Losing Hope

By Neva Knott


Image courtesy of EPA.gov.

We’ve driven, shopped, and eaten our way into disaster. I am on the brink of loss of hope, ready to give up. None of my beliefs seem strong enough to put into action and my voice sounds miniscule in the drowning cacophony of corporate greed and single-purpose endeavors and snack packaging.

I cannot understand how so many humans deny that we are in a mess. Our life support system is failing. Call it what you want–climate change, ecological disaster, overpopulation, water wars…sum total, the natural processes that allow humans to stay alive on this planet are ruined, and at our own hand, by our getting and having.

I cannot understand the arguments to keep going in this way–to keep waging age-old wars that poison water and destroy the arability of land. To keep chopping down trees that control heat and air quality and groundwater retention. To keep paving ground that filters the water cycle, thereby controls flooding. To keep destroying food source after food source through poisoning with chemical pesticides and mono-cropping and over-harvesting. To keep driving as a right rather than a luxury so that high-risk drilling is the norm.

And here’s the rub–what we get for all that quickly goes into a landfill. The stuff garnered by all of that destruction is stuff, not sustenance.

I have come to the point where I find it hard to write about the positive, because my brain shuts down at constantly being bombarded by the negative. Not so much that it exists, but by the human stupidity behind the destruction. I understand how the media works, how a news cycle takes over rational, critical thinking, and how we all live in a culture of embeddedness. I understand that socio-political change, which is the driver of climate resilience, only comes though a constant push on many fronts to fill the gaps left in the mainstream master narrative. But I also see a lot of hypocrisy and a lack of common sense.

For example, the morning I began working on this essay, I ran across a news story about getting rid of deer in Ashland, Oregon. Too many of them–overpopulation, and they are bothering the humans. The controversy is to shoot them or not. That’s a moot point. These are the real solutions:

1. Conduct urban planning that includes habitat needs of non-human species. When the new housing development happens in what was previously home to deer… Ashland is a small town, and one that has thoughtfully built a unique destination for itself, and a human lifestyle that embraces certain qualities, those we now call make local habit. In the early planning, to protect local businesses, the town had the foresight to say no chains in downtown…it’s that same foresight that must extend to dealing with wildlife. Essentially, Ashland businesses said hey, this invasive species will ruin us if we let it set up shop here–franchises controlled by outside interests will take down our habit…deer now face the same issue.

2. The second issue with deer here in Oregon is due to eradication of predators, wolves in particular. I’ve written a series of essays on the history and science of wolves in Oregon. Let me simplify the issue–they do more good than harm when on a landscape where they belong. They are not a direct threat to humans unless humans go looking for a fight with them. In the whole history of Oregon as a state, there is no documented case of a wolf attack on a human.

The reality is, if we cut down all the places animals live in their natural states, they will come hang out in our yards and ruin our flower beds.

Even when measures are in place with the intent of co-existing with wildlife or at least easing human displacement of them, animals are there as part of the make-up of the planet, as are humans. By design. If we reach back and look at indigenous cultures, there’s much to learn about living in accordance, species to species.

But I’m not writing here today about deer overpopulation. I went on that tangent as an example of lack of simple common sense and the ability of humans to apply a concept (keep the invaders out so we can have a livelihood) to our own needs will using the other edge of that sword (we’re the invaders and now deer are displaced in their sense of livelihood) for all other species.

Common sense in this day and age and in terms of where we are as a species on this planet is this simple: Do my actions add to the problems or are they part of the solution?

Here’s a juncture where I my head begins to explode–there are so many aspects to consider–plastics in the ocean; melting Arctic ice; illegal poaching of rhinos and elephants for their horns and tusks; polluted rivers and decreasing fish runs; GMO foods and Monsanto… But not really. There is one game-changer problem and everything else is a sub-set of it–climate change.


Image courtesy of Australia.gov.

This week, when reading around online, I was reminded of the key word in the climate debate–abashedly, I’d forgotten this word as the new level of the bar, even after having heard the lead climate scientist for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) speak last spring.


This is the word used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 2014 report–covered here in the Washington Post.

Climate change IS. The Environmental Protection Agency has this to say about it:

Climate change is happening.

Our Earth is warming. Earth’s average temperature has risen by 1.5°F over the past century, and is projected to rise another 0.5 to 8.6°F over the next hundred years. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can translate to large and potentially dangerous shifts in climate and weather.

The evidence is clear. Rising global temperatures have been accompanied by changes in weather and climate. Many places have seen changes in rainfall, resulting in more floods, droughts, or intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced some big changes – oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. As these and other changes become more pronounced in the coming decades, they will likely present challenges to our society and our environment.

The debate of what about it happened at Kyoto in 1997. The deniers are behind the times, stuck someplace with the cavemen who didn’t believe in fire or the wheel, with the people who doubted air flight or the moon walk. Climate change is all around us… it is the biological state of being of planet Earth. What the world’s climate scientists want us to know is that there is no turning back, no escape.


Image courtesy of CDC.gov.

Every action every person takes every day affects how this thing is going to go. What we’re really dealing with is climate resilience, a concept agencies have been working on and running models to study for some time now–about since Kyoto. NOAA has developed a toolkit to guide Americans in this change of thinking and lifestyle. It’s time for that concept to become the mechanism of socio-political change that might save humans from extinction.

More overwhelm. (Keep in mind, it can be assuaged by common sense and working through some simple biology lessons…)

I have pretty good sustainable living habits, some born of frugality way back in college, some born of awareness and my liberal arts educational experiences, some born of my embeddedness in a “subvert the dominant paradigm” counter-culture, some born of travelling third-world countries as a child, some born of what I learned about the natural world from my father, some born of the waste-not, want-not mentality of my grandparents who lived through the Depression, some born of common sense and my innate understanding of right action.

Lately, though, I have changed or refocused my thinking about my own getting and having. I’ve re-oriented everything I do so that I now look at it through the lens of climate change.

If my actions to get my needs met now require me not to contribute climate change, I have to think about my getting and having of food, shelter, livelihood, social needs, and the kind of work I do. What can I do in my daily life to eliminate carbon, methane, and nitrogen emissions–the main greenhouse gases that cause global warming–in production of what it takes to run my life?

To date, I’ve made these changes:

I drive a car that runs on biodeisel and use fuel produced in Oregon where I live and I drive as little as possible; I eat only organic food and as much of it locally grown as possible; I don’t eat much meat at all, and I what I do eat I make sure is sustainably grown or fished; I avoid plastic and work to minimized disposable stuff, mainly packaging and single-use what-not; I use only eco-friendly home and personal care products and as few of them as possible. These actions have become habits.

What’s new for me is thinking about the clothing I purchase and how much I travel.

Sustainability practices measure sourcing, energy of production, and waste…take these factors into account when thinking about the goods and services you consume and work to reduce harmful sourcing, wasteful energy in production, and wastefulness (disposability) in the life of the product, and you’ll be making great strides minimize your impact and creating climate resilience.

The message from scientists and climate activists is loud–it’s here and it’s real but we can work to slow the progress. The planet has warmed just a degree and a half–I can’t imagine it at the 6.3 F degree increase that is the projection. It’s time to act.

Discovering the North American Pawpaw Tree, Asimina triloba, (Sort of)

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author's pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author’s pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The powerful forces of forest succession threaten always to engulf the 18th-century stonewalls that surround our 1770 center-chimney farmhouse. During the restoration of the house, we largely gave up trying to stem the encroachment of the surrounding forest. However, several years ago, we began in earnest to work to control that encroachment, in great part due to an alarming increase in the number of Lyme ticks in our yard, which resulted in two of our three children being positively diagnosed with Lyme disease. Reducing moist, shaded areas along the edge of a yard through tree cutting, in conjunction with short-cropping the grass and the removal of leaf litter and other detritus, is a critical component in the war on Lyme ticks (Ixodes scapularis) that has become critical to country living in the northeastern United States. I have previously written about the Lyme disease crisis—a word I don’t use lightly.

This past spring, I began cutting back saplings, creating a ten- to twenty-foot buffer along the outer edges of our stonewalls. At the same time, I began clearing and grass-seeding the inner buffer of the wall that separates our front yard from the road. When I first bought the house in 2003, I had noticed a small stand of trees along that wall that looked to be some kind of tropical ornamental that could survive New England winters. This seemed likely, given the line of Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) that lined the eastern edge of the yard. The stand on the south road-edge featured alternate broad leaves as long as sixteen inches stem to tip. They seemed conspicuously out of place amidst the maples, hickories, oaks, birches and elms that, along with eastern white pines and hemlocks, define the surrounding forest. Though I had often intended to identify this tropical oddity, I had not done so by this past spring. In the effort to clear the front wall, I began to cut the stand down, and, at the same time, began limbing an adjacent venerable eastern white pine, also a major shade source.

In the spring of 2014, to celebrate the arrival of our third child, a friend had given us a gift certificate for the annual native plant sale offered by the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District. As we mulled over the catalog choices, a particular fruit tree caught our attention, the North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which was purported to produce a fruit similar in appearance to bananas but with a flavor and texture more akin to mango. We were intrigued and initially decided to buy a bucket sapling. We reconsidered, however, for two reasons. First, owing to years of successional encroachment, we lacked a light-sufficient, open space in which to plant it. Second, the catalog noted that pawpaw flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat. With conjured visions of a tree that mimicked, albeit on a smaller scale, the most famous of the “carrion flowers,” Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), we were reticent to plant one too close to our house and opted instead for a group of native butterfly attractors.

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw's tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw (Asimina triloba) saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw’s tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fast forward to the early summer of 2015. Having cut about half the trees of the unidentified exotic stand along our front wall, I began to rake out the carpet of leafy detritus and natural mulch that had built up beneath them over decades, unearthing the fragmentary evidence of former property owners: assorted canning jar fragments and several rusted lids, old nails, an 80s-vintage orange foam Big Mac box, assorted hardware encrusted in rust, and, most interesting of all, a faded but still-legible plastic plant nursery tag that offered the life history of and planting tips for the pawpaw tree. The light went on. Gathering a handful of brown, nickel-sized seeds scattered among the leafy debris—mystery seeds that I had noticed every fall but never investigated—I went in the house and completed a quick Google image search for “pawpaw seeds.” With that first search confirming what I expected to see, I completed subsequent searches: “pawpaw leaf,” “pawpaw flower,” “pawpaw bark,” each subsequent search adding additional confirmation. We were the proud owners of a substantial pawpaw stand, more commonly referred to as a pawpaw patch, half of which I had just cut down.

John James Audubon's rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

John James Audubon’s rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

Despite my own ignorance of the pawpaw as a native North American tree, according to an article by José I. Hormaza, published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, its presence in North America was documented as early as 1541 by a member of the De Soto expedition. Hormaza likewise notes that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition relied almost entirely on wild pawpaw fruit for subsistence over several days in September of 1806. In his book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Andrew Moore writes of the cultivation of pawpaw trees by several Native American tribes in the pre-Columbian era, noting that tribe members “carrying seeds in satchels rather than their stomachs” likely replaced the traditional dispersal of pawpaw seeds by then-extinct prehistoric megafauna. John James Audubon, in The Birds of America (1827-1838), features the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in the context of a detailed rendering of an insect-damaged pawpaw tree with a cluster of overripe fruit. Hormaza likewise notes that Thomas Jefferson cultivated pawpaw trees at Monticello and even sent both seeds and plants as official ambassadorial gifts to France in the late 18th century. Still, the pawpaw, as suggested by Andrew Moore’s book title, seems largely to have fallen victim to obscurity in the American public consciousness. So perhaps it should not be surprising that I could step out my front door for thirteen years, look directly at our pawpaw patch, even admire its downward-facing crimson flowers in spring, and remain ignorant of its natural history. Still, I am a bit surprised given my predilection to wanting to be able to identify the species of all kinds that occupy our woods.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author's patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author’s patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

This summer, with our pawpaw patch thinned and the pine boughs that once shaded it cut back, the more mature of our trees have produced a respectable fruit crop. As I write this, it is still too early to harvest them, but we are eager to do so in mid to late October. They certainly produced fruit in other years, as evidenced by the seeds we would turn up in our fall raking, yet never once did we notice the fruit that followed the spring flowering. This is certainly due in part to the color of the fruit being, at least in our specimens, nearly identical to their leaf color. Even now, with our new awareness, it takes careful looking to see most of the fruit. Still, our failure to see the fruit of previous summers is also just as certainly a product of the fact that we as human beings, collectively speaking, often simply do not see what we are not looking for. And I am reminded in all of this that our minds can always be more open, our senses keener, our curiosity stronger. Natural history writer Edwin Way Teale, in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, notes, “Among the tangled weeds of the roadside or in the grassroot jungles of your own back yard, you encounter strange and incredible forms of life.” He later notes, “The more we know, the more we see; our adventures increase with knowledge.” When we are suddenly struck by our lack of such knowledge, as I was with my “discovery” of our pawpaw patch, we can be critical of our own ignorance, or, instead, we can be grateful for the rich and unquantifiable range of knowledge that is offered to us by the natural world. I choose the latter.

Harapan the Hairy Rhinoceros (and Hero!)

There are only about 100 Sumatran rhinos, also called Hairy rhinos, left in existence and only nine of them are cared for in captivity. Of those nine, there is only one that lives outside of Southeast Asia. This special guy is Harapan, affectionately known as Harry and who in 2007, was the third of three calves born at the Cincinnati Zoo over six years.

Even more remarkable are the additional successes of the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation & Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW). In 1984, a captive breeding program began but there was no success until 1997, when CREW scientists began using endocrinology and ultrasonography to learn about the reproductive physiology of Sumatran rhinos. Ultimately, this resulted in the first Sumatran rhino calf bred and born in captivity. Harapan’s older brother Andalas was born on September 13, 2001. In 2004, his sister Suci was born. Unfortunately, Suci passed away in 2014 after a prolonged illness that was aggressively treated by staff and veterinarians for months. Suci had hemochromatosis, which is the same condition to which her mother succumbed. Hemochromatosis is an iron storage disease that is known to be inheritable in humans. It likely is inheritable in rhinos also.

In 2007, the Cincinnati and Los Angeles Zoos (where Andalas was living) agreed to send Andalas to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, a breeding facility in the Way Kambas National Park of Indonesia, to replace an old, infertile bull. In 2012, a healthy son was born to Andalas in Sumatra.

Andalas nudging Ratu Photo by B. Bryant, Taronga Conservation Society, Australia

Andalas nudging Ratu
Photo by B. Bryant, Taronga Conservation Society, Australia

This month, the Cincinnati Zoo announced that Harapan will be moved to Indonesia. He is sexually mature and his opportunity to breed and contribute to his species’ survival exists only at the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary. There are three possible mates awaiting Harry’s arrival.

Listed as Critically Endangered on The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources Red List of Threatened Species, the Sumatran rhino is the smallest and last form of the Two-horned hairy rhinos that have lived on the planet for 20 million years. Between 1985 and 1994, a total of 40 rhinos were captured for captive breeding including the seven and three sent to the United States and United Kingdom, respectively, from areas converted to plantations.

The historic range for Sumatran rhinoceros is from the foothills of the Himalayas in Bhutan and north-eastern India, through southern China (Yunnan), Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Viet Nam and the Malay Peninsula, and onto the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia.

Sumatran range map courtesy of The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Sumatran range map courtesy of The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Hairy rhinos live in tropical rainforest and montane moss forest, mainly in hilly areas near water sources. Males are primarily solitary, but can have overlapping territories with females, which are commonly found with their young. Their lifespan is estimated at about 35-40 years, gestation length of approximately 15-16 months, and age at sexual maturity estimated at 6-7 years for females and 10 years for males.

Significant threats to survival of this species include poaching and reduced population viability. Hunting is primarily driven by the demand for Traditional Asian Medicine that erroneously believes that rhino horns and other body parts have medicinal qualities. Centuries of over-hunting has reduced this species to a tiny percentage of its former population and range. As a result, breeding activity is infrequent, successful births are uncommon in many populations, and there is a severe risk of inbreeding. These circumstances necessitate this big move for Harry, who is symbolic of decades of cooperative conservation efforts among many dedicated scientists in multiple zoos.

Harapan is the only Sumatran rhino on view to the public anywhere in the world. Zoo visitors can find him in Wildlife Canyon daily from 9 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., weather permitting, until he leaves for Indonesia, the date for which has not yet been determined.





Summer Leavings: Finding Ourselves in the Turning of the Seasons

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) nestling left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author's 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author’s 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Several years ago I removed the rotten eaves of several sections of our 1770 farmhouse and began to reproduce them with like materials. I extended the rafters, cut and installed soffits, even drilled holes for louvered vents to be installed at the project’s conclusion. During this time, we completed tests for lead paint throughout the house, tests that yielded levels so high that we cleaned and packed all of our belongings, found a temporary apartment, and moved ourselves and our sixteen-month-old daughter out of the house in less than ten days. We would remain out of the house for nearly a year, during which time we undertook a full lead abatement followed by a comprehensive interior restoration. Nonessential projects were put aside, and, in the years that followed, the eaves were left open, waiting for fascia boards to seal them. In the interim, the soffits provided ideal nesting platforms for a host of backyard birds—ironically with no greater use than this summer, just as I had bought the materials to finally finish the project. On the west side of a circa-1850 build-out of the house, American robins (Turdus migratorius) built five nests, none of which was ultimately occupied, while, on the east side of the build-out, eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) built two nests, from one of which two sets of nestlings were fledged by mid-August. The other remained unoccupied.

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), also referred to as the autumn meadowhawk, a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

When it was clear that the robins had ultimately raised their broods elsewhere (at least one in the rafters of our open garden shed), I cleared the abandoned nests and began cutting, painting, and installing fascia boards on the west side of the build-out. In mid-August, when the phoebe parents had ceased their constant foraging of our backyard, I checked the nests and, finding them empty but for one dead nestling, I cleared them out and finished the eaves there as well. I wrote last month of my children’s deep interest in the lives of our backyard birds. Finding the dead nestling, I did not hesitate to show it to them. In fact, in it I saw an important opportunity. We have worked hard to give our children a deep appreciation for the natural world, and such a deep appreciation must, at least in part, be predicated on understanding what we, as a society, often characterize as the harsh realities of nature’s cycles. To appreciate fully the way in which utterly helpless phoebe nestlings metamorphose into strikingly dexterous and proficient aerial hunters in less than a month, we must understand the short odds of their surviving the fourteen to twenty day nestling period. Without such knowledge, the depth of our appreciation is inherently limited. Thus, it is important that we resist the ready impulse to frame our children’s sense of wonder for the natural world, and also our own, in one-dimensional, incomplete terms.

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

Several months ago, I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange an “Homage to the Month of June.” In it I reflected on a time when, as long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […].” Now, in late August, reflecting on the dead phoebe nestling, it seems a time for a different kind of homage, as the husks of once-abundant summer life amass around us: the shed exoskeleton of a dogday harvestfly (Tibicen canicularis); a cinched, gauze-enfolded scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) leaf that formerly housed eastern tent caterpilars (Malacosoma americanum); the brittle, browned-out flower heads of red clover (Trifolium pratense), once vibrant, now melding with the yellowing stalks of upland pastures. Then, too, absences abound, which, like their counterpart abundance emerging in June, amass just as exponentially as summer gives way to autumn, then winter: The midsummer dragonflies, the eastern pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) and twelve-spotted skimmers (Libellula pulchella), no longer hunt the pond and field edges; the summer fledglings that remained and foraged for a time near their nests are gone, too, some to migration, others to predation and starvation; absent, too, are the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), the American copper (Lycaena phlaeas). In late August, past summer’s prime, we witness the remnants of lives ended, both in evidence and by absence, but we see, too, the foreshadowing of lives yet to be lived. We see clearly how one life must give way to another, how each organism sews the seeds, in one form or another, of its generations to follow. Placing ourselves in this context, it is inevitable that, in the passage of the seasons by which we mark time, we see an analogy for the passage of our lives.

As we do with so many aspects of the natural world, we impose our own hierarchies on the seasons, attach our own meanings to the life processes that define them. British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his 1819 poem “Ode to the West Wind,” paints fall and winter as times of decline and death, writing in the poem’s opening stanza, “[…] thou breath of Autumn’s being,/Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing […].” By the poem’s end, however, Shelley writes of the hope fostered by the coming spring: “O Wind,/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale likewise saw spring as a time of hope and renewal while he struggled with prostate cancer from 1974 until his death in 1980. In an April 1977 journal entry, he writes with deep gratitude for the news that hormone therapy seems to have momentarily checked the progress of the cancer: “More months to work on my book—more months to enjoy the spring! How hard it would be to receive bad news in the spring!” American poet William Stafford, in his short poem “Fall Wind,” writes, “Pods of summer crowd around the door;/I take them in the autumn of my hands.” Later, the speaker of the poem “shiver[s] twice:/Once for thin walls, once for the sound of time.” As summer winds down, it is hard not to wallow in a sense of decline, but the end-of-summer leavings challenge us to do otherwise. In the fragile husks of life extinguished, life still abides, and we are reminded that in nature change is constant, life is fragile. We are reminded as well to shed our imposed hierarchies and relish both the beauty and the harshness of each season, allowing both to feed our sense of wonder in equal measure.

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

Entering the World of Whales: the Exquisite Photography of Bryant Austin

by Shauna Potocky

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

A rare encounter as captured by Bryce Groark. Bryant Austin and a Sperm whale meet. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin has seen whales in a way most people will never experience—he has floated for hours in their realm simply waiting for them, waiting for a connection and an opportunity. Today that patience and care represents the most exquisite collection of life sized and detailed whale photographs in the world.

Austin has traveled to remarkable locations in order to wait—places such as the Caribbean, Australia and the South Pacific. When his waiting results in a connection, both whales and the world are rewarded. He is then able to capture and create composite photographs resulting in 1:1 scale portraits of whales—life-sized. Yes, whale sized photographs.

Austin’s work has brought the essence of whales to humanity in a way that is profound. This work has resulted in worldwide recognition, from gallery exhibitions to whaling conventions.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin specializes in 1:1 scale, life sized composite images of whales. This is a Minke whale composite on display during an exhibit at Tamada Museum, Tokyo, Japan. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Recently I had the opportunity to connect with Austin and ask about his inspiration, challenges and insight.

Shauna Potocky: Your work is recognized around the world and is so incredibly unique. What inspired you to do this work?

Bryant Austin: I’ve always been unsatisfied by the way whales have been photographed underwater. In the beginning I thought that there were no other options for photographing them underwater in ways that would make them more compelling.

By a completely random event in 2004 with a humpback whale mother and calf, who moved right up to me while I was on snorkel—they were less than six feet away at times and I could see for the first time, their true colors and all of the fine texture and detail that makes them real. This is what started the process for me to think about how I could photographically capture those moments and recreate the emotional sensations I experienced.

SP: Your incredible body of work has led to you to participate in conferences or other opportunities that address issues facing whales and marine mammals. What meetings or events have you participated in? What role did your work contribute to these meetings? What was the outcome or your thoughts on the proceedings?

BA: In 2008 I had my first opportunity to exhibit my work at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Santiago, Chile. The exhibit itself didn’t change any of the outcomes. However, there were indicators of its power to move viewers. Outside of the main meeting room, where everyone breaks for coffee, were massive tables filled with brochures and pamphlets either for or against whaling. As my exhibit was in the main lobby, we asked the IWC Secretariat if we could display my first life size portrait of a humpback whale calf in this area and with no text of any kind. The Secretariat said “no,” stating that it would be too provocative and contentious to do so. The idea of a life sized portrait of a baby whale being contentious made me realize that my photographs may indeed have the power to inspire change in the coming years.

SP: Art can be a powerful tool for education and engagement. Have you found that your work has inspired others to care for the ocean, for whales or other marine mammals?

BA: When my work was first exhibited in Norway, I realized it had the potential to speak to a wider audience, including those living in countries that commercially hunt whales. I remember a press conference where former whalers were invited to see my work. At times they were moved to silence and I was captivated by their expressions as they studied my prints, seeing a whale in a way they’ve never known.

SP: What challenges did you face along the way to following your path working with whales and sharing your work as an artist?

BA: The biggest challenge is funding. My work had no precedent for a reason; it is very expensive and risky. It can cost as much as 2,000 dollars per day to work alone at sea with these creatures. I float alone in the ocean among them and patiently wait for them to approach me on their terms. I may go three months in the field and only have one or two encounters that are meaningful to my work. Other times, I may be in the field for five weeks and return home with nothing. This is the risk I must face in order to create something very special that has never existed before.

Even after a successful field season, the challenges continue as I must raise enough money to frame and mount my largest works which can cost as much as 85,000 dollars. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate exactly why this has never been done before. In a lot of ways this work shouldn’t exist, but it does so, against all the odds.

Bryant Austin's book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s book, Beautiful Whale, brings the reader into the world of whales. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

SP: You recently published the book, Beautiful Whale. Can you share with us a highlight for yourself in completing this book?

BA: One of the highlights was returning to the Kingdom of Tonga in 2011. Five years had passed since my last trip there and it was cathartic to be back. I was there for only five weeks and was attempting to compose a few more portraits for the book. I had many great and memorable encounters, and it was great to apply all that I’ve learned over the years with the whales who originally inspired my work.

SP: Your art has been featured in some remarkable locations. Do you have a favorite exhibit? And, do you have any upcoming exhibits scheduled?

BA: The one exhibition that always stands out in my mind is Beautiful Whale at the Tamada Museum in Tokyo, 2010. My largest photographs were printed and mounted for the first time and debuted at this museum. It was only the second time I had ever seen these prints full size and it was a heartfelt experience to see the responses from the overwhelming number of visitors that attended.

My most recent show at the USA Gallery at the Australian National Maritime Museum came down this year. I currently have no plans for another major solo show in the near future; however, several of my prints will be featured in a group show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts starting in October, 2015.

SP: What do you feel is the most critical issue facing whales today? What can people do to help protect marine life?

BA: There are many issues threatening the survival of whales today and few that we can change as individuals. However, the one thing we can do as individuals is to simply stop eating seafood. It is estimated that 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die entangled in commercial fishing gear each year for our love of seafood.

More whales are dying every year entangled in commercial fishing gear than at the very height of commercial whaling. I would encourage your readers to make a commitment to no longer eat anything from the ocean.

Reflecting on Austin’s comments regarding entanglements, important quantitative information is coming to light. In a study published in Conservation Biology in 2006 by by Andrew J. Read, Phebe Drinker and Simon Northridge, the paper focused on determining global rates of bycatch and subsequently reported “an annual estimate of 653,365 marine mammals, comprising 307,753 cetaceans and 345,611 pinnipeds.” Today efforts are increasing to address this issue.

Bryant Austin's whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s whale photography is extraordinary. This image is titled, A Mother Listens. Photo courtesy of Bryant Austin.

Bryant Austin’s work captivates. He has connected people to one of the terrestrial world’s greatest mysteries—the ocean and the world of whales. Through his work, book and exhibitions, these monumental beings receive the awe and respect they deserve. Yet, their journeys and livelihood are not without peril. Today, the world is more equipped to protect marine mammals than any other time in history. If we cannot directly stop whaling or the impacts to marine mammals, such as entanglements, we can directly address the marketplace that drives the harvest or mechanism of their decline. When we make choices the marketplace listens and that, scaled up, results in change.

After the Bridge–Let’s Continue to Block Drilling in the Arctic

By Neva Knott

It’s been just ten days since Greenpeace activists dangled from the St. Johns Bridge across the Willamette River here in Portland, working to block Shell Oil’s icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, on its way from dry dock back to the Arctic to drill for oil. The image below is now iconic, having appeared in media pretty much everywhere.

Streamers float in the wind under the St. Johns Bridge In as activists climbed under the bridge in an attempt to prevent the Shell leased icebreaker, MSV Fennica from joining the rest of Shell's Artctic drilling fleet. T According to the latest federal permit, the Fennica must be at Shell’s drill site before Shell can reapply for federal approval to drill deep enough for oil in the Chukchi Sea.

Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace.

According to reportage in Portland’s Willamette Week, Greenpeace arrived as a surprise. Local activist groups 350 PDX, Backbone Campaign and Portland Rising Tide had planned to put boats in the water to block the Fennica from departing, but had no idea of Greenpeace’s plan. The bridge activists descended in the pre-dawn hours and the other groups and concerned citizens launched at dawn. All in all, the Fennica was unable to leave.

gpbridge4Photograph courtesy of Greenpeace.

The action lasted 39 hours and was truly a peaceful protest. Details of it can be found on the Greenpeace website, local commentary can be found at Willamette Week, and several photos are on Alternet.org. In the end, the Fennica was court-ordered passage, but the direct action made an impact. The spokesperson for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’s office remarked in the WW, “…the protesters had done a tremendous job of getting their message out…” and Jessica Moskovitz of Oregon Environmental Council was quoted to say, “You need moments that focus everybody’s attention, and that’s what Greenpeace does.” Of course, Greenpeace followed the action with a petition to President Obama, who recently approved, and defended his decision to allow, Shell’s drilling in the Arctic. 

There’s been enough media coverage of the events at the St. Johns Bridge. I’m writing to extend the conversation beyond the huge direct action–because there is much more to do, and several aspects to consider (which I’ll cover soon in future posts) about Shell drilling in the Arctic.


Image courtesy of wikipedia.

But first…what’s the problem with Shell drilling in the Arctic? With Shell as a company, at least in environmental terms?

Drilling in the Arctic is a climate change game changer of devastating proportion. Treehugger reports that, “Northern Alaska is warming at twice the rate as the lower 48 [states].” Drilling will only accelerate warming. Additionally, there is the risk of a spill–along the lines of the BP oil spill in New Orleans in 2010, which changed that ecosystem forever. Greenpeace, in Top 10 Reasons Why Arctic Oil Drilling Is A Really Stupid Idea, enumerates: It’s extremely dangerous; our climate can’t afford it; relief wells are harder to drill [and necessary in terms of spill mitigation]; oil recovery is near impossible in ice; there isn’t nearly enough spill response capacity; nature is even less capable of absorbing oil there than in lower latitudes; the local wildlife is very vulnerable to oil; it’s hugely expensive; we don’t really need to–given that “car makers are perfectly capable of making only fuel-efficient vehicles.” Possibly the biggest reason not to enact this environmental damage is that it provides only…

A three year fix – the US Geological Survey estimates the Arctic could hold up to 90 billion barrels of oil. This sounds a lot, but that would only satisfy three years of the world’s oil demand. These giant, rusting rigs with their inadequate oil spill response plans are risking the future of the Arctic for three years worth of oil. Surely it’s not worth taking such a risk?

Shell has aggressively pursued drilling in the Arctic. As the world’s biggest company, Shell has pull–part of the St. Johns Bridge story is how quickly a judge ruled in their favor. The recent analysis of climate change polluters summarized by The Guardian lists Shell as one of the 90 companies that caused two thirds of man-made global warming. Shell also has a horrible environmental record, as you’ll see reported by manufacturing.net and Oil Change International. In a well-sourced article on wikipedia, Shell is named a “high priority violator” in terms of pollution violations against the Clean Air Act. And there’s the rub–once again big money is allowed to leap over laws. The company seemingly operates from the stance that might makes right.

Why? Because we live in a market driven society. This problem is that simple. Shell and companies like it do what they do because they make lots and lots of money–for themselves and stockholders.

Such favor is extended because the dominant belief is that Shell is filling a societal need, providing a benefit, by damaging the ecosystem/geographic region known as the Arctic. Change the need and change the game…


Image courtesy of University of Oregon.

The US is the world’s largest oil consumer. If most other countries–some large, some small, some industrialized, some not–can consume so much less, we can. This is where we, individuals who function in the market-driven society as consumers, come in. First step–drive less. Second step–change your fuel sources; for example, I use Oregon-produced biodiesel in my car and wind powered electricity for my home. Third step–stop buying petroleum-based products… and the list of them  is long, and sort of scary, considering one I saw was novelty candy.

I’ve written a handful of pieces in the last few months that tie to changing purchasing habits to help the environment. If face of companies like Shell, it’s really the only boots on the ground way to affect change. Big actions like dangling off a bridge are truly important to raise awareness, but then we must–each and every one of us–act to manifest that awareness as change.

Our consumer habits are our weapons of immediate action, other actions are also effective–please sign the petition to stop Shell from drilling, and please contact your Senator; several are already putting pressure on President Obama to protect the Arctic.

A Near Complete Commercial Trade Ban on Ivory in the United States

ivory crush

Ivory Crush at Times Square (photo from the Creative Commons)

It is estimated that one elephant is killed in Africa every 15 minutes, mostly conducted by militias and militants turning tusks into cash to be used for funding efforts towards destabilizing nations and looting them of their resources. Elephants could be extinct in a few decades at this pace.

Two years ago in Tanzania, President Obama announced an executive order to direct action and better organize the U.S. government’s efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. This week, he proposed a new rule that is a derivative of that prior declaration. So much will come of this including investment by the U.S. Agency for International Development in new programs across more than a dozen countries to help combat wildlife trafficking. Congress has called for a study on the link between poaching and terrorism, and the Department of Defense is now getting involved to track down terrorist poachers. Private donations are resulting in additional weapons and game wardens to help fight, throughout Africa, the militants that target and kill elephants for ivory to fund their activities. Botswana has banned all sport hunting of elephants, and has begun humane ecotourism development to support their economy.

When I posted on the Facebook page for my own blog, The Whisker Chronicles, the news of President Obama’s issuing of a proposed rule that will establish a near-complete ban on the commercial ivory trade in America, some readers posted compelling questions. What does a near-complete ban mean? Why is there not a complete ban?

Existing U.S. ivory regulations mostly concern the import and export of the material from the country, while allowing some legal trade of the material between states. The new regulation, which will be finalized later this year, would restrict interstate trade to antique items that are over 100 years old or contain a minimal amount of ivory. The proposed rule also contains new restrictions on the international trade.

Prior to this past Saturday’s announcement, many animal conservationists had argued that allowing some legal ivory trade provided a cover for criminals who were actually selling illegal ivory. Ivory has been part of an international commercial industry for items such as piano keys, dominoes, false teeth, billiard balls, along with a multitude of every day items for various purposes. Unfortunately, there are also a multitude of trinkets, carvings and adornments from an era of luxurious indulgences that gave no regard to the life taken for such purposeless things.

Much of the world is no longer willing to participate in or tolerate this behavior. It is challenging and sometimes impractical to gather up every antique ivory item created decades ago or to spend resources to punish those long in possession of ivory items, however acquired. Now even antique dealers will be under more scrutiny. In a 2009 investigation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials seized more than a ton of ivory from a Philadelphia art store that had been manipulated to appear old enough to meet federal standards. Ivory from that seizure was destroyed at an “ivory crush” event in Times Square last month. For a full explanation of the changes, visit The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Revisions document.

Personally, I have legally handled ivory and other animal parts that are banned for commercial trade in various roles as a zoo keeper, aquarist and zoo volunteer. There are certain exceptions to the laws about possession when items such as ivory were not illegally obtained and will not be sold for commercial gain but will be used for scientific education. Even then, those possessors are merely being allowed to hold the items which really are property of the U.S. Government and can be seized at any time. The ivory I handled was the end of a tusk that had broken off naturally from a young, healthy elephant that lived in the zoo. There was nothing nefarious about it. But the looks on the faces of the kids that got to touch a real elephant tusk while looking out on exhibit at the elephant it once was attached to was priceless. I doubt that any of those kids started thinking about how to make money from that tusk.

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)

Little Diamond at the North Carolina Zoological Park (Photo courtesy of NC Zoo)