Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bear of the Northern Wilds

A vignette from my Yellowstone trip (with my parents) last year:

At one point along the North Loop Road, we came upon another backlog of cars—elk jam, I guessed. With so many tourists gawking and aiming cameras, we too decided to scoot our station wagon barely off the road, and join them. Some place in the woods, to which all the cameras pointed. One could imagine lines projecting from the cameras, all to converge at a point—on the nose of a small black bear. A young one. He attacked a shrub, probably fruited with currants, from every angle. He reached munched and picked, berries, leaves and all, first from one side of the bush then the other, then above and then below. From any available clearing in the vegetation by the road, the binoculars and cameras pointed and clicked. As thorough as a kid with a bag of M and M's, the bear ate for every last berry, and then shuffled on to find another bush. My mother remarked that when she visited Yellowstone as a child, the tourists would gather by the road to feed the bears bread and candy and turn them into overweight beggars. What an amazing shift between now and then, that we now capture and light up our computer screens with pictures of bears practicing their natural habits in their natural habitats! The young bear is probably out shuffling through the woods somewhere today, with pine smell in his nostrils and food on his mind.

(I don't know the bear's gender, so my male pronouns have a 50% chance of being correct.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Big event for this wandering ranger

On the evening of March 22, a few hours before my birthday, I accepted a seasonal Park Ranger (interp) position at the Canyon district of Yellowstone National Park. I will be there May through September.
I never imagined that this would happen.
For all my years of working at national parks and environmental ed centers, I had always assumed that getting a job at Yellowstone was beyond me. In good part, because of the principle of "it's not what you know, it's who you know." This time, said principle worked in my favor!
And, fittingly, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is the subject of an epic seven-foot by twelve-foot painting by Thomas Moran. Moran's paintings, along with William Henry Jackson's photographs and Ferdinand Hayden's geology-based writings, convinced the U.S. Congress in 1872 to declare Yellowstone a national park, the first in the world.
I go to where an artist moved the Earth.
I am no match for Moran, but will share my own humble oil pastel drawing, of the canyon's Lower Falls, drawn from life on my visit last year.
I hope that you all come visit me this summer!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

All-of-the-Above is a disastrous option

I acknowledge that President Barack Obama has done some good things for our planet in the past few months. Three new National Monuments, a motion to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from drilling, and the veto of the bill passed by congress to force the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. (Everyone please sign the No KXL Unity Letter and demand that Obama reject this horrible pipeline once and for all!) It's a start. But on the whole, oil drilling, fracking, and coal mining continue to expand, with support from the Obama administration and congress. This will lead to catastrophic global warming, and extreme weather events like we can barely begin to imagine—hurricanes and floods and droughts and heat waves and blizzards, all to make what New York and Boston have already faced seem mild by comparison. You and I and your children have many survival ordeals ahead (and some won't survive.) There is still time to greatly reduce and mitigate the amount of climate disruption—but not with an all-of-the-above energy strategy! To echo Naomi Klein, that's like portending to lose weight on an all-of-the-above diet. As such, I felt inspired to draw the cartoon above.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A View from the Guadalupes

I have a lot of creative projects in progress; they simply aren't quite ready to share. In the interests of keeping this blog alive, I present a field watercolor, which I painted on the El Capitan trail at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The wind blasted and whipped around me as I moved the bubbles of colored water across the page. As often happens, I felt sorry for the majority of Americans, who were glued to their smartphones and not observing the broader world. I even felt sorry for trail runners, so bent on breaking up the trail at maximum speed, that they miss the beautiful landscape it contains. People feel most alive when they are in the present moment, and using all five senses. Meditation helps with this, I am told. Impatient with traditional forms of meditation, painting on a windy hill with a hundred-mile view of mountains and rolling plains can be, for now, my substitue.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Searchers for Greatness in 2015

Inevitably, the changing of the year is a time of reflection. A review and reassessment of the recent past, and a moment to plan and hope for the future. A time when millions of Americans resolve to go to the gym, and most don't make it past January. Although fitness is important, these people are not thinking big enough. Former congressman and highly-progressive presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich has a broader and more visionary new year's resolution for America, which includes a full-employment economy, an end to NSA spying, reparations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a transition to sustainable forms of agriculture and energy, to halt global climate change. My resolutions and yours should be similar in scope!

Geographically, my 2014 spanned across many parts of the western United States. Although I still need to think bigger when it comes to accomplishments for the world, it is nice to look back with a bit of awe at all the red monoliths I saw and the frigid waters I stomped through. It is wise to pause and feel some wonder at our amazing world, a quest assisted by photos like these and these.

For the long-winded Studlar family holiday letter, I wrote the following for my part:

Ross has continued to work in National Park Service sites that feature caves. He finished a volunteer post at Wind Cave, was a summer Ranger at Timpanogos Cave, and then reprised for the winter a seasonal Ranger job at Carlsbad Caverns (held previously in summer 2013.) This all happened because one cave park led to the next—Ross is still a forest dweller at heart! Timpanogos Cave has its fair share of forests as well, with a daily hike up a rocky mountain required to reach the trio of glittering caves, the last and most impressive of which (the monument’s namesake) features many thousands of helictites—formations that resemble writhing snakes. With its comparatively small staff, Rangers at Timpanogos Cave must wear multiple hats, which Ross was glad to do. He guided cave tours and tours of Cascade Springs wetland; patrolled the mountain trail; acted as a primary EMT; and created portions of the Junior Ranger activity books for children. He wrote and drew a comics story about a Townsend’s big-eared bat and a Packrat who have an adventure in the caves, giving the National Monument a rare and innovative edition for its Junior Ranger program. Timpanogos Cave is in the heart of Mormon country. And, unlike most National Parks, the majority of its rangers and visitors are local. Ross was able to make friends across the boundary, even staying with an LDS family for several nights after the season was over .Back at Carlsbad, Ross partook in the Rock of Ages historic lantern tour, a special holiday production, wherein the modern Cave Rangers donned costumes and impersonated key people from the park’s history. Ross portrayed Ray V. Davis, the photographer whose work alerted the public and authorities to the wonders of the caverns, leading to their inclusion in the National Park system in 1923. Ross took pride in playing a fellow artist. In between seasons, he made trips (sometimes solo and sometimes with friends) to the great Sequoias; to wilderness areas of Oregon; and to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Monument Valley, and other legends of the southwest. He agrees that the family trip to Yellowstone was amazing! He transcribes his adventures and draws stories about animals and monsters whenever he can. Follow him at rosswoodstudlar.blogspot.com.”

Using a photo from Monument Valley Tribal Park (taken for me by one of their Navajo guides), I created a spoof movie poster. This made a special Christmas gift for my father. He is a proud Texan, who grew up in the days when John Wayne dominated the box office.....

Happy New Year to all and Hope for a better 2015!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rock of Ages

I wrote most of this on Dec 17th, 2014:

I shared this photo with some family and friends, accompanied by the following email:
“We took this photo at the dress rehearsal of the Rock of Ages historic lantern tour. My fellow Rangers and I portray various key people from the history of Carlsbad Caverns. I portray Ray V. Davis, photographer. His pictures were instrumental in drawing attention to Carlsbad Caverns, from both the public and government officials, leading to its protection as a National Monument in 1923. (It became a National Park in 1930.) I may temporarily lose the facial hair for the final performance, to look more period-authentic. Yes, that is a real period-authentic camera that I carry, from the days when exposures were 14-28 minutes, and you needed to illuminate the cave with a brilliant flame--Davis invented a pyrotechnic device for this purpose, wherein he blew through tubes to feed magnesium powder into the flashpan torch. I have a mock-up of that too, but can't use it, since it wouldn't pass OSHA."

Now, Rock of Ages is over. It was a collective victory. I am exhausted.

Along this lantern-lit tour, the historic figures positioned themselves at various points along the trail. Upon arriving at each point, the lighting technicians showed their spotlights upon the character, who presented their sketch, to illustrate their importance in caverns history, and connect it to the tour's broader themes--this one focused especially on preservation. Each historic person then joined the tour--in character. I shared my stop with Ranger Jeff, who portrayed Dr. Willis T. Lee (fourth from left in middle row)--the first geologist to make study of Carlsbad Cavern. And he wrote articles for National Geographic about the great cave experience. These were illustrated with photos by both Davis and Lee, after Davis taught Lee how to tackle the challenge of cave photography. At our stop, we each promoted ourselves and the cave. Jeff portrayed Lee as an egotistic and condescending Scientist; my version of Davis was an enthusiastic southern business man, skilled at customer service, but ready to hold his ground. (And I quoted Davis directly as much as possible in my dialog, drawing upon the various articles and interviews he left behind.) The back-and-forth banter and bickering between us reminded me a bit of the interactions of the twin protagonists of Dual Survival. In any case, this artist-playing-an-artist could hold his own in the flyting. I also involved the audience by posing them for a group photo with the antique camera. I received laughs when I explained that it's a 28-minute exposure. I took out and explained the pyrotechnic device, and lit a match--but was interrupted by Lee before I could start the blaze! Some members of the audience gasped, thinking I really was going to fire it up.

Both performances sold out. Our audience included some of the public, and MANY members of the broader CAVE community, employees and volunteers and their friends and families. A few members of the audience had the thrill of seeing themselves portrayed as Rock of Ages characters! Notably, Pat Joblansky (played by Ranger Ellen, far right end of photo) was a key player in this historic tour. Pat is a volunteer who conducted scientific research on the damage which lint does to caves, and undertook steps to mitigate the problem. She has led an annual volunteer lint removal camp for many years, wherein they use brushes and forceps to rid the speleothems of the offending debris. She put forth a proposal that the park service construct walls around the trails to contain the lint (after her research demonstrated the efficacy of this method), which they implemented. When the real Pat Joblansky saw Ellen's rendition of her and her work, she was moved to tears.

Pat retires this year. Her work was the inspiration for the preservation theme of this year's Rock of Ages tour. By a fortunate coincidence, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act; and so we subtitled our tour "Preserving an Underground Wilderness."

The tour culminated with a black out by column known as the Rock of Ages, accompanied by the singing of the traditional Christian hymn of the same title. Then, from out of complete blackness, the Big Room is re-illuminated a section at a time, with our loyal light technicians scurrying from one switch to the next. This is a historic reenactment of the ceremony which used to conclude all guided cave tours of the Big Room from 1928 to 1944. Eventually, the Secretary of the Interior ordered the caverns staff to stop the Rock of Ages ceremony, claiming that it was unprofessional. Maybe so, but it was also a moving and emotive moment for many visitors (and rangers!) Therefore it is unsurprising that there have been many reenactments over the years; with the formalized historic lantern tour in December established as a new tradition since 2008.  

 For months, the caverns staff has prepared for Rock of Ages. Now that it's over, a weight is off our shoulders (to soon be replaced by other weights.) Along the way, I made sure that we experienced the other Rock of Ages--I coordinated it with our Thanksgiving for "orphans" back in November. We thumped to the raucous Def Leppard song and the greatest hits album of the same title while cooking parts of our Thanksgiving feast. And after Thanksgiving dinner, we gathered around a large flatscreen television with its theater-like sound system, and watched the 2012 Hollywood musical Rock of Ages. Some film critics and members of our CAVE team rather dislike this film, but I am indifferent to their claims. For me, the film pulls at my heart strings, while making me laugh, and relive the wonder and nostalgia of the 1980s "decade of rock." (Even though I did not become a serious rock listener until the 1990s, many of these same hits still rattled our boomboxes and televisions, much to the chagrin of our parents.)

I have always supported the personal freedom to draw and sing, and contended that whales and polar bears should have these freedoms too. Which is why you and I have cause for some holiday cheer--President Obama has used executive action to protect Bristol Bay in Alaska! Take a moment to celebrate--and then a thousand more battles await. We have wilderness and farm and sea to protect, realms above ground and below.

Topmost photo by Mannie Bemis, National Park Service.
Middle photo by Jeff Strang, National Park Service.
Rock of Ages movie poster copyrighted to New Line Cinema, low-resolution reproduction used here for educational purposes only. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Sasquatch versus Condor!

Christmas in the land of deserts and caves! An odd prospect for this man of the eastern forests. The Carlsbad Caverns community has its own unique holiday traditions--importantly Rock of Ages--to be revealed in an upcoming post. We also have a Secret Santa gift exchange, which I planned not to participate in, being that I had so many other holiday engagements. Then fellow ranger Christina commissioned me to draw a Secret Santa gift for fellow ranger Lee, who is an avid fan of the Sasquatch (and less a fan of the California Condor.) This drawing was a hit among the CAVE people, and Christina has planned to cook something good for me as payment.

In the real world, Sasquatch and Condor peacefully ignore each other. IF the former is out there, which remains a matter of debate. I am told that he is often seen near Ruidoso, New Mexico, at the Mescalero Apache reservation and its environs. It is a place of Ponderosa Pine forests, and just might be right for a large bipedal ape....