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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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