Art of the Wild
Nature Books for Kids
Art of the Matter
Detailed bird illustrations are much more than works of art.
By Frank Graham Jr.
Humans, Nature and Birds: Science Art From Cave Walls to Computer Screens
By Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy
Yale University Press, 240 pages, $37.50
In a controversial lecture delivered in 1959 at Cambridge University, the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow described a conflict between “the two cultures”—an intellectual standoff between science and the humanities. Scientists believed literary intellectuals to be ignorant of science, Snow argued, while many in the humanities were hostile to scientific and industrial advances, all to the detriment of global progress. Now a new book, Humans, Nature and Birds: Science Art From Cave Walls to Computer Screens, by Darryl Wheye and Donald Kennedy, demonstrates through selected images that superior artists may shine such an insightful light on the natural world that the “two cultures” unite in a new genre: Science Art. “Works of Science Art,” the authors write, “skillfully represent truths about the natural world and what it contains, suggesting important connections among people, plants, animals and their environment and teaching us indirectly about nature itself.”
Wheye, an artist and writer specializing in birds, and Kennedy, editor-in-chief emeritus of the journal Science, illustrate how the two disciplines merge successfully in images chosen from among thousands going back to the dawn of human history. Birds, lively and colorful animals with intriguing, even dramatic, behavior, are the focus of almost all of the 60-odd images presented here.
The book itself is a pleasure to hold. On fine paper attractively printed and bound, it shows us a procession of artworks beginning with a simple sketch of an owl made on a wall of the Chauvet Cave in France 30,000 years ago. It concludes with an explosive 1995 watercolor by Vadim Gorbatov that depicts a northern goshawk bursting out of a mist into a lek, or mating grounds, of black grouse. In between, its range of artists includes Edouard Manet, John James Audubon, Paul Klee, Roger Tory Peterson, Norman Rockwell, and Charley Harper, as well as anonymous ancient carvers and medieval scribes.
Facing each work is a caption, divided into two parts. One gives information about the work and its artist; the other discusses the picture’s scientific or conservation content. Throughout, the authors stress the importance of captions to Science Art, helping the viewer “decode the underlying science.” The assembled images and captions document our exploitation of birds as food, pets, or targets, our appreciation of their grace and beauty, and the ways we have put them to use in demonstrating moral or social concerns.
For instance, an oil painting (described as “a conservation message from the 1500s”) by Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a peasant pointing knowingly over his shoulder at a man in the background who is robbing a bird’s nest. The image, with its array of plants serving as familiar symbols of right or wrong, clearly expresses a moral point for the artist’s medieval audience—a bramble standing for power achieved in overcoming temptation, a malformed willow representing the nest robber.
Thoughtful commentary or pertinent details enrich the reader’s appreciation of each artist’s work. Sally M. Berner’s oil painting of 2000, titled “Happy Thanksgiving,” depicts a truckload of caged turkeys on their way to market. The truck, painted in realistic detail, moves through a bleak atmosphere that casts something of a pall over the holiday cheer. The text mentions that a schoolgirl, on viewing the work, remarked, “Oh, that’s good, they got the license number of the truck.”
The authors compare the book’s only photograph, showing a long-billed curlew in flight, to a painting of the same species. Photography provides artists with stop-action images of moving animals, and the artists may take it from there. With their own view of an animal in action stored in memory, they are able to manipulate the scene to emphasize mystery, menace, happiness, or other qualities that give their art its uniqueness. As the authors explain, “Sally M. Berner’s photo-realistic painting of turkeys, for example, benefits from her decision to provide no more than an impression of the background, just as Vadim Gorbatov’s painting of a lek under attack benefits from his ability to provide more than an impression of the high-speed chaos.”
Implicit in this book’s approach to painting is the question, “Is bird-art art?” The caption to Louis Agassiz Fuertes’s watercolor of a Brewer’s blackbird attempts an answer. Fuertes drew the bird devouring a plump, menacing larva of an alfalfa weevil, while a farmer plows his field in the background. Fuertes made the painting to help illustrate the 1914 Bulletin of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showing that certain birds tend to eat noxious insects rather than vital crop seeds.
The publication’s object, obviously, was to make a point about bird conservation and thus convince farmers that birds are beneficial to their way of life. It was sugared but powerful propaganda: Protect Birds! In this case, was Fuertes an artist or an illustrator? Wheye and Kennedy point out that he was given credit in the publication. Moreover, this picture “tells an important story about the value of the bird’s help in ridding the field of weevil larvae.” This skillfully painted picture—a conservation point rammed home—the authors suggest, “adds credence to the assertion that the division between art and illustration is arbitrary.”
Fuertes’s image, created as an object lesson, took on new life as a “painting” in a big book, The Bird Life of Texas. Preserved over the years, it is now honored as art and—more effective than ever—as Science Art, to go on telling its utilitarian story.
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The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
By Hugh Warwick
Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $25
British writer and ecologist Hugh Warwick is aware that a smelly, spiny, noisy little mammal is not an immediate candidate for infatuation. He admits his love for hedgehogs began more as “a working relationship” when he spent the summer of 1985 on one of the Orkney Islands counting a population of invasive hedgehogs wildly overestimated at 10,000. Told with quick wit and compassion, Warwick’s tale about the enigmatic animals zigzags across the United Kingdom and around the globe over two decades. He happily rambles through his neighborhood in the middle of the night to learn about hedgehog behavior and delights in anatomical quandaries, explaining, for example, how the animals give birth to what appears to be a ball of spikes. He even makes a pilgrimage to Denver to the International Hedgehog Olympic Games—during which hedgehogs compete in such events as floor exercises and races—to better understand their appeal in the United States, where hedgehogs aren’t native and are kept only as pets. There was no alcohol for spectators, he laments, but “I was intrigued to find that hedgehog massage was on offer [for the animals after they competed].” Other hedgehog fans, he discovers, appreciate them for their culinary appeal—the book includes a recipe for hedgehog spaghetti carbonara, although the author is a vegetarian. The Hedgehog’s Dilemma invokes a whimsical sentimentality, but Warwick has found these prickly mammals can inspire British suburbanites to care about conservation. “The dilemma we face,” he says, “is trying to get close enough to the wild without corrupting it out of existence.”—Katherine Tweed
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Almost Green: How I Saved 1/6th of a Billionth of the Planet
By James Glave
Skyhorse Publishing, 252 pages, $24.95
Driven to reduce his carbon footprint and set an example in his community, journalist James Glave schemes to build an environmentally friendly writing studio as a foil to his less-than-remarkable house. His project quickly becomes more than he bargained for. Though modest in size (a mere 280 square feet), Glave’s “Eco-Shed,” as he calls it, requires a behemoth investment of time and money. Juggling two young children, a career, and his wife’s waning patience, the former Outside senior editor quests after willing craftsmen and suitable building materials while struggling to keep his grand total under $75,000. Along the bumpy road, Glave gains valuable insight into green-building philosophy, which views a sustainable structure as “a living system made up of individual pieces—heating, cooling, electrical, plumbing—that all work together and play off one another.” His project also forces him to grapple with other eco-insensitive aspects of his lifestyle, such as his mode of transportation—an environmentally blasphemous Lexus SUV (a gift from his father-in-law)—and his obtrusive carport, which blocks solar rays that would otherwise be ideal for heating his new studio. The anxiety is palpable each time Glave encounters a stumbling block, be it a high bill or another construction delay. But Almost Green finds balance in the author’s self-effacing and frank sense of humor. “In building my Eco-Shed,” Glave writes, “I’m feeling what I can only characterize as a sort of low-grade euphoria.” He knows he’s not the greenest guy on the planet—what’s important is that he’s striding in the right direction.—Julie Leibach
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Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes
By Robert Kull
New World Library, 320 pages, $23.95
In his late twenties, Robert Kull experienced “a powerful need to be alone, “ so he quit his logging job and paddled into the British Columbia backcountry. Three months later he emerged, determined to live his life primitively. In Death Valley he dwelled in a cave and read psychologist Carl Jung; in the Dominican Republic he occupied a mountainside shack and tended vegetables. At 50 he enrolled in a graduate program at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. “What I truly wanted to explore,” says Kull, “was the effect of deep wilderness solitude on a human being.” Solitude is the culmination of his studies: a year alone on an island in Patagonian Chile, where, surrounded by icy peaks and stormy seas, he probes his predicament with poignancy and passion. The book is written as starkly as the lifestyle Kull is crafting, and comprised largely of his daily logs: fishing, studying limpets, watching wildlife, each experience a chance to stoke enlightenment. “It’s interesting to try to pin down the borders of the colors,” he says after endless rains release a rainbow. “I’ve never tracked these moving shafts of light before; have seen them only as a brief touch, rather than a lingering caress.” Solitude lacks the bravado one might expect from such a tale, and Kull’s honesty allows the writing to flow far beyond the territory navigated by typical egotistical adventurers. “These have been rough days psychospiritually,” he writes after one particularly trying set of storms. “It’s painful to feel I’m failing. When I leave here, I shouldn’t say much to anyone about this year.” Thankfully, he changed his mind and published his moving story.—Justin Nobel
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Art of the Wild
Forget dull splotches of green and brown. Lemony yellow swirls, sapphire speckles, and pearlescent stripes are just a sampling of the kaleidoscopic markings showcased in Thomas Marent’s Frog (DK Publishers, 280 pages, $30), an album of more than 400 images celebrating amphibians. A self-professed frog-o-phile, Marent trekked from Australia to Madagascar to collect his portraits. Together with facts on amphibian biology, Frog’s photographs reveal the prodigious variety of the approximately 6,000 species of frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders that exist today. Intimate shots, such as the one here of a red-eyed leaf frog clinging with sinewy legs streaked in shades of mandarin and amethyst, speak to the photographer’s astute eye and patience, as well as nature’s vibrant palette.—Julie Leibach
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