For specific views of the paintings, view this page:
This fall I'm having an exhibition at the Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh. The show is kind of a combination of installation and learning lab for art. To get a whole show into one small truck, the large paintings were made unstretched, with grommets for hanging (unstretched canvases can be rolled for transport, which saves a lot of cargo space). The gallery at the school is kind of a multipurpose room, so the teacher who runs the gallery put up the colorful traffic cones (borrowed from the PE department) so that all the various people who use the room won't run into the art. It's all been an interesting experience. The best part has been working with these extremely engaged students - they have all been a joy.
For specific views of the paintings, view this page:
I've been working some more on the Swamp Drawings that I completed several months ago. I have mounted each drawing on a painting panel and added paint to the backgrounds. Each finished painting is now ready to hang, and measures 12 inches high by 9 inches wide by 3/4 of an inch deep.
I have just completed a set of 7 teapots for the Year of the Sheep, which begins in February 2015. In China, both sheep and goats belong to the Year of the Sheep. It's pretty different from the biblical perspective, in which the sheep and the goats are always being separated. These teapots are no more than 4 inches high, which is full size in China (tea is drunk very differently there than in the European traditions). All of these teapots are completely handmade of porcelain clay.
I think so often when people come out to the Phinizy Swamp, they are hoping to see animals. I know I am. Plants are fascinating, and I enjoy looking at them very much. But where are the animals?
As you know, animals are mobile, and often survival for them depends on not being seen more often than necessary. Therefore, we people who want to look at them sometimes have to gain satisfaction from interpreting the signs that the animal leaves behind. In this case, you can tell that beavers are active because of the canal they’ve recently dug on one side of the main stream channel. And there is a pile of sticks on the stream bank that was made by beavers – it might be part of a lodge. Since my Swamp Drawing Project is about things that I actually see at the Phinizy Swamp, I’ve indicated a beaver in my drawing only through a dotted outline.
Beavers are found throughout most of North America. There is just one species in the New World, Castor canadensis. There is also a species that is native to Europe and Asia, Castor fiber. The two beaver species cannot mate because they don’t have the same number of chromosomes.
Castor canadensis is the largest rodent in North America. Their upper incisors continue to grow throughout their lives, and are continually ground down by chewing on wood. Beavers close their nostrils and ears as well as their eyes while they dive underwater. They can even close their mouths behind their front teeth, so that they can dive while carrying a stick in their mouths without ingesting water. Their back feet are webbed for swimming.
The beaver is a wetland animal – it lives its life by maintaining wetlands through damming streams. Many landowners have been irritated when beavers move in and dam up streams, flooding the land. But it turns out that the wetland creation behaviors of beavers have significant ecological benefits. Beaver activity tends to increase streambank vegetation and general biodiversity in dry areas over time; it also creates more open water area even in drought years.
Beavers fell trees to build dams and lodges. The inner bark and leaves of the tree are a major food source for them. The lodges are made of sticks, grass, and mud. They tend to be built so that there is an underwater entrance. A major function of a dam from a beaver point of view is to ensure water depth around the lodge.
Beavers are active at night. They tend to stay in or near the water. They can submerge for up to 15 minutes. There is research that indicates they build lodges or repair them in response to the sound of running water.
Another way you might encounter a beaver is by hearing it. Beavers have a broad, flat tail that they slap against the surface of the water as a warning to potential predators. To me, the tail slap can sound like a cement block being dropped into water – it’s startling.
Beavers are monogamous, but if their partner dies, they will look for someone new. They live for 10 to 20 years in the wild. Their main predators in our area are people and probably coyotes. People kill beavers for sport or for their fur or when they feel that beavers are harming land by building dams. People also kill beavers by destroying wetlands and through pollution.
For more information on visiting the Phinizy Swamp: http://phinizycenter.org/
Other common names for this plant are ditch daisies, beggarticks, black jack, burr marigolds, stickseeds, or tickseeds. I think the “tickseed” part of the name refers to how the seeds of this plant stick to the fur of animals or the clothing of people as they brush past the plant – the seeds grab on like ticks do. In fact, each seed has a flat shape with two barbs on it.
The tickseed sunflower is probably originally native to the Midwest, and gradually spread much further afield. Now it can be found abundantly in wet areas from all the way to the East Coast, and from Ontario to Florida. How did it get here? Presumably it spread by traveling on animals and people.
The preferred environment for this plant is a wetland – hence the name “ditch daisy”. It normally blooms in October, and makes profuse, electric-yellow displays of flowers. An annual, it’s used often in wildflower gardens. However, in the Augusta area, that’s probably not such a good idea unless you have a wetland available – otherwise you will be watering a lot.
In a wild format such as the swamp, the seeds of the tickseed sunflower are eaten by an array of birds – ducks and many others.
I was surprised when I asked two people with biology backgrounds what this plant was called. I received two confident answers: tickseed sunflower and coreopsis. When I looked those up, I found that tickseed sunflower generally carries the Latin name of Bidens aristosa, whereas Coreopsis is a different genus. Both Bidens and Coreopsis genera (“genera” is the plural of “genus”) are grouped in the Aster family (Asteraceae), and there are a number of Bidens and Coreopsis species that are hard to tell apart, or maybe hard to separate clearly into either the Bidens or Coreopsis designations.
It turns out that biologists are currently revising the Bidens and Coreopsis genera, because now organisms are being analyzed through DNA to determine their degree of relatedness. Before DNA analysis became so readily available, the methods biologists used were direct examination of physical characteristics. So biology categorizations are currently in a state of flux. Both answers I was given verbally can claim to be correct – and tomorrow there may be a different answer.
I continue to be amazed at what science doesn’t know. Somehow that makes it even more interesting to look at what’s happening in the swamp on a given day. For more information on visiting the Phinizy Swamp: http://phinizycenter.org/
The Golden Garden Spider , or Argiope aurantia, has other common names, such as yellow garden argiope, yellow garden orb-weaver, golden orb-weaver, the writing spider, and others. Females are larger than males. An orb-weaving spider weaves a web in a circular format. Argiope aurantia is found throughout most of North America.
A large spider of this type will be a female – she is ¾” to 1 1/8” in body length. An adult spider which is only ¼” to 3/8” long is a male. In our area, the climate should be warm enough for many female spiders to live several years (?). Males evidently die after mating, in their first year. Sometimes after a male dies, his female partner will eat his body.
Both males and females weave thick zigzags into their webs. The zigzags are called stabilimenta (the singular is stabilimentum), which implies they function to help stabilize the web’s structure, but that is only a theory. Another idea is that maybe the zigzag helps birds see the web better so they don’t destroy it by flying through it. Or does it somehow attract prey by its dramatic and noticeable appearance? Or maybe the zigzag draws attention away from the spider itself, serving as camouflage? Isn’t it amazing what biologists don't know yet?
Males move around in search for females. When he finds a female, a male will build a small web with a thick white zigzag in it, or he will build the zigzag into a corner of a female’s large circular web. Males attract a female by plucking her web – this causes it to vibrate.
After mating, a female will produce a papery looking web sac with hundreds of eggs in it (sometimes she will produce several of these sacs, attached to her web). Evidently she does not stray far from her own area during her lifetime.
This kind of spider doesn’t see well, but it is very sensitive to air currents and vibrations. It can easily tell when an insect (or even a small lizard) runs into its web and gets caught on the sticky cross strands. The spider often vibrates her web when an insect lands in it. She will wrap up the prey with more spider silk.
All types of spiders bite their prey, injecting a venom that paralyzes it and starts to break down its body tissues, making the prey easy to digest. But if a person gets bitten by a golden garden spider, it will not cause more harm than a bee sting. If you don’t try to touch the spider or mess with its web, it probably doesn’t know you are there. So leave it alone and let it catch insects.
Females build the big, impressive webs. The spider starts her web by spinning and attaching long, strong lines of web filament that are not sticky. These structural strands radiate from the center of the web and diverge at the edges, where they are attached to anchor points that can be several feet apart. The cross strands begin at the center of the web, in a spiral format. The cross strands are sticky enough to trap insects that run into the web. The spider normally waits at the center of the web with her head pointing toward the ground. For some reason, she often holds her legs together in pairs.
Who eats these spiders? Lizards, wasps (especially mud daubers), some kinds of birds, and shrews, mostly.
For information about visiting the Phnizy Swamp: http://phinizycenter.org/
Spanish Moss, or Tillandsia usneoides, is not a moss but an epiphyte in the bromeliad family. It likes warmth and humidity. In the Augusta area, you are most likely to see it hanging from trees near a body of water. It tends to grow on larger trees, especially live oaks and bald cypress. Why those trees – is there something particular about them? As with so many of my questions about the natural world, it’s not easy to find an exact answer. Certainly the bald cypress is a good option, since it is usually found growing in or near water, which provides the humidity that the spanish moss needs. One idea is that possibly bald cypress and live oak, more than other trees, tend to exude the chemical nutrients that the spanish moss needs to live, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.
Does the spanish moss plant hurt the tree it grows on? Probably not. As an epiphyte, spanish moss does not infiltrate the tissues of its host tree, as a parasite plant would. Epiphytes get most of their nutrients from the air. Spanish moss plants have no roots. The long strands of the plant (which are basically leaves) curl around tree branches and cling to bark textures. There is an argument that if spanish moss is hanging very thickly from tree branches, it is cutting off some of the light from the tree’s own leaves. On the other hand, if you see a tree in obvious decline with the spanish moss hanging very thickly from it, it’s likely that the spanish moss increased its growth only after the tree’s outer branches and foliage started dying off for reasons unrelated to the spanish moss. Most experts advise you not to worry about the spanish moss – it is just hanging on the tree, not hurting it. However, there are pecan farmers who clear heavy spanish moss growth off their crop trees. Very thick spanish moss accumulation can be heavy enough to break a tree branch, especially after rains, when spanish moss plants absorb several times their weight in water.
When there are long periods between rains, spanish moss can go dormant. It does have flowers, and they are usually quite small. Water and other nutrients are taken into the plant through scales on the outer surface of the leaves. Spanish moss usually spreads to new locations via tiny seeds. Each seed is attached to a small puff of lightweight fibers, which makes it float on wind currents.
Most traditional and historical human uses of this plant relate to using it as a padding, stuffing, or filler of some kind – the uses ranged from stuffing upholstery cushions to mixing it with clay to make a building material. Spanish Moss may have some future medicinal uses – it has been tested in recent years for controlling blood glucose and for some protective skin effects, although such products may not be on the market yet.
Various kinds of animals use thick areas of spanish moss as a shelter – bats, reptiles, amphibians. Some birds build nests with it. There is a jumping spider (Pelegrina tillandsiae) whose only habitat is spanish moss.
But what about chiggers? Have you ever been advised not to touch spanish moss because chiggers will come out of it and bite you? The most scientific advice I could find says that you should only fear getting a chigger attack from collecting spanish moss off the ground. Spanish moss hanging from trees should be chigger-free. But it might not be free of jumping spiders, bats, and snakes!
For information on visiting Phinizy Swamp, see: http://phinizycenter.org/
To me, it's kind of a brooding, furry scene. It's rained almost 5 inches in the last few days, and the air was very humid this morning. You can see how thick the air is in the photo. We saw no animals, but we heard lots of insects and a few deep-voiced frogs.
This kind of sedge has a great-looking seed, which is why I drew it. Actually, it’s a kind of multiple seed.
Is it a weed? Some sedges are definitely considered weeds because they spread rapidly in plowed fields, interfering with the growth of a farmer’s crops. This particular one could be classed as either a weed or an ornamental, depending on your point of view.
Sedges are rather grasslike. Perhaps they would be considered closer to grasses if we didn’t have so very many kinds of grass worldwide – there are something like 10,000 grass species globally. There are also a lot of sedge species – at least hundreds, possibly 2000 or more. In practical terms, not many people differentiate that closely among all the various kinds of sedge.
If you’d like to be able to impress your friends with your ability to distinguish between grasses and sedges, you can use the following rhyme or a variation:
Sedges have edges,
Rushes are round, and
Grasses have nodes where
Leaves are found.
This means that if you roll a grasslike plant stalk between your fingers, you can usually tell if it’s a sedge if the stalk seems to have angles, meaning it’s more or less triangular in cross section. You can find nice closeup photos here:
I can’t tell you for certain that the sedge plant I drew and photographed is Carex lurida, also known as Lurid Sedge, Shallow Sedge, and a few other names. It might well be. And it it’s not, then some plant nurseries around the country have made the same mistake. Lurid Sedge is known for its large and impressive seed head, as well as a noticeably yellow-green foliage. Maybe the “lurid” in the name refers to the chartreuse color, which is brighter than the foliage of the surrounding plants in my photo.
Lurid sedge needs extremely moist – even wet – soil. As a gardener, you might want it if you are planting around a pond. Birds and other small animals in the swamp use sedge in various ways: they eat the seeds, they use the leaves for nests, and they shelter among the plants.
Priscilla Hollingsworth, artist.