My friend Brenda and I drove up to the outskirts of Deland, Florida to go painting at Lake Woodruff. The site offered many interesting subjects: piney flat woods, marshes and cypress swamps. We split up after we got our gear out of the car: Brenda went out into the open marshes to paint trees, birds and grass; I decided to paint in a cypress swamp.
While I set up my French folding easel I was bitten on the back of my hand. I looked at it and saw a dot of blood. I wiped away the red and saw that a little chunk of flesh was missing. Three golden yellow bugs that looked like armored house flies buzzed in circles around me. One of them must have been the culprit.
I swatted at them and thought that I had driven them away. I began to paint for a few minutes in peace, but then they returned. I managed to keep the deer flies from biting my face, though they attempted to slip under the brim of my hat and attack my nose, but I couldn’t stop them from biting my hands, calves and ankles. And it began to bother me that they seemed to be coordinating their assaults. Two would buzz around my neck and shoulders while the third struck lower down. And they seemed to have a hide out close by. When I went berserk and swatted in all directions they disappeared, only to return immediately once I settled down again and became a static target. I eventually discovered when I hitched up my belt that they were hiding on the underside of my paunch when they needed a safe place to rest. I weighed 240 lbs. at the time, and my gut created a very nice overhang on which they could perch.
I managed to drive them off by running up the path while swatting at them. Anyone watching would have thought that I was a lunatic. I lost them some distance from where I was working but knew that they would find me again, and I hurried back to my easel to paint as long as possible without additional torment. I made some limited progress–capturing flickering light on interlocking tree branches can be maddening–and was starting to relax when something grayish green and oozy hit the side of my hand and splattered onto a corner of my palette. Shadows from birds flying overhead streaked across the ground. I looked up and saw vultures.
I carried baby wipes in my backpack and used them to clean off my hand and palette. When I took my lunch break a half hour later I made sure that I didn’t use the vulture-pooped hand to hold my sandwich. A few minutes after I ate the last bite and stood at my easel once again I heard a faint boom in the distance. I looked up at the sky and saw a few puffy, white cumulus clouds off to the west. I went back to work and got into a nice groove where my color choices and brushstrokes began to fall into place without any struggle on my part. Then I heard a louder BOOM. I looked to the west and saw that the happy white clouds had been providing cover for a bank of dark, ugly thunderheads that trailed close behind. I knew that I had ten to twenty minutes to get the hell out of there. I wasn’t afraid of getting wet, but knew well that water should never come into contact with a wet (or dry) oil painting. I had suffered a lot as I worked on this one and didn’t want to lose it.
I packed up my gear as fast as I could and walked, ran and trotted down a five foot wide path between swampy woods on either side. When I came to a turn I nearly stepped on a black racer that was crossing in front of me. It was five or six feet long and slithered at a speed that claimed ownership of its name, and it startled me to say the least. Ten yards further up the path I met with a moderate sized gator that didn’t bother to react when I skidded to a halt and squealed at him. He too was in a hurry to cross from one side of the swamp to the other.
I got clear of the woods and huffed and puffed along the side of a marsh. When I got back to the van I saw that Brenda was not there yet. I threw my stuff in back, retraced my path and stepped out onto the marsh again. The thunderclouds were bunched in a thick, angry cluster that was a dark purple color rapidly turning to inky black, and veils of rain trailed down behind them in the distance. Lightning streaked down to the ground about a mile away in a huge, sustained bolt that was pinkish purple in color. A very loud thunderclap followed almost immediately. I saw Brenda out in the marsh struggling to haul her gear down a dirt road. I ran out to her and grabbed some of the equipment, and we fled the rapidly approaching edge of the storm. We were exhausted, but the knowledge that we could be electrocuted at any moment encouraged us to make haste.
We made it back to the van just before the storm hit. We were covered with sweat and breathing hard, and when the rain came down it felt good to let it cool us off before we retreated into the van. Lightning and thunder flashed and crashed around us, and the branches of the live oaks next to the parking lot whipped back and forth in the rising wind.
The storm passed by in a few minutes. It was just a little pop-up that had chosen our location for its theatrics. But neither one of us wanted to go back out and paint when the sky cleared and the sun began to shine again. Brenda and I agreed that there are days when Nature sends a message that our presence is not wanted, and that it’s wise to listen and obey.