Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, May 31, 2007


...and they're being born at the rate of about one per minute. This is one of my favorite annual events here in Salt Lake City, and I spent this morning watching it, which gives me a chance to recycle an excerpt from my book, in favor of writing something new:
...Life is the natural state of our planet, life unyielding. The punctuation we ride today is but another geological burp. For those of us with a deep love of nature, it’s hard not to feel like the world is going to hell in a jet-propelled handbasket, but earth’s biota will surely be rich and spectacular two million years from now, though I can’t feel the same optimism for the place in two centuries.
Pieces of nature will always find a way to squeeze, octopus-like through the cracks. I live in the Salt Lake Valley, where numerous creeks drain the surrounding mountains into a bowl-shaped still. As a growing metropolis confiscated the basin, these creeks have been contained in subterranean arteries. This morning I sat beside a 30-yard stretch of sun-exposed creek between culverts. For two weeks each May, Utah Suckers (Catostomus ardens) swim through miles of dark concrete tunnels to this spot, their spawning grounds. At the peak of the spawn the fish are stacked like sardines, all pointed upstream, more saddled backs visible than streambed. Each female is attended by two or three males, their gold and pink nuptial colors flashing through the surface as they position themselves to fertilize her eggs.
I imagine this spot seven centuries ago. The gym, the gas station and fast food joint are gone, only sage and rabbit brush claim their positions. The elms on the bank are replaced by native maples and cottonwoods. I imagine Fremont Indians making a pilgrimage each spring to exploit the piscine bounty. I feel compelled to return to the site each year myself, but it's a different kind of sustenance I receive... --from RIGOR VITAE: LIFE UNYIELDING by CPBvK ©2006 Eagle Mountain Publishing

photographs of Utah Suckers taken May 31, 2007 by CPBvK

Sunday, May 27, 2007


One hundred years ago today, Rachel Louise Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Carson began her career as a zoologist, teaching at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Her academic career was substantially complicated by living during a time when women weren't welcome in academia, and at the same time having to care for an ailing mother, two orphaned nieces and (later) an orphaned great-nephew. In 1936 she took a position with the Bureau of Fisheries, and soon began writing essays on the side. A number of these eventually morphed into her first book, The Sea Around Us, which was published in 1951. The book was very successful, winning the National Book Award, and being made into an Oscar-winning documentary, and she was soon able to quit her job and focus full-time on writing. It was her 1962 book, Silent Spring, that proved to be her real legacy. Silent Spring was a well-researched book focusing on pesticides like DDT, and their unintended effects on the environment. Carson was a skilled and careful writer, and her tone was practical and far from polemic. Nonetheless, she was savaged by the agrochemical industry, threatened with lawsuits, and belittled as an unqualified and hysterical woman. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson (who would later become president of the Mormon church) sided with Monsanto and the boys, and suggested Carson was a Communist. The biological community and the general public, however, took Silent Spring seriously, and the book, more than any other, became the “Bible” of the then nascent environmental movement, and prompted president Kennedy to call for testing of the chemicals she wrote about. On April 14, 1964, Carson died of breast cancer at the age of 56. Eight years later, William Ruckelshaus, first administrator of the EPA, announced a ban on the use of DDT in the United States.

I first read Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us in grade school, and both books had a huge impact on me. Shamefully, I haven't cracked either in at least 20 years. I seem to be in good company in taking Carson for granted. There's still a lot we don't understand about the effects of pesticides, but Americans seem to be no less cautious in using them than they were 40 years ago. The synthetic pyrethroids that once appeared so innocuous have recently been shown to be surprisingly persistent under the right conditions. We all know about the current decline of amphibians, but most of us fail to connect all the dots involved. The pest control industry is still a healthy one, and people who are afraid to drink their own tap water don't think twice about calling on them to annihilate a healthy and innocuous arthropod population. As a Carson birthday tribute, I counted the people applying chemicals to their yards on my trip to the Post Office yesterday. I rode past six of them.
There's even a widespread misconception that the worldwide DDT ban has increased the danger of malaria in the tropics. Actually, the worldwide DDT ban prohibits only agricultural application. It is still commonly and effectively applied to indoor walls and bednets to deter Anopheles mosquitos, which in general are less resistant to the chemical than they would have been without the ban. We should thank Rachel Carson every time we see a wild Peregrine, Bald Eagle or Brown Pelican fly overhead. The recovery program for California Condors (Gymnogyps californianus) would have never had the chance to work had DDT application not ceased. Last week, I watched in awe as one of these massive birds slope soared above me—my first glimpse of the species in the wild. In all the excitement, Rachel Carson never entered my mind.
upper: Rachel Carson Photograph from Corbis-Bettmann. Swiped from internet
lower: Dreadful California Condor photos taken by CPBvK in Coconino Co, AZ May 15, 2007

Friday, May 25, 2007


Yesterday the U.S. Congress approved an increase in the Federal minimum wage. If signed by Bush, as expected, the bill will raise the minimum wage from the current $5.15 to $7.25/hr – the first raise in the last decade. I don't hear much grumbling about this, but if you ask me (and I know you are, subconsciously), it's time to look at wage control from another angle. Back in the days when I earned an honest living, it was mostly at or near the minimum wage, and I can say with a bit of authority that poverty in America is a very different creature than it is in, say, Chad. Artificially inflated housing costs are the number one bane of the American poor, and occasionally raising the minimum wage while encouraging that inflation is hardly a prescription for solving that problem. The traditional American economic philosophy of keeping the troughs of the fattest pigs overflowing, spilling enough excess around to feed the rest of us has worked well for a long time, but those troughs have attained such ridiculous depths lately that it's hardly worth it anymore, and as we find ourselves fighting more losing wars to maintain control of dwindling resources, the old paradigm looks sillier and sillier. So here's my proposition: How about imposing instead a maximum wage in this country? It could be ludicrously high – say, 2 million dollars a year. That's enough to live a lifestyle that's plenty embarrassing, and it's enough to keep the movers and shakers inspired to keep the infrastructure together. Those who find themselves in violation could give the excess to whatever cause they desire, and guys like Bill Gates could still send out press releases every time they give something away. Those with faith could turn it over to the IRS. I'm a firm believer that there's such a thing as an adequately high standard of living, and it's time to consider not exceeding it. Bill Clinton had the right answer, he just asked the wrong question. What's the biggest threat to America's future? “It's the economy, stupid.”
illustration: Agarrando La Mañana--Black Vultures (1994) ink wash 14" x 20"

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Those of us who love biology have a good reason to celebrate today. Every time we think about, talk about, or wonder about an organism, we do it upon the handy framework designed by Carl Linneaus, who was born exactly three centuries ago in Älmhult, in Southern Sweden. From the time he was an adolescent at the University of Lund, he often went by the Latinized name Carolus Linnaeus, and after King Adolf Frederik ennobled him in 1761, he began answering to Carl von Linné as well, or simply Carl Linné. This all becomes very confusing, and today most of us remember him as plain old “Linnaeus.”
Fascinated by plants since he was a small boy, he began designing systems for classifying them early on, and first published his Systema Naturae while studying in the Netherlands at age 28. The binomial system of nomenclature Linnaeus used was actually borrowed from the Historia Plantarum Universalis, published in 1651 by the Bauhin brothers, Johan and Gaspard, also Swedes, but I feel that Linnaeus more than repayed them by naming in their honor the plant genus Bauhinia, which includes the extremely cool Neotropical liana, Bauhinia guinensis, shown draped around a tree in the painting below.

Today Linnaeus' seven levels of taxonomic hierarchy, and mnemonic acrostics like "King Philip Came Over For Girl Scouts," or versions less family friendly, are requisite knowledge for dealing with all things biological, and it's hard to imagine how anyone made any sense at all of the Natural World before Linnaeus' system. Over the past couple of decades, a few pretty decent attempts have been made at trying to overthrow that system, but we all still use it, and it works surprisingly well. In fact, as we argue over what constitutes a genus or species, it's easy to forget that these aren't real things, but just abstract tools.
So here's a toast to you, my dead Swedish friend! From one Carl with a confusing name to another: Skål!
Update: Mitch, my old pal and correspondent from Linnaeus' hometown of Uppsala reports that the birthday festivities were appropriately frenzied. The Japanese emperor, an amateur botanist, is in town for the party, and a huge beach volleyball tournament was held (few people know that Linnaeus was a wicked beach volleyball center).
upper: Photo of Paul Granlund's Linnaeus sculpture at Gustavus Adolphus College swiped from the internet
lower: GREAT TINAMOU (1994) acrylic 20" x 15"

Friday, May 11, 2007


Isolated since the Cretaceous, the island of Madagascar is famous for its unique flora and fauna. The land is rich in lizard species, with five families, Scincidae (skinks), Gekkonidae (geckos), Gerrhosauridae (plated lizards), Opluridae (Madagascan iguanas) and, most iconically, Chamaeleonidae (chameleons) represented. Probably no lizard family is more specialized than this last group of mostly arboreal reptiles. Extreme lateral body compression and a slow, rocking gait make a chameleon look like a leaf waving in the wind—practically invisible to predator and prey alike, and when seriously threatened by the former, that flattened body can be oriented away from the threat to effectively hide the lizard behind its perch. A powerful prehensile tail and fused toes that function like tongs provide a strong and effortless grasp among small branches, and a unique arrangement of shoulder and hip joints supports their mass for long periods at the expense of little energy. Turret-shaped eyes swivel independently of each other, giving their bearer a wide field of stereoscopic vision without sacrificing nearly 360º of peripheral sight. Many of these adaptations appear to a lesser degree in some other arboreal lizards, particularly in the unrelated American family Polychrotidae, which includes the well known anoles (Anolis spp.) and the Cuban False Chameleons (Chamaeleolis spp.). Chameleons have taken the common lizard habit of capturing prey with a tongue-flick to the extreme, accurately snagging prey from as much as a snout-to-tail length away. Their color changing skills are legendary, but, contrary to popular belief, are used mostly as social signals and thermoregulation aids rather than devices of camouflage. Chameleons probably evolved on the mainland (the earliest known fossils are from Miocene Europe), and were transported to the island on floating detritus. They thrived in their new digs, and today about half of all known chameleon species hail from Madagascar or nearby islands.

My first experience with a Madagascan chameleon was on the second day of my first visit to the island, in 1994. In a bare tree, in a small town in the Sakalava region west of the capital, Antananarivo, I noticed a large lizard, nearly two thirds of a meter in length, that reminded me of an American iguana. As I approached, he tried to hide behind his perch, (above, top), but his mass refused to be concealed. This was an Oustalet's Chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti), a species that can exceed 680mm in length, longer than any other member of the family. Long and lean, it's an active species whose tongue can snatch small reptiles, mammals and birds along with large insects. In the trees it moves in typical chameleon fashion, but on the ground it can run like a normal lizard (above, lower). It's the only chameleon species I've seen move like this. F. oustaleti is one of the few lucky Madagascan creatures that seems to thrive on deforested land, and its numbers and range continue to swell as the island is degraded.

Another large Furcifer species, the well-known Panther Chameleon (F. pardalis) also finds benefit in deforestation. It is found throughout the island, and on a number of small neighboring islands. One of the most variable chameleon species, its colors range the spectrum, from nearly pure blue individuals on the island of Nosy Bé to the spectacular wine-colored males of Nosy Mangabé (above, right and in the painting below).

The Minor Chameleon (F. minor - above) is one of the smaller members of this, the largest Madagascan chameleon genus. The 120mm female (left) is about two-thirds the length of her mate, who bears a masculine bifurcular nose appendage. Unlike most chameleons, his skin colors are more somber than the female's. The pattern sported by the female in the painting displays her unwillingness to mate.

The photographs above show a few other Furcifer spp.

Calumma is the other genus of large Madagascan chameleons. It includes the massive Parson’s Chameleon (C. parsoni - above), which outweighs the Oustalet’s, if not reaching a total length as great, and numerous others, including the diminutive C. nasuta (below, right), which only slightly exceeds 100mm.

The smallest Madagascan chameleons belong to the genus Brookesia. The largest of these is the spectacular little 80mm B. perarmata, which looks like a tiny version of the rugged karst country of the southwestern edge of the Central Plateau, which it calls home. At the other end of the spectrum lays the B. minima complex, which includes B. peyrierasi (above, lower-left), which are among the smallest of all terrestrial vertebrates—only the Mlanje Mountain Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjense) of Malawi is smaller. This photograph shows an individual that we found on Nosy Mangabé. As I held a torch-beam on the lizard and prepared to photograph it on my friend’s hand, a seemingly monstrous fly lit beside it as if sensing the need for scale reference. These tiny reptiles walk about the forest floor, popping off springtails and other minute invertebrates with their tongues. At night they prefer an elevated perch, and will climb a few centimeters up a grass stem to spend the night.
Habitat loss and illegal collection has negatively impacted a number of species, but unlike most Madagascan taxa, no Madagascan chameleon appears to be in serious trouble so far. The I.U.C.N. considers Brookesia perarmata, Furcifer campani, F. labordi and F. minor vulnerable. It appears that the latter species might be another of the lucky ones benefiting from deforestation. Perhaps this can be attributed to a reduction of predators.
upper: SPRAWL--OUSTALET'S CHAMELEON (2007) acrylic 18" a 24"
center: RUFFED LEMUR & PANTHER CHAMELEON (2007) acrylicx 18" x 24"
lower: MINOR CHAMELEONS (1998) acrylic diptych 10" x 8"; 10" x 8"
all photographs taken by CPBvK at various times, in various locations on Madagascar


We Northern Utahns share our territory with two goatsucker species. The Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is, as its name implies, common. It lives in a variety of habitats, including the heart of the city, where numerous pairs nest on flat rooftops. In early fall and late spring, these insectivores often form large, loose migration rafts. Far less conspicuous is the little Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii). Though it's not rare in the surrounding hills, it's less plentiful than its larger cousin, and more shy and strictly nocturnal. That's why I was happily surprised to see an adult male Poorwill fly right over my head as I exited the grocery store this morning. Never before have I seen one of these birds in an urban setting. Poorwills are famous for hibernating during the winter, but as far as I know, their precise winter habits are still poorly understood. While some individuals hibernate, others engage in seasonal migrations like the nighthawks. The how and why of the difference is a mystery. I would guess the bird I saw today had spent the night migrating, and as the eastern sky began to lighten it bedded down on a parking strip or other spot where its slumber was inevitably disturbed by the 9am urban commotion. Your insights on Poorwill behavior are solicited.
Poorwill photographed by CPBvK in Tooele Co., UT c. 1984

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Hot off the press: Eagle Mountain Publishing has assembled 79 of the world's top boid experts to write this magnificent new book, which covers every aspect of the biology of this fascinating family. Thirty chapters cover the latest science in the taxonomy, morphology, ecology, behavior, physiology and conservation of boas and pythons. With 448 pages and over 200 color photos, drawings and maps, it's a must-have for anyone with a deep interest in these snakes. Oh yeah, and it's got my painting of a Reticulated Python on the cover, too.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


During the late Jurassic Period, in what is now central Utah, a dinosaur browsed along the edge of a bog. The animal was a Camptosaurus, a common herbivore similar to the better-known Iguanodon. As it entered the shallows, it became mired in sticky clay and was unable to extract itself. Its panicked thrashing soon attracted a passing group of Allosaurus, a common theropod dinosaur species. The carnivores were no less vulnerable to the trap, and that evening the sun set on several gigantic corpses barely protruding from the surface of the shallow water. It is speculated that similar scenarios played out a number of times in this spot, which is known today as the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry. Well over 10,000 dinosaur bones, representing at least nine genera, have been retrieved from the Quarry. Most of the remains have belonged to theropod dinosaurs, including Ceratosaurus, Marshosaurus, Stokesosaurus, and forty-some-odd individual Allosaurus. In a typical site, these large carnivores would have represented but a small fraction of the remains.

Last weekend, the Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry officially opened its brand-spanking new visitor's center, and I was pleased that they used some of the paintings I did for Frank DeCourten's Dinosaurs of Utah in their signage. I'm always apprehensive when graphic artists start manipulating my images, but my fears were assuaged by the tasteful and informative graphics the Quarry had designed for them. The Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry is just off Highway 10, about 25 miles south of Price, Utah.

Elsewhere in North America, my work is included in three shows opening this weekend. Masterpieces In Miniature is at Picture This! Gallery in Sherwood Park, Alberta. Small works by 40 invited North American Artists will be up until May 24th, when a drawing for sold work will be held.

The Spring Salon is the finest annual exhibition of Utah representational art, and it opens tomorrow evening at the Springville Art Museum, in the grand style that we've all come to take for granted. I took a peek at the show this morning, and it's really spectacular. There are dozens of pieces there that I either wish I had painted or that I could paint. The show will run through June.

Sunday, May 6th marks the opening of a new travelling exhibition, “Paws and Reflect: the Art of Canines.” This group show, curated by David J. Wagner PhD, represents a diverse cross-section of art inspired by the family Canidae. Included are three paintings of mine: one of Maned Wolves, one of a Bat-eared Fox, and the one above, which depicts a pair of Osbornodon, probably the most successful canid genus ever, having survived from early in the Oligocene (about 34 million years ago) until the late Miocene (about 14 million years ago). It died out about 7 million years before the first true dogs of the genus Canis appeared. “Paws and Reflect” opens at the Dunnegan Gallery of Art in Bolivar Missouri, where it will run until June 15, when it will travel to the Wildlife Experience Museum in Denver.

I've posted before about “Art of the Rainforest,” a ten-person show with a tropical rainforest theme, including paintings by Richard Sloan, who passed away last month. The show, which has been touring since 2005, opens on May 8th at the new Exhibition Hall at the Detroit Zoo. It will run until September 8.