Meet Mixed Media Artist: Bill Allen

Creating video-based narratives is one of my great joys. Working with creative, engaging artists like Bill Allen makes it even better. (The video is for his website.)

With a studio tucked into the hills of Leelanau County, Bill Allen has been creating amazing sculpture forMain_Street_Animals over 30 years. The animals and other creatures are sometimes lifelike, sometimes more fanciful, but always engaging and beautiful.

Over the years, Bill has developed beyond the familiar animal sculptures. His creative drive took him to New York for several years, where he explored new art forms. He began express himself in paintings and wall hangings. Back in Leelanau County, he developed a form of unique mixed media art, including colorfully painted structures that incorporate materials found along the beaches of Lake Michigan.

A man of great integrity and creative drive, BIMG_0684ill is also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Creating a video presentation callensouthseasshrineof the man and his work was a real pleasure.

Take a good look at Bill’s website to get a feel for his newest work. Of course, you won’t want to miss his animal sculpture either on display at the Main Street Gallery, Leland, MI as well as Shidoni Gallery in Tesuque, New Mexico and Bier Gallery, Charlevois, MI.

Helping the Leelanau Conservancy in “Saving the Palmer Woods”

Over the past 40 years or so, Dr. Daniel Palmer and his wife, Helen, purchased more than a dozen adjacent parcels of forest land to create the largest privately held tract of forest in Leelanau County.Morel All this time, the land has been carefully managed for sustainable timber production with the guidance of professional forester, Richard Cooper.

Last week, the Leelanau Conservancy announced their intention to purchase about 700 acres of the Palmer Woods to create a special forest reserve. The Conservany’s goal is to preserve this working forest and open it to the public for passive recreation such as hiking and cross-country skiing. The fund-raising effort is now in full swing.woods_hikers_small

To support that effort, I was asked to develop a video that would very briefly explain what this project is and why it’s needed. My work included helping to develop the script, shooting all the video, collecting audio, editing, and post production work. A special thanks to my friend, Jim Anderson for getting me up in the air and safely down again for those aerial shots. You can find the video, “Saving the Palmer Woods” in HD on YouTube here.

A more detailed description of the effort to create the Palmer Woods Forest Reserve can be found on the Leelanau Conservancy’s website.

In addition to protecting a large part of the Glen Lake Watershed, the Palmer Woods will give all of us a very visible example of what sustainable forestry looks like in this time of increasing rapid climate change.

Winter Solstice on Sleeping Bear Point

Marking that point of passage on earth’s elliptical path around the sun, the physics of it reaches deep into our bones. Maybe it’s time to say thanks in some pagan way to natural cycles and the drift of things as our sidereal year slips into the deep.20141218-snow_sand_drift

For human traffic, these are quiet times on Sleeping Bear Point. A lone walker pushes up a trail past the ghost forest and on along the secondary dunes. Winter’s austerity settling in, the unrelenting wind mixes sand with snow, sculpting sweeping shapes in variegated colors, muted yellows and browns.

Sometimes a long walk is a form of reverence. You understand that along the carved edges of massive dunes, or feeling the cold wind and spray off of Lake Michigan, or simply staring into the dark blue water surrounding the Manitous. Walking away from the voices of my own monkey-mind, I can feel the connections to a place return.DSC_2241_Walker_Story_File

Those connections are essential if we are to be fully present in the skins we’ve been given. How can we notice a community change or build relationships, if we don’t move slowly through the neighborhood from time to time? How do we know the richness and beauty of monarchs on milkweed, if we don’t slow things down and quiet the voices? 20141218-Sleeping_Bear_Bay

Yes, it’s great to be networked, connected, and globally aware. The data comes pouring in. I take a smart phone everywhere. My attention is splintered and parsed by the advertisers and marketers as well as my own need to be engaged in all things. Too often, I am simply disembodied.

Moving carefully, intentionally along the city streets or taking a lap or two at the local park, can20141218_Milkweed slow it down and bring us back to place. In Michigan, we’re never far from a river or lake; close enough to study the swash marks, waves or riffles. To feel the wind and sand, the shells of milkweed, the sleeping aspen on a sandy slope requires only a little exertion, a little time.

These small things remind me to be grateful at this winter’s solstice, while standing on our somewhat flattened sphere. We fly along this grand ellipse, 93 million miles out from the sun (average) and traveling 67,000 miles per hour; it’s no wonder we’re dizzy. Even with feet firmly planted on this earth, you can feel the axial tilt looking for the sun so far south.

Thankfully, earth’s tilt stays close to 23.4 degrees as we make a year-long journey around the sun. The differential heating along our elliptical path has given us the seasons and relatively steady climates across the world. Without these steady climates, the diversity of living things we know could not exist.

So, I’m going to celebrate this moment of solstice (6:03 p.m. on some human clock); grateful that the sun is on its appointed path across the celestial sphere and the days are getting longer. In this winter chill, I know more sun and warmer walks will arrive soon enough.20141218-Driftwood_Manitour_overlook

December Reflection

The gentle exhalation of Lake Michigan is caught up this morning in hoarfrost and rime, ghosting weedy stems and low shrubs and the jagged bright lines of tree branches. From here, Bohemian Valley appears in delicate patterns, like receding layers of white and brown feathers.


Taking a break, I’m glad to be away from my desk for a while; glad to wander in the woods and fields close to home. With so little daylight in December, there never seems to be enough time to wander.

These days, I spend hours reading reports and papers on atmospheric chemistry, climate change and the loss of species in the inevitable shift of ecosystems. And there are long conversations with the researchers working to prepare us for what’s next. They say things like adaptation, assisted migration.

But this week, I said goodbye to a dear friend in a Lansing hospice and the feeling of it pulls on me. I see light flicker across the hillsides and ridges furry with maples and remember her last visit here. We spent an August evening celebrating fifty-something, her last birthday, watching the orange and crimson light ripple across the water and up the slope into some beech trees. She wanted to talk about how to save more of it, to preserve the trees and openings of Leelanau County.

As old friends do, we talked of families and friends, recent trips, and the surprising passage of time. A simple conversation turned poignant. We did not talk of death and dying, the ephemeral nature of life. There was still business to be taken care of, a legacy to consider.

From that perspective, I think, one separates from the day-to-day complaints, wants, and disappointments. Our institutionalized system of consumption and greed is laid bare; maybe we finally rise above it to see humanity within the context of real earth systems. Of course, it is an inescapable truth that all life is dependent on these distinctly limited systems; but the meaning of that truth seems so brightly lit at the end of day.

November Reflection

This morning, Leelanau County and much of Northern Michigan woke up under a blanket of mist and fog. The fast melting snow and suddenly warmer temperatures reminding us that we live at the triple point, water in all forms; and in a region where there’s plenty of weather to talk about.20141124_bohemian_valley_1

Taking a little time before rushing on to work, I watched a small patch of rising fog lift, dodge and drift across the tops of trees below my hilltop house. Once a smokejumper in Idaho told me those little clouds can be mistaken for rising smoke by the uninitiated fire watcher, but they’re just water dogs. It stuck. I’ve called them water dogs ever since.20141123_Shalda_Creek

Of course, the best part of such mornings is stepping out to wander, even if only for a few minutes. Something just a little mysterious or fantastical in the drift and slide of things, hidden and revealed. There’s always something new, some encounter offered up if I’m watchful and open to it. Like a new pattern of rifles in Shalda Creek or some color shift in the light across Bohemian Valley.

Every so often, there’s an encounter that just seems odd. Like this slug making its way across a lingering patch of snow. This little shell-less gastropod looked completely out of place and a bit disturbing. Caught for a moment in that lingering childhood fascination with things slimy and weird, that sense of wonder returns. How many millions of slugs were pulling their way through the leaves on that small hill in Leelanau right at that moment?20141123_Ice_Snail_small

Not familiar with their names, I can’t say if this was one of Michigan’s many invasive or non-native species (examples: Then again, are any of them truly native? The glaciers left this land scraped clean 8,000 years ago; what little crawler survived? And they are mostly big pests to growers everywhere, damaging fruits, vegetables and flowers. Still, slugs are another part of nature’s big recycling system – both as detritus munchers and food themselves.

Ah, but this morning, that little creature brought me a moment of pause and reflection. Slowing my pace just a little to wonder how an egg-laying, hermaphrodite revived to foot about at such a strange time.

Forest Change Underway in Leelanau County

Kama_Beech_Bark_DiseaseOn her way to work one morning this past summer, Kama Ross noticed some sick-looking oak trees near a recently cleared right-of-way in Bingham County. Luckily, Ross knew what she was looking at: the first confirmed case of oak wilt disease in Leelanau County.

As the forester for three conservation districts, Ross regularly provides help and advice to forest owners all over Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. She’s both an energetic advocate for healthy forests and a gentle teacher. She explained that Oak wilt is a tree-killing fungus that is spread by beetles as well as through tree roots.

“Oak tree roots graft. So a tree that has the fungus in it will graft with a healthy tree and the fungus will go into the system of the healthy tree,” Ross said. “Also, a little beetle active in Michigan loves the fungus that’s in the sap of the infected oak tree. So any pruning or any cutting of an oak tree that allows sap to open, will attract this beetle.” The beetle can then spread the fungus to other trees up to a mile away.

To contain this infestation, Ross said all the infected oaks and some of the surrounding trees will need to be cut and either buried on right site or disposed of very carefully to prevent further infection. Then, the roots at the edge of the area must be cut and separated.

“We’ll take a vibratory plow and encircle all the diseased trees,” she said, cutting “five foot down into the ground. And we try to go two times around.” Additionally, insecticide spraying may be needed outside of the encircled area.

Planned for next spring, this will be a big effort requiring the cooperation of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University, the Leelanau County Conservation District and the Cherry Electric Cooperative.

Ross encourages people who may be concerned about unhealthy red oaks in their woods or forests to get in touch with the Conservation District or contact an arborist to help identify the problem. There are a number of much-less threatening reasons that red oaks may appear stressed, but oak wilt disease is very aggressive. So, rapid detection and response is critical to combating the spread of this disease. She encourages owners to avoid cutting or wounding red oaks during the beetles’ active period from mid-April through July.

Ross hopes that this outbreak will help raise awareness in Leelanau County. “I’m actually very optimistic that we can use this outbreak to maybe minimize where oak wilt is going to go,” she said. “Maybe we won’t repeat what we’ve seen in some of the other counties.”

Unfortunately, this is only one of the challenges facing Leelanau’s forests. As most residents know, the Emerald Ash Borer invaded the area about 10 years ago. Having hitched a ride with some goods imported from Asia, this pest has been killing trees across the upper Midwest ever since. The results are quite visible from almost any roadway in the county. Over 90 percent of all Leelanau’s ash trees will die within a few years, Ross said.

And even more trouble is coming to the woods. A tiny, soft-bodied insect called beech scale is also invading Leelanau’s forests, drilling little holes in the bark of American Beech trees. The holes allow another tree-killing fungus to weaken and kill beech trees. Ultimately, this “beech bark disease” may kill most of the county’s beech trees.

“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” Ross said, “but our experience in the Upper Peninsula is very devastating.”

Clearly, Leelanau County’s forests are changing. These invasive pests and diseases are removing whole species from the community of trees that make up our forests. Brian Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy says there are actually several factors at work.

“There are three major things or factors that we’re dealing with that are extremely disruptive in our forests,” Price said. “First, the pests and diseases are a huge factor and extremely troubling.”

Second, with the on-going loss of ash and beech trees, large openings are being created in the forests. These openings allow sunlight in that encourages new tree growth. But that’s when another “huge” influence on forest composition takes over. Price puts it this way.

“The only thing coming us is what the deer won’t eat. We have so many deer to over-browse the young trees that come back up to replace the ones that are dying, we’re going to only get the trees that the deer won’t eat.”

The third big factor influencing the composition of our future forests, Price said, is climate change. “Certainly, climate change is having an impact. But it’s hard to see the direct impact.”

Apparently, the US Forest Service is also concerned about the impact of climate change on the forests of northern forests. The Michigan Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis, a report issued by the Northern Research Station in March discusses a number of changes underway and anticipated.

According to Stephen Handler, the report’s lead author, the interaction of climate and forests is complicated. There are many forest stressors at work, including diseases, suburban development, fire and a large deer herd. But some climate-related changes have been observed.

For instance, he said, “the red maple, typically a southern or temperate species, is all of the sudden regenerating more successfully up in northern Minnesota, where it wouldn’t have previously been.”

Handler and the Forest Service see climate change as presenting new risks to forest managers. Like an approaching storm, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the results will be, but to stay safe, people need to be cautious. Forest owners should not bother waiting around for a crystal ball that shows what the future’s going to look like. “We know enough now to begin taking action,” he said.

Handler points out that all the climate models predict an increase in average temperatures for Northern Michigan over the coming decades. Additionally, precipitation is more likely to come in the form of large downpours, resulting in a lot of runoff. That combination of higher temperatures and less water staying in the soils may stress many of the region’s tree species.

“We’ve got some potential for pests and diseases and other stress agents to become more damaging,” Handler said. For example, “as winters become shorter and growing seasons extend, beetles are likely to become active earlier and may become active later into the season as well. Some of these pests and these disease agents may become even more damaging if they interact with trees that are already stressed from weather or climate.”

While all this change can be overwhelming, even frightening, there are lots of things people can do to help forests and woodlots adapt to climate change. Handler said he’s even optimistic because most of the recommended actions will encourage healthy forests, whether climate changes are severe or not. He calls them “no-regrets” strategies.

“The first thing is to focus on diversity,” Handler said. “That’s a diversity of species, age classes and a diversity of genetics.” For instance, forest owners should maintain and plant a variety of native tree species. Some landowners may want to plant trees that may have been more common in the southern part of Michigan such as hackberry or white oak to hedge their bets. Additionally, tree plantings should be tried in different locations such as slopes facing different directions.

Landowners interested in learning more about tree health and forestry can contact the Leelanau County Conservation District. Additionally the Forestry Division of the Department of Natural Resources offers direct assistance to promote vigorous forests throughout the state.

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