Multi-Basking: Layering Interests Increases Drawing Pleasure

Last week, I went to a local natural area so I could draw the prairie dogs that live there. I’ve wanted to do this for years, but haven’t felt able to tackle the task until now. The online drawing class I took in May (Roz Stendahl’s Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public ) prepared me well. I knew what to take, I was comfortable drawing in public, and I didn’t let my moving subjects frustrate me. While the class is responsible for the success of my trip, it was multi-basking that made it such a wonderful experience.

Black-tailed Prairie Dog (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When I arrived at Coyote Ridge Natural Area, it was almost ten in the morning. Afraid that I was too late to see any prairie dogs, I was relieved to find that they were busy feeding and watching for danger. To my delight, there was also a pair of burrowing owls. (I love their grumpy expressions.) Burrowing owls use abandoned prairie dog burrows as nests and I’ve seen them before in really large prairie dog towns. I hadn’t realized that the local colony was big enough to support them.

I set up my folding seat on the gravel path that runs along one edge of the prairie dog town and sat down to sketch. I watched both the prairie dogs and the owls. The owls sat fairly still, making them excellent subjects to draw, but the prairie dogs were often closer and easier to see. As I sketched, meadowlarks and horned larks sang nearby. Occasionally, hikers would pass behind me. A few even stopped to ask what I was looking at and I took a moment to talk with them.

The owls spent their time between two different mounds, which I assumed were the front and back doors of their burrow. At one point, a prairie dog came quite close to one mound. The owl standing watch dove at him, wings spread and beak open. The owl kept up the attack until the prairie dog had scurried away. The interaction left me wondering why the owl was so defensive. Do prairie dogs eat owl eggs? Or was the owl aggressive due to the higher hormones that go with breeding season?

A few of the quick sketches I drew at Coyote Ridge. (Drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

When I left an hour later, I was feeling elated. Part of my joy came from the excitement of finally getting to draw prairie dogs at Coyote Ridge. Part of it was due to the pleasant surprise of getting to draw burrowing owls as well. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that.

The reason I felt so happy and fulfilled by a simple hour of drawing was because I’d managed to smoosh so many interests* into one activity. My main goal was to draw, but I made it richer by drawing live animals outdoors in a natural setting. I combined my love of the outdoors, my love of animals, my love of learning, and my love of teaching with my love of drawing. I learned some things I didn’t know and came away with questions I’d like to answer. I talked to strangers and helped educate them a little about the animals of the prairie. And of course, I got to draw and spend time watching the animals do their thing.

It seemed like a type of multi-tasking, only more effective and more fun. I was really multi-basking — letting myself enjoy many different things all at the same time. I recommend it highly.

Do you ever multi-bask? What activities or interests do you find go together well?

*”Smooshing interests” is a strategy discussed in How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick.

Ten Reasons I Adore Life on the Prairie

I’ve lived many places in my life, but seven years ago I moved somewhere I had never thought of living. I’d heard of Colorado, driven through Colorado, even camped in Colorado, but I never once thought about living here. The funny thing is that of all the places I have lived, Fort Collins has turned out to be my favorite. As great as the town is, I know the real draw for me is the prairie. Here’s some of the reasons why (in no particular order):

1) Raptors: I enjoy watching birds of all kinds, but raptors have a special appeal. I see them daily, flying overhead or perched high above a field. Red-tailed hawks and American kestrels are the most common in my neighborhood. Bald eagles, a bird I’d never seen in the wild before, fly right over my house, and I am always thrilled when I catch sight of them.

2) Sky: We just have more of it here. The drama is endless. A giant storm can be raging away and yet seem remote. I can watch it drift across the plains, pouring onto houses or fields, from miles away. I’m constantly astonished by the beauty and variety of the clouds here.

Mountains nearly hidden by the clouds.
Mountains nearly hidden by the clouds.

3) Mountains: We have a clear view of the foothills and the Rocky Mountains from roads and trails all over town. The mountains stretch along our western horizon from north to south and add yet another layer to the weather we can observe. Mountains wrapped in cloud emerge covered with snow, while the sun shines continuously down on the flatlands.

4) Sunshine: Because of our higher altitude (5000 feet) and our low humidity, the sun we get is more intense, brighter and stronger than the sun I grew up with. You can feel it. And the majority of days are sunny, even in the winter, which helps make the bitter days a lot easier to bear.

Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. I know it doesn't look like much, but my heart thrills at the sight of it.
Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. I know it doesn’t look like much, but my heart thrills at the sight of it.

5) Grasslands: Our community protects the prairie with 36,000 acres of designated natural area. We can hike in many of these open spaces, surrounded by acres of wild grasses and enjoying the landscape and wildlife of the prairie.

6) Elbow room: I’m uncomfortable in crowds, so the emptiness of the prairie appeals to me. I look around and I am in the middle of a vast space, able to see for miles. I know long before they arrive if someone is coming.

7) Prairie dogs: Although they are often treated as pests, small colonies of these spunky animals survive in the margins along roads or in parts of the natural areas. They bark with indignation at my approach, a squeaky staccato warning to their buddies, while their black tails quiver with annoyance. They make me laugh.

Coyote in the prairie behind our house.

8) Coyotes: On clear nights, when the moon is bright, we hear the yipping coyote chorus all around our house. It brings home the fact that I live in the West and that it is at least to some degree still wild.

9) Summer mornings: On certain days, the early morning air is dry and clear, yet you can feel the heat of the day to come. I used to get the exact same feeling when I visited my grandparents in eastern South Dakota, so these magical mornings take me right back to the joys of childhood and summer vacation.

10) Timelessness: The prairie landscape is like the ocean, a landscape caught up in the events of the moment. The grass bows to the wind; clouds tumble over the mountains and stretch out over the prairie. Everything changes so quickly, so radically, that you can only be sure of this instant.

The prairie reminds me to enjoy the present, whatever it may be, and what better reason can I have to love it than that?