Friday, March 11, 2005

Watching Emma Watch the World: The Eyes of Emma Bickham Pitcher

by Zinta Aistars

Emma is a naturalist, a writer, a treehugger, a woman extraordinaire. This "Spotlight on the Artist" feature is published in the March 2003 issue of Encore magazine. (Photo - Emma's driftwood.)

Emma’s small apartment at the retirement community of Friendship Village feels like a cozy bird’s nest. It snuggles around me as I walk in at her kind invitation. My sense of comfort here is immediate. The walls are lined with bookshelves, crowded with books, books, and more books, and the table has books on it, and there are stacks of books alongside the soft, worn chairs. A collection of drawings and paintings on the walls show her favorite bird: the woodpecker, his glossy red head in various poses. Dainty and gracefully curved pieces of driftwood hang in a mobile from the ceiling, dancing a little in the breeze when Emma passes just below. The window is crowded with plants.

Emma Bickham Pitcher, self-taught naturalist, poet, essayist, birdwatcher, teacher, tree hugger, is also, quite simply, the kind of person in whose presence one feels at home. Her artistry is born of her powers of observation, and to be observant she has learned to be silent and unobtrusive, inviting those in her presence to be themselves.

"In summer on faraway Baffin Island’s arctic shore, I liked quiet, early morning summer walks downhill to Frobisher Bay to see what the tide was doing… I never tired of seeing daily differences in light and tide levels. I liked to stand absolutely still at water’s edge watching that immense volume of water move past me in absolute silence, never hurrying, never slowing, just creeping, creeping up or down the beach in almost imperceptible never-ending movements." ("Ramblings: Reflections on Nature")

Nature, Emma feels, is to be watched, respected, admired, and, when possible, captured into words. She is the author of three books of such observations: "Ramblings: Reflections on Nature", "Of Woods and Other Things" and "Up and Down the Dunes". Her book of poems, "Wordsong", was meant as a gift for her four children, but a few other lucky readers have also been able to enjoy it. For 13 years, her essays on nature have appeared in the Kalamazoo Gazette. The Kalamazoo Nature Center, where she frequently volunteers, teaching classes and guiding walks, publishes her work in newsletters. She also teaches at Nature’s Acres in Comstock Township.

"I’m not trained in the sciences," Emma says, smiling. "I have a degree in sociology, and I’ve studied art history. But I think that is why my readers enjoy my work – everyone can understand it. Everyone can walk in the woods, or along the dunes, and learn to open their eyes, their senses, and see all the beauty that is around them. I’m just writing about what I enjoy."

Emma’s love for nature, and incorporating that love into writing, was not evident in her younger years. Born and raised outside of Chicago, she enjoyed her mother’s flower gardens and her father’s vegetable gardens, and she enjoyed taking walks. "But I was in the Scouts when I was young, and when we took nature classes, I hated them. I didn’t want to hear about plants and animals. I wanted to be outside and to play!" she laughs.

Her appreciation for the intricate beauty of a plant, or the warbling song of a bird, or the sweeping silence of the night, or the violin solo of a cricket all developed much later in life. Emma had married, and with her husband moved to Buffalo. After five years, however, they returned to Chicago, where both attended the University of Chicago. Emma’s husband worked on earning his doctorate, while she raised their four children – two sons, two daughters.

"We bought a shack on the Indiana Dunes around that time," she says, "because I didn’t want my children to spend their summers in the city. They called us the ‘suitcase family’ because we kept stacks of library books in suitcases, taking them back and forth to the library for our summer reading. The shack had no electricity. It had no plumbing. And I loved it."

Living at the ‘shack’ during summers, Emma took long walks, studying the dunes, watching the crash of waves, and she noticed the details of birds and plant life all around her. Nature, she realized, no longer bored her. Her eyes had begun to open to the wonders of nature, and before long, that wonder was translating into words on paper.

"I love words," she says. "I had an English teacher in high school… oh, I had a crush on him!" Emma twitters. "And he would read out loud to the class, and I would love to listen. He taught us to love words."

Emma’s essays about her summers spent in the Dunes are collected in "Up and Down the Dunes". When her marriage broke apart, she found strength in these Dunes, but practical needs, those of caring for her children, put her back into the workforce. Having had little training on the work front, she took a secretarial job at the University of Chicago in the office for the Graduate Division of Social Sciences. By her retirement in 1981, Emma was dean of students in the Graduate School of Business.

"I enjoyed that job very much, and I enjoyed working with students," she says. When computers began to invade the office, however, Emma found she had no interest in learning technology. Retirement beckoned. Spending more time on the Indiana Dunes beckoned. Muses to write were singing to her, and in 1981, Emma answered their call. She left Chicago and moved to the Dunes, wandering the beaches, reading about environmental concerns, and volunteering.

"I read endlessly," Emma says, her eyes flicking over to the stacks of books in her apartment with pleasure. She pulls a volume from a shelf – a fieldguide on wildflowers – and places it in my lap. She thinks for a moment, then rises from her chair and pulls another volume from a shelf, its cover well worn, well loved. "There are many authors who inspire me," she places this one too in my hands, "but Rachel Carson is among my favorites. I love to read John Muir, and of course Henry David Thoreau, and Mary Oliver’s poetry is enchanting, and…"

Emma frequently alludes to her favorite authors and artists in her nature essays, speaking of them like old friends:

"’One attraction in coming to the woods to live was that I should have leisure and opportunity to see the Spring come in.’ So wrote Henry David Thoreau, perhaps our most perceptive writer on nature. I prefer his 'Journals' to the more widely published 'Walden' and 'Maine Woods' but any Thoreau is good reading – either for dipping in lightly or for serious study. If his opinionated and dated social comment doesn’t appeal to you, just skip it and enjoy his intimate observations on the day-to-day changes in the natural world around him." ("Up and Down the Dunes")

As much as quoting her favorite authors, Emma will also bring in comparisons between nature and art, or nature and music."In my college years, I had the opportunity to travel around Europe," Emma remembers. "For an art history buff, that was true inspiration. But when I lived in Chicago, I was a constant visitor to the Art Institute. Now I like to teach what these artists saw in nature in my essays or in various classes. They help to open our eyes by what they see and what they paint." Georgia O’Keefe’s immense and lush flowers are a particular favorite, she says, or her portrayals of the clean beauty of a bare desert landscape. The paintings of George Innes inspire her – and Emma reaches for another book to show.

"I find inspiration in the work of other artists, just as I find inspiration in a walk in the woods," she says. "I don’t plan these things. I see something, or an idea comes to me, and I begin to think about how to put it into an essay. Do you see that mobile of driftwood hanging there?"

I glance up, where the delicate pieces of gray and weathered wood float above me.

"Do you see how they curve?" Emma says. And I see. Some of the pieces are long and thin, bent like a cat’s back when it hisses, others are little chunks, wiggling along like gray worms. Yes, I see.

"I was walking in the woods and thinking about curves," Emma says. "And I thought about writing… about curves. What is your favorite curve? The gentle curve of a bird’s egg?" She holds her hands up to form the shape of an egg. "Or the curve of a bird’s belly? Or the shape a tree branch?"

I see.

Emma has opened my eyes to the simple beauty of a curve in nature, but while I look around her room, watch the twisting and turning ballet of driftwood overhead – pieces, she says, that she collected on the Indiana Dunes – Emma has pulled a notebook from a nearby table and quickly scribbled something. For a moment she is lost in thought. The paper is already covered with notes, some scratched out, others underlined. She puts it aside again, smiling.

"I have to write things down as I think of them so that I don’t forget. I see something, and I want others to see it, too."

My eyes awash with sudden sight, I am reluctant to leave Emma’s nest. As I put on my coat, Emma reaches to lift my hair out from underneath it, gently fussing. I don’t want to leave this place, this presence, now that my eyes are open…

In the parking lot of Friendship Village, in the night shadows, I sense the woods beyond, where Emma takes daily walks. A tree branch is leaning heavily from one of the tallest oaks, shaped in a curve like an extended hand.

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