Break of day in an aspen grove of the Santa Fe National forest. Photo by artist Dawn Chandler.

This is a ‘creepy’ forest tale that happened to me late June 2019. And it might have repeated itself this year of 2020, had I not learned my lesson! (More about that soon….) My ‘Tuesday Revelers’ may recognize this tale, as I shared a version of it last year in Volume 1, Issue 24 of TuesdayDawnings.

In mid-June I ventured for the first time this year to the forests above Santa Fe to paint one of my favorite aspen groves. As I made my way up the steep trail, I discovered a “tent” of caterpillars on an aspen sapling. As I hiked higher, I spotted more and more silky tents. Whole canopies that should have been festooned in beautiful jade green were now totally denuded of verdancy and draped instead in silky webs. As I looked around I could see caterpillars not only on the branches and leaf debris, but on the white aspen trunks as well.

Some areas of the canopy still had leaves though, so I pressed on, thinking “I’ve carried my painting gear all this way — I’ll be damned if I let a few caterpillars keep me from painting!” No other hikers were in sight as I made my way to a favorite secluded spot. I looked around for an insect-free log to sit on, then set down my pack, pulled out my painting kit, and after a few sips of tea and jottings in my journal, stood at my easel and began to paint.

Aspens Interrupted by artist Dawn Chandler, oil on panel, en plein air, 12" x 9"

Aspens Interrupted ~ by Dawn Chandler
oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 12″ x 9″

The forest was nearly silent, save occasional birdsong.

Then I started to be aware of an unusual and soft percussive sound.

thwiiiiip ……… thwiiiiip ……… thwiiiiip ……… thwiiiiip ……… thwiiiiip ………

What the ….

I realized it was the sound of caterpillars falling from the trees.

Being a righteous outdoorswoman, I tend to think of myself as having a higher tolerance than most people for things like insects and spiders and snakes. Really, generally speaking I don’t much mind bugs.

But even I have to draw the line at caterpillars falling out of the sky onto my neck.

I couldn’t pack up fast enough.

By the time I gathered up my gear, caterpillars had landed on my wet paints three times.
And every time I looked at my pack leaning against a tree, it was covered with yet more caterpillars — as was my log seat. As was nearly ever other surface in that forest.

Which leads us to ….

~ pondering ~

If expletives are uttered in a forest
and no one hears them,
do they make a sound?

{ … … … … }

{ … … … … }

{ … … … … }

Later, back at home, I had to take a shower just to wash away the creepy-crawly feeling.

{ … … … … }

{ … … … … }

{ … … … … }

And yet….

Two days later I returned to the aspen forest.

Only THIS TIME I surveyed the trees carefully from a distance in search of a large dense canopy of green leaves with no silk webs; I spotted one in the distance and bushwhacked my way there.

And there …. OH! YES! There I discovered an even more beautiful, wondrous, perfectly secluded premium flat and rock-free painting spot in an area of the aspen forest that I had never even known existed.

A doe in the distance among the aspen trees. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

With a little exploring, I found evidence of other hikers — but their evidence appeared decades old.

Somehow I had slipped through a hidden doorway and entered a magical kingdom — a forest kingdom I never would have known if not for the caterpillars.

What a gift.

Aspen forest plein air painting by Dawn Chandler - initial brushstrokes.

First brush strokes — laying in the darkest darks.

Aspen forest plein air painting by Dawn Chandler - laying in the darks and middle values.

Next, finding the mid-range greens and yet more darks.

Aspen forest plein air painting by Dawn Chandler - adding lighter and more varied greens.

Adding some lighter notes to the tree tops where the morning sun is catching them. Also adding in the aspen trunks — first by dripping Gamsol down the painting where I want to place the trunks, to “wash away” the paint. After dripping Gamsol, I’ll wipe away more paint with a rag, then go back in with a greyish-green to start painting the trunks.

Aspen forest plein air painting by Dawn Chandler - adding still more lighter greens to the trees.

Adding a few more tree trunks, and then moving into the foreground and lightening it up — first by wiping away some of the paint.

Aspen forest plein air painting by Dawn Chandler -considering the play of lights and darks in the foreground.

Adding sky, distant mountain blues through the trees, and more lights and darks in the foreground.

Artist Dawn Chandler's plein air painting rig, set up in an aspen forest above Santa Fe, New Mexico

Always, always always step away and reasses. Inevitably you can see better what’s workingin the painting and what isn’t.

Artist Dawn Chandler's plein air painting rig, in the New Mexico's Santa Fe National Forest.

This was my first plein air excursion with my new Day Tripper plein air rig from Prolifc Painter and I LOVED IT.

My Aspen Morning, by New Mexico artist Dawn Chandler
oil on panel en plein air, 9" x 12"

My Aspen Morning ~ by Dawn Chandler
oil on panel ~ en plein air ~ 9″ x 12″

It’s my understanding that, though the caterpillars may return for several seasons, they likely won’t kill the aspens if the forest is otherwise strong and healthy. Of course climate change brings all of that into question. As someone who unabashedly hugs trees, I hope with every cell of my being that our gorgeous aspens will endure. Learn more about aspen ecology here.

Artist Dawn Chandler's little painting oasis tucked away in the aspen grove.
Aspen trees - columns of light and shadow. Photo by Dawn Chandler.
A doe in the distance among the aspen trees. Photo by Dawn Chandler.

New Mexico artist Dawn Chandler proudly social distancing in her studio among her Watercolor Wanderings painting series.

Thank you for being here and reading my musings.

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Thank you again!

Stay safe.

~ Dawn Chandler
Santa Fe , New Mexico