Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Humbly Joyful Anniversary

April 3, 2004--ten years ago today--was the date of my senior art symposium at Denison University. I shared the gallery with such luminary works as the paintings and prints of Harper Leich and the sculptures of Alison Johnson. I debuted A Humble Joy, my first published graphic narrative. I broke new ground, as the first-ever student at Denison to create a comic book as a senior project. Faculty mentor Ron Abram made it all possible. To celebrate, I have re-opened my etsy site, and posted a small number of copies of A Humble Joy for sale. Get 'em while they last. I'll sign 'em too.

Front cover and interior artwork for A Humble Joy, 2004

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Walk with Tatanka

Knowing that my time in Wind Cave National Park ran short, I set out for another hike in the prairie. It was a mild and overcast day, the sort of the day the widlife would be out and about (without heavy rain or harsh cold to prompt them to seek shelter among trees or in ravines.) With my wide-brimmed hat, and backpack with sketchbook, water, etc, I jumped into my vehicle, with a planned destination of Highland Creek or Centennial Trail, both of which begin in the eastern part of the park, off of NPS 5, our dirt road “widlife loop.”

The previous evening, I had taken a saunter from Wind Cave Canyon to Bison Flats Trail, a trip which began practically outside my doorstep, and brought me across rolling prairie. Coyotes barked and howled back and forth in the graying evening. And of course, the prairie dogs did their backflips and high-pitched yelps of warning as I approached.

Now, I drove to the north end of the park and turned left onto road 5, prepared for more encounters with the prairie fauna, especially the large and charismatic. Greeting me on the rolling hillocks of prairie were three bison, one of whom struck a dramatic pose, with the waving grass around her, and the backdrop of angular orange-and-purple mountains behind. I started a pencil outline for an image in oil pastel, but the subject kept moving. And her cousins advanced towards the car, and I pressed the pedal and moved on.

At the bison corralles (so named for their role in the annual roundup) a throng of bison stood, moved in their slow amble, and watched the coming vehicle, distracted from their pursuit of grass. One was in Highland Creek, lapping up water.

I decided to go farther, to the trailhead of Highland Creek Trail. As I drove the car higher up and toward the open field, a herd of bison appeared. In my apparent naivety, I still hoped to hike on Highland Creek Trail, and pulled from the road onto its pull-off. 

The bison were a good few hundred yards away, and had their own business to attend to—or so I thought. With confident strides, the herd advanced toward me. The young ones, some yearlings, who looked like pygmy bison, RAN towards the mobile mineral deposit. They licked their lips as they ran, as though my vehicle were an ice cream truck. The bigger bison kept to an even walk, but also had their pink snake tongues dangling at the ready. The young ones reached me first, and the lick-fest began, like a Tootsie Pop convention. With the car's aluminum shell and glass windows separating me from then, I grabbed my camera from its holster and set to taking photographs. The car gently rocked under the barrage of licks. A larger bull bison swung his head to the side, and pushed one of the young ones away—a backhanded slap from a sledgehammer head. His larger size made this side of the car rightfully his, but his code. I knew it was quite unsafe to try to get out and hike, or even to open a door or window. I hoped that they would lose interest after a few licks. But it was not to be. Instead, through my rear window, the horde of salt-hungry thunderbeasts advanced. I restarted the engine, and very slowly backed out from the parking space. The bison, young and old, stepped aside for the moving vehicle, sometimes just an inch from its path. Nonetheless, they respected the metal beast in motion. I drove slowly down the road, And noted through the rear-view mirror that the bison followed. But when I sped up just a bit, they quickly vanished into the distance. Despite their fondness for salt, they wouldn't expend precious energy on running to catch it, save for the youngsters, rambunctious as children are.

En route back, I tried to pick up Centennial Trail, but found that it had its own crew of bovid guardians. The one in the creek was preoccupied in slurping water, but the others started their saunter towards my salty goodness. Grudgingly, I drove back south. I elected to try Cold Brook Canyon trail, since it was the only trail in this park which I had not yet hiked. After a flat and unexciting mile out to the park's boundary fence, and another back, I was still ready for more adventure. I and my wheels went back north, to the other trailhead of centennial trail. The southern trailhead was pleasantly nestled under a clump of ponderosa pines. Passing the signs at the trailhead that warned of bison, ticks, and rattlers, I went downhill.

In the valley, with walls of red rock ahead, I met a trio of bison. Their heads to the ground, munching tufts of tannish-yellow grass, the ongoing quest of the herbivore. I felt the beckoning of opportunity, and reached for my sketchbook. A medium-sized bull posed before me. He lifted his head and evaluated the bipedal ape. I backed away, until he lowered his head and resumed the grass mission. I went to my knees in the grass, and opened my sketchbook, and set to work with the pencil. The wind ruffled the pages as I went. I laid out the animal and its environs, and went to brushes and india ink. Once I was stationary, I became colder, and my one leg started to go to sleep, with weight on the knee, mooshed into the grass. I shifted my weight to the other knee, then stood upright for a bit. This wasn't a temperature-regulated studio. Out here in the field, I had to earn every line, and every stroke from dip pen or brush. I marveled at how Conrad Martens, George Catlin, Mark Catesby, and John William Lewin did it. Before cameras, this was how scientists and journalists and documentarians made field records. It still has its utility, although I had to acknowledge that one could shoot more than a hundred pictures in the time it takes to draw one. Today, I hear the debate over whether GPS will make people forget how to use maps. The debate over whether calculators would make people forget how to do math happened mostly before my time, but some of it carried over into my young days. But whatever debate happened over whether cameras would make people forget how to draw, it had ended before my parents were born. While artists lost some jobs to cameras, they also felt a new freedom, and took up abstract expressionism and the like.

I completed my drawing while munching a chocolate-flavored energy bar, which helped raise my body temperature (and made for a luxury not shared with the artists of yore.) Then I walked onward. A little further on, where I followed the trail dipped down to meet the stream, I met a large bull. This one scared me more, with his size. I shook a bit when he stared my direction, to make his judgement. I was either significant (as threat or competitor) or not significant. I backed away slowly, reducing my percieved level of danger. I needed to forgo the trail and bridge, and find a different place to cross the stream. Luckily, the bull lowered his head back to the stream, and resumed his drink. And I found another stream crossing, with only a little muck having penetrated my boot when I arrived on the other side.

I walked onward down the path, until it was time to turn around. As I came back, I walked behind the great beast. He strode through the path hewn by the stream. His muscles rippled as he walked. I had to admire the power of Tatanka—and try to keep my distance. As he turned and veered, and I strove to maintain a seperation of more than 100 feet, and so stayed well away from the trail.

The bull, in confident strides, approached the others. The three bison eyed each other, and stared and held ground, but took to sharing the space of the field. As this occurred, I continued efforts to keep far away, but also to get a few pictures. I still shuddered when one bison or the next stared in my direction. I looked to the forested areas and considered escape routes from a charging buffalo—I had learned that putting a barrier between them and me was wise, but had also seen the video where bison deftly went around the tree, to catch the man who had angered him, scooped him up with head and horns, and threw him into the air, like a rag doll. (Luckily, the man suffered only minor injuries.) Not wanting to be the next one, I kept clear, and walked along the edge of the fence, at the boundary of the field.

I passed by in peace, and back to the vehicle. Upon returning to my residence, I felt some weariness from the thrills of dodging bison, I ate some bean soup but fell into a short nap before I finished my tea.

It is glorious to be able to go for a walk near “home” and encounter the bison, the buffalo, the American icons, in their natural habitat leading their natural lives, and dodge them in one place then the next. It made me feel alive. And glad to be where I am, and to have experienced perhaps my last immersion in the grand prairies of Wind Cave. My next destination is Timpanogos Cave National Monument. A new cave, with new mountains, new forests, new territory, new people, and a new city nearby. I am not sure how long I can keep up the uncertain and unstable life of the vagabond ranger, but I must acknowledge that it has its moments of joy. I walked with Tatanka.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Vespa Returns!

I have some stories in the works, about encounters with herds of elk and the like. In the meantime, it is time for Vespa to make a re-appearance! The lady of the hornets rises and rules her domain. She and her wasps make war against those who despoil the earth. I recently started planning my third attempt at an origin story comic for Vespa, and advise all to stay tuned .... but don't hold your breath!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Photos from the American Serengeti

When Lewis and Clark came west (early 1800's), they found oceans of grass, populated by legions of bison, as well as large numbers of pronghorns, elk, wolves, and grizzly bears. When artist and writer George Catlin journeyed into this landscape (1830's), and lived as guest among multiple tribes of American Indians, to draw and record their ways of life, he proposed the creation of a "Nation's Park" to protect the grand environment and its inhabitants. (And as far as we know, Catlin was the first person to propose the concept of a National Park, the originator of "America's Best Idea.") Later, the prairie became the American Serengeti, a popular safari destination for Europeans. After guns, trains, and imperialism had their way, the landscape was not the same. Wind Cave National Park preserves small remnants of the grand prairie, with some key actors (such as bison and black-footed ferrets) restored, while others (such as wolves and bears) are still missing. To restore more of this great world, larger public parks are needed.

 (Topmost photo stars my big bro Carl. Third photo stars the Yucca Glauca, one of the most versatile plants used by native peoples. You probably recognize the bison and pronghorns.) 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Survival Tip #1: Know the Sun for Navigation and Life

To give this blog more practical aspects, I will periodically include survival tips within my entries, beginning with this one.

This morning, I awoke just in time for a glorious sunrise over the rolling prairie out my east-facing window; the landscape cast in pink and purple and blue, interrupted by a few shining white lights of a distant semi-truck rumbling over a distant highway. Now the sun streams in, gives light to the room, and fuel to the lettuce which grows in plastic clamshell containers in the windowsill.

The sun gives many things, including direction for navigation. Although we have all heard vague statements about using the sun as a compass, I recently learned how to use it effectively (combined with an analog wristwatch), thanks to a promotional mailing from Backpacker magazine. (I subsequently found that this technique is described in many places, including Bradford Angier's How to Stay Alive in the Woods, and various youtube videos.)

How to use a dial watch for a compass

Point the hour hand of the watch at the sun. Halfway between the hour hand and the number 12 is south. Before noon, move in a clockwise direction from the hour hand to find said halfway point. After noon, move from the hour hand towards twelve in a counterclockwise direction. Once south is found, the other directions follow. North is directly opposite to south. When facing north, west is on the left, east on the right (spelling “we” on a compass.) At twelve noon, the hour hand points directly south (or close to it). This entire technique gives approximate, not precise, directions, because our clocks are not perfectly coordinated with the sun (because of standard time, explained below.)

I am in the growing minority of people who wear analog watches on the wrist. But if your clock is a mobile phone or a digital watch, you're still not stuck. You can draw a traditional clock (in the soil with a stick if necessary) with hour hand pointing at the sun, and employ the same technique as listed above. Or you can use another available dial as a makeshift clock (as Dave Canterbury did in the "Split Up" episode of the television show Dual Survival, using his digital watch and the pressure gauge from his parachute.) Of course, exercise caution when looking at the sun!

On my past several hikes, I have applied the watch-as-compass technique, and quickly became confident enough to keep my magnetic compass hidden in my jacket pocket, while watch and sun (plus map) showed me direction. In so doing, I discovered a remarkable added benefit—I was tracking the sun in ways that I hadn't before. I developed an awareness of its daily trek across the sky, the tiniest hint of the awareness known by the ancient peoples who built the great houses of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and calibrated their structures to the seasonal movements of the sun and moon and stars.

For most of human prehistory and history, people have turned to the heavens for navigation and the keeping of time. Many American Indians use the term “with the sun” where I use the term “clockwise”—for the sun moves clockwise on its daily trek from east to south to west. The television series Longitude (based on the book by Dava Sobel) informed me that the original purpose for the invention of the watch was navigation at sea, with the difference between time on the ship and time at the home port being key to determining longtitude. As Sobel describes it: “Every day at sea, when the navigator resets his ship's clock to local noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and then consults the home port clock, every hour's discrepancy between them translates into another fifteen degrees of longitude.”

Radiolab's Time episode informed me that, in the United States in 1850, time varied in every location, based on the sun. Every town had its own twelve noon, based on when the sun reached its daily zenith. (Additionally, there was no single official clock, and so one person's 9:00 was as valid as the next one's 9:20.) Railroads pushed to make time become standardized, because different clocks led to missed trains. Some towns protested standard time, seeing it as a threat to individual identity. But the railroads won out. Eventually, the Standard Time Act of 1918 made standardized time and timezones the law of the land. Since then, the average American has become more estranged from the sun, as its necessity for timekeeping and navigation has diminished.

And yet, we would be wise to reconnect with Father Sun. For a greener and more sustainable world, it is essential. The Homestead at Denison University introduced me to passive solar building design: the south-facing windows of my old Cabin One trap sunlight in the winter to warm the structure. In the summer, the sun makes a higher arc, and its rays shine through the windows less directly. Similar windows are employed in the strawbale Cabin Bob and earthship Cabin Pheonix, and the superb insulation of straw and soil keeps the structures warm in the winter, cool in the summer. All Homestead buildings face south, the direction of maximum sunlight, and capitalize on some form of passive solar design for winter heat. Sadly, most buildings in America do not. Passive solar could keep millions on barrells of oil in the ground, reduce global warming, and save on costs. And it is but one example of the wonders we will achieve, if we come to know the sun. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Getting to know the black-footed ferret (and how they came back)!

On my first day as a Volunteer Ranger at Wind Cave National Park, I had the blessed experience of releasing a captive-bred black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) into the wild prairie. I won't say much more about the event here, because I hope to tell the story as a single-page comic for the park newspaper/ visitor guide. In the meantime, I have been getting to know the ferret, via the literature and my sketchbook. Although the mustelid looks cute, it is a fearsome predator of prairie dogs, and makes a chattering noise that will send chills down your spine. With its stark black and white pattern, and “mask” on the face, the ferret looks like a natural born superhero. The critter should lend itself well to the stark and iconic imagery of comics.

And the black-footed ferret is indeed an icon, for species recovery. From the brink of extinction, these critters, guided by the hands of wise and daring biologists, have made a comeback to beat Aerosmith! This remarkable story is chronicled at .

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Hawk and the Flying Turtle

I composed this drawing as a gift for my friend Lesley, whose spirit animal is the hawk. The turtle could represent all the animals she aids. However, my choice to add the reptile was influenced by the story of my grandmother, Evelyn Wood Moyle, who departed from this earth four years ago, in January 2010. My family members know all about her connection to an aerial chelonian; for now, I shall let it remain a mystery to the outside world. I also recall the Dakota story of "How Turtle Flew South for the Winter;" I rather enjoy giving the turtle an odd voice when sharing this story with youngsters. You can choose your own interpretation of the flying turtle.

Happy 2014!