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.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Old Faithful from a weary ol' Wood

It appears that July will not be a big blog month for me, since I am preoccupied to the Nth degree with other projects. First it was my evening program about the artists of Yellowstone, which I titled The Artistic Frontier, and finished, and presented on the big screen by the campfire at Canyon Village campground (to a surprisingly small crowd), then triumphantly returned a big stack of books to the library at the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, Montana. Now it's a comics story in collaboration with the legendary Stephen Bissette, featuring a fisher--that wily big weasel who leaps silently through the trees and hunts small animals up to and including porcupines. The fisher is like nature's ninja, or like a Sasquatch whose existence has been confirmed. I am drawing the five-page story based on a script by Bissette; and submitting the finished tale to the Awesome Possum collection of animal comics, edited by Angela Boyle. The editor loved Bissette's script, so I am doing all I can to ensure that my art measures up. I have penciled most of it, and the whole thing is due, inks and all, at the end of the month…. !

In the meantime, I'll share a watercolor drawing I made from life of Old Faithful. I felt the collective energy of the crowd gathered around this ancient geyser, the suspense as they waited for the blow. As they waited, I painted the surrounding landscape, and left space for the gush of hot steam. When it fired, I had to draw fast….!

I hope that all are well and a little less busy than me.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Lady Bighorns on the Edge

I thought that they were mountain goats, two adults and two babies. I wondered if they might be a family, not knowing the family structure of these ungulates. From my vantage point, on a higher cliff on the trail up Mt. Washburn (Yellowstone National Park), the animals won my heart. The babies shared their parents' boldness for walking on the edges of cliffs; however, they always made sure to keep within a leg's-length of mom. I saw a baby nurse. I zoomed in with my cameras, and clicked away. I lamented that mountain goats are not native to Yellowstone. I should not glorify or romanticize an exotic invader, no matter how majestic said animal might be, I had thought.

I put away my cameras and hiked the rest of the trail, to the fire lookout tower at the top. All of the tower except for the very top was open to the public. Inside the glass-windowed panoramic viewing room, there was a sign duct-taped to the wall. It showed a photo of a mountain goat and one of a female bighorn sheep. My subjects clearly belonged to the latter category. Female bighorn sheep can look suspiciously like mountain goats; I should have known better, having met a lady bighorn previously on a trek through the Grand Canyon.

Relieved that my animal friends had been vindicated, I ambled back downhill, and found the spot from which I had seen the wily ungulates. On the cliffs below, those bighorn sheep were still around! Evidently, these rock outcrops were lush with plants—comparatively speaking in the harsh tundra world of 10,000 feet! There were lichens of many colors, oranges and blacks, growing all over the rocks around me. And, where the sheep grazed, patches of grasses, almost fluorescent green in color, and maybe a quarter of an inch tall. Nonetheless, the bighorns munched on this sparse vegetation, a feast for them. The lambs took some nibbles from the plants, then returned, each to nurse from their respective mother. Back and forth the babies scurried, with the spastic energy of youth. It was charming to see these two mother sheep out together with their youngsters. Were the ewes sisters? Friends? Of the same herd in any case, and they liked to keep together, the fearless four. One of the moms rested, belly to the ground, evidently taking a break both from foraging and her lamb's frequent attention to the teat. Through the binoculars, I had a good view of those spooky eyes that sheep and goats have, the horizontal pupils, suggesting an alien intelligence within that elongate head. And since people are naturally acrophobic, the lifestyle of the bighorn sheep seems foreign and hard to imagine. Perhaps more amazing is how the sheep find sustenance on these barren mountains. Somehow, a tiny green stalk at a time, they find the energy to not only survive, but thrive. Lactation takes a great deal of energy—making milk for a baby requires the mother to give so much of her body and her self. And these sheep were able to do it, in the fiercest of lands. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) of Jurassic Park was right: “Life will find a way.”

Monday, June 1, 2015

Peace in the Valley

Hayden Valley is frequented by bison, elk, bears, and wolves. And it has (for me) the virtue of being close to my Canyon home base. I am often in the valley in uniform on roves, where I meet devoted older tourists with spotting scopes, who share volumes of knowledge on Wolf 755 (and adult male who roams the valley), and generally know more about the wildlife than I or most rangers ever will. On some early mornings or evenings, I come to the valley in civilian attire, with my pencils and brushes and pastels. The Yellowstone River, with its serpentine undulations, unifies Mother Nature's grand composition of landscape. I may not be able to capture it fully on paper, but it's a learning process. And, in the quietude, after the mobile homes have roared to their next stop, elk emerge from their hiding spots and trek downhill. Ravens soar to and from their nest in the trees, unconcerned with whether people are watching. And I hack away at building layers of pastel on the page. I become a shrub by the road, with that curious musky person-smell, which the beasts of the field have come to know.