The River voyages of the hungry mind



30 July 2009

Today the boat finally entered the river at the Sportsman Club landing in Pepin Wisconsin at two-thirty in the afternoon while white caps rolled across the water and billowing clouds leaned into a brisk north wind. The second-hand, under-the-floor gas tank installed over the winter was a worry: and the Evenrude E-tech motor fogged for the first time last November; and temporary plugs in the transom put there because a live well has yet to materialize; and the wind as we bobbed and rolled to the smack of the waves against the aluminum hull. It was time to begin, finally, for the boat, for me, and for my companion…

Filed under: The River 2 Comments

Sea Trials


With a live well finally installed, I was able to get out on the river three times in August: twice with buddy Bill Logan of the Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Our first day out, in rain with a strong north wind, was a true sea trial, and all systems tested positive, though the notion that I could stay dry under such conditions was clearly wrong. As we set out from Pepin bound for the mouth of the Chippewa, the boat lurched from crest to crest on the big waves. On the return voyage, at dusk, the bow of the boat banged recklessly into white caps as I struggled to maintain a level plain until I realized that slowing down was the best course. I am grateful to Bill for his calm reassurance on a day I would not have had the nerve to launch into alone.


The first fish was collected was a young carp weighting 1.666 pounds. I have been pleased with the output from the new camera. It will be interesting to work from such sharp photographs when it comes to cutting wood engravings of fish.

Filed under: The River 1 Comment


2 Frogs, 2 Crayfish, & 2 Night Crawlers • An Old Notebook • Point No Point • Dreary Island, a Game Fish, & Rumination on the Point of Wood Engraving


23 September, 2009 • 2 Frogs, 2 Crayfish, & 2 Night Crawlers

There is nothing about a bird that has not been noted, and thought about. I assume the man in the distant boat knows what he is doing. As I drag this night crawler across the bottom of Lake Pepin from Point No Point to the mouth of the Rush River, I clearly do not. I wonder about the ceaseless motion of the water’s surface: the constant shifting of reflections whose seemingly random and abstract nature cannot be so. There must be a specific set of physical causes for each and every movement. The problem of rendering such vast, unfathomable possiblilities as the surface of the lake is interesting.

I watch the birds: the ever-present seagulls, and some smaller, faster birds working the air just above the water. Surely food cannot always be what moves them. There is sex of course, but not now, in the middle of the lake, in the middle of the afternoon. Out here all becomes significant: a fly, a leaf, a feather, myself. I wonder about these butterflies, one by one, making the three-mile flight across Lake Pepin from Wisconsin to Minnesota. Perhaps they are in training for the trip to Mexico. Perhaps they are on their way, but why cross the river?

Early this morning, as I motored up river from Stockholm toward Maiden Rock, pelicans were scattered across the lake. Now, five hours later, they have gathered into two flocks, one up river from the mouth of the Rush, and the other down. I am close enough to see that the flock downriver is milling about, seemingly in a similar, spiraling kind of pattern that they follow as they ride the currents of each other’s wings in flight. But in the water there is much splashing and seemingly awkward movement, unlike the measured discipline of flying in formation. Sex? Perhaps group sex, but it seems unlikely that sex would be the object this time of year.

2 frogs + 2 crayfish + 2 night crawlers = 1 sheepshead

Suddenly, a leap.

Why do fish jump?
To see who has come.

21 September, 2009 • An Old Notebook

In 1970, after a winter’s study of Outdoor Life magazines in the windowless basement bedroom, fishing season opened with 21 hours of futility. Over the next few years interest gave way to obsession, fishing led to poetry and, ultimately, the making of books.


Journal entry for the opening weekend of fishing season, 1970

Twenty-nine years have come and gone. I have become a collector of books, and other things. For Mayflies of the Driftless Region, a species had to be caught to get into the book. The same approach seems likely for The River: I plan to collect specimens of fish (among other things), photograph them, and turn them into wood engravings. As I look back over my first month on the river, I find the futility of having caught but three out of eighty possible species of fish frustrating, but also invigorating. I feel I’m going back, but with a slope more dramatic, as the banks of the Mississippi River carry far more water than those of the Red River of the North, and the water moves in a different direction.

15 September, 2009 • Point No Point

Along Point No Point, with some Photoshop manipulation in the trees. The effect is reminiscent of wood engraving

Along Point No Point, with some Photoshop manipulation of brightness and contrast in the trees. The effect is reminiscent of the effect one gets from stippling with a small round scorper in two-color wood engraving.

Late afternoon.
in the shadow of itself.
I pull in close.
Hidden from the sunset
I catch nothing.

John Little

John Little



What was John Little working on?
Catching fish.
Why do fish jump?
I wonder…



3 September, 2009 • Dreary Island, a Game Fish, & Rumination on the Point of Wood Engraving

While motoring toward home from Dreary Island an extraordinary thing happened. Suddenly, out in the middle of the Lake, the surface came alive with fish leaping after smaller fish. Sea gulls were diving and calling out. I stopped the motor, and, with the small white plug I had been urged to buy for just such a moment, I caught a white bass. It was vibrant, and lively, flopping around and making this photograph a hard-earned prize.white_bass copy 2

Clearing in photoshop and in wood

Clearing in Photoshop and in wood

The process of clearing background from around an image in Photoshop is similar to clearing around an image engraved in wood. To get into the tight spaces one must start with a fine tool, and then gradually increase the size of the tool in order to clear out larger areas. The question arises, of course, as to the point of replicating an image in wood, by hand, when one has a fine photograph of the fish itself, and Photoshop: a good question.

While working on specimen images for Sylvæ, Ben and I adopted a policy of “raising” a voice, so long as we didn’t change that voice. This allowed us to push images in a direction of interest in order to make some aspect of the image more obvious. This begins to answer the question, but there is more. Blind obsession takes us to unexpected places, sometimes far beyond our expectations. The longer the period of time one allows oneself to continue down such a path, the further one is able to travel from the expected. Finally, when we are able to take something we see, and process it through our intellect, we are able to construct a system of replication that others find pleasure in discovering, and relating to.

Filed under: The River No Comments


Indian Slough• Lost and Found• Pelicans • A Fish


Ring-billed Gull, (Larus delawarentis)

5 October, 2009 • Indian Slough

At the entrance of Indian Slough, on a tall weathered old trunk of wood perched a large white bird. How odd, I thought, an egret way up there. But I was going fishing, and I passed it by without taking out the camera. All morning long, and through the afternoon, I cast to the weeds of Truesdale Lake hoping for a bass, cast after cast, after cast, but nothing--nothing except little birds fluttering in the distance. As I made my way back through the slough toward home, I dragged behind me a large sucker minnow hooked through the lips with the hook of an old Prescott spinner when BANG! A Northern Pike. And the bird on top the old tree was replaced by a sea gull.

My list, toward the end of this first abbreviated fishing season shows, I think, the easiest fish to catch top the list, and that the degree of difficulty increases with each entry. Not that it is ever easy. I expect it will become harder.

14 October, 2009 • Lost and Found

lureAlong Point No Point the fishermen cast toward shore. Today I went ashore and combed the beach. Along with various feathers and two large mussel specimens (Pyganodon grandis), I found a small piece of oblong plastic painted like a little blue and yellow fish with two rusted hooks hanging from it's side: a lure lost by someone who knew what they were doing.

16 October, 2009 • Pelicans

On October 14 I estimated that there were 200-300 of them at Point Au Sable. Today, along with Sir Mickaelous and Cindyrella, it was reckoned that the number was closer to 1,000. Birds must be coming in from other places, perhaps to join the flock for a flight to Mexico. Pelicans continue to be the central point of ornithological interest. They are large, interesting, relatively easy to approach, and famous, of course, for the pouches they carry beneath their beaks. With long, thick, black-tipped wings, short stubby orange legs, and bodies like water balloons, the physics involved in getting it all airborne is facinating.

Preliminary drawing for a wood engraving of pelicans prepairing for lift off.

Preliminary drawing for a wood engraving of pelicans prepairing for lift off.

For a fish to get into the book, I have to catch one. For a mussel to get in, both shells of an individual must be collected. For a bird, I need an interesting photograph.

19 October, 2009 • A Fish & Some Casting in Cyberspace

Today mine was one of a half dozen boats along Point No Point. The frustration of three friutless hours of casting my prized found lure was heightened with each fish caught by the other fishermen, and there were many. Finally, at 2 pm, a strike. To my surprise, the fish was not the expected Small Mouth Bass, but instead a Walleye Pike. Later, in cyberspace, I learned that casting a deep diving crank bait (like the one I found) into the water is a common method of catching Walleyes. I also learned the identity of the found lure. It is

Cotton Cordell's C. C. Shad number CD1279.

Filed under: The River No Comments


The Last Waltz (on returning from Rome) • A Return to Drury Island, & the Studio



20 November, 2009 • The Last Waltz

Mississippi mirror

Today the boat was launched the 13th and final time in 2009. For the first time, all was still...

Cataloging mussel specimens

Cataloging mussel specimens

17 November, 2009 • A Return to Drury Island & the Studio

On returning to the river after two weeks abroad, the trees were bare, and the birds gone except for eight soaring eagles, a handful of gulls, ever distant crows, two blue jays, and one lone pelican swimming in the middle of the lake. Fred and I combed the beach of Drury Island, adding three to the mussel species to the list: Pimpleback, Black sandshell, and Wabash pigtoe.

With the boating season drawing to a close, the time has come to get on with work in the studio. While some organizing of data remains to be done, a basic outline of what I have to work with, gathered from this first abbreviated boating season, is taking shape. There will be a section on pelicans, one on mussel shells collected (aproximately a dozen species to date), and one of fish caught (six species to date).

With paper for the first book in hand, the determination of edition and page size are dependent upon the quantity and dimensions of the paper: 800 sheets of hand made Tovil, 15.5 x 20.5 inches. My initial notion of folding the parent sheet down twice, for a page size of 7.75 x 10.25, has come into question. While I appreciate the intimacy of the smaller page size (espescially as it relates to field journals), and the practicality of getting twice as many pages, I am considering folding the sheets a single time for a larger page size of 10.25 x 15.5. Closer examination of the paper reveals that it would be most comfortable folded once, given grain direction, laid lines, and watermarks. Also, the expansive nature of the landscape of the river, as well as the size of actual specimens involved, seems to call for a larger format. While it had been my hope to scale back from the immensity of scale encountered with Sylvæ, I am beginning to think that forcing the river into a smaller package is not, perhaps, the best approach. At any rate, a decision regarding page size must be made before I can begin engraving images.

Rough mock-up of opening pelican spread in larger format.

Rough mock-up of opening pelican spread in larger format.

Filed under: Uncategorized No Comments

Pelicans Approaching Lift-off

Engraving of the first image for the book began on Black Friday, 2009. None of us seem to know where the term"Black Friday" has come from. Perhaps we don't watch enough television.

Drawing basic forms onto tracing parchment for transfer of image onto coreon blo

Drawing basic forms onto tracing parchment for transfer of image onto coreon block.

Graphite drawing transfered onto inked and waxed block surface.

Graphite drawing transfered onto inked and waxed block surface.

At the end of the day, after four, one-hour engraving sessions.

At the end of the day, after four, one-hour engraving sessions.

Filed under: Uncategorized 1 Comment


Never Say Never • Nuclear Warming • A Fractured Bi-valve

Pelican key block ready for proofing

Pelican key block ready for proofing. Image size: 10 x 17 inches.

Never Say Never

People often ask how long it takes to engrave an image. There is a luxury in not keeping track, and I normally don't, but I have photographed progress in cutting the key block of the pelicans every couple of days, and can report that it has taken 90 hours engraving time to bring the block to the proofing stage. The block is Corian counter top material. This is my first time using Corian, the material of choice for engraver Abigail Rohrer, who does beautiful work. The material holds detail well, but is a bit difficult to clear. It does offer superior stability over wood, which makes for a much easier time on the press, especially with a block as large as this.

Key block proofed in gray, with black reduction cut and color ideas penciled in.

Key block proofed in gray, with black reduction cut and color ideas penciled in.

The plan is to print, every two years or so, by hand with ink on beautiful paper, a record of my journey in book form . I also plan to issue editioned prints of some of the images along the way. The pelicans will be the first of the individual images available. Look for it in the spring. The edition size, and price, are yet to be determined.

Fishing the spillway of lock-and-dam number 3, at the head of my territory (pool number 4).

Fishing the spillway of lock-and-dam number 3, at the head of my territory (pool number 4).

17 December, 2009 • Nuclear Warming

A strong storm system swept through last week, and the lake froze suddenly. I drove to the Prairie Island Nuclear plant in search of open water and found it, along with a flock of mergansers, a few straggling swans, and a two determined fishermen.

Prairie Island nuclear power plant.

Prairie Island nuclear power plant.

I found open water as far down stream as the Red Wing bridge. Is it possible that the plant is solely responsible for the open water, or might some other factor come into play? Current seems unlikely, as the river was frozen over beneath the Wabasha Bridge to the south, where I know the current is pretty fast.

Lake City lights on frozen Lake Pepin.

Lake City lights on frozen Lake Pepin.


Pyganodon grandis

Pyganodon grandis

A Fractured Bi-valve

In 2009 I collected about fifty mussel specimens, representing a dozen different species--to get into the book, I must find both shells of an individual animal. I'm in the process of cleaning, identifying, and cataloging them. A large (18.5 cm) specimen with substantial fractures in both valves raises questions: what caused the fractures? How did the specimen come to be ten feet from the water's edge? How long had it been there? It occurs to me that most of the shells I find beach combing must have been carried by a predator. Perhaps the large mussel with the fractured valves had been carried and eaten by an eagle. Speculation is likely to become a central element in this shell game...

I am looking at photos taken of plates from Georg Wolfgang Knoor's Les Delices des Yeux et de L'Esprit, a la Representation d'une Collection Universelle des Coquilles, 1764, and J. C. Chenu's Illustrations Conchyliologiques, 1842-53, from the library of the Natural History Museum in New York, compliments of Bill Logan. Also a book borrowed recently from Robert Rulon-Miller: Captain Thomas Brown's Illustrations of the land and fresh water conchology of Great Britian and Ireland, fith figures, descriptions, and locatlities of all the species, 1845. Captain Brown's drawings were "engraved" by W. H. Lizars, who also engraved the first few images for Audubon's Birds of America in the 1820's. Though I believe the mussel engravings are in metal, the technique lends itself to wood engraving, and provides a starting point in thinking about how to approach engraving the bi-valves.

Filed under: Uncategorized No Comments


Dead of Winter • Engraving in the Glow of a Computer Screen

22 pairs of mussel shells and photographs of 6 fish.

22 pairs of mussel shells collected and photographs of 6 fish caught.

8 January, 2010 • Dead of Winter

I am getting down to the hard business of sifting through specimens, deciding what goes into the first installment of the book, and hammering out rough physical details: page size, paper, contents, cadence, fold-outs,  etc.

The initial cutting and proofing of the pelican blocks is completed. At least two of them will require reduction cutting while printing: the block is printed in one color, then cut further and printed again, with a second color. This process cannibalizes the block making it impossible to reprint it. I plan to sell prints of some images as I go along, and I'm working out how many sheets will be needed, both for the separate prints and for the book itself. I must make the best possible use of the very expensive vintage English Tovil handmade paper bought for the project last year, and I plan to use at least two other papers in the book: Zerkal 7625, a German mould made paper that I use a lot, and Wookey Hole, a vintage English mould-made. I have decided to print the images on Zerkal, and 1,000 sheets have been ordered. I have 800 sheets of the Tovil, and 500 of the Wookey Hole, on which to print the text.

Shells from (Ithink) 3 Pink Heelsplitters (Potamils alatus).

Shells from 3 Pink Heelsplitters (Potamils alatus) illustrate (I think) the aging process.

All specimens will be printed actual size. The 6 fish are fairly straight forward, though the Northern Pike will require separate printings and the splicing together of two parts as it's length exceeds the maximum printing length of the press, about 23 inches. The 45 mussel specimens also present challenges. I am finding, I think, significant variation in individuals within a species, reflecting to some extent changes in the shell as an individual ages. I believe I have representatives of about ten different species, but having gone through the cleaned and recorded specimens, I find 22 individuals of interest for one reason or another. Of course all conclusions that I am making at this point are pretty speculative. I hope to meet an expert soon, possibly Mike Davis of the Minnesota DNR, or Professor Cummings of Illinois, co-author of the field guide which I have been using (Field Guide to Freshwater Mussels of the Midwest, Illinois Natural History Survey, 1992).

16 January, 2010 • Engraving in the Glow of a Computer Screen

Joining sections of an end grain wood block.

Joining sections of an end grain wood block.

I found the Coreon used for the pelican plates difficult to work with and hard on tools. It does hold a fine line more easily than maple, and has less of a tendency to chip out while clearing than does Resingrave (used for the Ink on the Elbow panorama [click it]). I find working with plastic, however, unpleasant. I have a good supply of end grain maple rounds, and I will go back to wood for the rest of the project. It is a lot of work taking rough sawn half rounds of maple (from the colophon tree in Sylvæ), and making them into smooth and stable type high blocks. The larger the image, the more difficult it becomes to make a flat and stable block, which is essential to fine printing. Given the size of the fish specimens, I am using small strips of wood and glue to join the chunks of maple, a method of joinery typical of end grain wood engraving blocks from the 19th century.

A central problem in the illustration of mussels is presenting views of both the inside and outside of the shells. I am thinking of backing up the inside and outside views of a shell recto-verso: the inside is viewed on one side of a page, and the page is turned to find the outside of the shell printed directly on the back side of the inside view. This will require twice as many mussel images. It is becoming clear that 3 pelicans, 6 fish, and 12 mussels are plenty to deal with this first year.

Sheepshead in Progress.

Sheepshead in Progress.

Sheepshead (Aplodinotus grunniens), is underway. I am engraving in front of the computer, something I have never done before. The photograph is easily manipulated (zooming in, brightening, flipping the image, etc.). I google the species as I work. I am finding interesting articles in scientific journals, but full articles, it seems, can only be viewed for a price. Fair enough.

Filed under: Uncategorized No Comments

Open Water

Shorthead Redhorse key block

Shorthead Redhorse key block

The past month was spent engraving scales of the Shorthead Redhorse. The block has been proofed, and I now have 3 fish blocks cut. Though a few ice houses remain on the lake, and I saw a pickup truck out there yesterday, winter is obviously releasing it's grip. Open water is evident in places along the shoreline. Our maple trees have been tapped, and the first drops of sap are in the pail.

I have spent some time writing, mostly relating fishing experiences on the river last fall to those of my youth. Cheryl Miller and I have met with her friends in the National Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota DNR. We also spent a morning looking at books with Patrick Coleman at the Minnesota Historical Society, and an afternoon with turtle expert John Moriarty, Natural Recourses Specialist for Ramsey County.

Father Louis Hennepin's creatures of the Upper Mississippi circa 1683. Note the pelican.

Father Louis Hennepin's creatures of the Upper Mississippi circa 1683. Note the pelican.

1,000 sheets of Zerkal paper have arrived from Germany. It is time to dust off the press and print some pelicans.

Filed under: Uncategorized No Comments



I remember swimming lessons, shivering at the edge of the pool for hours, afraid of the water. That is what printing is like.


Printing pelicans was delayed for a month by syrup season. The sap ran for only a week, but we managed 10 gallons of syrup. A supply of Archie's Pure Maple Syrup labels were printed and die-cut on the Heidelberg. The label features a 3-color wood engraving of the demented cardinal. 12 ounce bottles will soon be available for sale on this website's store page.

Another delay has been the discovery in Photoshop of color sampling. Individual colors in a photograph can be identified and translated into the real world of metal and wood via the Pantone Matching System, the color system used in printing.

Color sampling in Photoshop.

Color sampling in Photoshop.


As a result, I discovered that the gray in the pelican feathers was more green than blue.

Finally, after two days of make-ready and cutting touch ups, the first press run of the pelicans is underway. I am running 250 sheets to get 100 books, and an edition of a possible 150 prints.

Printing three impressions of gray to the Count Basie Trio's Song of the Islands, compliments of Will Powers.

Filed under: Uncategorized 3 Comments