What a perfect title for Barbara Bash's beautiful book. True Nature is what she got in touch with on her solitary retreats—her own true nature and nature which included birds, animals, fish, plants, trees, and weather conditions around her.
Reading the book offered me a retreat of slowing down while still at home. Bash went to a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York for a week during each of the four seasons. She practised sitting meditation and nature journaling as she finds both practices to be contemplative, "developing awareness and attentiveness to the world." She began practising Buddhist meditation in the 1970s with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who she credits with calling her out of hiding and showing her how to live. Her book is a "record of that ancient process of coming to rest where we are."
Simplicity was part of Bash's days on retreat, away from the demands of home. While on her own, though, crucial inner themes were allowed to appear and did so throughout the seasons: "...uncertainty and self-doubt, a lost feeling and the relief of finding my way, a sadness that enveloped me, a fear of the dark, and a gentleness and ease with myself and the world."
"Calligraphy is a picture of the mind," a Zen saying advises, and Bash took a look with brush and ink. The book is in her handwriting with artwork created from the sketchbooks she filled while on retreat. Some of the images were scanned directly into the book; others she redrew in the same spirit so as to fit the design of the pages. The art was created with pencils and watercolours on Arches and Strathmore papers. Among her daily observations were afternoon bird calls, which she illustrated with sound shapes and colors.
As I read, I felt calmed by the simplicity of Bash's days. I could relate, as many women will, to the inner voice chastising her for laziness. As Bash realized, the very act of drawing slows her down—"opens me up each time I touch the paper." She could see the cottonwood tree, hear her pencil on the paper, the wind and a squirrel near by and noticed a spiderweb glistening. As is so often the case when we slow down, Bash felt worn out. She felt she couldn't produce anything good. "I am wearing something down, wearing something out—the expectation of who I think I should be."
During her winter sojourn, the weather got wild. "The energy would quiet down, regroup and gather again." So often Bash's descriptions of nature are revelations of her own life, and ours too. The night darkness was a challenge to Bash who writes, "The darkness within. The darkness without. I will keep touching it."
The illustration of spring woods on the outer cover of the book is on paper that looks like watercolour paper—as if the paint might still be wet. The hardcover book the paper cover protects looks like a private journal with a charming watercolour of a bird pasted on it. We're very fortunate Bash's solitary musings and discoveries were made public. So many books are full of many words. This one is not. You can read it in one sitting but there is so much that is real and true here. Life is seen close up with the bullfrog painted in summer, the monarch butterflies of autumn, the cow bones and miniature landscape of fungi on a broken branch found in winter and the emergence of spring in an unfurling of ferns.
"Each subject calls forth a different visual response, sometimes precise and detailed, sometimes loose and immediate," Bash writes. In most instances she chose the "relaxed line, the simpler, less polished approach, since this is the true nature of sketching." It is her hope that her book will inspire others to pick up a sketchbook, "step outside, and discover what is waiting for you—ready to be drawn and seen." I think it will also inspire readers to get in touch with their own true nature.
Barbara Bash is a calligrapher, illustrator, author and performance artist. She has written and illustrated many books on natural history for adults and children. The research for those books took her all over the world, including Africa, India, Indonesia and the Pacific Northwest. She lives in the Hudson Valley of New York with her husband and son. There she creates her books and does expressive, calligraphic performance art. To learn more about Bash's work and the workshops she teaches in illustrated journaling and expressive brush calligraphy, visit her website.
(See another review of this book, here)
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