Articles and Interviews: Painting by Moonlight, on the River for New England Watershed Magazine
September 18, 2005
I was awakened in the middle of a warm summer night. As I lay on the bed, not moving, it took me some time to realize what it was that had startled me. The moon had been shining through the skylight like a headlight beam, and the room was bathed in its cool, other-worldly light. I decided to get up and go outside. I hadn’t bothered to get dressed, but that fact didn’t seem to matter, since the world outside seemed totally changed from its daytime familiarity.
The light was so strong that the trees cast shadows on the lawn. There was absolutely no sign of any activity. It was as if I were completely alone in the world. Suddenly I heard a splashing sound coming from the direction of the river. I looked over the bank where my house borders the Connecticut River, but I didn’t see anything. Whether it was a fish, or a turtle, or a muskrat, or something else, I never found out. However, the noise had broken my reverie, and I returned to the house.
No one was awake. I put on warm clothes, and made a thermos of hot tea in the kitchen. On my way out the door again I grabbed a portable lantern and my sketchbook. Going down the steps on the riverbank to the dock I saw my boat silhouetted against the bright water, its thirty-year-old hull tied peacefully to the float. It had originally been built as a houseboat. Actually someone had just taken two pontoons and a plywood platform and added a roof and four walls with windows, screens and storm doors. I bought the boat last spring from a local farmer, and had cleared out all the kitchen counters and built-in bunks. I turned the houseboat into a floating studio. It was just like painting from my front porch, only I could move that front porch anywhere I wanted, pointing it in any direction. Now, in one corner of the cabin stood my easel, and in another was the storage rack filled with half-finished and blank canvases. Cool air was coming in from the open windows.
I stood at the wheelhouse looking and feeling like the captain of the African Queen. I started the engine and the motor sprang to life with a soft hum, breaking the silence. The boat can’t move very fast, only a few knots. From my position at the front of the cabin I eased the craft out to the middle of the river, which is about 500 feet wide at this location. Away from the trees, the sky was even brighter, with the silver disc of the moon shining imperturbably overhead. The cottonwoods and swamp maples and willow trees were all part of one dark mass, their tops forming a tracery against the lighter sky.
The Connecticut River in this part of its course is bordered almost uninterruptedly by trees. Whether because of the excellent productivity of the surrounding farm land or because of recent conservation efforts, the river from the middle of its channel appears very much like it must have looked hundreds of years ago. There is nothing much to attest to all the civilization nearby, except the faint glow on the horizon from the neighboring towns– which tonight was easily outshone by the moon.
Proceeding up the river, I thought about the geography and history of this area. Three-quarters of New England is drained through the Connecticut River, and I enjoyed the thought that so much of the region, its soil and water and even vegetation, had to pass right by my house. In the seventeenth century this town, Hadley, was a frontier outpost surrounded by Indian territory. During the notorious King Phillip’s War of 1675, the whole area was under Indian attacks. Two settlers from town had been killed out in the very fields that were now shielded from the river by a row of trees. The town had been besieged, but was safe behind its stockade. Other towns weren’t so lucky. A few months earlier the town of Lancaster to the east had been hit by an Indian raiding party, and several European settlers were taken hostage. Among them was Mary Rowlandson, who was taken captive along with two of her children on a February night in 1676. As Mrs. Rowlandson wrote in her famous 1682 account of the ordeal, the Indians moved west through the wilderness of Massachusetts until they made camp near the Connecticut River. It had all happened not far from where I was at this very moment.
These gloomy thoughts were on my mind when I was startled to see a vague shape moving toward me from upstream. Looking through the binoculars, however, didn’t reassure me, because it was a boat coming towards me, but with no lights on, and nobody at the helm. I didn’t know whether to make headway away from it or towards it. Reluctantly I chose the latter, and as I approached the boat, I began to have images of a body lying inside, a suicide perhaps, or maybe a murder? What else would explain an unlighted boat coming downriver in the middle of the night? Finally I made it alongside the boat, and I realized that there was no one inside. It was completely empty and trailing a long dock line. Apparently it was one of the crew boats, that somehow had broken loose from its mooring and was now drifting downstream unimpeded. How odd that it should be happening at just this moment, while I was all alone on the river. Would it have happened if I hadn’t been here? I tied the boat to my floating studio and headed back downstream. By now the moon was somewhat lower in the sky, and the night was completely still. It must have been about 4:00 am.
I was feeling completely content to be just an observer out on this special night, but I knew that this scene was too good to waste. Since I had my paints and my canvases with me, why not try to paint my first moonlight scene? My idea was to position the boat so that the moon would be seen just over a clump of trees and with the shoreline in front. I maneuvered into a good position, dropped the rear anchor, and then the front anchor. I tightened the anchor lines and got out my paints, but as I was laying out the colors on the palette by lantern light it became obvious that this wasn’t going to work. Already the moon had encroached into the surrounding trees, and what’s more, a trail of clouds was passing in front of the moon. It was beautiful, but not anything like what I had started out to do. I realized that a large painting wasn’t going to be possible.
However, my paints were all ready and everything else was right, so I thought I could do a quick sketch. I raised the anchors and started the engine again, planning this time to work quickly. I would paint on a small piece of cardboard, and I wouldn’t even take time to turn the engine off and drop anchor, even though it was a bit awkward to have to lay down the brushes every once in a while to take the steering wheel again. Within twenty minutes I had a successful small sketch, and plenty more time to spend on the river. I continued doing additional sketches, until the sky began to lighten. By now huge clouds were rolling in and the first gleams of dawn were lighting the sky. This was even more appealing to me than the moon had been. I did more sketches, only stopping when full daylight had appeared. I headed back to my house while the mists began rising from the warm river as they met the first cool breezes of morning. I couldn’t help smiling as I looked at the half dozen small paintings lying on the table beside me.
Printed in April – May 2006 Issue of New England Watershed Magazine.