The Constant Apprentice is a place for curious humans to explore craft, visual arts, writing, nature, food, and all things classic, then and now.
{ Curators: Roseann & Jonathan Hanson —> }|{ Craft }|{ Classics }|{ Travel }|{ Food }|{ Nature }|{ Science }|{ Writing }|{Visual Arts}

iPhone as a journal tool

I caved in to the urge and got an iPhone 3G . . . and have been amazed. It's not 'just' a phone, it's a tiny computer and a GPS. It instantly replaced five 'gadgets' I usually have with me: phone, iPod, computer, camera, and GPS. An unexpected bonus is that I have found it a perfect journaling tool.
What bird was that? The other day we drove down to a pond south of us, and were astonished to find hundreds of birds enjoying the bounty of water in the desert. I didn't have my full field guide set with me, but I was able to confirm Common Ground Dove calling with National Geographic's Handheld Birds app - most every entry includes sound as well as images and data.

I have a real ineptitude for remembering astronomy. My all-time-favorite app thus far is StarWalk. Like having a mini planetarium and personal starguide in your pocket. It's difficult to describe just how cool this app is - you can zoom in and out, scroll 360 degrees around the dome of the sky, including what's below the horizon . . . click on a planet or star or cluster and get full data on it . . . and search for the name of a celestial object and it will show you where it is - all in exact relation to your current location. So when I note in my journal the arresting moonscape-and-planet I saw at 4 am, I can look up exactly which planet.

I always note the times of sun and moon rising and setting, as well as the moon phase. This great app, called Sun and Moon, always keeps it at my fingertips.

With the GPS and two very useful apps, I am always able to follow our route on topographical maps in the U.S., or using Google maps elsewhere. Topo Maps has a full set of USGS maps for download, and GPS MotionX turns the iPhone GPS into a fully functional track and waypoint tool and then some. I no longer need my Garmin, and furthermore it's much easier to use, download maps, and export and share data.

Finally, I am always using the built-in iPhone camera to take snapshots of things I want to sketch, like beetles or a nice sunset. And I can use All-in Notes to take quick voice memos or combined photo / note / memos and email them to my main computer.

All the apps are available at the App store; just use the Search function to find.

I {heart} . . . coyotes

Coyote at dusk, Ravenrock 2007.
Coyote howls, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

A touch of tropics

Lovely rain is turning our desert tropical.
Fruit ripening on the prickly pear cactuses.
A mini Zen-rock-garden, pebbles from Baja that turn cactus-green in the rain.

Making pigments from local materials (2): oak galls

On Friday we drove the southwestern flanks of the Santa Rita Mountains to the hamlet of Patagonia ~ we stayed roughly above 4,000 feet elevation, and I had plenty of opportunity to look for oak galls to try the recipe for oak gall pigment in Gwen Diehn's Decorated Journal. Oak galls are the leftover baby wasp 'housings'; worldwide there are thousands of tiny wasp species (some no bigger than the nib on a pen), which are obligate to one species of oak. On this oak they inject a hormone that triggers the oak to form this structure . . . in which the wasp lays its eggs, which then develop, nicely protected, in the gall. Some are tiny, some are large. All are produced entirely by the plant, and are tannin-rich (and thus can produce nice inks and pigments; galls in Europe have been used for centuries as inks; tannins also are used for curing leather ~ the origin of "tanning"). The holes in the galls indicate where the young wasps emerge.

I finally found some nice big ones, on a Mexican gray oak (Quercus grisea), and collected five.

Back home, I followed the Medieval recipe: 

Grind the galls to powder ~

Boil them in rainwater for as long as it takes to recite the Pater Noster three times ~

Add drops of a mild acid (vinegar or lemon juice) until the liquid turns from rich brown to deep black.

Results are inconclusive as well as enticing. While the majority of the liquid never turned beyond a rich, reddish brown (see the leaves in the drawing above, of the oak galls ~ these are painted with the gall pigment; the oaks there were very stressed, with dried leaves; did this contribute to tannin-poor galls?), I laid down a silver-plated spoon, on which were bits of the ground gall and liquid, on the counter; half an hour later, a tiny puddle under the spoon was a rich, dark black. I tried many other experiments - boiling further (to reduce), adding more lemon, adding vinegar, but was never able to reproduce that one teeny black smudge.

So, my experiments will continue  . . .

Pink: Summer color in the Sonoran Desert

Arizona pincushion cactus ~
a bee friend
a field of pink  . . .
how many pincushions do you see in the image?

The perils of a curious (and absent-minded) spouse

For weeks now I've been plagued in my studio / office by the {highly} unpleasant aroma of something decaying . . . I had assumed it was a mouse that snuck in the open door one morning when I was airing it out, or perhaps had gotten in through some unknown hole in the roof (unlikely). We looked high and low, under and over, around and around - and we could not find the source, which seemed to come from higher up, and waft around in a frustratingly fickle manner. For at least five days it was impossible to even work there . . . I was not amused.

This morning I decided to air out the three motorcycle jackets hanging near my workbench - mine and two of Jonathan's. They seemed musty - and I didn't like that smell either - so I took them outside, and Jonthan helped. He seemed preoccupied with one of them, his Barbour International. But he's always preoccupied with jackets.

Just as we were concluding lunch, Jonathan said: "Um, I hope you enjoyed lunch with me today."

"Of course! But why do you ask?"

"Um . . . it might be our last for a while."


"Um . . . about three weeks ago I was riding home on the Royal Enfield and I found a just-roadkilled lizard . . . I thought it was a long-nosed leopard-lizard but wasn't sure . . . so I, um, sort of put it in the pocket of my Barbour, so I could ID it when I got home . . . and, well, I forgot about it. 

"Until just now."

Mystery solved. The Barbour jacket was hanging behind 4 other jackets, so the smell was 'muffled' by lots of fabric and explaining why we could not locate it. Twenty-five years together, I'm not surprised, and . . . of course, I should have guessed! 

{And yes, it was a long-nosed leopard lizard, quite lovely . . .}

Journal page ~ June beetle and hummingbird

Making pigments from local materials

In the past few weeks I have been spending more and more time on my nature journal, which I have been keeping for nearly 20 years. I made the leather cover and a simple page-attachment system (tied with a leather strip) so I can use any paper I like, cut and drilled to fit. There are loops inside for pens. It's been with me all over the world, recording what I see and experience.

I started adding sketches in the mid-1990s, working from the Clare Walker Leslie's books on nature journals and the excellent Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. The latter is excellent for those of us who have both a strong science leaning as well as an artistic side, but the science side gets in the way of free-flowing art and sketching especially.

Now I've been adding watercolor and a few more collages to my journal, switching to archival watercolor paper and handmade art papers.

In the Decorated Page, Gwen Diehn describes making pigments from local minerals and organic matter - and I had to try it. First, I made ink with charcoal from local mesquite, and then a beautiful ochre pigment from clay collected on a nearby road. I will post tutorials soon. And I can't wait to try other minerals and materials - oak gall ink, turquoise, fluorite, and chrysocolla pigment . . .