Friday, August 30, 2013

Gordon Haber, Grace Paley, and Satyagraha.

I hold in my hands an advance copy of Among Wolves: Gordon Haber’s Insights into Alaska’s Most Misunderstood Animal. It feels good to have this tangible evidence of the last few years' of work, feels good to have it be more than words in my head, images on my computer screen. It's here, it's real. Velveteen rabbit come to life.

It’s a different kind of book for me: on it, I’m listed as co-author with Dr. Gordon Haber, a wolf biologist who died four years ago on a research flight. This book was not something I had been looking to do. It simply arrived, a project that needed doing, one that no one else was willing or able to tackle.

At first I resisted it, having plenty of my own projects clamoring for precious writing time. But I wanted this book to exist. I wanted Gordon's forty-three years worth of insights to not disappear, but to reach a greater audience. Because I knew that his insights into wolves need to be heard, now more than ever.
Gordon Haber was a scientist, absolutely grounded in hard fact. But he was one who never lost his initial sense of wonder for the subject of his studies: the lives of wild wolves. Having an undergraduate degree in the sciences myself, having worked with scientists as a research assistant and then as a writer, I’ve met all too few scientists who have retained the wonder that first propelled them into their chosen work.

This blog’s link name, “artandnatureand,” points to what happens when art and nature combine – what grows from that. For me and many of those whose work is featured here, this combination often leads to direct activism. Consider Rika Mouw, James Balog, and Mimi White. It's that famous line many attribute to Lenin: “What then shall we do?”

Among Wolves describes a mirror equation: science and nature and – activism. Gordon Haber is best known for his tireless, fearless advocacy on behalf of wolves. Every single bit of his advocacy is grounded firmly in the results of his research, and yet it took that untrammeled wonder, that unbridled passion, to give him the fearlessness to stand up, again and again and again, for what he knew to be true.

It’s so easy to let fear shut us down and close us off from our own unique source of expression, insight, passion. It’s so hard to stay open and fearless, so hard to resist the pressure to be silent and conform. I’ve often thought of each person as a piece in a giant world puzzle: just think what would happen if each of us stayed true to our unique shape, and expressed that unique self into the puzzle we call life.

So I’m always filled with gratitude for those who express what Mahatma Gandhi called satygraha: standing truth to power. I’m grateful for scientists and artists, people in any walk of life, who stand for the truth. It reminds me of something Grace Paley once said when asked if writers had a moral obligation:

“Oh, I think all human beings do. So if all human beings have it, then writers have some, too. I mean, why should they get off the hook? Whatever your calling is, whether it’s as a plumber or an artist, you have to make sure there’s a little more justice in the world when you leave it than when you found it. Most writers do that naturally, see that more lives are illuminated, try to understand what is not understood and see what hasn’t been seen. “

Friday, August 16, 2013

Grief/Honor/Gratitude: A Guest Post by Rika Mouw

Welcome to guest blogger Rika Mouw, whose passion for nature and the arts is infectuous, and whose art jewelry made entirely from natural materials inspires a more profound connection to the natural world. And, yes, that's one of Rika's masterpieces on the far right of the blog's banner - a piece about ocean acidification composed entirely from mussel shells.


I could not write more perfect words than poet Stanley Kunitz's for my thoughts around what I want to express with my art making: 
"When you look back on a lifetime and think of what has been given to the world by your presence, your fugitive presence, inevitably you think of your art, whatever it may be, as the gift you have made to the world in acknowledgment of the gift you have been given, which is the life itself. And I think the world tends to forget that this is the ultimate significance of the body of work each artist produces. That work is not an expression of the desire for praise or recognition, or prizes, but the deepest manifestation of your gratitude for the gift of life.”
                          ~The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, by Stanley Kunitz


By the late 1990's, we Alaskans lost 70-80% of the mature spruce forest on the Kenai Peninsula to a spruce bark beetle infestation. I continue to grieve deeply for those lost trees………. and for the ongoing trend of conifer forest die-offs around the world due to warmer temperatures and drought brought on by climate change. These stressing conditions result in trees being more vulnerable and susceptible to increasing populations of varying species of bark beetle. There are dozens of well documented forest die-offs around the world, from western North America (Mexico up to Alaska), Europe, Africa, Australia, and Siberia. The trees are dying in such large numbers, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, spoke of the Western U.S. die off as the West's Hurricane Katrina.
The die-offs are now so large and so rapid that it is having an unusual effect on the ecosystem. The whitebark pine, once largely protected from the beetles because it grew at high altitudes and was shielded by cold, is nearing functional extinction in large portions of its range and may no longer be able to feed grizzly bears and other species that rely on its high-fat nut. In Mexico, bark beetles are beginning to kill oyamel fir trees in a rare 139,000-acre biosphere preserve where the majority of North America’s monarch butterflies travel each fall to spend the winter. In 2008, so much of British Columbia’s forests have died they went from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source. While bark beetles attack conifers, now even deciduous trees like the aspen groves in Colorado are dying.
Scientists believe the cause is hotter temperatures and drier weather. It’s not only killing mature trees, but the root mass as well. An aspen grove is the offspring of a large single underground clonal mass, when the roots die, groves that are hundreds or thousands of years old aren’t going to be there anymore.
From a personal perspective of loss, the absence of the giant spruce trees in our neighborhood, some purported to be the largest on the Kenai Peninsula, gave us privacy and protection……….especially protection from the intrusions of human-generated noise, city lights and neighborhood activities. Before the beetle infestation, our town of Homer had a forest character. There were areas that felt as if we lived in a rainforest. 
I watched trees dying at a breathtaking rate, helpless and in disbelief. It was shocking to see how rapidly people were clear cutting their trees and hauling them away, often times before the trees were even 'taken' by the beetles. Once gone, the landscape was transformed, naked and revealing a human footprint I could not have imagined. Climate change came directly to our front door and changed me forever. 

As the trees on our property were being cut, I saved the bottom sections of the largest trees with the intention of making sculptural pieces that would honor these giants and to pay tribute to a very special habitat lost.
As the sections dried, the central core rotted and fell out of each of them, leaving a hole. By standing the stump sections up so their widest diameter faced upwards, they became vessels. I hollowed them to create, giant offering bowls……..female receptacles that speak of Life. Making these 'bowls' has been cathartic, as it is physically demanding and is giving me a chance to appreciate the wood inside, revealing personalities with stories to learn through their growth rings, colors and imperfections.

As a jewelry maker I tend to see things through the lens of intimacy, preciousness and handing down to the next generation, so each of these tree 'bowls' holds an offering of a piece of jewelry, ceremonial in nature, made from naturally occurring materials in this habitat, evoking the preciousness of the connection and relationship they have with the trees. It is all connected.

The project is ongoing and eventually I will create a 'forest' of these tree bowl offerings to honor the complex living connections in which the trees play such an important role. The greater question will eventually unfold as to whether this will indeed be a forest or an Arlington Cemetery type of grouping………… a life or a death perspective. Either way, an honoring. 

                                            Life Line
Simultaneously, I have been committed to another two-pronged landscape project of rehabilitating/healing our land and protecting the wetlands that we live adjacent to. Since the large shade-giving spruce have been lost, my 'gardening' entails staving off invasive weeds and the advance of the tenaciously aggressive grass commonly referred to as Blue Joint (Calamagrotis canadendis) grass that quickly moves in, choking out the former forest vegetation. In our yard that includes species of blueberry and cranberry, cloudberry, bog birch, ferns, Devil's Club, and an array of ground covers and flowering plants. In many incidences in the general landscape, the wave of blue joint grass has not only choked out less aggressive plants but has also impeded new trees from reestablishing, thus creating something close to a monoculture.
My slow, methodical hand removal of this grass has allowed a diversity of plant species to remain. After years of nurturing the volunteer birch, mountain ash and spruce trees they are beginning to once again shade out the grass and allow the fern, wild iris, bog orchids, and a number of other species that have sprouted up over the years to thrive as they once did.
We live right on the coast of Kachemak Bay and adjacent to a large wetland complex that is habitat for water fowl, moose and even bear. While much of the wetland complex is still intact, with some of it being State designated as critical winter habitat for moose, the rest of it is zoned to be developed for commercial/industrial use.
With the knowledge that the best way to heal Nature is to connect it with Herself, over the last 12 years I have focused on protecting the wetlands from further degradation by fighting development proposals that diminish wetland function and partnering with others to purchase parcels from willing private land owners to connect parcels together. Some of these wetland parcels were already filled in and piled with junk so we are cleaning them up and re-wilding what we can with willow and trees.
I am repairing, weaving and stitching back together a landscape tapestry from ocean to forest and wetland. Cultivating resiliency. It is an act of love and of gratitude for Life. Climate change is here, there is no question. What can I, as an artist, do? What can any of us do?
Perhaps by connecting people of like mind and passion, we can only encourage and support one another for the strength we need to keep doing our work. Just as connecting Nature with Herself gives Her more resiliency, connecting Nature-loving people with others can strengthen our resiliency to continue our work.

Rika Mouw is an artist and a passionate advocate for the arts and for the natural environment who lives in Homer, Alaska. Her life is interwoven in these endeavors, often overlapping and becoming one and the same. She earned a degree in landscape architecture and worked for several years in that capacity for a small mountain municipality in Colorado where pedestrianizing the core of the town was a priority. In addition to design, her focus was to prioritize the use of native plant materials and find better ways to integrate the human built environment into the landscape rather than dominate it. Later she turned to the arts, and for the last 25 years, art jewelry has been her primary form of art making. Traditionally, jewelry is a way to express preciousness, beauty, sentiment, celebration and a possession of value to be passed down for generations. Rika's one-of-a-kind jewelry highlights natural materials she finds or gathers that speak to these same ideas regarding the natural environment. More recently her work has become less wearable as she now only references jewelry, using it as metaphor for these expressions in advocating for the precious web of life upon which we are utterly dependent. Her work has been exhibited and collected across the country. The Anchorage Museum and the Pratt Museum in Homer have several pieces of her work in their permanent collections, as well as the National Park Service where one of her works is displayed in the Denali National Park Visitor's Center. She also designed a memorial reading garden for the Homer City Library. Rika has served on the board of Bunnell Street Arts Center since 1998. Recently the Arts Center has spearheaded a community project creating a vibrant waterfront pedestrian district and gateway to Bishop's Beach in Old Town where the Arts Center anchors the neighborhood. Partnering with the City of Homer, the Alaska Maritime Refuge and area businesses, the project is bringing the neighborhood together to calm traffic, improve parking and signage, introduce public art, a People's Garden, artful benches, trails and creating a human scaled gathering place for recreation and cultural events. In the same spirit, her efforts in protecting the natural function of the Beluga Wetland Complex by partnering with others in purchasing parcels for conservation will eventually maintain a natural and vital habitat area in the center of Homer where people can continue to enjoy open space and wildlife viewing.