The Story of Birds Brought to Life in a Brushstroke

Just one of the stunning illustrations by Jane Kim in the newly completed exhibit at the Cornell Lab Visitor Center.

Just one of the stunning illustrations by Jane Kim in the newly completed exhibit at the Cornell Lab Visitor Center. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

by Shauna Potocky

Artist Jane Kim’s hand crafted installation, “From So Simple a Beginning: Celebrating the Diversity and Evolution of Birds,” fills the largest wall of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Visitor Center in Ithaca, New York. Also known as The Wall of Birds, it is a striking art and education exhibit, unprecedented in its scope and absolutely stunning to see and explore.

The extraordinary hand painted piece blends the realism of scientific illustration with the dramatic character of the birds it represents. Commissioned by Cornell Lab as a celebration of its centennial, the project features 270 species of birds. Each bird is painted to scale and the artwork brings 243 families as well as 27 ancestors and five recently extinct relatives, into focus. The work connects the evolution and diversity of birds while demonstrating their distribution world-wide.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The project took two and half years to complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

This month, Jane Kim, creator of Ink Dwell, an art studio inspiring people to love and protect the natural world one work of art at a time, took a moment from her schedule to share some of the key highlights of the Cornell project—from its vision, content, and life size scale to Cornell Lab’s dedication and commitment to handcrafted artwork.

Through the commissioning of this one-of-a-kind project, Cornell demonstrated how much it values scientific illustration, the of blending art, science and engagement as a meaningful tool for education. In total, the project scope took two and half years to develop and complete, including 16 months of dedicated painting.

A close up view of the Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

The Great Hornbill. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Shauna Potocky:  This project is truly inspiring. What do you hope the project work conveys?

Jane Kim: The project is meant to convey the awe of how many birds there are in the world; it also demonstrates how remarkable it is that birds have diversified to such an extraordinary extent. To see two hundred families is remarkable, and they are life size, placed on a world map with relative scale, and viewable in one location.

SP: How can people see and experience the work?

JK: One of the best ways to see it is in person. Since it is featured inside the Cornell Lab Visitor Center, it can be viewed during normal visitor hours. In addition, Cornell is currently building a digital interactive that can be used to experience the wall and will be released in February 2016.  The interactive includes high-resolution images of every inch of the wall! This will allow viewers to zoom in to see the images—you will be able to see every brush stroke. It will allow viewers to select a bird, learn about it, and hear its call. One of the great features is that Cornell has the largest collection of sounds in the world.

SP: What was one of the most exciting aspects of the project?

JK: It is unprecedented—completing a hand painted mural of all the birds–it was such a large project and took so much time. Researching, learning the subjects, developing the work and then painting it. Cornell truly demonstrated that they value hand crafted murals and value the time it would take to complete such a piece. From start to finish it took two and half years and required 16 months of on site painting. Now the piece is bringing art and education to people and engaging them.

SP: What was the most challenging aspect of the project?

JK: The balance of art and science because there was a high demand for scientific accuracy. It was working with a high bar for accuracy and creating a portrait that captured the spirit of the bird. In addition, painting it so it can be viewed from all distances and still be viewed beautifully. The work needed to read beautifully in the interactive and from far away.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Jane Kim at work on the Wall of Birds, a project celebrating Cornell Labs centennial. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

SP: Were there any species of birds that captured you, that perhaps you had not known previously?

JK: I didn’t know each bird, so every bird was a surprise. I enjoyed discovering fun facts like the Saddle-bill Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis) with the only difference between male and female being the color of the eye. So I made it a female, with a yellow iris. I tried to depict females as much as I could, since males are often showier and represented.

The North Island Giant Moa (Dinornis novaezealandiae) female is also depicted because they are the bigger sex. There was a time when it was thought that they were two species—one being a subspecies because of the size differences. Testing showed that the birds were the same, males were smaller, females were larger.

Fun behaviors are also represented, such as the Long-tailed Manakin (Chiroxiphia linearis) with its fun little mating dance. There are also Gouldian Finches (Erythrura gouldiae), a set of three because they have three different head colors, yellow, black and red, but they are the same species.

SP: How do you hope this work touches people?

JK: I hope it is inspiring to see, and I hope it is statement that demonstrates how Cornell values hand painted creations that can be inspiring and useful tools for education. I hope it also inspires people to ask a lot of questions and sparks a new generation of scientific illustrators—we need that. I hope it allows others to think big, take the time and make the effort.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

Taking a step back to get a view of the scope and scale of the project. Photo courtesy of Jane Kim.

In many ways “From So Simple A Beginning” is a remarkable gift—it celebrates 100 years of Cornell Lab’s work and endeavors for birds, while providing an unparalleled learning opportunity through quality artwork that also celebrates the profound and quiet power of scientific illustration—a field that is rarely discussed yet touches so many of our lives.

With the recent completion of “From So Simple a Beginning,” Jane Kim already has new projects in the works, including the next addition to the Migrating Mural—so stay tuned as we wait to see what her next projects and remarkable artwork have to teach us.

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Refuge, Wilderness and Restoration After the Trauma of War

K Bay from Homer SPotocky

Just one of Homer, Alaska’s stunning views. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

By Shauna Potocky

Volcanoes rise out of the mist and gray mirror of the Alaskan sea as the arrival of Fall storms bring rain and cold winds. Born out of the Ring of Fire, islands form the volcanic chain of mountains and ridges that define the West Coast of Alaska and make up the Aleutian Islands, which provide remote habitat for an impressive number of birds and marine mammals.

Alaska’s coastline, including the Aleutian Islands, provides an impressive array of opportunity for a diverse range of species. From mudflats to rugged rocky outcroppings, sandy beaches or cobbled shores, the diversity of landscapes are as engaging as the animals found upon them. Some of these areas are easy to visit while others are incredibly remote, yet all of it comes to life through the story of its conservation.

As recognizable as this landscape is on the map, and as remote as much of it may be, what might be more elusive is the story of its protection. Much of the Aleutian Islands as well as significant amounts of Alaskan coastline are protected and designated as the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Its story steeped in lore, history and war comes to life at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and Refuge headquarters in Homer, Alaska—a town famously known for being “at the end of the road.”

Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center close up SPotocky

The Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center located in Homer, brings the story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge into incredible focus for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

It seems timely to revisit the story of the refuge, particularly the Aleutian Islands, because as the world faces war and human displacement today. This story serves as an important reminder of what war does, and how in the face of conflict wildlife and the environment become remarkably vulnerable and often go unprotected. The story of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge demonstrates what can be accomplished once all the turmoil ends.

The great islands that make up the Aleutian chain and other areas of the current refuge were first utilized and inhabited by people for what is estimated to be over 11,000 years ago. Today, a rich diversity of first peoples, including the Inupiat, Yup’ik, Unangan, Aleut, Dena’ina Athabascans, Alutiiq Koniag, Haida and Tlingit, continue to be deeply connected to this landscape. Their lives are filled with the knowledge of specialized skills, culture, and stories of this unique place.

Beginning in the late 1700s, expanding into the 1800s, these people were affected or displaced by an insurgence of Russian fur hunters. Russian settlements were focused on resource extraction and, once established, their skills and appetite, fed by the fur trade, depleted the area of several marine mammal species, resulting in an awaking.

Fox fur and trap SPotocky

Non-native species, such as foxes, were introduced to the islands, resulting in significant impacts to native species. Foxes were introduced in order to establish and grow fur trading operations and are a significant part of the story on display at the visitor center.  Photo by Shauna Potocky.

Due to the decline of sea otters and other marine mammals, Russians began restricting areas for hunting, essentially setting up refuge areas in order to assure the survival of species they depended on.

In 1867, Alaska was purchased from Russia by the United States. American hunting, development and extraction ensued. Over the course of generations, Alaska was opened for exploration, hunting, fur trade and adventure.

Then something unbelievable unfolded—an event that would mark a moment in time and the world’s history.

In 1942, during World War II, the Japanese began a campaign to take the Attu and Kiska Islands of the Aleutian chain. This followed actions in defiance of a fur hunting treaty and escalating tensions. Once the insurgence began it displaced island populations and included taking a number of native people hostage. This conflict launched the Aleutian Campaign in which Allied troops and military operations ensued on the islands and in the surrounding areas. The islands were horribly affected. Island populations were displaced, communities destroyed, bombs and ammunition rounds unleashed, military operations and encampments established, while contaminants and military waste were discarded and left behind after the war effort.

In the end, the landscape and islands were left ravaged and damaged, scarred with the remnants of bombshells and littered with abandoned waste. They stood in disarray; masses of twisted metal, discarded ammunition, contaminants and a newly raw history of war lay in its wake.

War items on exhibit SPotocky

Remants of war on display at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In Alaska the tides are dramatic—a deep pulling out and heaving in, over great distances and heights, similar to a great pendulum swing. Just as remarkable as the tide and its swift sweeping change, the future of this landscape began to emerge into something new, something with wider protections and a future. In the end, something positive is emerging out of the turmoil.

Wildlife refuges and wilderness areas protected significant tracks of land and habitat along the coastline of Alaska. In 1980, via the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), signed by President Jimmy Carter, astounding areas of Alaska’s protected lands, along with newly protected areas, including the Aleutian Islands, were consolidated and established as part of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.

Refuge view in Homer SPotocky

Located at the base of the visitor center is a small wildlife refuge area that allows visitors to see the land-sea connection. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In total the refuge encompasses approximately three million acres, with a mission to conserve habitats and species, manage international treaties related to the habitats and species, as well as provide for local subsistence. The refuge is also used to conduct scientific research and maintain water quality in ways that support the primary role of the refuge.

Today, people carrying out the mission of the refuge are working to repair the damage, specifically on islands that have been touched by fur trade or war. There is significant work being done to remove invasive species, such as rats and foxes, that were introduced to the islands. These introduced species out-compete, destroy and kill native species by eating the eggs of nesting birds, killing young and upsetting the balance of an ecosystem that initially developed without the presence of land-based predators.

Exhibit displays SPotocky

Exhibits bring the story, restoration, research and habitats to life for visitors. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

In addition, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is focused on removing contaminants as well as accumulations of waste and debris that were left on the islands during wartime.

Today, the incredible acreage of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge protects diverse habitat for millions of seabirds and an wide array of marine mammals, while doing something even bigger. With respect to the Aleutian Islands, it serves as an example of what protection, restoration and conservation can look like after truly troubling times. It proves that war is not the end.

Intertidal display SPotocky

Detail of intertidal display in the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Photo by Shauna Potocky.

What the refuge represents to me is that after the conflict is over, when the heartbreak and battles are done, we can choose to pick up the pieces and do something bigger, do something positive. We can take all that seemed broken and left behind, the battle scars, the waste, the heartbreak of war and repair it. Collectively and carefully, damaged landscapes can once again become incredible habitat or a place people can feel comfortable calling home.

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.

An Emerging Voice in Film and the Environment: A Special Interview with the Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition, Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Immersed in the wonder of the kelp forest. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

by Shauna Potocky

One cannot doubt the power of film, social media and the internet to connect people to stories, issues and challenges—whether on a local or global level. These same venues for communication also hold the power to share important positive stories, to educate, inform, empower and create space for important self-reflection.

One example of powerful storytelling emerged recently through The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Film Competition. The competition was hosted in collaboration with the American University’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking and gave participants a venue to connect audiences to environmental issues through the power of humor and storytelling. What emerged was a highly engaged audience who rampantly shared the videos, providing a wide reach for the issues and giving emerging voices a platform for sharing and educating in a truly unique and engaging way.

The People’s Choice and Grand Prize Winner of The Nature Conservancy Eco-Comedy Competition is the brilliant and inspiring Patrick Webster, a Program Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who specializes in educating the visiting public about marine science and ocean conservation issues. Patrick graduated from the University of California Santa Cruz and was employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at Long Marine Laboratory where he credits making the connection between “dry, academic science and translating it into words and concepts people can relate to and care about.”

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster in his element. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

I recently had the opportunity to connect with Patrick and congratulate him on his recent award winning film. It also presented the perfect opportunity to ask him about his emerging voice in the area of film and the environment, as well as his thoughts on engaging audiences and making tough issues accessible to people. Nothing short of thoughtful—one of the things that I was most struck by, was the assurance that young voices are emerging to help carry and create connections that can inspire change—and that they are doing it in new and fresh ways—ways that work.

Shauna Potocky: It is clear that you have a robust grasp of environmental issues, especially facing the ocean. What is your background in education or environmental work?

Patrick Webster: I’ve been working in the world of informal science education for about eight years now. I studied marine biology at UC Santa Cruz, and I was thankfully employed at the Seymour Marine Discovery Center at UCSC’s Long Marine Lab for my whole college career. I’m also a big fan of stand-up and improv comedy—my “arts” requirement at UCSC was fulfilled with a stand-up class—and I am currently employed with this extremely niche set of marine-science-comedy-performance skills as a programs specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I think I defaulted into conservation and environmental work from studying marine ecology and living in the Monterey Bay area—the culture here is very ocean-minded. When you’re learning about how organisms affect and are affected by their environment, just by doing whatever it is they do to survive, and when you apply that ecological thinking to people, it changes how you think about your place in the world. When you see what we’re capable of doing—both bad and good—to our local ocean, you learn quickly that if you’re not careful with what you’re doing now, you could blow it for [everyone else in] the community, human or otherwise. I like to talk to people about conservation issues, because they really boil down to our priorities and choices: we’re lucky as humans that we can pick the role we want to play in the environment—and we know now that you can make a better living whale watching in the Monterey Bay than you could whaling!

S.P.: Many of your films include underwater scenes. How did you get into scientific diving?

P.W.: I have wanted to be a marine biologist since I was five years old, ever since I saw the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But growing up landlocked in the French Alps and the suburbs of Stockholm, diving wasn’t ever on the radar as something that anyone does until the college years. It was when I started taking upper-division classes in marine science, that I realized all the people I looked up to were scientific divers, and all the best stories told by the “elders”-involved dive trips and associated shenanigans. That’s when I knew I had to be a science diver, too. It also helps as motivation that 99% of the real estate on planet Earth for life to live is in the ocean—might as well get out there if you can!

S.P.: How did you find your voice in video and film production?

P.W.: The first time I realized I might be on to something in film was the reception to my submission to the “Youth In Yosemite” film contest. It was a very personal story about my connection to Yosemite through my late grandpa and my rock climbing hobby. I liked how it came out, but the response was very humbling. A lot of people said they connected with the story personally, that they cried and were reminded of their own family history of visiting the park. A long-time Yosemite resident told me that I was the first “outsider” he’d met who “got it”, and he thanked me. That gave me the confidence to enter more contests, and when I won the BLUE Ocean Film Festival’s YouTube contest that same year—with comedy instead of the dramatic Yosemite piece—that’s when I knew that “Hey, maybe people want to hear what I have to say.”

S.P.: What gives you hope or inspires you, when you consider the environmental issues that the world or the ocean face currently–such as what you highlighted in your film? They seem like huge challenges, how do you see us facing them?

P.W.: There are so many environmental success stories out there that we simply don’t notice for the same reason we don’t notice things getting bad in the first place: shifting baselines. Every time I see an otter in the kelp right outside, that is an incredible sight, and every time I see an otter I should be saying, “HEY EVERYONE, STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THERE’S AN OTTER RIGHT THERE!” I mean, they literally recovered from being classified as extinct! We are so used to seeing otters that we forget it is like seeing a kelp grizzly. Same thing with peregrine falcons, pelicans, all the whales in the Monterey Bay—those were all on the brink of disappearing forever. Now they [sea otters] are back and doing good. But we don’t notice them because they’re normal again, which is great as long as we don’t forget where we came from.

All it took for those animals to recover was for us humans to simply stop doing stuff we didn’t need to be doing. That is what is hopeful to me about “conservation issues”: they all boil down to a matter of choices and priorities. All it takes is for enough people to say “Hey, why don’t we just stop doing that?” and things start recovering right away. DDT is killing birds? Let’s stop doing that. Catching too many fish is bad? Let’s stop doing that. The climate is wrecked by burning fossil fuels? Let’s try to stop doing that. It has worked for us before to just stop doing bad things for things to get better. It is a matter of willpower.

For a lot of problems, that willpower is blocked by a lot of moneyed interests. And that’s hopeful too, because it means that if you can figure out how to make conservation more profitable than exploitation, you win. If the worst of humanity’s traits is greed, then flipping that for the planet will save us all and then some. It’s totally doable. I think that people are realizing the economic value of keeping ecosystems healthy, and I see that reality every day. Looking outside my window, I can see a bay that swapped whalers for whale watchers, flensing beaches for seal sanctuaries, a cannery for an Aquarium.

S.P.: If you could encourage others to make a difference–what advice would you give? How can people find their own voice, like you did through film? 

P.W.: Find out what you’re good at, and then keep doing that. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it’s also very accessible. We all have our passions and our skills, and finding where they overlap is key. I’m passionate about marine science, but I’m not that dedicated a marine scientist. Had I gone the bachelors-masters-PhD-in-a-row route, I would have been ignoring the fact that I’m a far better communicator and I am an investigator. Talking in public about science has always been easy for me; writing scientific papers has always been a struggle. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it on things that are merely tangential to your actual niche. Each species out there does at least one thing better than everybody else, and people are no different.

Then, you have to listen to the people in your life, the strangers and the loved ones, and especially to the people who don’t owe you a thing. If they’re giving you feedback, it’s honest. If they tell you you’re on to something, make a note of that, because that might be where your voice is hiding in plain sight. Self-reflection is key: what is it that I do that comes easy and that people resonate with? If you find that nugget, that’s your gold vein, and you work it for all its worth.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster, an extraordinary emerging voice in film and the environment. Photo courtesy of Patrick Webster.

Patrick Webster’s current projects can be viewed at www.vimeo.com/underwaterpat and by following him on Instagram @underwaterpat. Be sure to stay tuned for his upcoming launch of www.upwellingmedia.com.

 

Inspired by the Planet: Celebrating Earth Day and National Poetry Month

KKeelerPoppies

Poppies on the west slope of the Sierra. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

The Sweet Spot of Spring

By Shauna Potocky

 

The shadows are leaning long

on the north east side of the house

so the crickets start singing,

even though there are a couple

more hours before nightfall.

 

The cold spring breeze is carrying

a thin film of burn pile smoke

from the western slope of the Sierra

down to the San Joaquin Valley;

it slips by like high clouds.

 

In the shadows the faint build up

of buds can be seen; the trees

are waking. Dangling mistletoe needs trimming

like the grasses, topped before burrs form

dry and tangle in the fur of unsuspecting cats.

 

Spring is divine. All the grasses

green and lush; wildflowers rise, bloom, seed.

The birds fill the forest canopy with chatter

song, a fair bit of whimsy.

It is the sweet spot of spring

before summer.

 

April offers much to celebrate—profound signs of spring along with two celebrations: Earth day and National Poetry Month.

This year, don’t miss the chance to find an Earth Day event near you and get out there to connect to the remarkable and unique environment in your community. Check your local community calendar listings; you are sure to find something spectacular. Many events are hosted at local parks and public lands, through businesses, by a local tribe or through full-scale festivals.

Look for local poetry events as well. Don’t miss all the talent blooming this National Poetry Month at your local bookstores, cafes, pubs or poetry slams. Many of these events are filled to the brim with eager people just waiting to share their thoughts and latest creations with you. Don’t let them down—sometimes the greatest thing we can do is show up—and you might just walk away WOW’ed and inspired.

If you’re really lucky you might just find a grassroots event that celebrates both!

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Sky Pilots in the High Country. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky.

This year, the connection of Earth Day and National Poetry Month came together at Intermountain Nursery in Prather, California, an exciting event inspired by music, storytellers, poets and of course, great food.

Intermountain Nursery specializes in California native plants and events that engage and empower individuals to embrace using natives as a smart source of landscaping. The nursery proactively educates people on common landscaping issues such as replacing water-thirsty landscaping with drought resistant plants and native species—a much needed consideration in the drought stressed state of California.

The nursery features an incredible array of community events, from their annual Harvest Festival to weekend classes on American Indian basketry, plant propagation techniques, illustration classes and much more. New for this year, Intermountain Nursery brought a unique blend of nature and art together in order to recognize and celebrate Earth Day and National Poetry Month.

Senator Gaylor Nelson fought a hard battle in 1970 to create Earth Day. Since then, his efforts have paid off. Today, Earth Day is an international event that is celebrated in schools, communities, public land sites and supported by international organizations and agencies.

Due in part to environmental champions as well as the awareness raised by Earth Day, the United States has put significant protections in place including the banning of DDT, creation of critical laws such as the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and establishment of the Endangered Species Act. Although Gaylor Nelson was not responsible for all of these efforts, the momentum he created propelled many of these issues and solutions into the public eye.

National Poetry Month was established in 1996 by the Academy of American Poets to bring wider attention to the amazing legacy of poetry. The Academy worked in collaboration with schools, libraries, literary organizations and writers, thus becoming the “largest literary celebration in the world, ” according to Poetry.org.

There is no denying the remarkable connection writing and poetry can create with the environment. Nature writers such as Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry along with poets such as Gary Snyder and Mary Oliver have captured our attention and held it, helping us keep the environment close at hand even when it seems far away from our busy urban lifestyles.

This month, take the opportunity to celebrate both Earth Day and National Poetry Month. Find some inspiration outdoors or curl up with a book from a celebrated poet or someone completely new to you—you might just find that they can connect you to the magic of the world we live in. Poetry might not be science, but it is a powerful art and its ability to help us discover and make connections to the natural world should not be underrated.

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill cranes at sunrise. Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler.

Edge of the Refuge

By Shauna Potocky

 

Held down all night

the Tule fog breaks as the dawn does

it rises, ethereal, masking the sun’s luminance;

beneath this low cloud, living things stir

water moves, ripples–and the bird calls come.

 

In the rise, wings   s p r e a d,   e v e r y t h i n g

o u t s t r e t c h e s ,   l i f t s in the coming light.

Song, chatter, foreign languages of the past

stir the damp cold of morning, every little thing

shattering in the waking of day.

 

The genes of wildness and knowing pass through the generations

they face boldly, calmly, the hunts, migrations, births, deaths

and this morning, all who wake, have triumphed.

They gather, breed, sing, sigh, continue the journey

their breathy words rise, sink, fade…

 

Their final syllables muffled as they come to rest

at the edges of the wetland, dampened by the wild

songs of the redwing black birds, who hold the line

in the tall, wind chilled icy reeds

that hold back the hunters and the rest of us.

Recreate Your Commute

Bike2SchoolDaycloseup

Excitement builds for the kick off of Bike to School Day in Santa Cruz, California. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

by Shauna Potocky

How long is your commute?

How many hours do you spend traveling to and from work, school or completing your errands? What if this time could be transformed into something that actually invested in your own well being? What if your commute time translated into health-benefits, saved you money—maybe even made your community a little nicer—by helping clean the air or reduce traffic congestion. Would you be interested?

Walking, running, skating, bicycling or using human-powered modes of travel are known as active transportation or non-motorized transport (NMT). When people empower themselves with these types of transportation options, individuals as well as communities see remarkable outcomes.  These outcomes are studied and evaluated,  such as through the work of Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, and via this work the benefits become increasingly clear.

Take the example of bicycle commuting: this single mode of transportation has the ability to produce positive change by freeing people from single vehicle transportation. It opens the door to providing physical exercise—burning approximately 500 calories an hour, while saving money directly related to gasoline costs, vehicle maintenance, registration, insurance and parking expenses. In addition, cycling is commonly used as a recreational activity, so there is the added benefit of cycling actually being fun, getting people outside and being practical.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work / School event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

How does bike commuting improve communities? Studies have demonstrated that by choosing to bicycle commute individuals have a direct and positive impact related to reductions in air pollution, traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) provides this incredible example as reported on their website, “On average, WSDOT adds more than 20 miles of new sidewalk, trails and paths each year. A recent federal study showed that when bicycle and pedestrian safety increases, total vehicle miles traveled is reduced by an estimated 156.1 million miles over the course of a year. These investments can mean savings of more than $23 million in fuel costs, and 67,000 metric tons of reductions in CO2 emissions.”

In addition, bike commuting can have even broader and longer-term positive impacts related to community planning. As communities embrace bike commuting as a viable option for individuals, they may invest in additional bike lanes, bike paths separated from roadways, bike commuting programs, bike lockers, and initiative options that further enhance cycling as a long-term transportation goal. Great examples of cities that have impressive bike commuting cultures include Santa Cruz, California and Portland, Oregon just to name two. Both areas take pride in their robust cycling infrastructure and community, which has embraced and grown truly passionate about cycling.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and handmade bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

As positive outcomes increase, communities often build on these successes, resulting in expanded investments or programs, which further benefit bicycle commuters as well as other stakeholders. Consider the success of Rails to Trails initiatives, which seek to transform train/rail systems into multi-user travel corridors that often include pedestrians, cyclists and recreational user groups. For an excellent example of a program designed to build community engagement—consider the popularity of Bike to Work days, which occur in cities and communities throughout the United States as well as internationally. Bike to Work days inspire people to take to the bike—either as a newcomer or as an experienced rider and provides encouragement, safety messaging and often food as positive ways to reinforce the effort.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

One surprising or often unseen benefit to community investment in non-motorized transport projects is that ultimately they help to create more “efficient and equitable transportation systems” as reported in the study released in February 2015 by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

How can a transportation system become more equitable? Investments that improve active transport such as walking or cycling actually translate into benefits for individuals who rely on these modes of transportation due to socioeconomic factors or physical capabilities. Thus, when a community invests in transportation modes outside of motorized use, they create benefits for user groups beyond the regular commuter. It is a true win-win for citizens and the community as a whole.

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

What if breaking into a new commute mode is daunting? Find some encouragement here! There are great resources to help get you started. Ecology Action, a pioneering organization in Santa Cruz, California has one of the most successful and inspiring Bike To Work programs around. Their site has plenty of resources, advice, tips from the pros and more to help inspire a ride to work or school by bike.

Ecology Action is an excellent example and role model for getting people inspired to make a shift in their commute—and they are just a starting point. If you are interested in taking a more active approach to your own commute consider your options and then do some homework. Depending on the mode of transportation you would like to try—whether walking or bike commuting, you may want to search for resources in your community.

Specifically for bike commuting, some employers, schools and communities offer bike purchasing assistance programs. Many bike commute programs also offer assistance with helmet purchases or bike light advice. A trip to your local bike shop can also be a great first step—experienced staff can help answer questions on what kind of bike you need or what maintenance your current bike might benefit from—in order to make your first miles smooth. In addition, they can provide advice on the proper fit of a bicycle as well as your bike helmet.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed to help more people use alternative transportation modes.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed, thus helping more people embrace alternative transportation modes. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action

Perhaps having a commute partner will help make those first few miles easier. If that is the case, not to worry, some organizations, such as Ecology Action, help provide connections through Bike Buddy programs. In addition, asking friends, family or looking for riding partners via your work, school or local bike shop can be great places to start as well.

So as the days get longer, the weather gets warmer and Spring emerges, consider all the ways you can recreate your own commute. You never know how it might just transform you and your community.

You never know where your commute might just take you!

You never know where your commute might just take you! Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler

Finding Refuge

Sandhill Cranes over water KKeeler

Sandhill Cranes and other species find refuge at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

by Shauna Potocky

The morning is damp and cool—not cold, just wet and cool. A thick blanket of Central Valley tule fog keeps the Merced Wildlife Refuge in a dream like state of obscurity. In the gray mist the voices of thousands of birds rise in the morning air. Only a few Whitefaced Ibis, Pintail ducks, Cinnamon Teals, and Northern Shovelers are seen on the edge of the wetland as the fog begins to lift and the sun rises.

Pintail Ducks and more stand at the water line as the fog breaks.

Pintail Ducks and company preen in the emerging sunlight as the fog breaks. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Today, what the fog is hiding is substantial. As California emerges from January with hardly any precipitation, it is clear that the historic drought that California is experiencing is set to continue into a fourth year. With it will come significant challenges—exacerbating last year’s remarkable issues. From critical and hard decisions regarding water allocations to agriculture, wildlife refuges, and rivers with native fish runs. To addressing tree mortality estimated at 40 percent in some areas of the state as well as having faced a prolonged fire season, with no shortage of extraordinary and fast moving wildfires.

Taking action, California is now employing significant steps to address the ongoing drought and provide for both human use and environmental needs. In November, California voters approved Proposition 1, which allocates $7.5 billion via a bond measure for water programs, projects and restoration. The proposition addresses seven key areas: Regional Water Reliability; Water Storage Capacity; Water Recycling; Groundwater Sustainability; Safe Drinking Water; Flood Management; Watershed Protection and Ecosystem Restoration.

Specifically, the proposition focuses on expanding and diversifying water resources and management options. It is clear that one method of water management cannot address the needs of the entire state. Thus, the goal is to diversify water collection and storage, protect and correct current water quality issues—primarily in disadvantaged communities where water pollution is a major issue. In addition, efforts will be made restore ecosystems and river functions and address both short and long-term water needs.

The importance of water has grabbed the attention of representatives, business owners, farmers, public land managers, and citizens. Collectively, the people of California are taking a forward-thinking, diverse approach to address another record-breaking dry year. Of course there may not be consensus on all the initiatives, yet it seems clear a diverse approach will offer more potential solutions than a narrow focus.

Faced with today’s water realities in California, a proactive forward-thinking approach is needed to address these challenges.

Habitat that received water despite overall reduced wildlife refuge water allocations.

Habitat that received water despite reduced water allocations. Photo credit Shauna Potocky

One example of proactive management includes the actions and planning of California’s Wildlife Refuge managers in addressing the dry conditions of this winter’s migratory season. Many planned for a large influx of migratory birds in December and January based on reports of a productive breeding season in the northern habitats of Alaska and Canada. With refuges situated along the Pacific Flyway, it was critical that managers provided habitat for migratory species, despite the drought conditions, which serve as resting and feeding grounds as the birds move through California.

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California

Sandhill Cranes in flight at the Merced Wildlife Refuge in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

Faced with reduced water resources, wildlife refuges have concentrated water in critical habitat.  Many California refuges received only a portion of their normal water allotments, making strategic management of the wetlands essential. In addition, visitor use activities have been limited including hunting and tours at various locations. Although difficult for bird enthusiasts, it is a good reminder that the refuges are for the birds. They represent only 5 percent of the remaining historical habitat in California’s Central Valley.

A Whitefaced Ibis forging on a mild winter day.

A Whitefaced Ibis forges on a mild winter day in California. Photo credit Kirk Keeler

As the fog lifts on this winter day, the Sandhill Cranes begin to dance for their partners. The Ross’ Snow Geese rise in great loud clouds of movement and the reeds that frame the wetlands shimmer with the flutter of Redwing Black Birds—their songs as sharp as their brilliant red and yellow shoulders. With the receding fog, we are reminded that as resources like water become scarce, we are all pressed to be wiser and more forward thinking in our planning, use and conservation.

The fourth year of California’s drought is the perfect time to examine how water is allotted, conserved, and protected. Although facing significant challenges, California is also perfectly poised to embrace responsible, innovative, and robust water planning and management. Its success is critical. Frankly put, citizens, wildlife and ecosystems are depending on it, as California seeks its own refuge during a paradigm-shifting drought.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the wildlife refuge comes to life as the morning breaks.

A perched raptor watches quietly as the refuge comes to life just after daybreak. Photo credit Shauna Potocky