Monday, September 24, 2007

Rime of the Out-Moded Long Line

It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
`By thy long beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me ?

With these lines, Samuel Taylor Coleridge begins his haunting tale, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Fair weather blesses the mariner’s voyage at first, and when a storm threatens the ship, an albatross appears along with a warm wind that blows the vessel out of danger. The shipmates rejoice and praise the bird for their salvation, yet the mariner shoots it dead with a crossbow. Punishment for his senseless act falls upon the whole crew, who suffer agonizing thirst and die, blaming the albatross-killer for their fate. Only the mariner survives. He repents at last but is doomed to wander the earth, confessing his sinful disregard for living creatures.

I couldn’t help but think of Coleridge’s verse while reading a recent post about albatross deaths by Charlie at 10,000 Birds. The statistics he reports are grim—100,000 albatrosses are killed each year by long-line industrial fishing. As an outraged (he says “bloody infuriated”) Charlie puts it, “100,000 albatrosses dying every year so that - basically - our supermarket shelves can be stocked with tins of tuna and the world’s restaurants can serve up exotic fish from the southern oceans.”

In Coleridge’s world of poetic justice, the perpetrator of such senseless killing was cursed to wear an albatross as a physical sign of his spiritual burden. Or, in the poet’s words, Ah! Well a-day! What evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung . Unfortunately, 5-star restaurants won’t be looping albatross necklaces around patrons who order swordfish. Charlie questions the effectiveness of a fish boycott though he (and I) won’t be eating any Starkist with plunder like this going on.

Instead, he urges everyone who cares about these magnificent flyers to support an urgent international effort to modify long-line fishing technology. The campaign, Save the Albatross has developed an excellent website with all the tools activists need to get involved, plus inspiring facts about albatross biology, behavior, and roles in history and literature. You can even get images and buttons like the snazzy one above to alert readers of your website or blog about this conservation crisis. With 19 of 21 albatross species already threatened with extinction, there isn’t a moment to lose.

And if you’d like to learn still more about these birds and their oceanic odysseys, you can’t go wrong reading Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival. Safina devoted months to chronicling the expansive movements of one particular Laysan albatross, a female he calls Amelia. In the grand tradition of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, Safina relies on the latest biological research to ground rich imaginings of Amelia’s daily activities and experiences, as she skillfully makes a living from the vast and trackless Pacific. Getting to know Amelia is the best way I can think of to understand what the birds are up against.

Concern for their plight has led Safina to launch his own campaign to reform long-line fishing through the Blue Ocean Institute. Blue Ocean’s “Off the Hook” efforts focus on building relationships with fishermen and studying alternative fishing methods. With efforts like “Off the Hook” and “Save the Albatross,” perhaps a future mariner can spread a tale of redemption and hope as albatrosses strafe the waves, snatching fish from a brimming ocean.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Nature's Engraver

Roger Tory Peterson is routinely credited with launching birdwatching as a popular hobby in the 20th century. The 1934 publication of his Guide to the Birds got things going, with its clear, color illustrations and field mark system making bird id simple even for urbanites who’d rarely noticed birds before. A prolific writer and photographer as well as painter, Peterson traveled the world, using his talents and charisma to spread the gospel of birding and environmentalism to anyone who would listen. Before Peterson’s death in 1996, Paul Ehrlich said, “In this century, no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide.”

An 18th century counterpart to Peterson is charmingly revealed in Jenny Uglow’s new biography, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick. The humble Bewick (1753-1828), who rarely traveled beyond his native Northumbria, inspired a generation of nature enthusiasts through his art much like his globe-trotting, media-savvy successor. Uglow details how Bewick elevated the craft of wood engraving to a fine art, developing a realistic, often whimsical, style that became popular for illustrating publications ranging from bookplates and business cards to broadsides and multi-volume tomes. One irresistible feature of Uglow’s biography is the plethora of original-sized samples of Bewick’s work, especially his “talepieces,” or miniature vignettes of rural life--often nostalgic, sometimes sardonic, but always worth careful scrutiny.

Art-lovers collect and revere Bewick’s prints and have formed the Bewick Society to promulgate his legacy. Naturalists esteem him primarily for two works: A General History of Quadrupeds and A History of British Birds. Bewick foreshadowed his much-younger contemporary, Audubon, by depicting his birds in their habitats, relying only on ink on carved boxwood to convey much of what Audubon could with watercolor and brushstrokes. Legendary art critic John Ruskin wrote, “. . . the execution of the plumage in Bewick’s birds is the most masterly thing ever done in woodcutting. . . “

Says Uglow, Bewick’s accessibly-priced volumes catalyzed the early Victorian craze in nature study that fostered the obsessive studies of Darwin and other pivotal 19th century naturalists. Uglow writes, “For a century, Bewick’s work was often a child’s first introduction to studies of animals and birds.” Charlotte Bronte even allows Jane Eyre a few moments of solace with his books. As Jane narrates, “With Bewick on my knee, I was then happy!” Uglow’s intimate look at Bewick’s life and craft offers, more than most artist's biographies, insight into how Bewick attained his lasting achievements. As she explains, Thomas Bewick loved his home moors and dells, and the animals that shared them with him, so deeply that he believed others must share that emotion. “His unpretentious tailpieces of travelers and farmers, streams and windy moors, make the past live, and his woodcuts of animals and birds let us share his own wonder at the human and the natural world, from the ‘Mufflon Zebu’ to the swallow sweeping through the northern skies.” With swift sure strokes, Uglow presents a life of texture, shade, and depth that will lead readers to a clearer understanding of how art, long before Peterson or even Audubon, has helped define--and change--our place in the natural environment.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Ansel Adams in Black-and-White

1968 was the most tumultuous year of my childhood, when budding awareness of world events met with assassinations and race riots and my mother’s remarriage brought a hot-tempered step-father and two troubled stepsisters into my life. But 1968 was also the year Ansel Adams photographed “El Capitan, Winter Sunrise, Yosemite National Park,” an image of heartbreaking clarity that I might never have appreciated without my step-father’s obsessive camera hobby and adulation of Adams. Perhaps because I lost so many childhood hours waiting in the station wagon for the right light to illuminate my step-father’s next shot, I’ve never pursued photography myself. But I’ve known ever since that photographs are a way of appreciating nature both when you are immersed in it and when you are far removed. Whatever traits others admire in Adams’ technique and artistry, I feel deep gratitude for the connections his work gave me to Yosemite, the Sierra, and wild Alaska, places where I could escape even if I couldn’t get there.

You can imagine my delight when I learned that Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery is hosting a traveling exhibit of 130 Adams prints (September 15 through January 27). The photos celebrate six decades of Adams’ development, from his early painterly efforts to iconic masterpieces such as “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Bought directly from Adams’ by William and Saundra Lane, the prints offer a rare chance to see Adams’ work at its finest, in images he developed himself. “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score,” says Adams, “and the print the performance." No matter how often you’ve seen Adams’ posters, calendars and notecards, it is vital see his prints firsthand.

Though I haven’t seen the show yet, an article in The Washington Post notes that it includes an example of Adams’ commercial work, a prosaic shot of a potash company. To writer Blake Gopnik, Adams’ industrial photos reveal the artist was not, as popularly understood, a pure nature photographer. The power of Adams’ most lauded photos, says Gopnik, is not from Adams’ love of the natural environment but from “the particular confrontations between technology and landscape that made those photos possible.” Gopnik relates that when he sees an Adams view of “Moonrise,” for instance, he thinks not of the New Mexico desert but of the Pontiac Adams was driving when he spotted the potential shot in his rear-view mirror. Ignoring the fact that young Adams hiked, aided only by a mule loaded with glass camera plates, to capture images of Yosemite’s backcountry, Gopnik claims Adams was as much about pride in ownership of nature and in technological domination of distance and access as about wild nature itself. In contrast to my own experience, Gopnik also states that Adams’ photos sent him and others exploring not outdoors but in camera shops and darkroom supply stores, “and into the depths of all the complex how-to books that Adams wrote.”

I think--or hope-- that Gopnik is wrong. To me at least, Adams was depicting the feeling of a mountain, forest, or snowfield, not his machine-assisted confrontation with it. Adams’ eminent colleague Edward Weston once explained their shared view that “the camera should be used for recording of life, for rending the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Adams’ birch trees, aspen leaves, even rock faces never fail to palpitate for me, and one mark of their personal effect was my children’s book about Adams’ environmental lifework Eye on the Wild: A Story about Ansel Adams. But perhaps his impact today is fading, as the forested ranges he once scoured for artistic angles are overrun by bus tours, converted into ski slopes, or dried & fried from climate change. Who wouldn’t prefer the thrilling discoveries of a darkroom lab to a mournful visitation of a birch woods, marked for clear-cutting? Will even our so-called permanent records of wilderness lose their potency if the reality dwindles and vanishes from the earth?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Children's Books that Think Big

Who could resist the charms of a “joyous, ample gal” who could churn butter from a river of milk or stir up a cyclone by shaking her floor rugs? Paul Bunyan sure couldn’t, according to Marybeth Lorbiecki’s charming folktale picturebook about a larger-than-life romance in Minnesota’s north woods, Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart. Raised by bears, Lucette Diana Kensack grew and grew as environmentally aware as she was tall, leading toward a delightful twist on traditional renditions of Bunyan’s lumberjacking ways. The illustrations remind me of Garth William’s glowing covers of some versions of Little House on the Prairie and evoke a time of wide open spaces and even bigger dreams.

I like this book so much that I’m going to recommend it for Orion Magazine’s Bibliography of Nature Stories for Children. Orion, a leader in promoting environmental literacy around the nation, argues that stories more than fact-based texts or field guides engage children’s imaginations and inspire them to care about nature. While I disagree somewhat with that position—I think different kids respond to different types of books, and all kinds of good books can equally play valuable roles—I heartily agree that stories like Paul Bunyan’s Sweetheart can fulfill Orion's goal to “bring the world alive and establish nature as our home.” After all, if you can believe a giant blue ox’s footprints made the Great Lakes, the idea that people could learn to restore and protect a piney wilderness doesn’t seem farfetched anymore.