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.

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.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bear in the Valley

In Hayden Valley, a young adult grizzly bear was out and about, on the far side of the river. Likely to be a female who is known to roam the valley. Many people pointed their cameras and binoculars from the field by the road, and luckily kept their distance. The bear chomped away on some carcass in the field, then trotted towards us. I was a ranger on duty, and so I told folks to step back and keep the 100 yards distance. The bear hopped into the river. She waded out to grab hold of a bison carcass (mostly a skeleton with a bit of flesh still clinging.) She spun the carcass about and reared up on top of it, sunk her jaws deep into the abdomen. She attacked the carcass from every angle, and tried to extract every last morsel of meat, all the while braving the chill water. Then she went back to the far side of the river, and ran downstream. The people followed, most in their cars, to the next pull-out. A pair of law enforcement rangers arrived there, and I left the crowd control to them. In this event, had to refrain from photography, so as not to look like a tourist. I did get some fine views of the distant bear through the binoculars. The bruin, in classic fashion, exploited the remains of animals who did not survive the winter--a brutal time for the large ungulates. Yellowstone astounds!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Be wary of animals large....

I asked my supervisor at Yellowstone Park her opinion about solo hiking. She said that she did it regularly, and called it a “calculated risk.” The next day, I was out alone, hiking stick in hand, wide-brimmed hat on head, in a lodgepole pine thicket, after a meadow. I had my canister of bear-spray clipped to my hip. I had sent my friend Lesley a last minute text message about where I was going, which I consider as passing with a “D” when it comes to notifying an outside party of one's travel plans. I had hiked solo in black bear country countless times, but Yellowstone is also home for the larger and less predictable grizzly.

As I went, I spoke “Yo whazup bears, I be passin' through.” (They normally walk away at the sound of a human voice.) It felt odd, talking to myself, and the one-sided conversation was hard to maintain. I passed a wetland where the chorus frogs sang  their continuous “Creek-eek.” There were many patches of snow among the fallen timber.

In the forest, it was scarier. I glanced about, wondering what lurked in the shadows under the trunks. My senses heightened halfway to the level of a deer, the ever-vigilant prey. My imagination turned a small branch breaking in the wind into the footfall of a massive animal; a crunch of rocks under boot became a bruin's grunt; a boulder into a hairy beast. Then I came to an indisputable sign of the grizzly bear—tracks in the mud, with long claws prominent.

I splashed through some muddy trail to Cascade Lake, my destination. I turned around and headed back.

I strode faster on the way back, my confidence increased. Still I periodically checked for my canister of spray, and made my voice quietly heard to the trail ahead.

The next morning, in the shower, I felt a little bump somewhere on my buttocks. After out-ruling potential scabs or zits, I knew what I had to do. I grasped the tick with my fingernails at the front of the head, and ripped it out forcefully, some skin along with it. With abdomen full of blood, the critter slipped out of my hand and down the drain of the sink. With its little legs waving, I failed to identify the type of tick, but regarded it as certainly larger than a deer tick. Now, a week later and with no symptoms, I am in the clear.

However, the irony was not lost on me. While I was distracted by the thought of large and fearful mammals, a silent but deadly beast, the miniature septic tank, easily crawled up my pants leg. A tick check the same day as my woods walk would have saved me some blood and concern.

Precautions for bears and sharks are important. However, the deadliest animal in the world is the mosquito, for its spread of disease. Ticks rank second as disease spreaders. Bees are another force to be reckoned with, as 53 people per year in the US die from allergic reaction to their stings. We can share the wilds with all these creatures, with the right precautions. Enjoy the woods, my friends, but be wary of animals large and small!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Ravens in the Steam

Another vignette from my visit to Yellowstone last year:

“The ravens were everywhere. They watched from trees, soared above on ebony outstretched wings, owners of the domain of yellow rocks. Along the “back basin” of Norris Geyser basin, a group of three ravens cackled and cawed and croaked, in a three way dialog of some kind. Perhaps gossip about the goofy bipeds who pass in the thousands by day, and point their gaping cameras at the steam.”

This year, I have moved in to Yellowstone for the next five months. My inaugural field sketch, below, I made at Norris Geyser Basin. New stories await!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

CAVE Exodus, the freeing of a trapped Spider

It has been a trying winter at Carlsbad Caverns. We recently had a collective going away party for the last five seasonal rangers to go off to their new parks and new adventures. They asked us each to give an informal exit speech. Reluctantly, after urging from my peers, I stepped to the “podium.” A slightly-edited version of what I said:

“As you all know, my childhood hero was Spider-Man. I wanted to be Spider-Man: to scale sheer walls, to swing from webs, catapult myself from a web-slingshot, and kick-out villains with both feet. It never quite happened.

But when I arrived for work at Carlsbad Caverns for the first time in May 2013, I learned that my proving ground would be Spider Cave. I was nervous. I had been on one wild cave tour before, when I was twelve. That was long ago. Had I become claustrophobic? There was only one way to find out.

I emerged from Spider Cave covered in red dirt, having belly-crawled through the narrow passageways, with the red crusts of corrosion residue all over the walls, the ghostly calcite formations—the gnome and the Medusa room and the pirate ship. I emerged victorious—I had survived Spider Cave. Therefore, I must be a Spider-Man!

Later that summer, I delivered my first bat flight program, at the amphitheater overlooking the natural entrance to Carlsbad Cavern. I spoke of the Batman symbol and Native American stories of bats as heroes, and the heroic feats that real bats perform, such as keeping insect populations under control. And the bats emerged, the counterclockwise spiral cloud, which has graced our landscape in summer evenings for many millennia. The people watched in awed silence as the bats filled the purple sky. They flapped and whizzed around me, inches from my nose and 500 feet overhead. And so I was Batman.

At what other job do you get to be BOTH Spider-Man and Batman?

My favorite Spider-Man story was “If This Be My Destiny....!”, from the original 1960s run, by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. This tale remains a classic, an influence and inspiration to generations of cartoonists and readers. After a battle with Doctor Octopus, Spidey has recovered a rare isotope needed to cure Aunt May from a deadly disease. But unfortunately, Spidey is pinned to the ground by a block of fallen machinery the size of a building. Cold water drips on his head and soaks his body. At first, he remembers his failures and gives up, and prepares to die alone under the crushing weight. Then he thinks of his family and all the people who need him, especially Aunt May. He musters the strength and will to lift the machine. You can feel the force and the power, as trembling with agony, he rises to his feet, hoists the titanic hunk of metal and casts it backward.

It reminds me of this winter season at Carlsbad Caverns. We went through 'breaking bat' and 'sewergate' and the rest. We faced broken water lines and broken sewers, and walked on iced-over pathways through winter gusts to reach the port-o-potties. We filled jugs with water in White City, and filled buckets from the trickle off the rooftops. We took hell from the powers that be over minutia and things not our fault. And, by strength of this family, this community, we still lifted the machine. We kept Carlsbad Caverns a world-class National Park. A pristine cave and home for bats, and an unforgettable experience for the people who visit. This victory is collective.

Whenever Tales of the Uncanny from About Comics comes out, look for a parody of the lifting scene, written and drawn by yours truly!

Batflight photo by NPS, public domain. 
ASM #33 cover by Steve Ditko, copyrighted to Marvel, used here for educational purposes only.

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”

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!