Forest Notes: The Five Hikes Challenge, Told in Brushstrokes
By Brenna Woodman
How did your relationship with nature change in 2020? During a time when the future has been unpredictable and accessibility to familiar people and places has been limited, there does seem to be one thing that many people have gained: a fresh connection to their local forests.
Some of these connections were aided by the Forest Society’s Five Hikes Challenge, which saw more than 300 participants explore more than 30 Forest Society properties across the state in fall 2020. The program captured the attention of those seeking a much-needed outlet to decompress and reset in nature. Some participants took the challenge to another level in their own unique ways, from doing 31 hikes in 31 days, for example, or, in the case of artist Claudia Michael, painting each property she visited to capture her experience.
Forest Notes chatted with Claudia to learn more about her recent endeavor and evolving bond with New Hampshire forests.
Artist Claudia Michael described this piece inspired by Morse Preserve in Alton: "This painting was done after my first hike at the Morse Preserve. I had never seen Alton Bay from this vantage point. It was a spectacular early fall day. The distinct cloud patterns added to the drama. The scene is the second of two paintings completed from my first introduction to Morse. For this one, I decided to use a limited palette
- Forest Notes: What are your ties to New Hampshire?
Claudia Michael: I am both a lifelong New Hampshire resident and painter. I was born in New Hampshire and live in Manchester. While I am a retired art teacher from public schools, I continue to keep busy and serve as a consultant and an adjunct art professor at Granite State College and the New Hampshire Institute of Art.
- When did you start painting?
I remember drawing at five years old and practicing on paint-by-number sets in elementary school; I took my first art lessons in high school. When I began painting regularly soon thereafter my compositions were in oils, but I have worked primarily with watercolors for the last 30 years. Over time, I preferred to stay away from the toxicity within oils, and I really enjoy the speed and spontaneity that watercolors provide in expressing different experiences and emotions.
- Had you participated in a 5 Hikes program previously?
This was my third time participating in the Hikes Challenge. For the first two years, I would venture to properties with friends and really enjoyed the educational component that came along with these visits. There were often people present on the properties to explain the various fungi and vernal pools that existed on the land and how they contributed to the overall lifecycle of the surrounding environment.
Although I enjoyed visiting new properties with my friends, I thought I would take the opportunity this year to incorporate a creative element while I experienced these properties in peaceful solitude and could gain newfound perspectives.
- As you did this challenge and paintings in tandem, did you learn something new about yourself and your connection to nature?
Incorporating my artwork within this challenge was a natural progression for me in a lot of ways. For the last twenty years, I have done mostly plein-air painting (leaving the four walls of a workspace behind and painting outdoors) to capture landscapes as authentically as possible and get assorted views and interpretations. I get excited by focusing on a themed project, and this challenge allowed for me to really run with it and see what visions came forth.
In a time where we are more “distanced” than usual, this experience heightened my connection to nature and validated the importance of being present within a practice, whether it’s painting or hiking or just sitting peacefully in a field, and never taking for granted the ability to have these moments of tranquility on protected land.
- What Forest Society property did you have the strongest connection with and why?
I was very drawn to the Morse Preserve. In addition to emphasizing sunlight in my artwork, I really enjoy having water views as an added element to work with and the Alton Bay viewpoints really resonated with me (and inspired several different compositions).
- What property do you want to paint next?
I can genuinely say I have enjoyed every single Forest Society property I have visited so far. I find that my preferences change and depend on my mood, but that is the beauty of having this array of land accessible to us all. I do not have a defined list of what property to visit next, but I often reference my latest Forest Notes issue and other online materials to gain new inspiration. I am excited to build on the journey and see how I can continue to incorporate creative pursuits to remain motivated, avoid feeling isolated this winter season, and learn more about myself in the process.
Prior to this latest hiking challenge, I also officially became a Forest Society member to take full advantage of their resources and keep a better pulse on their latest activism. I am a huge supporter of their ongoing advocacy work, and hope that this past year has encouraged more New Hampshire residents to pay attention to environmental preservation on the local level.
Brenna Woodman is an avid environmental enthusiast and supporter of the Forest Society. She splits her time between the Seacoast and the White Mountains, where you can often find her (and usually her old rescue dog) at Creek Farm or Bretzfelder Park. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 issue of Forest Notes magazine.