Friday, January 8, 2016


On a visit home for Christmas, I riffled through a pile of National Geographic's, accrued from the past few years. The issue with Spinosaurus on the cover caught my attention. I recalled how I had thrilled to pictures and stories of dinosaurs in my youth--including some Nat Geo's from the 1980s and '90s! In an instant, my child's sense of curiosity and wonder came back. Spinosaurus has dethroned and replaced Tyrannosaurus Rex for the title of largest carnivorous dinosaur, as measured by body length from tip of nose to tip of tail (fifty feet for Spiney, forty for Rex.) In habits, Spinosaurus resembled a modern crocodile, spending most of its time in water and some on land. Fish were probably its primary food, along with other aquatic life, such as turtles. Nature is a harsh and unforgiving place for the hunted--or for the hunter who doesn't meet his dietary quota and starves. I tried to faithfully represent the ancient reptile in this drawing, although he's not around anymore to give me a critique. Ah well, if he were around, he'd probably be more interested in my warm flesh than my drawing! 

Happy New Year, World!

Friday, December 18, 2015

Dawn of the Bats

I created this logo for Carlsbad Caverns National Park to promote their Dawn of the Bats special event! Millions of people have seen the spectacular out-flight of Brazilian free-tailed bats from the cavern's natural entrance in the evening. Much fewer have seen the awe-inspiring IN-FLIGHT, which takes place near the break of dawn. With a belly full of moths and beetles from the night's hunt, each bat, individually, rises high above the natural entrance, tucks her wings in and dives into the void at high speed. A loud cascade of VWOOSH sounds accompanies the dives--even a tiny animal can make a big noise if she swoops fast enough. Inside the cave, each mother bat will use sound, smell, and touch to locate her own pup and nurse him, converting the tasty insects into nutritious milk for the baby. The adult male bats, having only themselves to sustain, will probably get more sleep for the day. The next night, the adult bats will fly out again, while the babies stay clinging to the ceiling together in the "nursery" and peep back and forth, perhaps dreaming of the outside world which they have not yet come to know.

My logo will appear on the park's Facebook page, as well as fliers and advertisements for the special event. I wish good luck to the bats, rangers, and visitors at Carlsbad Caverns!

I produced the logo as an outside illustrator, not as a park employee, so the image is copyrighted to me and the park has permission to use it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Good Home for Giant Apes, Perhaps

Since arriving in Portland, Oregon, I've been out for a few volunteer projects with Forest Park Conservancy, and also some with Friends of Trees. There's something magical about planting trees, or even ripping up wood ivy when it's needed, an intimacy with the earth and soil, not found by only tromping through the woods on a trail. I found especial reward in working with a team to build a fence (to close a "social trail.") From digging the holes to assembling the fence (which much resembles Lincoln logs for grown-ups) to tamping the soil into place to secure the posts--there's nothing like building something that you can come back to revisit decades later. (As I will keep coming back to a certain stone-pillared picnic table in Whitemoore Park in Morgantown, West Virginia--which was part of my Eagle project back in the day!)

The lush rain forests of the Pacific Northwest are so full of life. A fitting habitat for squirrels, weasels, bears (rarely in Forest Park because we are in the city), Sasquatch (if they exist, probably never in Forest Park because we are in the city.) However, much of the state of Oregon consists of  vast tracts of national forests, occasionally punctuated by a small town. Out there, Gigantopithecus might lurk in relative peace, dodging hunters and logging trucks as needed.

Wild animals are elusive. I have only seen a mountain lion one time in all my years of hiking in the woods, and they have probably seen me more times than I can count. In Norway, brown bears, having been extensively hunted, learned to avoid people. (Biologists even use the term "gun selection" to describe this behavior, which has also been observed in rhinoceros.) People presumed the bears extinct from many areas, until biologists gave it a thorough investigation, and found they yet lived. After this discovery, civilian eyewitnesses to the bears came forward to describe past events, apparently no longer deterred by prevailing wisdom. All over the United States and Canada, there are native peoples who believe that Sasquatch is not only a spiritual being, but a physical one as well. The Sasquatch hypothesis has gained more credibility in recent years, thanks efforts by anthropologist D. Jeff Meldrum, survival expert Les Stroud, and others. As happened with Norway's bears, civilian eyewitnesses to Sasquatch have come forward to describe their hard-to-explain experiences. Les Stroud has propounded the idea that if Sasquatch exist, they must be even smarter than big cats or bears. To have avoided confirmed detection for so long, they must have NEAR-HUMAN levels of intelligence. If Sasquatch is real, it could be cause for a loud new cry for conservation. It could provide not only moral grounds for forest preservation, but legal ones as well. The Endangered Species Act has long been one of the most powerful forces for protecting natural habitats--and it can only be applied to species whose existence has been confirmed.

What if Bigfoot is proved real? To gain some idea for how human society might react, it is wise to look at the past record. For hundreds of years, legend had it that there were "ape-men" in the forests of East Africa, with various Native tribespeople and European explorers telling stories of their close encounters. In 1902, German officer Robert von Beringe ventured deep into the jungles of Rwanda, and shot two of these simians. With type specimens in hand, biologists named the new species Gorilla beringei. They are more commonly known as mountain gorillas. Europeans generally mistook the peaceful herbivores for aggressive monsters. And, uncomfortably, these behemoths looked all-too-humanoid; they appeared to be "between man and beast." This discovery came at a time when Charles Darwin's revolutionary theory of evolution was still relatively new, and humanity still reeled from the blow to its collective ego--that scientific evidence led to the conclusion that we are animals descended from apes, instead of divine beings who stand apart from the rest of nature. Could the giant ape REALLY be our close relative? This question ignited a firestorm of debate in the newspapers and universities, which became known as the Gorilla war. Scientists and others weighed in, in a dispute focusing largely on the details of comparative anatomy, and representing the conflict between Darwinism and human exceptionalism. An American boy named Merian C. Cooper followed the Gorilla war. After he grew up and became an Airforce pilot and filmmaker, he became captivated by W. Douglas Burden's written account of his expedition to the island of Komodo, where he confirmed the existence of the "dragon lizards." Another mythic beast had turned out to be real! Drawing upon inspiration from these remarkable animals, Cooper conceived an idea for the ultimate adventure movie: African gorillas battle Komodo dragons, with a band of human explorers caught in the fray. He revised the idea to feature a single giant gorilla who would face off against both dinosaurs and men with guns, and fall for the charms of a beautiful woman. In 1933, Cooper co-wrote and co-directed the classic monster film King Kong, with stop motion maestro Willis O'Brien bringing the beasts to life.

Today, Kong is still a movie star, and field studies by Dian Fossey and others have revealed that real gorillas are among nature's gentlest giants, a far cry from the rampaging Kong. And the Gorilla War is forgotten. It is odd how quickly the cryptic "monsters" become normalized as animals once their existence is verified. The giant squid is a recent addition to the beasts of legend who have proven to be real. Perhaps some day, the Sasquatch will similarly be featured in Ranger Rick, Wikipedia, and the San Diego Zoo, and the fifty-year debate over the veracity of the Patterson-Gimlin film will be forgotten.

The name Sasquatch is a variation of sásq'ets, borrowed from the Halkomelem language. The name is often translated as "wild man of the woods," but a better translation is "wild master of the woods," (according to Les Stroud, as he learned from his "native teacher.")  Indeed, if the great hominid exists and has survived and evaded us for this long, he is a greater master of the woods than even the best human trackers and survivalists. His connection to earth far outclasses mine, but still I am still happy to be of service, in replanting small patches of the forests where he might thrive!

The Gorilla War is brought back to light by Monte Reel's recent book Between Man and Beast
Artist unknown on the old gorilla image.
Kong vs. T.Rex image was used for promotional purposes by the now-defunct RKO pictures, and is used here for educational purposes only.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Together we are strong

I painted this watercolor of a black bear (based on my own photo from Yellowstone), while my friend Raven practiced her singing and piano. The friends who art it up together stay together, in my opinion.

And an unrelated announcement.....

VICTORY! After hundreds of thousands of us took to the streets, many hundreds committed acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, and over two million called or wrote to the president in opposition to the black snake.

A time to celebrate. (And rock out to Epica's "Omen--the Ghoulish Malady"!) One down, so many more to go......  

No KXL image by and belongs to the folks at

Monday, October 19, 2015

Fear of the Predators

The horror writer H.P. Lovecraft wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” On this subject, I am not qualified to dispute the old grand master of horror (whose bust adorns the World Fantasy Award)... but I will anyway.

I suspect that our true oldest and strongest fear is the fear of being eaten.

I've been reading the manga series Attack on Titan by Hajime Isayama, set in a dark future wherein the last survivors of humanity fight a war against giant zombie-like beings, the Titans, who eat people. I must be impressed by the visceral power of the story and art: the shock factor of a titan closing its jaws around a human torso never seems to ebb. Over here in America, creators Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore have produced a similar extended-war-with-zombies story The Walking Dead, which has been both a bestselling comic book series and a hit television saga.

The (mythic) Titan Saturn devouring his son, painting by Francisco Goya, 1823.

There are many hypotheses for the psychological reasons behind the boom in zombie media, which has now been going on for over a decade. One is that zombies are some kind of metaphor for hi-technology, that—like drones or robots or computer viruses or smart phones—they “only do what they are programmed to do.” This hypothesis may be partially correct, but the zombie's tapping into our primal fear of becoming prey must be a factor as well. Several of the other standard horror tropes, such as vampires and werewolves, are also known for their consumption of human flesh and blood. Some of the most memorable old horror movies (such as Curse of the Demon and Cat People, both directed by Jacques Tourneur) feature a protagonist being stalked as prey by a fanged beast. Some of Lovecraft's own stories feature cannibalism, such as the short but terrifying “The Picture in the House,” which I sometimes read aloud on Halloween or at campfires, to rattle the bones of friends.

The monsters we draw have canines and jagged carnassials—the teeth of predators. For much of America's history, without a modern understanding of ecology, Euroamericans saw herbivores as good and carnivores as bad--and so sought to exterminate the latter. And the image of the benevolent herbivore and villainous carnivore still lurks somewhere deep within our imaginations. In an old Jesse Marsh Tarzan comic book, a group of Iguanadons surround the ape-man to protect him from a Tyrannosaur.  Somehow, I think that if a real person found himself surrounded by Iguanadons, they would have a "fight or flight" reaction, just like today's wild animals. They would either see him as a threat and kill him, or maybe run away if he was lucky.

 Marsh, sometime in the 1950s.
Alternatively, to make herbivores look scary, cartoonists sometimes give them the teeth of carnivores. In his narrative “The Bugling Elk” about the mighty battles of bull elk during the fall rut, Ernest Thompson Seton drew a caricature of an angry elk, as such:

Seton, 1913

Becoming prey was likely a more frequent cause of death to people in paleolithic times, when there weren't cars to hide in or guns to hide behind. There was also the persistent danger of falling prey to another human.

From my work as a Park Ranger at Yellowstone, I have regularly experienced the disproportionate fear which people hold towards carnivores. Bears are the objects of fear to many of the travelers who look to me for orientation and advice. There is good reason to be cautious, and to watch the bruins from a long distance away. Bears can hunt people, but rarely ever do. The opportunistic omnivores are more commonly seen chowing on berries and roots and insects and carrion, or hunting elk calves by the lake. When bears do attack people, it is a defensive maneuver, in 99.5% of cases. And in 70% of human fatalities caused by grizzly bears, the attack is by a sow with cubs, whom she will protect at all costs. Natural selection favored mother bears who will not only die for their cubs, but also kill for them.

However, the same people who may refuse to exit their cars in bear country (even in the safety of a large group), walk right up to other dangerous animals with their cameras and selfie-sticks in hand. Bison injure an average of four personsper year at Yellowstone, while bears injure an average of one. Five people have been thrown or gored by bison this year at Yellowstone, and four out of the five had to be life-flighted out of the park. Luckily, all survived. Across the Atlantic, in the wilds of Africa, the deadliest large animal, in the opinion of many experts, is not the lion or even the crocodile. It is the hippopotamus, an herbivore with a fearsome desire to protect territory and young. Hippos kill 2,900 people per year in Africa, which is exponentially more than lions do. (And apparently crocs don't have exact statistics.)
And yet, somehow, the war-hammer head and horns of a bison don't invoke the same deep-seated fear as the teeth and claws of a grizzly. Repeatedly, we underestimate the herbivores, and think that animals who eat grass must not be dangerous—even when the statistics say otherwise, even after we have seen two bull bison on the plain laying into each other in the contest for a cow's affection—they ram with heads and stab with horns, parry and counter their opponent's attacks, with the agility of lightweight boxers and the power of Mack trucks.

Gary R. Paul, 2007

We reserve our greatest fear—and awe—for the animals who threaten to displace us at the top of the food chain. This sense of fear and awe has driven us to obliterate carnivores—then try to restore them. An Animal Planet poll rated the tiger as the “world's favorite animal.” On some polls, people have rated wolves as the animal they most want to preserve—which is a 180 from 100 years ago, when the wolf was perhaps the most vilified animal on the planet, or at least in the Euroamerican world. Notably, wolves at the Yellowstone region and most other places have never hunted people. However, they can compete with human hunters for large game, and may hunt livestock when their preferred wild foods are scarce. Hence, they are our competitors for the top predator title. This is likely one of the reasons why many cattle ranchers opposed the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, and some still oppose it today, despite the many forms of compensation the government gives for the rare livestock fallen to the canids. The anti-wolf ranchers are a minority voice, but a vocal one. (And there are some pro-wolf ranchers as well.)

In a world filled with dismal environmental news, the story of wolf reintroduction to the Yellowstone is one of victory and hope. So is the story of the return of Yellowstone's bears to the wild, after decades of life as beggars at the park's garbage dumps and roadsides. We can share the world with carnivores, and revel in the fear and awe and humility they give us. Provided that we watch cautiously from a long distance away.

Goya and Seton images in public domain. Other images copyrighted to respective creators and companies.

Friday, September 18, 2015

AWESOME 'POSSUM- call for Kickstarters

Awesome 'Possum, Volume 2 project video thumbnail

Intrepid maestro Angela Boyle has assembled a team of 22 artist-naturalists to tell the stories of earth’s wild and wonderful animals and plants! The comics anthology is AWESOME ‘POSSUM VOLUME 2, and I am part of the creative team.  From a script by the legendary Stephen Bissette, I have drawn a five-page comics story starring the fisher--a large member of the weasel family, elusive enough to creep and leap unseen through the forest, and tough enough to hunt porcupines. This critter takes his place alongside the dire-wolf, rough-skinned newt, snail, pelican, lily pad, and many others in this remarkable celebration of Earth’s marvels, through the ink and brushes of creative humans! To get our work out into the world, we seek your aid. We’re live on Kickstarter for the next 25 days, seeking to raise $3500. Your donations will fund the book’s publication costs and pay the artists, plus garner rewards for you. For a mere $5 pledge, you will get a digital copy of the book once this Kickstart succeeds; $15 gets you a print copy. A better deal than most of Amazon, and considerably less corporate.  Show your support for artists and animals. Kick my ‘possum!

(I'm not sure which artist did the cover art (top), Boyle or one of the others, but it copyrighted to its creator, used here for obvious cross-promotional purposes.)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Painting the Yellowstone and Seeing in Color

Last weekend, I took a short course on plein air oil painting in Yellowstone with Daniel Hidalgo of the Idaho Art Lab.  It was my first time using oils since Painting I at Denison University, fourteen years ago.

 I must have had an urge to impersonate Thomas Moran, since I bought an oils set and brushes specifically for the course. I must conclude that—with its toxic chemicals and long drying times—oil  is impractical for a man who lives out of a car and has no studio, save perhaps a corner of his small and temporary bedroom. (Watercolor, gouache, even acrylic omit the hazardous fumes and are quicker to dry.) But I appreciate the vibrancy of the colors, which is said to be a strength of the traditional paint. And the challenges can be overcome, for those artists for whom oil holds unique power.

We painted at Lamar Buffalo Ranch and Mammoth Hot Springs, and at the Devil's Hoof near Tower Falls. By the third painting, I became wildly expressionistic, holding my long wide brushes near their tail end, as I tend to do when presented with a canvas and colors to mix. I must wonder if my painting looks more like a forest fire than the spire formations of welded volcanic ash which we set out to depict. It was good not be painting alone, for a change.

On the last day, in the morning near sunrise, I sat on the back porch overlooking Lamar Valley and its buffalo herd, and saw all the highlights and shadows, crimsons and indigos in the rolling plains. I told Daniel, who stood before the overlook sipping coffee, that after only three days of painting, I saw the land differently, in its many colors, as though just noticing an autumn in Vermont. With every activity, every conversation, and every television commercial, our brains form new connections. After working in a nursery in Pennsylvania for a few months, I had a new awareness of the landscaped suburban backyards, their types and arrangements of plants. After drawing forest scenes in black and white for my latest comics story, I became more cognizant of the forests around me, the pillar-like or serpentine pine trunks, the light and shade. And with paint in hand, I see more of the world's color.

The right side of the brain is associated with pictures, feelings, compassion, and empathy, while the left is associated with words, numbers, and logic. The world's great minds—artists and scientists alike—have developed both right- and left-brained skills. If only the public schools would learn about the importance of this balance, they might stop cutting the arts with every budget shortfall. And it is wise to remember that the great places in nature are not just science labs, but art labs as well.