Rider’s Lens: Mara Menahan’s Baja Watercolors
In today’s edition of Rider’s Lens, we take a peek at Mara Menahan’s beautifully detailed botanical illustrations. She recently returned from pedaling the length of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, where she methodically documented the regions rare flora with watercolors…
I came to Baja to ride my bike, look at plants, and paint them in painstaking detail. I was also interested in the fauna—once I carried the entire carapace of a lobster for several days before the dry heat drained it of its spectacular ocean induced blue—but my love of botanical illustration predisposed me to the peninsula’s flora, twenty five percent of which can only to be found in Baja, and nowhere else on the planet.
For the previous two years, I worked as the botanical illustrator at the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. Using the same simple tools that natural history illustrators have employed for hundreds of years, I painted from real-life specimens to document the growth, development, and diversity of the Botanic Garden’s collection. More recently, I’ve focused on illustrating outside of the garden and museum setting.
The heaviest piece of gear I carried while riding the Baja Divide was a plant book (Rebman and Robert’s Baja California Plant Field Guide). Between my bike pump and a bottle of Salsa Huichol, I stuffed long, bean-like seed pods from mesquite trees into my frame bag. In the outer pockets of my panniers, branches from boojum trees and ocotillos bounced alongside the trash (baby wipes, crushed Tecates, and sardine cans). For a week, I packed three apple-sized gourds called melon de coyote into my panniers each morning along with my art supplies. Before I sliced them open to illustrate their insides, the melons made great bocce balls.
If it were the 1800s, somebody might have sent me on a ship by now to accompany some crazed botanist into the Amazon. Since that invitation hasn’t materialized, I’ve found my own ways to carry out the artist-naturalist tradition. I’ve kept a field journal since I was a kid and find the practice more relevant now than ever. Representing nature by hand takes time and bicycle travel facilitates this slow, contemplative way of moving through a landscape.
I plan to publish a reproduction of the field journal I kept for the three months I spent in Baja, along with some written notes on the natural history of the Baja Divide route. In addition to a printed version, I’d like to make something available online for cyclists to reference while they’re riding—a way to encourage bike travelers to slow down and literally stop and smell the flowers (not that you need much encouragement when you’re greeted by one of those giant endemic yellow morning glories).
If anything, I hope a resource like this might start some conversations between riders and locals about what they’re seeing. Many chats I had started when people recognized a native plant in my field journal. Even with my terrible Spanish, the people I met taught me the names, uses, toxicity, and medicinal properties of the things I was painting.
I’d like to continue documenting natural history in this way. I find this work especially exciting in places like the Cape region of Baja Sur, where human development is putting tremendous pressure on the area’s rare and endemic flora.
Mara’s Illustration Kit
In Baja, I carried a folding palette with pans of buttery smooth watercolor pigment and pads of 100% cotton watercolor paper that’s so thick it’s almost like fabric. Halfway down the peninsula I ran out of paper. Fortunately, I met some retired gringos in Mulegé who introduced me to a local artist who was able to spare some supplies.
Lastly, I’d just like to say muchas gracias to Nicholas Carman and Lael Wilcox for developing the incredible Baja Divide route, Advocate Cycles for providing me with a bomber rig, and Bunyan Velo for additional support.
About Mara Menahan
Mara Menahan is chasing the dream of backcountry botanical illustration on her bicycle. Inspired by the artists who accompanied scientific expeditions over the last several centuries, Mara is working to carry on the tradition of natural history illustration in the field. See more of her work at maramenahan.com and find her on Instagram @maramenahan.