Return Of The Pods

Summer Pods, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x30

Summer Pods, oil on canvas, 24×30

Winter Pods, 3 p.m. (2011), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x30

Winter Pods, 3 p.m. (2011), oil on canvas, 24×30

EVER SINCE I first encountered them in mid-winter four years ago along the edges of a field near the Connecticut River, I have been fascinated by the plant that produces odd-shaped pods along its stem.

I still do not know the plant’s identity despite multiple Google searches (plants with pods, plants with seed pods, weeds with pods along stem, and so on). I do not know if the pods contain seeds or are a mutation of some sort, much less the plant’s name. But whatever they are, they are unique and riveting.

The pods appear on thick, sturdy stems, two to three feet above ground. They are roughly oval in shape (with great variation), and about an inch in diameter. The stems emerge from the the top of the pods and climb another foot or so in idiosyncratic angles before ending in mid-air.

Winter Pods, 5 p.m. (2011), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Winter Pods, 5 p.m. (2011), oil on canvas, 11×14

Since I first observed the pods in January 2011, I have painted them several times, beginning that winter with a suite of paintings called Winter Weeds, which shows the pods at different times of day. The images are recognizable if not realistic, emphasizing the pods’ odd, voluminous shapes, and variations in color according to season and light.

Each year since I have returned to the theme, exploring the pods in different seasons and contexts:

Great Pods of Sargasso (2012), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x36

Great Pods of Sargasso (2012), oil on canvas, 24×36

Morning Meadow (2013), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 11x14

Morning Meadow (2013), oil on canvas, 11×14

Pods (2014), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x36

Pods (2014), oil on canvas, 24×36

THIS SUMMER along the border of a different field I discovered some new pod plants, heavily camouflaged by their foliage and surrounding vegetation. The pods were already well formed but they blended in, in shades from maroon to green.

Pods (Russell Steven Powell photo)I had not been looking for them, and in fact I had walked past them dozens of times (it amazes me how much escapes my attention during my daily walks). The next day I returned with my camera and took a few photographs of the pods (one of which I recently shared with a local nursery in hopes of identification), and forgot about them.

But a few weeks ago I began working on a canvas with only broad shapes and colors in mind on the background’s soft vertical lines. Before I knew it, I was painting pods: “Summer Pods,” with all of the surrounding light and color of the season.

I wouldn’t exactly call the pods an obsession — it is not as if I contemplate them much between paintings (although come to think of it I have one hanging on my living room wall, and another on my FB page). But I don’t feel as if I have exhausted this theme yet.


JUST HOURS after this post, two of my friends came to the rescue. A friend of one wrote: “The ‘pods’ are found on many kinds of plants, as they are galls produced most often by insects, but also by bacteria, fungi, and other such things. There are probably thousands of different kinds of galls. Goldenrod tends to have lots of galls in that shape, so that would be my guess.”

To which another friend responded, “Viruses, too, cause galls. [The late scientist] Lynn Margolis said galls are OFTEN the start of a symbiosis!!!”

Circus And Watershed

Circus, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x36

Circus, oil on canvas, 24×36

THE REAL SHOW going on right now is in my gardens, and it has only just begun. Here are a few recent paintings, with garden-inspired ones on the way.

Mill River Watershed, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 18x24

Mill River Watershed, oil on canvas, 18×24

Abstract I (2013), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 18x24

Abstract I (2013), oil on canvas, 18×24

Abstract I (2015), Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 18x24

Abstract I (2015), oil on canvas, 18×24

‘Horizons’ (New Paintings); ‘Writer’s Voice’ Interview

Horizons, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x36

Horizons, oil on canvas, 24×36

A WEEK after it was originally scheduled to air, my interview about Apples of New England on the syndicated radio program Writer’s Voice is now available for listening (click on the link to hear it). Hannah Nordhaus, author of American Ghost, leads off the hour-long program; my interview begins at about 31:20.

Host Francesca Rheannon did a nice job with her questions. The only caveat is in the introduction, which describes me as the executive director of the New England Apple Association. I held that position from 1998 to 2011, when Bar Lois Weeks succeeded me. Since then I have served as the Association’s senior writer. Bar, incidentally, took the photographs for both Apples of New England and my first book, America’s Apple.

Here, too, are some recent paintings.

Untitled, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 22x28

Untitled, oil on canvas, 22×28

Landscape II, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 36x24

Landscape II, oil on canvas, 36×24

Brood, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 24x18

Brood, oil on canvas, 24×18

Quadrangle, Russell Steven Powell oil on canvas, 36x48

Quadrangle, oil on canvas, 36×48

Bear Naked

Female black bear (Russell Steven Powell photo)Female black bear (Russell Steven Powell photo)MY NEIGHBORHOOD in my rural town has been abuzz for several weeks now with the frequent appearances of a mama black bear and her three adorable cubs. The bears have wandered far afield, according to the local constabulary. Their den, I have been told, is about two miles west of where I live, and mama bear has been spotted peering into the windows of the high school, a mile north and east from here. The presence of the bears has even made the local newspaper.

My immediate environs have proven especially popular with this single-parent ursine family. East of me, the bears were spotted in a maple tree late afternoon on Mother’s Day, and they were still there at six o’clock the following morning.

To the south, directly across the street from me, the bears ransacked a neighbor’s garage. The intermittent blast of an air horn to the west proclaimed the unwelcome presence of the bears earlier today, and mama has been seen sound asleep — not once but twice — on a nearby porch.

I have now had three close encounters of my own. The first came when I was on my way to pick fiddlehead ferns May 6. My dog Molly charged into the woods barking, only to reappear suddenly, still barking furiously but backing up — something she would never do if it had been a fox, woodchuck, or squirrel. Curious, I approached and saw mama bear up in a tree. After watching for a moment, I called Molly and continued on to pick fiddleheads, not 50 yards away. Molly was placated, and I had little concern that the bear would leave its perch during the brief time we were there.

Last Friday, May 8, my mother and I were talking in the kitchen. She said that she had heard a noise and looked out to see that the suet feeder was down. Probably a squirrel, we agreed. The suet cage sat atop a bird feeder next to the house, about eight feet from the ground, tethered to the wall by a thin rope. The acrobatic squirrels were relentless in their pursuit of this free, rich food.

I stepped outside to see what had happened, and there before me, not 10 feet away on the sidewalk, was mama bear, calmly eating the suet. I took several photos and she ignored me. But when she finished her meal she took a couple of steps in my direction — I was standing on a deck — before heading down the terrace. It was not exactly menacing; still, I quickly retreated into the house. The bear stopped to take a drink from the birdbath before she left for parts unknown.

Female black bear (Russell Steven Powell photo)MAMA WAS BACK today, though, this time for the bird feeder. I had foolishly neglected to take it down under the misimpression that it was safe. This time, her three cubs accompanied her. But rather than partake in the gourmet feast, they scaled a maple tree not 20 feet away.

I took more pictures, and Molly went ballistic, indoors. The bear seemed only mildly irritated by the noise — not enough to abandon the bird seed, which she extracted casually from the metal feeder near the same spot she had devoured the suet.

She then left the yard, abandoning her cubs. Frightened by Molly’s frantic barking, the baby bears had retreated to the highest branches of the maple tree.

Perhaps mama was practicing tough love. Maybe after spending a night in a tree with her three young darlings, she decided it was time that they began to look out for themselves.

Whatever her reasons, at least one cub was in great distress at her disappearance. As I lay down for a nap after lunch I heard a strange, raspy wail. Looking out, I saw that the source of the noise was one of the cubs. Its mournful, one-note cry was repeated again and again, filled with longing and terror. The cub became so distraught that it finally braved crawling down the tree.

It dropped to the ground, and looked vainly for its mother. Not finding her in my yard, the cub headed west toward my neighbor’s.

After a few minutes, the cub resumed its mournful cry, and not long after that I heard the piercing note of the air horn. What was this poor, lost creature to do?

Happily, after several agonizing minutes, mama returned. She re-entered my yard with her baby trailing her, and sat beneath the maple tree where her other two cubs silently looked down at her. Mama seemed indifferent, unhurried, calmly finishing the dregs of the birdbath and scratching herself.

Finally she got up and began to walk toward my garage, seemingly ignoring her treed cubs. The two followed her every movement, torn between abandoning the safety of the tree and their desire to be reunited with their mom.

After a few minutes they made their decision, and swiftly scrambled down the tree trunk. They ran to momma and their sibling. Mama licked them, stood up briefly on her hind legs, and then they were on their way.


Black bear cubs (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Black bear cubs (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Black bear cubs (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Black bear cubs (Russell Steven Powell photo)

Black bear cubs (Russell Steven Powell photo)