Happy Earth Day – poetry and plants

April 22nd, 2014

Spring Crocuses

Earth Day is a time when we celebrate and honor nature, in all its wild untamed beauty. We also search for ways to understand and appreciate nature, and one such way is poetry.

I have featured nature poetry on this website before, by the likes of Keats, Herrick, and of course Emily Dickinson. Recently I came across a wonderful article about the uses of Plants in Poetry, by Kelly Brenner of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. She demonstrates plants as symbolism in Shakespeare, plants as lessons and morals in Shel Silverstein, and plants as an appreciation of nature in the work of Dickinson.

It appears the poetic power of plants is timeless, as these works are just as potent today as when they were written. Perhaps they are even more powerful, as we seem to have grown distant as a species from the friendly flora around us. Plants are potted and mulched into neat corners of society, making our unconscious yearning for the natural world all the more powerful.

Luckily we have the poets to help bring us back, and remind us of our deep bond with the natural world. Nature poems are not always happy ones, which just goes to show how well nature reflects our inner selves.

One of the poems featured in the article above is The Withering Of The Boughs by William Butler Yeats. I’ll leave you with an excerpt, you can read the entire poem at the original post.

I cried when the moon was murmuring to the birds:
‘Let peewit call and curlew cry where they will,
I long for your merry and tender and pitiful words,
For the roads are unending, and there is no place to my mind.’
The honey-pale moon lay low on the sleepy hill,
And I fell asleep upon lonely Echtge of streams.

No boughs have withered because of the wintry wind;
The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams.

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Zebra finches rock the house

March 27th, 2014

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Springtime is often heralded by the music of birds, but not usually playing electric guitars.

Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has an exhibit through April 13th called from here to ear, that brings art and nature together quite literally. French artist and musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has created an environmental soundscape in which 70 zebra finches interact with electric guitars set up throughout the room. Visitors walk through the big open space and become part of the ever-changing environment.

Here is a peek behind the scenes at this fascinating exhibit:

The point is not only to create evocative musical sounds, but to make the visitor think about the ways in which we perceive sound, how we interact with nature, and how nature reacts to our own fabricated world. Below is an interview with the artist, who has made creative sound exhibits all over the world.

The exhibit requires tickets on weekends (which are sold out) but not on weekdays. More information at the Peabody Essex Museum website.

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The long cold winter

March 6th, 2014

“Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

It’s been a long winter. Cold, snowy, windy, the kind of bone-chilling weather that makes you want to hibernate.

Many artists have painted snowy landscapes through the years, but few measure up to the classic “Hunters in the Snow” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Bruegel was a Renaissance painter from the Netherlands, who lived between 1525 and 1569. This magnificent painting is 63 inches wide (160 cm), and manages to portray an entire village in all its lively frozen detail. This is one town that did not hibernate.

You can see this painting even closer with the Google Art Project, where you can zoom in really close on the detail. Here’s the link. The site has hundreds of other paintings that you can view up close, it’s an amazing virtual museum.

I’ve been neglecting this blog for a while, but now that spring is on the horizon, I plan to get back into the swing of things. I’ve got some great posts planned for the coming weeks, so check back again soon!

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The Wilderness Project – children in the natural world

November 26th, 2013

Photo Copyright by Heather McKay Bowes

Photographer Heather McKay Bowes describes herself as “an explorer, a wild one at heart, a spinner of stories, a dreamer.” She uses her photography to tell stories, and is embarking on a new project that explores and celebrates the connection between children and nature.

Photo Copyright by Heather McKay Bowes

The Wilderness Project is a journey through the wild places in our world, the forests, rivers, mountains and beaches. Heather will photograph children in these natural settings, and the same children will photograph their own view of these wild places. It’s a project designed to bring children and nature together.

As she says on her Kickstarter page, “The children will be asked to either write, tell, or sketch some of their discoveries made while photographing and this will be shared alongside their prints in a printed journal of their own.” Heather will also “connect with families whose children may need art and nature to express, communicate or heal themselves.” The entire journey will be documented and shared to inspired others.

The first phase of the project will focus on the New England wilderness, and will last a full year to experience all four seasons. She has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund her project. You can visit the website to learn more.

Photo Copyright by Heather McKay Bowes

Photo Copyright by Heather McKay Bowes

Photo Copyright by Heather McKay Bowes

 All photos in this post © by Heather McKay Bowes

 

A Celebration of Flight

August 14th, 2013

A Celebration of Flight

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of A Celebration of Flight by IBEX Puppetry, directed by Heather Henson. Featuring a blend of puppetry, movement and music, it was an inspiring spectacle that beautifully depicted the natural world through the life-cycle of a crane.

The performance followed the young bird as it hatched from an egg, discovered the world, and learned to fly, while meeting various other creatures along the way (fish, dragonflies, turtles, birds.) The ending featured a gigantic white crane that flew majestically across the stage. A thundering percussive soundtrack and soaring vocal performance added to the magic.

The setting for this visual and musical feast was an outdoor amphitheater on the gorgeous campus of Swarthmore College, as part of the Puppeteers of America national festival. Surrounded by towering trees and lush greenery, with the audience seated on the ground, the connection with nature was even more profound. I even saw a real hawk soaring high overhead, as though joining in the spectacle.

At various points in the performance, children in the audience were invited to participate by waving their own paper birds and fish in the air. At the end they were all invited down to the stage to join the performance in a joyous finale that brought tears to my eyes. It was a celebration like no other – a true blending of art and nature, reaching towards a deeper understanding of both.

A Celebration of Flight

Majestic crane puppet flies over the audience

A Celebration of Flight

A Celebration of Flight

Photographs don’t do justice to the puppets, because their movement was what made them so magical. Below is a video trailer of the show performed indoors, which will give you a better sense of the overall production.

Learn more about IBEX Puppetry at their website or Facebook page.

The amazing whale photographs of Bryant Austin

June 14th, 2013

Beautiful Whales book coverPhotographing whales is no easy task, but Bryant Austin has developed a unique method to create giant detailed portraits of these huge and enigmatic creatures.

Bryant had worked as an underwater photographer and marine biologist for many years, but new inspiration literally tapped him on the shoulder one day in the form of a 45-ton humpback whale. This close encounter, described eloquently in the video below, led him to quit his job and sell everything he owned in order to begin a new artistic journey — to capture images that convey the amazing experience of meeting a whale up close.

But simply enlarging a regular photo wasn’t enough, it could never capture the full detail of these creatures. So he invented his own technique. These giant photographs, currently on display at the Museum of Monterey in California, are created by taking a series of 5-foot-wide photos using a 50 megapixel camera, which he then pieces together to create the whole image. But before he can even take the photos, he spends up to three months getting to know a group of whales so they feel safe enough to approach him on their own terms. The results are truly spectacular.

Photographs by Bryant Austin

Photographs by Bryant Austin on display

Life size photograph of a minke whale

Life size photograph of a minke whale

Bryant hopes that his work will help call attention to the plight of these creatures and inspire people to want to help them. Here is an interview about his work and his journey as an artist.

He also has a new book of his photographs, which includes fold-out pages to help convey the detail in these images. Below is a video where he talks about the new book.

You can read more about his current exhibit at the Museum of Monterey in California here.

You can see many of Bryant’s photographs in this recent article from Wired.

You can learn a lot more about Bryant Austin at his website.

Premier Automne – First Autumn

April 29th, 2013

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne, directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset

Premier Automne is a brilliantly animated short film directed by Carlos De Carvalho and Aude Danset, produced by Je Regarde. It is stunningly beautiful, and explores nature both visually and thematically. But I don’t want to summarize the story if you haven’t seen it yet, because the discovery and mystery of each moment is what makes it so compelling.

Watch for yourself, and then I will share some thoughts below. (Watch on Vimeo for a larger picture, it’s worth it.)

There are so many ways to look at this film. As a simple human drama, it’s the story of two people eternally set apart from each other by the laws of nature. And yet they are both lonely, are both drawn to one other. Both inhabit a world completely foreign to the other, and frightening as well, even as it seems perfectly natural to them.

There is an overtone of death throughout the film, echoed in the darkness that surrounds their world, and yet there is also life below the surface, waiting to spring forth. In most stories, the protagonists manage to overcome their problem in the end, but this film is much more open-ended.

Life and death, summer and winter, boy and girl. There is a lot to think about here. How do you interpret this film?

For those of you who like to go behind the scenes, here is a link to the production blog, and here is a video about the making of the film.

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Exploring the animal kingdom through music

April 9th, 2013

Predator-Prey

Composers draw inspiration from everything around them, and many great songs have sprung from nature. Musicians Dak and Adam are taking their inspiration one step further, by recording a whole concept album inspired by the animal kingdom. Predator/Prey was inspired by the unusual names for groups of animals, and features song titles like “A Knot of Snakes” and “A Gang of Elk.” Here’s how the group describes their work:

Each of the 14 songs is completely inspired by the ecology and behavior of a particular species of Canadian wildlife and is written entirely from the perspective of the animal, both musically and lyrically.  Drawing inspiration from an incredibly diverse range of influences, the album pushes genre boundaries while retaining cohesion in true concept-album form.

Dak is a PhD student at the University of Toronto studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and sees this album as a way to engage and educate people about the North American wilderness. He is currently living in the Canadian Arctic working on fisheries research.

The album has taken 2.5 years to write and record, and they launched a crowdfunding campaign to help finish it. It’s great to see how nature inspires different artists in different media. Check out the video below to learn more, or visit the project website to hear samples.

Predator/Prey group shot

Predator/Prey recording session

Here is the group’s official website.

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The art of Maria Sibylla Merian

April 2nd, 2013

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Chances are you hadn’t heard of Maria Sibylla Merian before she was celebrated by Google on her 366th birthday April 2nd. And yet she was  one of the most famous and accomplished naturalists of her day.

She was born in 1647, in Germany. Her father, an engraver and publisher, died when she was three. Her stepfather was a Dutch painter who inspired his young daughter, but left when she was twelve, leaving Maria and her mother on their own. Maria continued her art, taking a special interest in insects, which she would catch and raise so that she could draw them. This would be an unusual habit even for a teenager today, and it was unheard of for a girl in the 17th Century. Her mother must have been wonderfully supportive.

Maria Sibylla MerianShe had a particular interest in the metamorphosis of butterflies, and she studied and documented this process firsthand. She was also very interested in the connection between plants and insects, and often painted insects with the plants that provided food for them. She was also fiercely independent. At the age of 52 and divorced, she took her 16-year-old daughter on a trip to South America to study the plants and insects there. Her daughter followed in her footsteps, continuing her work in South America even as Maria had to return home due to illness.

What I find especially amazing about this artist is her love of insects. Today we do everything we can to eliminate insects from our daily lives. We spray them with poison even at the risk of our own health, despite the fact that insects support our entire ecosystem. And yet she saw something beautiful in them, despite (or perhaps because of) their strange appearance.

The painting at the top of this page appears at first glance to be a simple flower arrangement, but five insects add a wildness that’s surprising and a little unnerving. We expect our flora paintings to be gentle and harmless, we don’t expect them to bite us. But in depicting insects as beautiful works of art, she is inviting us into her world, telling us not to be afraid, that there is much to be celebrated in these little creatures.

Maria Sibylla Merian was ahead of her time in many ways, and we can all be inspired by her life and her work. You can read a lot about her at this website, which has links to many articles and galleries of her work.

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Art by Maria Sibylla Merian

Below is a slideshow put together by a fan on YouTube, to the music of Handel.

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The Snowflake Man

March 6th, 2013

Wilson BentleyWilson Bentley was a Renaissance man. He had no formal training in science or art,  yet he had a talent and a passion for both. In 1885 he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal, and would go on to photograph more than 5000.

His story is just as inspiring as his work. His father, a farmer, did not appreciate his son’s scientific ambitions, but his mother encouraged him. Bentley later recalled, “When the other boys of my age were playing with popguns and sling-shots, I was absorbed in studying things under this microscope: drops of water, tiny fragments of stone, a feather dropped from a bird’s wing, a delicately veined petal from some flower.”

But it was snow that fascinated him most, and he spent over a year experimenting with a bellows camera and microscope trying to photograph the elusive crystals. Once he succeeded, it was thirteen years before he published his work in Popular Scientific Monthly and caught the attention of the scientific world. Photograph by Wilson BentleyYet he never sought to make a profit from his work, and sold prints of his photographs for pennies because he wanted people to enjoy them.

He wrote, “Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind.”

It is all too true that often the most beautiful things in life are with us for the shortest time. Luckily we have the photographs of Wilson Bentley to preserve at least some of them.

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

Photographs by Wilson Bentley

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The following video report gives a brief overview of his life:

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The story of Wilson Bentley has inspired other artists as well. He was the subject of the Caldecott Award-winning book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and illustrated by Mary Azarian.

Snowflake Bentley book

He also inspired an award-winning solo theater production, created by Sarah Frechette of Puppetkabob. Using Czech-style marionettes, miniatures, pop-up paper art, music and live storytelling, she brings Wilson’s story to life. You can learn more about the making of her production here.

Snowflake Man by Sarah Frechette

You can learn a lot more about Snowflake Bentley and his amazing work at the official website.

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