friendly.

JuneberryViewJuneberries, from my window, Bellows Falls, Vermont.

I have been filled with two loves. One, is my beloved Vermont. I have lived here for thirteen years.

Vermont, March: The wind picks up in the afternoon and can get stiff towards evening. I heard it while sleeping in my tent, snuggled down into my sleeping bag. And now again, while leaning against a rock at lake’s edge, it brings a chill. It has a voice, like old man of winter of Scandinavian lore, a message brought from some other place, maybe near, maybe far, some message you need to answer. What hint does the wind bring when it says “I do not come alone?”

CHtrail

Vermont, October: A woodpecker picks at a tree nearby. A nuthatch makes its whirling sound. A chipmunk scurries through the leaves. Suddenly, the sun hits the treetops, turning the dull yellow of shadow into a ceiling of gold. It is like turning on a hidden light and the leaves come to life and exude their color. The leaves turned from a strong yellow to a transparent bright yellow. A gentle breeze hushed through the trees. Leaves floated through the air, carried by the wind, lifted gently from the branches where they had lived their lives, and gently placed on the ground on a carpet of color. There, in time, their purpose fulfilled, they would melt into the forest floor.

My second love is the forest of Pennsylvania. My life has changed. I am going there soon. I will be at my cabin to work on my graphic novel. Beyond that is a visit to my daughter in Sweden. Beyond that?

011The porch at my cabin in the Pennsylvania hills.

It is quiet, and it is getting late. Under the trees, the forest is getting dark but the tops are still lit up by a setting sun. In the distance an opening under the hemlocks the sun creates a spot of light and you look that way. You expect to see something move there. Suspense, combining the silence around you, the fading daylight, and the spot of light. A rustling in the leaves sends a chill up your spine. A bird calls. Silence again and you watch that sunlit spot. Evening rolls along and the spot is gone, carried away with the declining sun. It has merged with the darkness of the forest.

What is our attachment to place? How has that formed us?

Early Spring, Pennsylvania 1994

The tops of some trees are turning red
with sweet Spring buds;
On the forest floor, there are patches
of green pushing its delicious color
past the dry amber of last year’s fallen leaves.
The deep blue sky and the sparkling water
in the little streamlets seem to be
manifestations of each other.
As the sun warms away the morning chill,
wafts of sweet leafy odors splash
my face with little puffs of wind.
I am happy I stayed long enough to
be part of this beautiful symphony.

 

Hi again. During the month of April and May 2017 I have some of my art in a display case at the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro, Vermont. The theme is how I wrote my book Did Tiger Take the Rain?. Here are some of the things I talk about.

Reading to my daughter long ago from books illustrated by the likes of John Bauer, she and I shared a sense of how text and image interplayed. The wonder of how a child thinks through illustrated books and the belief that I could go there with my art and love of reading background pulled me away from my academic career in anthropology. Bmic career in anthropology, but it was not before the 1990s that I was able to consume as much as I could of the interface between art and writing as in classic texts illustrated by the likes of N. C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham, John Tenniel, and Charles Robinson. I set out in pursuit to fine tune my own skills in figurative art and watercolor, the foundation of my approach based on the classic masters. It was not until 2011 that I was able to make a trip to Nepal to experience what I used to create my book.

How do you go from an idea, a trip, 1000 photos of children, villages, story tellers, and people working, to create a story?

Since I wanted to be both a writer and illustrator, I needed to be able to both write and draw. The secret: practice and study and practice. Like this:

Practice, practice, study, practice.

Don’t give up.

Boil down what you heard and saw to find a combination of ideas and images that can begin to coalesce into a train of events that make up a story line. For example, during my visit to Nepal, Tharu story tellers told tales that included a tiger, monkeys and jackals. People talked about when the river flooded or dried up, of how the forest had been cut back over many years. One person, Bhadai Tharu, was attacked by a tiger. His face was deeply scarred. But he went on to become one of the best know conservationists in the Bardia Reserve area. His message is that it is not the tiger’s fault. As we cut the forest, we enter the tiger’s domain. We need to protect and replenish the forest.

A story begins to take form. Follow the leads and work, for example, on building up a visual setting with strong characters. Some of this you learn from visiting the site. Other you conjure up in your own mind. For example, the magic of a children’s book allows for talking monkeys. Hidden in the tiger book is also the role played by Jackal, like his cousin Coyote, the proverbial trickster of Native American tradition. He will help you cross the threshold to another world – and help kids fly. Also, for example, Usha, like other Nepali kids, does not do things alone. She needed Anjali. With these two, I was able to let them be the main characters who set out to solve a problem through their own communication and meeting with the other characters in the setting around their village and in the neighboring forest.

How do you develop the story? What were Usha and Anjali supposed to be doing? What problem did they set out to solve? What is the “plot”? Why should I write this book?

Deforestation leading to climate change is the theme.

With the given characters and setting, what is the lived experience that a child could relate to around this theme and still provide both scientific and social knowledge for children as well as incentive for them to get engaged and learn and do more?

Why did it stop raining? Where did the rain go when it was supposed to be there? How will the five main characters living in and around a jungle in Nepal figure that out?

The rain stopped. Tiger wandered away from her home in the forest, crossed the river and approached the village. Something was not right. Did Tiger take the Rain? If not, where did it go?

Let’s find a way to get the question answered. How do you do that? You sit around in cafes, walk streets in a daze, poke at your dinner with a fork, forget to shave, have Usha and her pals follow you around bugging you to move ahead. You get feedback from others.  Don’t give up.

Once you and your characters have come up with what appears to be a logical sequence of conversations and movement around some kind of believable plot, you begin to visualize this in the format of a children’s picture book. That means you need to find a way to combine text with illustration and you need to find optimality in word choice, text length, and coordination with illustrations. That means simplify. It means “show, don’t tell,” to create a story.

Start plotting all of these images and words out in the picture book format of about 32 pages. Make a story board. The one below is a small version of such a thing and is only one of many iterations.

I edited the story board to optimize the final images and to double check that the book as a whole seems well balanced, the images show variety, they follow (if not complement) the story – and to be sure that the children are dressed the same through the story, Anjali has one blue and one yellow hairband and has anklets, both girls have bracelets, and so on. You edit text, refine illustrations, refine the story board, and in time you arrive at something you think is ready.

For me, in the end, I needed to find a method to go from sketch to trial to new illustration. Here is my final image for pages 22 and 23. It started as a drawing to the exact size for the final watercolor. The drawing was traced over to watercolor paper, and finished. The final watercolor was reproduced digitally for publication.

December 29, 2016

Finally, a new blog post. You might have noticed that the last post dated October 24, 2016, just appeared as well. That is because it was somewhere within the website but I did not know how to get it up front. Now with the help of my friend Serenity, I can finally post items again – and learn how to do this myself. Maybe. The photo on the blog page is of Annapurna in the Himalayas seen from Ghorepani 2015.

So, where am I now and what are my hopes for the coming year? For one thing, I am holed up for the winter in a lovely little apartment in Bellows Falls, VT, overlooking the Connecticut River valley, a dam, a canal, and a railroad switch yard. I have my art material out and am working on things on my table which looks out over that view. The trains are so cool. Beyond the yard and train station is a big hill.

What things am I working on? Firstly, I am continuing to build up outreach for my book (Tiger, for short) as a start. That involves reaching out to book stores, schools, etc., with the help of my publisher but also through social media. It also means carrying a book or two around. I sold two in a local diner.

Secondly, I am working on two directions in a follow up to Tiger. Right now there are two possibilities. One is a follow up on what Anjali’s grandfather did when he was a young shaman. There is a story ready, plus preliminary sketches for “Grandfather.” The other is a follow up to what was suggested to me by the Wildlife Institute of India about another tiger conservation story. You read about the latter in my October blog. It is a long way off right now, since it is my hope to raise funding to return to India and Nepal in 2017 to work on that, like Tiger, right there on the spot.

Another direction I am taking right now in my little winter hermitage is appropriately to immerse myself in the Vermont landscape and work towards the publishing of the book on the mountain that I started back in 2009. This includes practicing both watercolor technique (the unforgiving medium) as well as figure studies. There will be a lot of studies of woods scenes as well. Then there will also be the refining of the story itself. That is 50% done. But it is really exciting to be doing this as long as I can keep at it. This story is akin to the theme taken up in the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. That book did not inspire the idea, but it falls within the same challenge of finding story lines about how we fit into our natural environment that can be made into a children’s book. In addition to the book itself, the artwork that comes out of my hermitage, plus other earlier work related to this and to Tiger, will be the focus of a show I am hoping to pull together for a local gallery here. Here is an older image along the theme of the mountain book. What you can probably not read behind the girl is about the birds she hears around her.

birdsongsimage

That show will be in May, so I had better keep my nose to the grind stone. One of the themes in the mountain book is thunder. Here is a snippet from the ongoing draft text. Sarah is the original model for the story’s heroine :

“Suddenly clouds pour in overhead, now light gray and white but there are darker rain clouds behind them as the wind picks up. Distant thunder echoes in the valley. It is getting darker. Big rain drops begin to fall with a sound on the leaves like ripples in a stream – a chorus, each drop its own little song, millions of them singing. A smell of wet leaves passes her nose. Raindrops hit her arms. Just as suddenly as it came, the rain stops and the forest is lit up by bright sunlight. A robin chirps nearby. A limb falls in the forest making a suspicious sound. Somewhere there must be a rainbow, but the trees block it. Sarah thinks that maybe she can climb a tree and see the rainbow.”

 

October 24, 2016

Why is it hot and dry? Two curious Nepali girls embark on a search for answers in a jungle near their home. Did Tiger take the rain?

Far away in Vermont, on a cool but colorful, sunny October 14 I picked up my first box of Did Tiger Take the Rain? – virtually on the doorsteps of Green Writers Press’ office and home near Brattleboro.

I took out a copy for myself right there and held it to my heart. I thought of the trips, the hard work, the sad times and the joy – of days in a jeep, the villages and the wonderful people I met there and those at home who supported, advised, and believed as I put my book together. And now the book is out there. I hope it will be an accessible tool for beginning a conversation on climate change which is equally thought-provoking for children, parents, and teachers.

During the ongoing Brattleboro Literary Festival, I signed my first book: one dedicated to a granddaughter named Kathryn. Kathryn, may Tiger forever be your friend and may you and those of your generation understand Anjali’s message: “When the sun shines, it shines down on humans and tigers together.”

The official book launch was November 11, 2016, at Everyone’s Book Store in Brattleboro, VT. Great questions, and some wonderful kids who, like the adults, were pressed to find the three hidden tigers in the book. Here is a photo. It shows me, two of the kids, and fellow writer Jaimie Scanlon and illustrator Ellen Tumavicus along with their book Ralph Flies the Coop which has been published by Green Writers Press parallel to mine.

booklaunch

Please check out my Facebook page for more specific updates and events as they begin to take shape. By the way, on my Facebook page you will see the following image:

Version 2

This is a pen and ink drawing that shows Mowgli from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as best as I could render him based on Kipling’s original concept. It is akin to the fantastic images drawn by Robert Ingpen in his illustrations for an edition of that book. Kipling spent some time in India and collected material from an area in Madhya Pradesh through which the Seeonee River flowed. He used that information to model the setting for The Jungle Book. By coincidence, during a visit I made to the Wildlife Institute of India in 2015, I was asked if I would be interested in writing a follow up to Did Tiger Take the Rain? based on the re-introduction of tigers into the Panna Tiger Reserve. The Panna and Pench reserves abut the Seeonee region Kipling used as his backdrop for Mowgli, Bagheera and Baloo and the Seeonee Wolf Pack in The Jungle Book. It is my dream to return to the Panna and Pench Reserves in India as a follow up to my book. And if the Mowgli story were not coincidence enough, Kipling actually wrote The Jungle Book in his then home near Brattleboro, Vermont  where Green Writers Press is located. Let’s hope that the tiger of my book is a modern, safer cousin of the ill-fated Shere Khan.

Welcome, readers!

Hello everyone, and welcome to something new – for me anyway. Now I have a new website and this is my first blog. It is also about (in part) my first book. After a sad year, I hope this is also a new beginning. Imagine that at my age! In fact, I have re-established my mission: in this the autumn of my life, to use my talents and capabilities to share my knowledge and concerns in the hope that I can make life on earth a better place.

If you have seen my bio, my mission goes way back to pathways I set for myself even in my twenties. It has seen me through the years in some way or another, and was behind my decision in 1999 to shift from academia to children’s book writing and illustrating. Agreed – it has been a slow process with many ups and downs, and time moves on and it seems like not a lot gets done. I don’t push out books like some famous authors. But I am beginning to feel the depth of joy when I can see my first book coming to fruition – and to feel how my mission enters my heart.

My first book Did Tiger Take the Rain? will be launched October 14 in Brattleboro, VT. That is where the publisher Green Writers Press is located. It is also the Brattleboro Book Festival, and, I might add, not far from where Rudyard Kipling wrote The Jungle Book many years ago.

Here is a little more context. While living in the town of Westford, VT (in a wonderful log house), I realized how great it could be to take the best experiences from my growing up in the woods, link them to a fantasy adventure, and write and illustrate a book that takes place for a child on the west flank of nearby Mt. Mansfield. That book has been in process since 2009! Now, it consist of numerous thoughts, vignettes, poems, diary entries, and sketches done while visiting the mountain as well as other forests, streams, or fields. It is a wonderful thing to be doing even if as a publication it may never happen. But it has helped me to do two things. One it has helped me to appreciate the intricacies of the Nature and Human interface. Secondly, it has been an inspiration to learn to form words (and images) around deep thoughts – thoughts that not only reflect the beauty of everything natural, but also come from deep in our hearts. There are several spin offs from this theme, of course. Let’s see what happens. I have included an illustration pen and ink sketch from it here.

gazillionsnowflakes

The Tiger theme seems to be far away from this. As you can see in my bio, my background is anthropology and that might explain a lot. But there are important commonalities – and they make up the real challenge. How can we take an experience from a culture far away and formulate a story that can not only appeal to children everywhere, but also help them learn and appreciate in a common way? It is a story that is not meant to display another culture, or try to get American children, for example, to understand the lives of children in other places. Although it does this as an aside (can you find the water buffalo?), it is my hope that children everywhere can enter the bodies of Usha and Anjali as they set out on their adventures and learning experience.

This book is also part of a series of book ideas, one of which was provided for me by staff at the Wildlife Institute of India which I visited December 2015. It would also be about tigers but in a different way – still working this one out, but it is my hope to return to Nepal and India soon to follow up with it. And Mt. Mansfield? I will keep jotting down ideas and doing sketches – sort of like a reflection on what I see as important in my life growing up.

With this said, I would like to share some of the techniques I used to create the illustrations for Did Tiger Take the Rain? The relationship between feeling, thought, and idea written down in words and the image is an important one – whether jungle or mountain. It seems my approach to this is based on actually being there where these feelings burst into my heart.

The book Did Tiger Take the Rain? is based on two trips I made to western Nepal for the specific purpose of getting the material I needed for the book. I did not know beforehand what that material would be (other than knowing where I wanted to be and generally why). The book is also based on a number of studies of children in action and on watercolor techniques that have been part of my life here in the USA. With the help of several Nepali associates, I visited a number of old storytellers. From the stories I took the characters and the overall feeling – not the story. The story would be my own, but some of it was provided to me by the Tharu children. The images are all based on several thousand photos taken both of children, their homes, families, etc., in Nepal, and of child friends here who allowed me to take photos of them climbing trees, running, looking, talking, etc. The challenge was then to combine them into action figures in the book, which, in its turn was based on the usual story board sketch format. The final images were all done in watercolor. There is no “photoshopping “at all, other than in the final publication stages. First, a drawing was made at the same size as the finished watercolor (13 x 21). That was transferred to the watercolor paper (Arches 300 lb cold pressed), and painted in using mostly Winsor Newton and M Graham permanent paints. There is only one spot in the book which uses some white acrylic, otherwise the “white” is based on the challenging technique of transparent watercolors.

Here is a photo of a Tharu child plus a painting taken from that photo. Until next time – take care.

ranachildorig

ranachildsm