Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Tuesday, January 31, 2006


In a recent posting I talked about my friend Jim and his work with the Giant Gomeran Lizard (Gallotia bravoana). Jim sent me the photo on the right, which he set up to mimic my painting on the left. The boy has talent.

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Edition #5 of Circus of the Spineless (Wordless Edition) is now up at Pharyngula, with links to some wonderful images and writing about spiders, squids, cartoon sea urchins and other animals that hide from each other or fall over.

Friday, January 27, 2006


On a morning about fifteen years ago, I took a pleasant stroll not far from the little city of Rivas, along Lake Nicaragua's western shore. As I walked, a dark splotch bobbing on the water's surface caught my eye, and I waded out to retrieve a large, lovely, and very dead butterfly. I set it on a drawing pad to dry in the sun before painting the watercolor studies from which I later completed the piece on the left. The insect was unfamiliar to me. Its intricately vermiculated underwings reminded me of the Caligo owl butterflies I knew well, and indeed, it turned out to be a close relative. Upon my return to the states, I consulted the literature. My sketch corresponded to Opsiphanes tamarindi, but I felt insecure identifying it as such. That species had never been recorded in the region, and the nearest suitable habitat was well over 100 miles away.

A hundred miles is a long way to walk, and on first blush, it's hard to credit dainty butterflies with making such transits, but it would be wrong to underestimate their powers. The autumn migrations of American Monarchs (Danaus plexipus) are legendary, and that species' sturdy four-inch wingspan has carried it across the Pacific to new havens in Australia and Hawaii. It regularly shows up on the British Isles as well. It's a little staggering to imagine how many of these insects end up floating pelagically, in the position of my Opsiphanes.

As a boy of eight or nine, I found a moth whose wings spanned over six inches. It clung, nearly dead, inside a cinder block, sheltering from the rain. Its dark gray, almost black wings bore a light zig-zag band that brought a stark beauty to its otherwise drab appearance. It would be several years before I learned that I had found a Black Witch (Ascalapha odorata), a common Neotropical species that disperses widely after metamorphosing. Finding one in Utah was not terribly surprising; they regularly cross the Canadian border.

Small and frail though they may seem, many insects and other invertebrates are well adapted to disperse across amazing distances. Tiny creatures belonging to dozens of orders can traverse thousands of miles within a fleeting lifespan. Occasionally they colonize a new land. More often, their lives end tragically—lost, helpless in the jet stream, or buried at sea, or burning out in a hostile climate, like the Black Witch that died trembling at the bottom of a terrarium in northern Utah—an inauspicious end to a several thousand mile odyssey made by an insect that might have started life as a caterpillar in a Mimosa tree, not far from the little city of Rivas, along Lake Nicaragua's western shore.
upper: OPSIPHANES TAMARINDI (1995) Acrylic 11" x 7"
lower: BLACK WITCH 1994) Acrylic 5" x 3"

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


By now we all know that the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) has cheated extinction. The news that David Luneau, an Arkansas Engineering professor and ardent birder, caught footage of an Ivorybill in his state's White River Refuge was the biggest ornithological news in memory. Teams of birders paddle the cypress swamps searching for further signs. Arkansas unveiled a new Ivorybill license plate, and I'd bet that woodpecker plush toys are available in gas stations across the state. The good news has affected us all, and everyone's talking about what the media have come to call the “Lord God Bird.” (Is there anybody out there who ever heard that ludicrous phrase before last April?)

In the midst of the celebration comes Jerome Jackson, Whitaker Eminent Scholar in Science at Florida Gulf Coast University, and noted ornithologist. Jackson was one of three woodpecker experts on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife's advisory board to determine C. principalis' status in the 1980s. Jackson has long championed hope in regard to the Ivorybill, but he expressed skepticism at Luneau's footage. The new issue of The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, carries his long-awaited paper on the Arkansas situation. Jackson's lucid and thoughtful prose sets the stage with an overview of the events leading up to last April's announcement before assessing Luneau's video and the other Arkansas evidence.

Reading his paper has caused me to reassess my own view of the evidence. I bought the hype, as I think most of us have. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology called the video conclusive, and that was good enough for me. I never even watched the clip, to be honest, but now I feel I must. Whether that was an Ivorybill or a Pileated caught by Luneau's lens, Jackson's paper serves to remind us of a number of important lessons, about the scientific method, about the commodification of conservation, and most of all, about the way we learn about the world.

Every con man knows how easy it is to trick a person into believing what they want to believe most. I was a boy when the National Geographic Society released the news of the Tasaday, the Stone-Age people on the Philippine island of Mindanao with no previous knowledge of the outside world. It was an appealing story that we all believed eagerly and uncritically. It wasn't until the fall of Marcos, some twenty years later, that the rather fraudulent nature of the story came to light. Whether they're right or wrong, many of the Luneau tape supporters want to believe in it a little too badly. As a kid trapping Merlins (Falco columbarius), which were outnumbered by Kestrels thirty to one, I stopped for every Kestrel that looked like it might have been a Merlin, until I realized how my own desire could shorten a bird's tail and legs in my eyes, and turn a red back gray.

The book on Ivorybills is far from closed, and Jackson makes it clear that closing it is the last thing he wants to do, but for me, the bird now recedes back into the questionable status it had for me when I painted Strange Fruit (above), in 2002. I feel no sorrow in letting go of my conviction for its existence. There's romance in the ambiguity, and I'm quite happy to be an an agnostic with respect to the Lord God Bird.
illustration: STRANGE FRUIT--IVORY-BILLED WOODPECKER (2002) Acrylic 30" x 20"

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


A cubic yard of dilute desert mud percolates into my back yard as the washing machine works a first load of laundry downstairs. A little winter camping trip in western Utah has come to an end.

For two days and nights I scouted the Rabbitbrush-dotted lowlands of my state's left margin, not far from the Dugway Proving Ground, where NASA's Stardust return capsule and its cargo of cosmic debris fell to earth early Sunday Morning. I missed the canister's descent, though my eyes were trained skyward for much of the day.

Over fifteen winters I spent a ridiculous amount of time here, flying falcons at ducks flushed from numerous small springs. The area is rich with birds, but the most conspicuous winter residents in those days were the Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus). Their odd, kestrel-like hover was a common sight: big bicolored, bullseye wings flopping incongruously as their pilot hung stationary, scanning the prairie for voles. From nearly every power pole they watched us. As I carried my falcon away from the scene of a kill, a Roughleg inevitably flew out to investigate the site.

Natives of the barren tundra, the birds were often amazingly tame. When I was sixteen, I caught a large hen with my hands, and no raptor was easier to trap—that is, if you had a mouse for bait. Prey as challenging as a tethered sparrow was consistently ignored. In the hand, they were astonishing: huge, but insubstantial—all feathers. Their ridiculous, tiny feet contrasted with their oversized, kite-like heads, which bore big, beautiful eyes and a slender steeply-curved bill.

Over the past four years, I've noticed a dearth of the once plentiful birds, so this trip found me particularly attentive, scoping every distant Raven and Redtail to confirm its ID conclusively, but not once did I glimpse my polar Godot.

Roughleg populations are said to fluctuate with those of their main summer prey, lemmings, but a cursory scan of recent Christmas bird count data reveals no glaring nearctic decline. Perhaps the recent mild weather has failed to drive them this far south, although this year has treated much of the country to an irruption of Snowy Owls, another lemming-eater. The phenomenon of bird migration is filled with mystery.

Around here, Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) are emblematic of winter. Spring has not officially begun if one can still view their executioner's hoods and long, white-edged tails. I can't explain how they do it, but I see my first juncos of every season on the first truly cold morning, as if the birds had dragged the weather right into the yard behind them.

No brumal visitor is more exciting to see than a Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus), largest of the falcons. I was nineteen when I saw my first confirmed Utah Gyr, in this very area. I had driven out here before dawn to retrieve the Prairie Falcon I had lost the previous evening. Once it was light enough to see, I tossed a jessed pigeon into the air and called my bird. A weighted drag attached to the jesses allowed it to fly but a few yards. I scanned the horizon and sighed with relief when I saw a distant falcon flying hard toward me. As the bird got closer, I saw that its wingbeat was too slow to belong to my Prairie. I realized it was a wild Gyr just in time to save the pigeon, which stood a mere 20 feet from me.

Since that heady day, I have seen a number of winter Gyrfalcons, and trapped two, both of which were young birds in very poor health. I kept them for a few days, fed them up and released them, but I'm quite certain that neither of them are with us today. I assume that any wild Gyr I see this far south is in a similar state, although there are those who disagree with me, and I recently saw one in central Wyoming that looked like an adult.

Piecing together the complex puzzle of migratory bird behavior is a challenge, especially since most of us are limited to working with a handful of anecdotes. Your personal anecdotes, views and comments would be welcome aids to the task.
illustration: SILVER GYRFALCON PORTRAIT (2005) Acrylic 15" x 7"


To the left is a pair of Neotropical tongue-feeding Lonchophylla robustum bats. While this species has not recently made the newspapers to my knowledge, the distantly-related Ozark Big-eared bat (Plecotus townsendii ingens) has. Forester Pat Gwinn discovered a new colony of the endangered bats while appraising land for a planned timber sale on the Cherokee Reservation in eastern Oklahoma. The subspecies, which is geographically isolated from the rest of its otherwise western species, is estimated to number around 2,000 individuals. Social bats are particularly vulnerable to disturbances during hibernation and summer whelping, and the proposed timber exploitation could be devastating to the colony. Last week the Cherokee nation agreed to pay several thousand dollars for a conservation easement to protect the bats.

Here in Utah's Wasatch Mountains the Moose population has burgeoned since the mid-70s. Since 1979 the Utah and Colorado Divisions of Wildlife have been transplanting Wasatch Moose to the Grand Mesa National Forest near Grand Junction. In over 25 years the Grand Mesa population has failed to thrive, so the DOW has upped the ante, and in the past two days twenty cows and calves were helicoptered to Colorado from Utah's Cache National Forest.

In recent years, I've been surprised and slightly humbled by the success of the Rocky Mountain Wolf reintroductions. At the moment, however, wildlife managers are assessing a recent setback. The Yellowstone Wolf population has grown considerably each year since the project's inception in 1995. The annual winter survey was just completed, and the park's current wolf population is estimated at 118, compared to last year's 171: a 30% drop. Of 49 pups whelped on the Northern Range last year, eight have survived. While the cause of this high mortality is not clear, the prime suspect is parvovirus, an infectious disease of domestic dogs that is particularly dangerous for pups. The current hypothesis is that the virus was transmitted to wolf pups that sniffed the feces of visitors' dogs. While parvo is deadly, the Wolves of Isle Royale, MI rebounded from a suspected parvo outbreak that killed nearly 80% of the population in 1980. Biologists plan to test Yellowstone Wolves for the virus. If it exists in the population, they are expected to affect a vaccination program.

I've resisted the temptation to comment on these Sisyphean projects; my own feelings about the whole notion of wildlife management are wildly ambivalent, and, frankly, not fully formed. I simply serve as your messenger—for the moment, at least.
illustration: MARKEA NEURANTHA (1995) Acrylic 30" x 15"

Thursday, January 12, 2006


My friend Jim called me with the word that he'd been laid off last week. What's bad news for him, though, is probably good news for Gallotia bravoana.

In June of 1999 a party of biologists in the Canary Islands captured a large lizard on the western island of Gomera. Several lizard species are distributed across the archipelago, all members of the endemic genus Gallotia. Most of them are rather small, like their close mainland relatives, the wall lizards, but this Gomeran giant approached two feet in length. Subfossils of the species had been found on the island, but it had been presumed extinct. The discovery of a live one made a moderate splash in the herpetological world, and the European Union declared G. bravoana Europe's rarest reptile. Conservation and captive-breeding programs were set up, and Jim was hired to manage the project.

A small population was found on a rocky bluff overlooking the coastline. This habitat was likely not their preference, but the only part of the island where they were not vulnerable to the feral cats that proliferated across the lowlands. A campaign of cat removal was initiated, and several adult lizards were captured and relocated to a breeding facility that Jim had designed specifically for the task.
In the succeeding four years, the project has produced fifty-seven animals, and Jim reckons the wild population is now something over 100. He took the job with the ultimate goal of making himself redundant, and succeeded beyond expectations. Less than seven years after its discovery, a moribund, relict population appears to have been transformed into a viable one. Too rarely do stories of human interference end so happily. Hats off to my friend in the Canaries; here's a toast to your unemployment!
upper: GIANT GOMERAN LIZARD (2001) Acrylic 20" x 15"
lower: Galliota bravoana hatching. Photograph by Jim Pether.

Monday, January 09, 2006


As if blogging itself weren't self-indulgent.) Over at the Wildling Art Museum, they're taking down the one-man show for Bob Kuhn that ended on Sunday. Kuhn is one of the really legendary animal painters; much of the best work being done today has his fingerprints all over it, so it's with chest fully puffed out that I announce that my own little one-man show will be taking the place left by his. The exhibition opens officially on Jan. 18th, and runs through April 2nd. I will appear at the Wildling on Darwin's birthday, Feb. 12, to give a talk about my work, and to give the first signing for my new book. Reservations are required for this event; please refer to the museum's website. If you're going to be in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, CA in the next couple of months, please drop by the Wildling. Thanks to director Elizabeth Knowles and her staff, and to David Wagner, PhD, who curated the show.

While I'm at it, the touring exhibit, Birds in Art, just opened this weekend at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY. It runs through the end of March.
illustration: NORTHERN CACOMISTLE (1994) Acrylic 18" x 24"

Sunday, January 08, 2006


It's January 8th, and Isabel Allende is at her keypad. The author of The House of Spirits has written sixteen novels, and begun each one on this date. She will spend today ensconced in a locked room, pulling together the ideas for number seventeen that have tumbled around for God knows how long, in anticipation of this event.

Establishing such rituals comes naturally to most of us. Allende dismisses her January 8th tradition as superstition, but it's a clever device to enforce discipline upon her craft. Whatever their field, it's discipline rather than talent that distinguishes the really accomplished people in this world. If I had a dime for every gifted person I know who waits, fruitlessly, for a Muse to come a-knocking, I'd have, well...a lot of dimes. I never cared for the concept of the Greek Muses, anyway. I picture nine bespectacled bureaucrats, their hair pulled into severe buns. It's easier to relate to the Spanish persona of the Duende, that Lorca made famous: the rotten little gremlin, who, if not actually malevolent, is definitely a troublemaker.

Whatever specters visit the studio, they won't find a welcome home there without the presence of a work ethic. I only work at my best level while in a certain meditative state. Though I've never been physically south of Paraguay, while I painted Andean Condors & Patagonian Conures (above), my spirit swept across the mountains of Allende's Chilean homeland, feeling the cool alpine breeze, and hearing the sound of the condor preening his big, stiff feathers. Once I'm in this state, working hard is easy, but finding my way to that plane can be a chore. When things aren't going well in the studio, the smallest distraction serves to pull me from my work. “I wonder what I'd look like with my mustache waxed?”

This is when self-discipline is crucial, and “superstitions” like Allende's January 8th ritual are good things to have in the toolbox. The nature of inspiration is a mysterious thing, hence the many supernatural metaphors. Whatever's going on in Isabel Allende's office right now, though, it's safe to assume the Poltergeists are in there with her.
illustration: ANDEAN CONDOR & PATAGONIAN CONURES (1997) Acrylic 20" x 30"

Thursday, January 05, 2006


A painting says less about its subject than about the painter's perception of that subject. This is particularly true when viewing an artistic canon as a whole. The genre of wildlife art is a good example, providing a chronicle of Man's ever-changing relationship with nature, from the Cro-Magnon murals at Chauvet to the latest releases in Art for Collectors. Today, no species of animal is more commonly portrayed than the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus), the most iconic creature in our culture's wildlife mythology. In fact, so clichéd has the poor animal become, that I'm unable to bring myself to paint one, and am forced to illustrate this entry with a pair of distantly-related South American Maned Wolves.

A century ago, the American attitude toward wolves was largely inherited from the Eurasian model, where several thousand years of coexistence with mostly shepherd humans produced a relationship of extreme aggression between the two species. In 1914, the U.S. Government began a program of wolf eradication, and within 35 years the species was gone from the lower 48.

The past 40 years have seen the public sentiment shift 180 degrees. Where hysterical hatred once reigned, romantic schmaltz now has the day. A century ago most Americans grew up with livestock. Today most of us grew up with Marlin Perkins. The average mall rat has a greater fondness for wildlife than did her great-grandmother, but in gaining that, traded away a familiarity with it. Little Red Riding Hood has given way to another mythology of half-truths equally pernicious. The noble wolf, who kills only to weed out the sick and old. A creature maybe a bit like Lon Chaney, Jr.’s whiny Lawrence Talbot, who would really prefer a more peaceable lifestyle, were one only available.

As agents of a representative government, wildlife managers are deeply influenced by these conceits. In the early ’90s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the same agency that decreed a policy of wolf annihilation in 1914, decided to replace them.

Today, Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton is scheduled to sign an agreement with Dirk Kempthorne, Governor of the State of Idaho, that will formally hand authority to manage Idaho's wolves back to the State. Activists on both sides of the issue are up in arms, but any great change stemming from the agreement isn't likely. The new policy is more than anything symbolic of the surprising success that wolf reintroduction has been.

We're at a cultural crossroads with respect to wolves, and the tension comes from trying to write a new mythology for the species. We restored them to the Rocky Mountains not because they're a crucial part of the ecology, but because they're a crucial part of what we want the region to represent. Look at a few recent paintings of wolves by the current masters, and compare them to Victorian wolf paintings. That will point the direction our mythology is headed. The fate of Canis lupus is in our hands. If the fickle public changes its mind and decides it no longer wants wolves, that’s a problem we can solve. We’ve proven that.
illustration: "GOSTOSO!--MANED WOLVES & THREE-BANDED ARMADILLO (1997) Acrylic 20" x 30"

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Three-and-twenty crows dot my back yard. I can hear their gentle caws through my office window. Now and then, I'm startled when one yanks on the rain gutter above me. For a couple of weeks this fall the daily crow count on my property was 57. One day I counted over a hundred. Seems a ridiculous thing to brag about, but the fact is, I had never seen a crow in Salt Lake City until 2001.

Ten years ago, the American Crow (Corvus brachyrynchus) was absent through most of Utah; just three or four populations were isolated in agricultural areas. The current explosion of the species seems to stretch along the metropolitan corridor from Ogden to Provo (about 100 miles). Where these birds came from, I can only guess, but their colonization is not without precedent. Two related pioneers, the Common Raven (C. corax) and the Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia) preceded the crows.

Ravens were always common in the surrounding desert, and as a boy I wondered why they shunned the city itself, but were common urban fixtures in southern California. Twenty-five years ago, the raven invasion started here, about a century after Salt Lake City erupted from the sagebrush desert. It took the birds that long to adapt their behavior to the new landscape. Los Angeles and San Diego are older, and their ravens learned the urban routine first.
The Salt Lake magpie colonization was less spectacular; they always hung around the edges of the city, and seeing one right in town was never that odd, but in the past twenty years they've become as common in the city as outside of it. On a recent summer suburb morning, I watched a young starling's maiden flight end between the incisors of a large Norway Rat. The rodent dragged his squawking prize toward the safety of a hedge, and two young magpies landed nearby, following the fracas across the lawn in hope of a scrap or two—a pair of canny natives exploiting a confrontation of immigrants.

Landscapes constantly change, and organisms change their form to adapt, but behavioral changes often set the stage for morphological adaptation. As another crow searches my rain gutter detritus, I pause from my typing and listen. Annoying as she is to me, she could be making history.
lower: CRASH-BARRIER WALTZER--BLACK-BILLED MAGPIE (2005) Acrylic 30" x 22"

Monday, January 02, 2006


It should have happened years ago, but I'm only now getting around to abandoning all hope of ever keeping abreast of the current biological taxonomy. I was just alerted (two years after the fact) that the genera Nyctea and Bubo have been conflated. Yes, the Snowy Owl, it seems, is just another species of horned owl—the only one without horns, unless someone's poured yet another genus into the container while my attention was elsewhere (when I looked in there for Nyctea, I also found the four Asian fish owls formerly known as Ketupa).

DNA data have been used for over thirty years to reassign biological nomenclature, and the technology, which I don't pretend to understand, keeps getting better. The past fifteen years have seen a taxonomic Renaissance, and genetic analysis has shed incredible light on how Earth's organisms are related.

I wonder, though, if DNA always gives us a perfect view of those relations. It seems to me that a true picture requires a bit more. As we argue about this genus and that family, it's easy to forget that species, orders and phyla are not real things, but abstract ideas invented by an anal-retentive Swedish intellectual. They're just tools to help us understand the world, and boy do they help. There's no right way to classify, but the best way is the one that shapes the most useful tools.

It could be that I'm just bitter that none of my taxonomic predictions have panned out. My favorite local owl, the aberrant little Flammulated Owl, is still universally lumped with the screech owls. If I ever pay up on all my bets that Rough-legged Hawks would prove to be big arctic kites, stocks in Utah microbreweries (yes, there are such things) will skyrocket. Still, what is gained by sticking the very peculiar Snowy Owl, and the discreet fraternity of Asian fish owls, into the eagle owl genus? We always knew all three groups were closely related. Is it more important to show that the African fishing owls are less close? I suspect that when the sorting's done and the smoke clears, DNA evidence will hold a bit less sway than it does right now, and that Nyctea and Ketupa will one day be restored. In fact, I'll bet you a sixer of Utah pale ale.
illustration: HUNGY EYES--GREAT HORNED OWLETS (2005) Acrylic 30" X 22"