Artists and nature—Oswegatchie Hills provide both medium and inspiration

People flock to nature preserves for multiple reasons—exercise, fresh air, solitude, a respite from electronics.

While the craggy Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve in East Lyme is popular with hikers who love winding trails through rugged terrain, around gigantic glacial boulders, and through low-lying wetlands, it also regularly draws artists and nature-lovers who revel in the native splendor.

One southeastern Connecticut artist, Barbara Martin, finds not only her subjects in the hills, she also finds her medium there—tree mushrooms that serve as her carving material or canvas. A studied artist who works with multiple mediums and likes to paint birds, Martin is continuing an ages-old art form.

The mushrooms Martin uses are a perennial bracket fungus, Artist’s Conk (Ganoderma applanatum), aptly named because they look much like a seashell growing out of the sides of mature or dead maples and birch trees. For centuries, artists have etched and painted designs on the harvested fungi.

The host tree species are common in the largely undisturbed coastal forest above the Niantic River, a tidal estuary that flows directly into Long Island Sound between East Lyme and Waterford. While close to 460 acres have been preserved, the Save Oswegatchie Hills Coalition—founded by Connecticut Fund for the Environment, Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, and Save the River-Save the Hills—continues to fight legal battles to protect the adjoining 236 acres from development.

Fall rains bring out the fungus. Martin carefully cuts off each conk, always leaving a little of the mushroom bracket for regrowth. While the top of each growth is smooth and firm, the moist white underside must be handled carefully. A mere brush by a fingertip will start to turn the underside to shades of brown and black.

The artist uses a toothpick to carve her creations on the fleshy underside. Once the fungus dries in a matter of days, she may add color or additional designs with acrylic paints. The fully dried fungus will last for years.

Barbara started carving three years ago for family and friends. Her collection includes bluebirds, cardinals, and woodpeckers, as well as many flowers and landscapes.

Looking for a late fall hike? Check out the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, 10 Memorial Park Drive, Niantic, CT, (www.oswhills.org) open daily sunrise to sunset. Post your favorite hike photos at Friends of Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve’s Facebook page, www.facebook.com/fohnp.

Want to learn how you can help us Save Oswegatchie Hills? See www.ctenvironment.org/oswegatchie.

Barbara Martin and her art.

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