“Floating Islands”

In the western U.S., water is a precious and defining element. Particularly for wildlife: the species who can exist in a landscape often depend on access to water (or their adaptation to the lack of it). I read an article on Arizona endangered species; 90 % of them were dependent on riparian (beside rivers, lakes or ponds) areas. What could I as an artist do fro the riparian species? Ironically, we humans are also drawn to the same landscape areas, and displace many other species by building in them (where we are often flooded out). What could I imagine as an artist to help these other species?

One idea for riparian ponds or rivers was to build islands, or rafts, which would host waterfowl and perhaps other aquatic species. At first I was thinking just of ducks, but basic research led me to think that the more physical levels of sculpture could help more species. So I designed for use from underwater, to water level, to above water level. I built the first “Island 1” experiment in my studio, un-assembled it and took it up to a small mountain pond near the experiments on “Marten Havens”. Both were located on land leased by friends from the forest service where a historic lodge still exists.

"island 1, the first experiment in floating sculptures

I re-assembled “Island 1” and launched it in the chilly pond. It had sections of wood boards, dead branches, and one segment of wire mesh which I thought might provide nesting area.  I took some pictures, but realized I wanted people to understand the island’s purpose from the pictures so I added a duck decoy. But the more I thought about this series idea, I realized with small adjustments, more species could use it.

The “Floating Islands” were to become probably my most successful habitat sculptures, with invertebrates moving onto them within 24 hours and in one case frogs taking up residence while I struggled to finish the sculpture! The structure would set up a whole life web: invertebrates drew flying insects which drew frogs, turtles, birds, & fish drew larger birds, ducks, geese, and I always hoped one in Florida would attract an alligator, but the hurricane came by first.

Thinking about Marten

Following up on the idea of “Marten Havens”, I imagined for clear-cuts and secondary growth forests could I create sculptures that would supply the winter shelters marten needed, expanding the habitat areas they could use. I met Dr. Steve Buskirk and he introduced me to some of his grad students to take me up to the forest to see where marten shelters exist naturally. They entertained me with stories of their research, how they often caught some of the same marten several times because marten are such moochers, climbing happily into the trap, eating the bait food, and waiting to be released to come back to the newly baited trap. One marten had volunteered to be a research subject 16 times.

American Pine Marten den for winter experiment

When I started in the 1990’s, I was surprised by how many wildlife biologists were delighted to share their research and enthusiasm for other species. And I’m still disappointed when they don’t! At this point in wildlife conservation, getting desperate with so many species in decline, wildlife biologists and some other scientists seem to have realized that all the science data in the world has not created the change in lifestyles that can allow for the survival of even iconic species, so as of the 2010 many more biologists are willing to work with artists and others whose communication skills can touch people emotionally as well as intellectually.

What influences you to make small changes in your life to help wildlife and to address other environmental issues?

 

Think like a Pine Marten

 

 

Dr. Steve Buskirk’s article on Pine Marten had explained that in the winter Marten needed a chain of small shelters down under snow and some way to access them. They don’t hibernate but instead go from one shelter to another, hunting and resting up when heavy snow storms blocked their progress. This gives them a larger prey base, at a time of year when food is scarce. From my documentary prints, a prose poem:

 

For winter survival, marten require a series

documentary panel for "Marten Havens", photos & text on canvas

Of  lodgings consisting of small dry hollows

Covered with a snow dome for insulation and

an access tunnel down through the snow,

usually created

by a partly fallen tree to use as a ladder.

At least, that’s the way we perceive the marten’s

needs.  Who knows what the marten sees?

Marten are limited by these needs to old growth

forests.  Given an alternative denning structure,

will marten expand their range into younger

forests? Selectively timbered areas?

 

Usually their access into the snow is formed by an angled branch or log, which leaves a small tunnel on the underside. Then at the bottom of the tunnel marten need to find a bit of hollow log, a few piled rocks with spaces underneath, a large rock curving under at the bottom to create a “cave” or a pile of branches blocking snow. A fallen log, still tipped partly up, with a big root at the end is ideal. So I had to start thinking like a marten.

MORE IDEAS: LARAMIE AREA

 

American, or "Pine" Marten, with tiny radio collar USFS photo

Jim, Nancy and I talked about creating more raptor roosts.  Jim thought they would be a good idea that lots of ranchers might like to have in areas where small rodents became a problem. I imagined a forest of roosts across Wyoming and the west. Ranch art!  I also thought of examining all the small eco-zones, different habitat communities around the area I lived in and had explored and been inspired by for years. It was mainly short grass prairie, or high altitude steppe as naturalist Kevin Cook calls it, but nearby were also riparian (river and stream side) zones, mountain forests, and desert-like stone outcroppings. Not to mention alpine and krummholz areas in the Medicine Bow forest.

One idea for riparian ponds or rivers was to build islands, or rafts, which would host waterfowl and perhaps other aquatic species. These were to become probably my most successful sculptures, with invertebrates moving onto them within 24 hours and in one case frogs taking up residence while I struggled to finish the sculpture!

I began this work with the question, “What can I as an artist do to help wildlife where I live?” I lived in a magnificent landscape, where wildlife were more visible than people; there were more antelope than people.

In an issue of the Game and Fish division magazine I read about “Pine Marten”, officially “American Marten”, a small cat-like, fox-like weasel family member who lived in old growth forests because they needed the big chunks of wood and logs fallen under the trees for winter survival. In the summer marten hunt in the forest treetops, but in winter they need a way to get under snow and into shelters of stone or wood below. Marten populations were dropping due to clear cutting forests for timber. After the logs were cleared out the areas left behind wouldn’t support the wildlife diversity the old forests did. And one of the leading experts on Marten taught in the University of Wyoming Zoology department.

“Art”, “art” and the Jungle Book

Last week The Jungle Book came to Fort Collins. It is a traveling ballet version, and since I’d organized a wildlife costume/mask/headdress event here for 8 years I thought it would be fun to see how the animals were represented. The dance group’s costumes were interesting, jazzy, and fun, much more polished than the ones we made in our community art studio (see “Procession of the River Species” under Portfolio on my website, www.eco-art.org). I’ll write more in the future about how the Procession made artmaking available to many people who had never picked up a paintbrush as well as raising their interest in local wildlife species.

in front, the Snake, with arms

 

 

Early in the ballet performance, my interest was caught by the challenge of how the human bodies should act the gestures. Some movements were clearly to represent the species they were dancing—wolves, bear, snake, panther—but at other times the animals had to use human gestures to tell the story to the human audience. It had me thinking about translating animal gestures, which we do a lot of with our pets, but it takes involvement in nature to “read” the meaning of them in wildlife. And gestures and postures are the only language most other species offer us. In the dance, sometimes the animals moved as animals, with sinuous snake, bumbling bear and slinky leopard moves while at other times to fulfill our expectations of “ballet” they moved as dancers. A leaping snake gracefully splaying the arms it wouldn’t ordinarily have, etc. The dance was well done, competent but not very exciting, and quite a few season ticket holders left at intermission.

In the middle of act two, however, was a duet scene with a raven and a large tree. I don’t know how they related to the plot, but suddenly my attention was riveted on the raven dancer. He was large, dynamic, and waved large black fans as wings, somehow making the motion and the sound a bird rustling in the brush actually makes. I could hardly breathe watching him dance, the movements portraying dance and gesture seamlessly, integrated into a magical creature, compelling to watch. The tree person was too tall to move much, but created a pivot point to focus our attention on the raven.  “Art” onstage.

Thinking about it later, I realized this scene was parallel to my thoughts on visual “art” and “Art”. Where I live there are lots of people calling themselves artists who reproduce, by painting or photography or sculpture,  ideas that are old stale nostalgia. A friend refers to what they do as “stuff” but I’m thinking of it with the small a. The artists I respect give us an experience like the raven dancer: electric, compelling, expanding our world and our consciousness at least in a small way. “Art”.

Why would artists spend their time trying for anything less? Why dream small? Does anyone else have a way of describing this experience? Of course, we can never quite explain it in words, which is why it is visual art.

Why make “Raptor Roosts”?

I have learned a lot about dangers hawks and eagles face from power lines, cell phone towers and the general challenges imposed by spreading “civilization”. In Wyoming, many of the rural electric associations were not as prompt as Pacific Power to adjust their poles and wires so that a bird landing or taking off was no longer able to touch two wires at once, creating an arc that electrocuted it. Still a challenge are the transformer boxes where side wires leave the main line; I’ve seen heartbreaking footage of falcons trying to perch on a box with sizzling, deadly results. A few years after the first roosts, many eagles were found drowned in ponds of oil left near oil processing points in northern Wyoming. And loose dogs and atv’s may destroy eggs and nestlings. Many nesting places have been taken over by human disturbance. Hawks, eagles and humans like to live in the same areas, but not necessarily peacefully together.  More raptor roosts have been created, and will be seen in following posts.

Installing the First Raptor Roosts 2

 

Pacific Power was our local electric source, and I slightly knew one of their administrators. I contacted him and explained the project, asking how I could get the poles installed. He told me all about Pacific Power’s raptor protection program, their efforts to make power lines safer for birds, and that they had a few volunteers for projects like mine. He put me in touch with a “line truck” driver. This truck has a gigantic drill for drilling holes in the ground, a big lift for picking up the pole, a scoop for the dirt and a power tamper for the replaced dirt. I had fantasies for years about having one of my own!

Some breath holding moments of picking up the roosts at the farm were followed by a fingers-crossed trip up to the site nearby. The volunteer driver told me on the way that this area was so dry the soil never froze and they could put poles in at any time of the year. Part of the definition of short grass prairie or high altitude desert steppe?

The most exciting and heart-stopping moment is when the roost is tipped up into the hole. It is the first time I see it upright, whole and in 3 dimensions—and too late, incidentally, to make any changes. One of the risks of my art process!

"Raptor Roost L-2" outside Laramie, Wyoming, 1988

 

 

Monitoring the Roosts

 

Nancy and Jim, their other neighbors and I observed the roosts for several years.  Sometimes I would see a hawk on one of the roosts, and slowly approach it to take photos. When I got too close,  it would usually lift off and fly to the other roost. Nancy reported several times that she saw young eagles on the painted roost, so I speculated that Hawks don’t mind color and Eagles may prefer it.

Over 20 years later, both roosts have weathered to grey wood, but both still stand out in the Wyoming Wind, hosting hawks. I have collected the pellets of fur regurgitated by hawks lying under the roosts and found tiny mouse and ground squirrel bones in them, like barn owl pellets.

 

Ferugenous hawk landing on "Raptor Roost L-2"

Inventing the “Raptor Roosts”

Conceptual Model for a "Raptor Roost"

Near the place I had carved “ Hydroglyph 1 & 2” lived some friends, a zoologist and an environmental sociologist. After they had seen the first glyph and pictures of the next ones to follow I asked them whether they would have any ideas for other structures to assist wildlife in the area (around Laramie, Wyoming). Nancy suggested that lots of hawks hunted the ground squirrels and prairie dogs on their ranch, but it is a treeless area, so perhaps I could make some perches so the hawks could have a higher place to watch for prey?  They wouldn’t have to be very high…..

In my usual over-achiever style, the first roosts were 14 and 16 feet high. Jim had a few recycled power poles on the ranch and donated those. I gathered dead branches from a riparian area, found some old rusty metal pieces left from an abandoned home-site, and some very bent old lumber pieces made from what another friend called “piss-pine”—wood so full of sap that it shed sap and warped into interesting shapes as it dried.

In my research on raptors, I couldn’t find anyone who knew anything about raptor color perception. I decided that I should put up two roosts, one painted intense colors from the local landscape and the other left natural, to find out whether the birds preferred one or the other. On public land (not open to the public) along the road into the ranch I found a low draw (like a dry streambed on the prairie that drained rain flow) and decided to place one roost on each side of it. The occasional water in the draw grows more plants to feed the small mammals, so raptors would like to hang out there. I initiated the permission process to locate the artworks there.

I built some small models of the roost ideas, figuring it would be a good idea to make mistakes on a small scale before the roost was big, heavy and up in the air before I discovered them. I spent several months work on how to build them, settling on placing one end of the power pole about waist high up on a recycled wood spool or pile of logs, the other end on the ground, so I could roll the pole around to work on all sides of the  top part while having the bottom fairly stable. At one point I had to rent an automotive jack to raise it hight enough to work on the back side.  I assembled ideas with branches and bunjie cords, took polaroids, and adjusted the arrangement, making up the sculpture and the process at the same time.

 

Raptor Roost Model--working out ideas

process of making Hydroglyph 1

Carving out in the Utah Desert Canyons, 1992

I gathered a few flat stones of different types and got an artist friend to show me rudimentary stone carving technique. After several experiments and sore thumbs from missing the chisel with the hammer, I thought I was ready to carve. I contacted a local rancher and asked to visit him and his wife, as I knew there were some sandstone intrusions poking up on their ranch. I told them about my idea and was amazed at how receptive they were to the idea. They told me to go ahead and find the site I wanted and get back to them. I went exploring, pocket stuffed with broken bits of chalk, a scrub brush, and rags, into the red rock formations. I spent time taking in the feeling the red and rosy stone, a part of my soul in the western landscape. One place, a scoop of fine descending layers, felt as if it could have birthed me. I began drawing with the chalk, following the shapes generated by each specific bit of more or less level rock, trying to get the rock to speak to me. Drawings that didn’t fit disappeared under the brush and rags. One large long area said it could hold the spiral of life. I drew a spiral, then large ungulate tracks going into it and out the other end. Other drawings fit round, oval, teardrop shaped flat spots. We chose the spiral site, and I began the slow, strenuous work of “Hydroglyph 1”, down on hands and knees with chisels, mallet, knee pad, face shield, water bottle and sunscreen.

I didn’t have to carve for long to start wondering how it would look with water in it, so before I left one afternoon I emptied my water bottle into the small trench. To my dismay, the water ran down to one end and began to spill over the edge before it filled the top of the design. Uh-oh, art meets science. Law of physics: water runs downhill! My not quite flat spot was not behaving as planned. After a day or two of pondering, I devised cross bars to shorten the trenches, so that they looked long but the water was kept from running all the way to the end. The first of many ecology lessons I was to take on this adventure.

"Hydroglyph 1", Larimer County, Wyoming, 1985

The tracks going into the spiral celebrated and remembered the wandering elk, deer, bighorn sheep, even bison who must have passed by this place on the Wyoming high plains through history. One day the rancher came by with a visiting foreign student from Africa. Oh, the visitor said, hard work! I poured in some water to show him how it would look and work for wildlife. He pondered for a few minutes, then asked “Why you make cow tracks?”

It wasn’t until the weeks of carving work were done and I hauled water out to the site and filled “Hydroglyph 1” with water that I realized it was the inverse of Robert Smithson’s famous land art work, “Spiral Jetty”. His was stone in water, mine was water in stone, the small, more female action I had imagined, a gesture of nurturance rather than dominance.

How I started making art for wildlife

I was at a student party for a visiting artist to the University, at an art professor’s house. We were eating, drinking, talking about art, joking around, and somehow the word “Hydroglyph” came popping out of the conversation. I froze. It was the word, the idea, the turning point I’d been looking for. An image–shapes carved in rock, filled with water—appeared in my head. I would go out and make the first piece of art for wildlife, a carving in desert stone to capture water for wildlife. So it began.
I had been thinking about making art for animals. I’d had something of an art career in ceramics, creating pots for eating, followed by more abstract vessels about my relationship with the place I lived and the way we related to the immense landscape and abundant wildlife. I’d been looking at Earthworks, the large scale macho artworks out in the western deserts, often bulldozed out of pristine landscapes. I’d been thinking that perhaps there could be a smaller, more feminine gesture of caring for landscape and environment. I’d been working on a theory that if we are the wealthiest culture in history, wasn’t it appropriate to share some of that abundance with other species. And, if art was one of the “cutting edge” aspects of civilization, couldn’t that gesture across species lines be an artwork?

a natural desert waterhole


Having been raised in the New Mexico deserts and mesas, I was familiar with the magic of finding a pool of water trapped in rock, how precious it was, how whole life webs developed in the longer lasting ones. They were known as Tinajas, water capture basins in the desert. Soon after the party, I was rock scrambling among huge boulders and came up on a tinaja. Yes, I thought, that’s what I’m doing. So I did.