The seed of a lifetime’s work

Seed of a LifetimeThis weekend we cleaned out some life detritus from the basement. I’ve been doing an inventory of personal collections that need sorting through. One of them was a box of newspaper articles that I’ve written over the last four decades, an archive that reaches all the way back to my early 20s. There were copies of the nature column Field Day that I first started writing for a local newspaper back in 1981. I was two years out of college at that time, and itching to start showing the world what I thought I knew.

Six years later I got a job with that newspaper and eventually moved from advertising sales to promotions. Despite the journalistic wall that supposedly existed between those two worlds I wrote dozens of articles over a four-year period, covering entertainment, dance, comedy, sports, and nature.

That last interest led me to produce an entire page of nature-oriented news. I called the section ENVIRONS, and designed the entire thing on an early version of a Macintosh computer. It had a monotone 9″ screen on which I wrote and designed those full-page sections.

Environs

I credit some of that drive to the precociousness of youth. I also sold the ads that appeared on those pages, at one point producing a four-page section just to prove it could be done. I was also out to prove that people were interested in news about the environment. I’d done my research on that, even gathering a report conducted by Duquesne University that showed public interest in environmental news ranked in the top four topics right behind local news and politics.

New directions

Once I’d left that newspaper and joined another, my passion for writing about nature continued as a columnist and editorial writer. That gig ended when the Publisher moved me over to a position as a marketing manager. That meant no more writing for that newspaper. So I turned to outside publications including magazines such as West Suburban Living. One of the articles profiled state conservation police officers, an idea that turned into a story after I stopped to ask an officer if people know what they did for a living. He chuckled and said, “Seven out of ten people stop to ask me what the Conversation Police do.”

That proved to me that people don’t connect the dots on many subjects related to nature. There is even prejudice against environmental news in some sectors of society, especially where religion tells people not to put trust in science of any kind.

Big impression

Luther prairie
Last summer I visited the Luther College prairie and this plant known as butterfly weed

Which brings me back to a letter home from college that I found in that box of newspaper clippings. I’m not sure at all how that letter wound up in that box, but it was joined by several other missives home to my family from college.

The letters typically shared how I was doing in cross country or track, since that was a pressing preoccupation at the time. But this one sent home in the first few weeks of college documented a moment in a Freshman Studies class in which I was impressed by a professor who visited our class. Here’s what I wrote:

“Just finishing a good day of classes, one in particular really set my thoughts to rolling. In our Freshman Studies class a religion prof gave ideas out on ecology in collaboration with Aldo Leopold’s A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC. This guy was great, giving the truth about people’s preconception that the land they own is theirs to do with what they like, including destroying it. Also mentioning that many people do not feel that land is good unless it is developed, or is producing for them. Great.”

I did not recall that professor’s visit until I read about it again in that letter from 1975. But that moment in class definitely planted a seed in my mind that has carried through millions of words written about the subject of science and religion.

In particular, the book I wrote titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (2007) addressed the impact of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. A book I’ve just completed and am sending to an agent is titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. It also deals with the impact of religion on the world at large.

The new book is a collaborative venture with a retired Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Richard Simon Hanson, who upon reading my book The Genesis Fix mailed me a typewritten manuscript of his book titled RELIGION FROM EARTH. Inside the envelope was a note that said, “You can use all or part of this if you choose to write a sequel.” His entire intact manuscript is incorporated in the new book I’ve just completed. We’ve had several visits and chances to review and talk about the book over the last few years.

I am guessing now that the professor who visited our Freshman Studies class during my early days at Luther College was indeed Professor Richard Simon Hanson. He planted a seed in my mind that has flourished into a tree of work over a lifetime. We both believe in the organic fundamentalism of the Bible and how its most important symbols of truth in scripture depend on metonymy and creation as their source. That is the reconciliation between religion and science. That is the right kind of pride, for it leads to salvation in both a practical and spiritual sense. That is what the world needs most right now.

Christopher Cudworth’s book The Right Kind of Pride: A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community is available on Amazon.com. 

It’s time to appreciate the nurses literally and figuratively

During eight years of caregiving for a wife with ovarian cancer, there were many times when nurses served to help us get through the challenges of treatment, surgeries, chemotherapy and in the end, palliative care. I wrote the following essay about the value of nurses for the caregiving group that formed around us. Later it was published in The Right Kind of Pride, the book I wrote about our journey and for which this blog is named. 

With nurses doing so much work on the front lines and as first responders during the Coronavirus and Covid-19 epidemic, this bit of testimony is meant to encourage nurses everywhere, and to urge people to appreciate their training and work

Nurses, literally and figuratively

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011, 5:30 PM

Two days after my wife’s surgery I woke early to head west and pick up our dog to go home and check on the house. Stepping onto the elevator I encountered two tired-looking nurses leaning on the back wall.

“Shift over?” I asked. “Yes,” one of them breathed, trying not to look too relieved.

“Well, I admire your work,” I told them. “Patients can be a pain in the butt, I’m sure.”

“You said it, not me!” one of them replied as they headed out the elevator and down the hallway, exchanging knowing glances.

No easy gig

Nursing is no easy gig, of course. Nothing in the medical profession really is.

They see so much, both literally and figuratively. Nursing is the most intimate of all professions. Even more so than being a doctor, in some ways. From inserting catheters to administering shots to washing patients who can’t wash, nurses see humanity up close and personal.

There are also broader dimensions. Families in crisis. Human frailty laid bare. The human condition. On those dynamics rest hopes of healing. That is why medicine exists, and nurses carry it out to the best of their abilities.

Of course, nurses deal with varied results and varied perceptions of their profession. Not having worked in the medical field, I do not entirely know what the environment is like. But some nurses I’ve met speak of doctors that do not treat them well, or show respect. Maybe the pecking order at some hospitals is harsh. Yet the good hospitals seem to celebrate every role from orderly to surgeons. And there really are some great hospitals in the area where we live. We can be grateful for that. And this is no paid testimonial.

But I’ll reiterate: When we think about who provides a great amount of care and recovery in medicine, we should never forget to thank the nurses, both men, and women. There was Allan, and Silvia, Rafaela, and Kathy. the list goes on. All with attributes that add up to good care.

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Professional caregiving

Because nursing is basically professional caregiving, it is something to observe when you’ve been placed in the role of caregiver yourself.

The challenging part is that the tools have advanced but the needs have not changed. The records have gone digital. The ability to monitor patients is so sophisticated. Yet it is still the human responsibility of nurses to read those signs and pass them back along the chain for the doctors and surgeons to study. Front line. First responders. In tune. In touch. That’s the role of nurses.

It is a cosmopolitan profession. The nursing professionals in the four or five hospitals with which we have had experience are quite racially diverse. Hospitals seem to hire nurses to match the culture and backgrounds of their constituent populations. But not always.

Language is another important aspect of nursing. For example, at the network hospital where Linda had her surgery, the primary phone greeting is given in several Eastern European languages. Diversity is not some casual thing at a hospital. It really can mean life or death.

Communication

Style of communication is also important in nursing. Some nurses excel in this category, with a gift for compassion that is comforting and encouraging. Others are more business-like, and their attributes can be of tremendous value in many circumstances. Linda’s chemo nurse this time around was a focused woman whose competency and the organization was of great assurance. Success in chemotherapy treatment can depend on the nurse’s ability not only to administer the medicine but also to track and monitor patient response in real-time (daily response to treatment, blood counts and side effects and over the course of treatments (chemo tolerance and patient affect) these attenuations add up. Literally and figuratively.

Racing for life

Getting chemo really is like running a marathon; checking your vitals along the way, taking aid at the proper points and pacing your effort so you don’t falter. Chemo is a marathon.

But surgery is a sprint of sorts. Our surgeons fixed a hernia, did a colon resection and removed a 31mm cancer tumor in about 2.5 hours. That’s fast and brilliant work. You can worship athletes all you want. Medical doctors like these deserve real accolades.

It is the nurses however who are the trainers that get you back into shape after the taxing sprint of surgery or the exhausting marathon of chemo. With cancer sometimes you need both to be successful. Fast-twitch and slow twitch.

The range of human foible

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That and a sense of perspective and humor helps. I was really glad the people at the nursing station had a sense of humor when after the first night at the hospital I trundled out of Lin- da’s room at 5:00 a.m. to visit the bathroom down the hall. No one looks dignified at that hour, and I felt a little like a college freshman in a “walk of shame” down the dormitory hall after an all-nighter. But no one said a word. They see weirder things every day. Lucky for me, a bald man seldom has bad hair days.

Nurses see it all, of course, the whole range of human foible. Being able to encourage patients with an occasional jest about the difficulties of recovery can break the ice and open channels in working through pain or other humbling issues such as finding ways to go to the bathroom when it is far from easy and convenient for the patient. All this basic stuff,. They have to know when and how to be light about it, and when not.

Startups and bending over backward

Nurses are the professionals who get it all going for people again, over and over. Week after week. Year after year. Think of all the focus and dedication it takes to be a nurse for 5, 10 or 25 years. And people do it.

The nurse who checked Linda out of the hospital has been working in the same phase of nursing for 25 years. She was immensely practical and detail-oriented, dispensing instructions so that we would know how to care for the surgical wounds and tend to bathroom matters the right way. That nurse fit her job.

A young nurse named Rafaela checked on Linda regularly during her week in the hospital. She seemed to appear like magic from around the curtain whenever there was a need in the room. That nurse excelled in care.

The first night after surgery, Linda’s nurse was a soft-spoken woman who struck up a conversation starting with a compliment about the fact that I was staying overnight with my wife. Perhaps it is not so common for people to stay over. The new Planetree model for health care offers a more humanistic approach to medicine and facilities, especially hospitals. Hospitals now provide comfortable couches that convert into beds so that family or supportive friends can stay overnight with a patient.

I can tell you that’s a huge improvement from the night spent next to her bed back in 2007 when the only available place to sleep next to her was something like a Medieval torture device. The vinyl recliner on which I slept formed a pronounced hump approximately the curve of a mature dolphin in mid-jump. It was not the most comfortable night of sleep in my life, punctuated as well by beeps and whistles and the bustle of nurses hustling in and out for blood pressure checks and temperature readings. They were just doing their job, yet I felt like it was a torturous night of sleep deprivation in a black site somewhere in Eastern Europe. I exaggerate, but when you’re tired the mind works overtime.

To her everlasting credit, my mother-in-law, who had done overnight duty on the dolphin chair the previous evening tried giving me fair warning without scaring me off completely. But let us say that it was one of the 3 worst nights of sleep in my life. The top 2 were surviving a bad bout of the flu and one very long night in the late 1980s with a prostate infection that made my lower abdomen feel like I’d swallowed an angry serpent. I don’t really want to list a Top 10. The memories are too painful.

But the dolphin chair simply had to do in that instance. Such are the duties of caregivers at times. It’s like God wants to humble you into sympathy for the patient. So I thank God for Planetree now.

Patience and patients

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Still, as a caregiver, I lose patience in too many situations, grow irrationally embittered by circumstance or fall too quickly into self-pity or worse, anger or depression. What is the cure for those selfish emotions? Mostly, it’s gratitude. Step back and take a breath. Be a nurse to your own soul. Forgive your- self. Then get back to service.

Because it’s a miraculous little dynamic that when we fix our focus on serving others we wind up serving our own true best interests. That’s where we learn we are not alone in our challenges and our minds off our own problems.

People who through simple self-control and a modest demeanor exhibit such patience always amaze me. Admittedly I envy people like that, especially when failing to manage that level of self-control myself. Where do some people get such strength of character? Can it be learned? Are some people just natural caregivers?

Probably those questions cheapen the issue. It is, of course, a complex combination of things that makes people good caregivers, or nurses, or doctors. Or perhaps it is simplicity that makes it possible. Be content. Learn to give. Don’t make life harder than it needs to be.

When it comes to institutional compassion, that is a goal much harder to achieve in some respects. The hospital where Linda had her surgery communicates its compassionate values in many ways. If I recall correctly, one of the messages posted on the wall reads, “We welcome all to this place of healing.” There’s definitely room for a religious message in there, but not an exclusive one. As it turns out, our nation is actually formed on a similar, inclusive ambiguity. So uniquely Ameri- can. Yet people seem to miss the subtlety in that. Want to turn it into an ideology not in keeping with the Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

We are all equal souls. Nurses probably know that better than most. There’s nothing special about any of our functions. We all poop and pee. We all have a heartbeat. Breathe. Think. Cry out in pain. Laugh. Worry. Hope. Heal if possible. All part of the process. Such is humanity.

You know that cynical phrase, “some people are more equal than others…” Well, a nurse cannot afford to think like that. People notice if that sort of thinking creeps in.

When it’s your wife or your husband, your son or daughter, a close friend or even co-worker, you want the hospital and doctors and nurses taking care of them to do their very best to help them get well. It simply cannot matter whether someone is one race or the other, speaks Russian instead of English, or has no money to pay for the care they need.

Grace and blessings

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I can tell you we have been the beneficiaries of such care, in ways that absolutely flabbergasted our ability to comprehend the many forces working behind the scenes to ensure our welfare. The least we can do in response to this grace and these blessings is what? Give back in any way we can. Pay attention to those taking care of us. Express our appreciation.

And guess what? Opportunities to reach outcome up more often than you might think. It is true that when you are in a position of most vulnerability, you are best able to share in the pain and challenges in other people’s lives.

Our nurse during Linda’s first night in recovery from surgery was so caring and attentive that conversation naturally flowed to the discussion of family and friends. It turns out our nurse was a single mom whose husband left her for another woman, leaving her to raise her two children alone. She was frustrated by how hard it was as a working mother–also attending graduate school–to meet someone, a man she could grow to love. She had nearly given up hope, she told us. Even the men on the Christian dating services turned out to be less than honorable.

It’s a story quite familiar to my wife who over the years has worked with dozens of families and single moms in her job as a preschool teacher. At one point after checking up on Linda, conversing while she worked, our nurse stopped and stood in the middle of the room, seeming to want to gather herself before moving on to other duties. We’d been talking about how she gave so much time to raise her kids, got them to rehearsals and practices and games. But how it was all worth it in the end because it keeps them busy even if it wears her out.

We talked of God and faith, too. She shared several of her favorite Bible passages with us. We told her we’d recently been in a bible course where we read the entire book in 90 days. “Oh, I don’t think I could do that,” she sighed.

“12 pages a day,” Linda assured her.

I admitted. “I didn’t keep up and had to hustle to finish.”

We encouraged her that all her work as a mom was worth it. That her children would turn out to be a blessing to her for her dedication. “Yes, I know,” she murmured. “But I have had to sacrifice a lot.”

Then she stood quietly in the middle of the room, seeming to contemplate her place in the universe. Standing in front of the privacy curtain and silhouetted by the light from the hallway behind her, our nurse stood and stared across the room, soaking up the relative stillness until she said quietly, “Well, God Bless you guys.”

It’s impossible to know the exact circumstances people face, or how they truly feel. Linda turned to me after our nurse had left and said, “She reminds me of so many single moms I’ve met, just “poured out” from having to do everything themselves. Wanting to be filled up spiritually.”

We met a veritable parade of nurses the following 5-6 days. All types of people and styles of care. Some were talkative. Others were focused and efficient. All played a brief yet important role in our lives. We can only hope that in some small way we give back to these people who daily give so much of themselves. Nurses literally and figuratively rule as far as we’re concerned.

Some poetic justice

Over the years I’ve written dozens of poems along with acres of prose. Some of them have been published officially. But many reside in digital files or yellowed folders where they do not see the light of day.

But right now my priorities are solid. In 2014, I published The Right Kind of Pride, A Chronicle of Character, Caregiving and Community, a memoir on cancer survivorship with my late wife.

I’m now finishing work on a new book titled Rescuing Christianity from the Grip of Tradition. It is a followup to the original book on theology that I published in 2007, titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. I’ve assembled that self-published book to print it again through Amazon.com, since the first 250 I produced are largely sold out. It is a treatise and a warning about the effects of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. 100% of it has come true in the last four years.

When those projects are done, and I have another couple books in the works, I think I will publish the poetry and the title of the book will be Spider Husks, named after this poem I wrote before a ten-year college reunion. In the face of all this madness in the world, it somehow seems poems are the best response.

Spicer Husks poem

Spider Husks (On Contemplating a Reunion)

Old letters save history;

youth, plus vigor and family.

Dust jackets reconcile their fate,

and records cover passions

from baby books to pornography

in the messy ordeal that is life. 

We’re cleaning; shaking off the mouse poop

to decide which box of books to keep

until one tires of trying

to sort, and one heads for sleep.

The later sight grows keener––

spotting old consonance

with long hair, bad glasses

and a college tan. It’s me.

Spiders leave husks when they die,

and what will we?

A cardboard soul filled with this,

an archaeology.

 

––Christopher Cudworth

From bitter to sweet memories on the 7th anniversary of my late wife’s passing

Linda and Chris
Our early dating years.

Tomorrow marks seven years since my late wife Linda Cudworth died after eight years of survivorship through ovarian cancer. The diagnosis came as a shock, as did multiple episodes of recurrence. Each time we’d reel from the news, go back into treatment and compartmentalize the best we could by using the phrase, “It is what it is.”

Those last months during the winter and spring of 2013 were confusing because doctors treating her for seizures learned there was a tumor in her brain. I’ve never published photos of her during that last round of radiation treatment because while we made the best of it, snapping pics using my laptop Photo Booth and laughing as the absurdity of it all, it was a strange world we were about to enter, because ovarian cancer was not supposed to be able to pass through the blood-brain barrier. But it did.

LInda and Chris
All dressed up and going somewhere.

We treated it with radiation and she started a regimen of steroids to contain the swelling and her personality became magnified. She lost native inhibitions about many things. On one hand, that was disorienting, as it ultimately became impossible for her to continue teaching at the preschool she loved. On the other hand, it proved to be liberating as she used those final bursts of steroid-fueled energy to buy a beautiful piece of art. She also stayed up late at night to research and buy a new car even though she abhorred going online. In sum she lived life to the fullest, however manic it might have been.

And that was bittersweet. Because when the steroids stopped, so did her energy. She passed away a few weeks later in the company of her husband and two children. Still, she never lost her sense of humor. After I’d arranged for palliative care in our home, we moved her from our master bedroom to the hospital bed in the living room where nurses and such could tend to her properly. The journey from bedroom to living room was awkward and difficult given her weakened state, but she looked up at me once she was tucked into the cover and smiled while saying, “I thought I wasn’t supposed to suffer.”

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On our honeymoon at Waterton-Glacier

Most of that was indignity, and my late wife was a person who believed and abided in dignity in all she did. It was part of her beauty as a person. She also respected propriety, which made it amusing to think back on the fact that I showed up a night early for our first date. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “Our date is tomorrow night!”

She agreed to go out for a short dinner before hosting her parent-teacher conferences at the high school where she taught special education. But before we parted that evening, I got a taste of her naturally biting humor in reminding me that I ought to call confirm a date.

We got to know each other a little that evening and followed up with a hike to Starved Rock State Park. Stopping on a high ledge for a picnic on a mild November day, she broke out a lunch of apple-walnut bread sandwiches, cheese and wine served from a leather-covered flask. That implement was a remnant of her high school hippie days.

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Enjoying our festive 4th of July traditions.

We dated four years and even survived a long-distance romance early on when I was transferred from Chicago to a marketing position in Philadelphia. She visited me on Thanksgiving that year despite her mother’s objections, and I moved back to the Midwest the following spring when the company decided to disband the entire marketing department due to misguidance by the Vice President.

That would be one of a few job upheavals experienced over the years, and we survived them all. Our children came along in our late 20s and early 30s. Soon our lives were immersed in preschool, elementary adventures, and all the way through high school performances in music and drama.

We also belonged to the highly conservative church synod in which she’d grown up. The pastor that married us at the time was, however, a grandly considerate and patently open-minded man that once gave a sermon titled, “Do-gooders and bleeding hearts : Jesus was the original liberal.”

Emmy in Garden

Our lives swirled with church activities as our children passed through Sunday School all the way to confirmation, where they roundly passed the tests despite having to choke down conservative ideology about evolution preached by the pastor that had long-since replaced our marriage counselor.

After 25 years we moved up the road to a more tolerant and progressive Lutheran church. It was gratifying to learn that our friends from the former church did not abandon us. In fact without their help and the guidance of one of Linda’s best friends, a woman named Linda Culley, we would not have had as much grace and good fortune in the face of the perpetual challenges served up by cancer survivorship.

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At 7 Mile Pinecrest

Now what I like to think about are the camping trips we took to the north woods while dating, and later, when we had small children, we’d spend a week each summer at a humble resort called 7 Mile Pinecrest thirteen miles east of Eagle River, Wisconsin.

Our children paddled around in the water and slipped off to Secret Places in the woods while their father fished in the early and late hours and went for runs half-naked in the pine woods north of the resort, swatting at deer flies the entire time.

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Linda and Evan reading together.

At the center of all that family joy and adventures was Linda, whipping up sandwiches and sitting with a glass of wine on the small beach overlooking the lake. That was the only time the Do Not Disturb sign seemed to rise on the Mom Flag.

And when we weren’t visiting or traveling or doing school activities, Linda was immersed in planning, purchasing and planting her garden every year. Her priorities were indeed God, Family, and Flowers.

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She was a really good person. That’s what so many friends have told me over the years. I was married to a really good person, and that makes me think of what a close friend told me when he first met her. “This is a good one, Cuddy. Don’t let her get away.”

It is bittersweet and sweet to think about all those years together. My daughter went through our stacks of photos to digitize the images and I’ve waited until today to open it up and pull some memories out to post with this blog. Holding people close to your heart is first and foremost the right kind of pride. I hope this writing inspires you to consider the importance of people in your lives.

And to realize as well that life does go on. She told our close friend Linda Culley that she knew, if she were to pass away from cancer, that I would meet someone again. And I have found love. But it does not mean the years with Linda Cudworth are forgotten. Far from it.

These memories can lift us up. Give us courage to go on. Cherish the life we had as well as the life we have. And that is the right kind of pride as well.

 

Approval at last for a bird nerd

When I was five years old, my mother’s sister Carol handed me a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. Somehow she knew that I’d be interested in the subject. Over the years I purchased many other field guides that improved on the methods of the original book developed by Roger Tory Peterson. Yet I owe a sentimental debt to that first copy. It fueled my interest and taught me so much about the natural world.

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The original Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds given to me at five years old.

With an early passion for drawing, I began tracing the birds in the Peterson’s Field Guide with a special focus on the hawks, which drew my attention the most.

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The visible tracings of hawks in my first Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.

By the time I was twelve years old I was painting and drawing birds on my own. And when my eldest brother came home from college on fire with interest in birds after taking an ornithology course, we all went out in the field together to identify every bird we could find. These I marked down with eagerness and pride.

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A chronicle of species seen as recorded in the back of my Peterson’s Field Guide.

Among my friends, the interest in birds was at that age a point of teasing and ridicule. The nickname “Birdman” was applied with some disdain. But I ignored those supposed insults and kept painting and drawing birds because frankly, I was by then making some money at it.

Through high school, I found a mentor in Robert Horlock, a biology teacher with whom I spent hours in the field. He introduced me to other birders. That led to my first engagement with Citizen Science as a founding member of the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey team that tracked breeding and migratory species in a newly established wetland preserve. We participated in annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts as well, a commitment that lasted for thirty consecutive years.

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The zones of the marsh marked out for the Nelson Lake Marsh Bird Survey Team.

That bird survey team was one of the first times in my life that a seemingly childish interest felt validated in the adult world. My ability to credibly identify birds was respected by the adults with whom I met on a quarterly basis. My trips afield for that purpose felt serious and important. I was contributing to the preservation and conservation of something that I really loved. And having fun doing it. That was the right kind of pride, I thought.

Admittedly there was some ego involved in all my birding and art pursuits. As a young man with a strong need for approval, the praise earned for finding bids and doing artwork was a prized reward. So were the bragging rights in having seen twenty species of warblers on a cool spring morning, or calling in a peregrine falcon to the Rare Bird Alert phone line that served as the Internet for birders before the digital revolution began.

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A bank swallow in full sunlight. Photo by Christopher Cudworth

The thrills of birding over the years have included rare species that turned up at odd times. I wrote an article published in Bird Watcher’s Digest last year documenting the day that I found a European Stonechat in Illinois. It was the first of its kind seen in the Lower 48 United States. Lacking a camera on-site at the moment––it was before the era of cell phone cameras––I rushed home to do a painting and share it online. But unfortunately, the sighting could not be officially recognized by the Illinois Ornithological Union or any other organization because the bird was never viewed by another credible birder. Those are the rules. So the thrill of finding such a rarity remains a pleasure of my own accord.

Stonechat Paintings
The watercolor sketches I did of the European Stonechat found in Illinois, 1998.

These days I am well-equipped to document everything found in the field. Perhaps my obsession is in compensation for the frustration of losing that sighting of the Stonechat to the ether of personal history. I geared up over the years with a high-quality spotting scope to which I attached a series of digital cameras to take pictures of birds. Finally, I purchased a 150mm-600mm Sigma camera lens to use with my Canon camera. It’s not top-end gear, but it is fun to capture images of the birds I’ve studied for so many years.

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A flight of pelicans over Peck Farm Park lake in Geneva, Illinois, 2019.

It would have been nice to have that kind of camera in my early years of birding when I tried so desperately to find “references” for my bird paintings. Back in the 70s and 80s when wildlife art was a big scene, it was artists with access to detailed photography that won the day. I tried to replicate that process over the years and finally produced some relatively solid work using my own photo references. But by then the market for bird paintings was waning. Digital photography now makes wildlife imagery so commonplace that entire sites on social media fill daily with photos of birds and other creatures. In many respects, the thrill that once came with celebrating those insights of nature is gone.

Bald Eagle Painting
A bald eagle painting by Christopher Cudworth, 24′ X 36″, 2012

That said, my interest in birds has matured. My fascination now is with their behavior, and I still love leading people into the field to share in the thrill of seeing species of birds they never imagined existed.  My personal life list of American species sits just below 500 and I’ll happily accept any new species that comes along. But that’s a rarity for sure these days unless I travel to a new place such as the Pacific Coast, where I hope to bird some day.

Coopers Hawk
Painting of a Cooper’s hawk by Christopher Cudworth. 

I’ll still paint birds and have a library of 20,000 images from which to work. It is a catalog of the time spent outside staring through optics and camera lenses at living things that deserve to be protected, celebrated and appreciated. I guess that’s enough approval for a bird nerd at last.

Chris Headshot

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com. 

Social distancing: it works for me

Screech Owl
A life drawing of a screech owl by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

When it comes to the consequences of dealing with the risks of exposure to Coronavirus, it’s easy to feel put out by the fact that we’re supposed to stay in.

Yet I was thinking back to other times in my life when I spent time alone and apart from others, and some really nice memories cropped up to make me feel better.

In particular, I recall the relative isolation of a January term in college spent at the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology. I’d arranged to spend three weeks studying birds and was assigned to curate the entire collection of bird art housed at the Sapsucker Woods facility, which was then a stolid little building next to a pond far from the Cornell campus.

I arrived with $750 in my pocket and no place to stay. How my parents allowed me to take off on my own without talking about a place to live for three weeks in the snowy environs of Upstate

Fuertes
Sketches by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

New York I don’t really know. They’d both grown up near Ithaca. They knew what the winters were like. My father attended Cornell and my mother went to college in Potsdam, even further north. I guess they figured I’d asked the question and found somewhere to live. All they knew was that I was enthused about studying bird art during my sophomore year in college and had visited the Lab one time before with an aunt that understood my love for the work of Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

So I took off for New York in my father’s big, white Buick LeSabre and arrived, all naive and eager, on the doorstep of the Lab with little else in mind than to do everything I’d dreamed about.

Fortunately, the director had mercy on my idiocy and found me a place to stay about a mile down the road from the main building. It was a house in the middle of rehab work. so it offered no running hot water, but it did have heat. I was only too glad to take it and I genuinely relished the time alone.

Wood Duck Bishop
Studies of drawing by Richard Bishop by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

Once that pragmatic issue was solved, I dove right away into the work of curating the Lab’s prodigious bird art collection. Some of it remained stored in cluttered chests of drawings and paintings donated by the estate of artists such as Richard Bishop. I carefully handled each of these works of art and copied some of the drawings in my own hand. For me, this was the Holy Grail of bird art, a look behind the scenes at some of the finest bird artists in the world.

In the morning I’d hide away in the closets out of sight from the occasional visitor staring at feeder birds outside the Lab windows. Feeling no compunction for human contact, and obsessed with the work before me, I went days without talking much to anyone.

And then I wandered over to the Hawk Barn where rare peregrine and gyrfalcons sat in cold pens, part of the breeding program set up at Cornell to revive the populations of those endangered birds in the wake of the pesticide devastation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. One day I stood peering through a tiny porthole doing drawings of a gyrfalcon and a set of peregrine inches away from my face. I felt no need to talk.

Gyrfalcon
Live drawings of a gyrfalcon and peregrine falcon by Christopher Cudworth, 1976

This went on for a week. I’d hike the mile to the Lab, curate or draw all day, eat a small sandwich along the way, and hike back after dark. It snowed at least an inch every day, so the world always looked fresh and inviting. The cold barely affected me.

Yet one night I finally felt the need to bathe and wash my thick head of hair. So I heated up some water on the stove, broke out a washcloth to take care of the vitals and then washed my hair under the sink. But it still required some heavy rinsing, so I took another deep pan of lukewarm water outside to stand in the snow and pour the water over my head. It was four degrees below zero outside.

Instantly my hair froze, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Yet when I’d stopped dripping and tipped my head up to look around, I felt something watching me. To be sure, it was one of the wolves from the Wolf Range peering at me through the darkness. It stood back from the fence a ways. I tipped my head back down and went inside. To this day it still feels like a dream. Perhaps it was.

Woodcock bishop
A pencil drawing after the work of Richard Bishop

For weeks I filled an art book with sketches and observations about my studies of bird art and works by masters such as George Miksch Sutton, Don Richard Eckleberry and Guy Coheleach. These were my heroes, and their work spoke to me in language as clear as an actual conversation. So I seldom needed to talk.

I only broke the relative vow of silence toward the end of the internship. I’d learned that a well-known artist lived near the Lab, so I fired up the LeSabre and was glad that it started at all, for it had a testy carburetor that tended to freeze over.

That afternoon I poured out questions to the artist, who kindly tolerated my aggressive curiosity, enthusiasm, and obsession with my own studies. He warned me that a career in bird art would likely never be lucrative, that one had to be lucky as well as good, but if you worked hard enough sometimes the two would combine.

That gave me pause of course. Perhaps I’d imagined that immersing myself in all that world-class art would somehow punch a ticket to the stardom I somewhat imagined for myself. So that interior dialog took up the rest of my time. It swirled inside my head as if my mind were an inside-out snowglobe matched by the daily batch of thick flurries falling from gray New York skies.

Grouse tail
A detail from at 1976 painting Great Horned Owl with Ruffed Grouse by Christopher Cudworth

But I was happy. The last day of my internship the Laboratory director took a look at my collection of paintings and was complimentary of some of the feather work. “But you need to look at the whole bird to be convincing in your work,” he quietly instructed me.

That would honestly be a lesson learned over a lifetime. I never became famous for my bird art but have sold more than a thousand paintings over the years. Some of them pop back into my life now and then, and I calmly critique those early works with the inner dialogue of a painter unafraid to be alone with his thoughts, or his endeavors.

That is the social distance that all of us consumed with the arts or writing tend to keep. It is the space between the praise and production that drives us to be our own best and worst critics. It involves quite a bit of interior dialogue and even time apart from all of humanity to find the truth. But nature is never the enemy. It is the type of social distancing that works for me. It always has. And it always will.

 

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com 

Drawing on the inspiration for a new day

In 1976 as a sophomore at Luther College, I was enrolled in a Field Biology class taught by Dr. David Roslien, a professor whose course was a deep dive into every aspect of the natural world. I still have the lab journals richly recording our trips into the snows of January to capture voles and mice, and standing hip-deep in chill waters to study frogs in the ponds of northeast Iowa.

I did well in certain aspects of the coursework, but when it came to labs and genetics and such, I struggled. In true evolutionary fashion, Dr. Roslien saw that my aptitudes as a true biologist were limited. But he admired my artistic abilities as evidenced in a series of illustrations I did during our studies of frog species.

Frog and Toad 5I don’t recall what motivated me to engage in this depth of depiction, but I can say that I was inspired by all the things we were studying. Part of our classwork involved capturing specimens of seven or eight different frog species. I got after it and found them all that spring. Then I set out to paint them in watercolor.

Frog and Toad 4Working from photographs I found in some book about frogs, I painted furiously over a period of two nights. The results were some of the most detailed illustrations I’d yet done in life. I was nineteen years old. And obsessed with real-life depictions.

Frog and Toad 3The spring peeper and gray treefrog illustrations were inspired by real-life encounters shining flashlights to find specimens on chill spring nights. We’d listened as well to the daytime calls of chorus frogs singing from flooded ditches. And toads whistling from dusk well into the night.

Frog and Toad 1But midway through the course, Dr. Roslien pulled me aside to let me know the truth about my future as a biologist. “I’ve not sure you’re a pure scientist,” I recall him sharing with me. “But you finish those six frog drawings and stuff those birds in that artsy way you do, and we’ll give you a B. But I’ve already talked to the Art Department. They’re eager to have you over there.”

And that’s how it transpired that I became an Art Major with a minor in English. I didn’t give up wildlife art. In fact I sold hundreds of paintings over the years. While I didn’t become world-famous during the peak of the wildlife art boom in the late 70s and through the 80s, I did get chosen for some world-class shows at the Brookfield Zoological Society and other venues.

It was a competitive scene for sure. Many wildlife artists depended on photos to create original works. Some copied them outright, even projecting images on the canvas to copy the exact details.

Recently I got to see the frog drawings I’d done all those years ago. They’d existed mostly in my mind for the last 40+ years. I knew that I’d done an exceptional job on detail back then. I took great pride in doing so, working on the craft of “getting things right.” That’s always a good thing.

But my real pleasure comes in knowing that my professor lovingly framed and preserved those drawings as kept them as a symbol of his teaching and influence on a young man hoping to find his way in the world.

So while I’m not famous as an artist in terms of wealth or following, it has been a great journey nonetheless. And seeing those paintings from long ago offers inspiration for a new day.