Last of the Curlews, a book for the ages

Last of the Curlews book cover

There are some nonfiction books that encompass themes far beyond their particular subject matter. Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth is one of those books.

On the surface, this little book is deceptively simple in its straightforward and observational narrative. It describes the everyday life of an Eskimo curlew as he arrives in the Arctic to stake out his nesting territory and look for a mate. The prose is precise, detailed, and often poetic, as in this passage from the first chapter:

The curlew set his wings and dropped stonelike in a series of zigzag sideslips. The rosy pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up toward him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the riverbank.

We soon learn that the curlew has come to this spot for three years without ever seeing another of his kind. Even as hundreds of other shore birds arrive and feed and nest, the curlew remains alone. As time passes and the short mating season comes to an end, the curlew instinctively knows it’s time to migrate south, and so begins his journey. Typically he would join a flock of other Eskimo curlews, but there are none to be found, so he takes off on his own.

In flight, he encounters a flock of golden plovers, powerful birds who follow a similar flight path as the curlew, and so he joins them and they accept him without question. Flying as part of a flock is hugely beneficial, especially during the most treacherous part of the flight, the 2,500 miles non-stop across the Atlantic ocean to South America. In the following passage, they face freezing temperatures and zero visibility.

The snow clung to their wings, packed into the air slots between the flight feathers. Wings that a few minutes before had responded deftly to the gentle, rhythmic flexing of the breast muscles were now heavy and stiff, and they beat the air futilely like lifeless paddles, driving air downward in a waste of energy instead of deflecting it rearward for the horizontal airflow essential to flight. Their flight speed dropped until they were hovering almost motionless in a disorganized, bewildered cluster, now almost a mile above the sea.

As the book continues, we witness the harrowing flight across the ocean, the arrival along the coast of Venezuela, and the continued journey south to Argentina. After this arduous trip of over 9,000 miles, it is soon time to head back northward again, back to the Arctic tundra in another attempt to find a mate. The descriptions of the journey are so immediate and harrowing, the narrative becomes an emotional page-turner, as you wonder if the lone curlew will survive.

Illustration from Last of the Curlews, © by Abigail Rorer
Illustration © by Abigail Rorer, based on original drawings by T.M. Shortt

Along the way, we learn many facts about curlews, migration, weather, and natural history. We encounter other birds on the journey, and a larger picture emerges of how millions of creatures cross the continents each year in a massive interconnected system that has continued for eons. Interspersed with the story are short excerpts from historical reports from the 1700s to the 1900s, and we hear firsthand how the great flocks of curlews steadily declined through unsustainable mass hunting. The Counterpoint Press edition of the book also includes exquisite drawings by Abigail Rorer, based on the original drawings by T.M. Shortt, that help bring the curlew’s journey to life. (See above.)

Although written in 1954, this book feels even more relevant today, and inspires larger questions about the meaning of existence. Why does the curlew continue to make this treacherous journey every year, with little or no hope of finding a mate? With the fate of his species on the line, wouldn’t it be wiser to play it safe, to adopt the habits of a less ambitious seabird? Or would that be giving up his true nature, his sole purpose in life?

There are so many moments along the journey where the curlew might easily perish, and yet he perseveres. Like so many other creatures facing extinction, he doesn’t give up. Would I be as steadfast in such a situation? Would any of us?

The beauty of this book is that it does not offer analysis or proselytizing, it simply tells a story with great detail and power, and the themes emerge naturally. It’s the story of one bird, but it’s also the story of all of us.


Unfinished Earth – music inspired by nature

Unfinished EarthNature has provided inspiration for countless musicians over the centuries. Award-winning composer Douglas Knehans has just released a new CD entitled Unfinished Earth, which evokes the raw and powerful forces of nature.

It contains two works, the first is called Tempest, a concerto for flute and orchestra inspired by three specific winds. The first part is entitled Ostro, which is named for a southerly Mediterranean wind. The second part is Mistral, a powerful wind blowing from southern France into the Mediterranean that can reach speeds of 115 mph (185 kph). The third part of the piece is called Etesian, inspired by strong dry winds through the Aegean Sea.

Gareth Davies, Principal Flute of the London Symphony Orchestra, talks about this challenging piece in the video below.

The other major work on the CD is Unfinished Earth, a work for orchestra comprising of three movements. Part 1, Tempering, is inspired by the formation of the earth itself. The music is in turns tranquil and explosive, always with a sense of motion, of elements shifting and coming together. The second part, Eternal Ocean, is inspired by the sea in all its vast, flowing serenity. The final part, Tearing Drift, is about the formation of the continents, a thunderous soundscape with moments of quiet calm that build to a dramatic climax.

These monumental forces of nature are almost beyond human comprehension, even when we know scientifically why things happen the way they do. Music is a powerful way to explore such forces, to bring us to a deeper understanding of their true essence.

Mikel Toms, who conducts the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra on these recordings, says that Unfinished Earth is unlike anything he has ever conducted before, and follows in a rich tradition of artists inspired by landscape for their work. See his interview below.

The earth truly is “unfinished,” and is still moving and changing beneath our feet. Our cities and monuments, which we’ve built over centuries, seem fragile and almost trivial in comparison to the seismic forces beneath the earth’s surface. And we humans seem even more fragile, which can be a scary thought. Perhaps we can never truly appreciate the larger forces of nature, but the music of Unfinished Earth brings us closer.

To learn more or purchase the CD, visit this link.

Song of the Sea

Song of the Sea

The new animated film Song of the Sea is an artistic triumph, and its strong connection to nature only enhances its power. The story is based on the legendary Selkie, a creature who can change from a seal to a human and back again. Inevitably this pulls in themes of the nature, humans’ relation to the sea, and what it means to be human ourselves.

The film was produced by Cartoon Saloon, whose first feature The Secret of Kells was reviewed on this blog a few years back. I don’t want to give away any of the wonderful surprises in the new film, but I will talk about three things that make it especially powerful in relation to themes of nature.

Song of the Sea

The folklore in the film draws from ancient tradition, and a time when stories were used to explain the mysteries of the world. By entwining the lives of humans and animals, folk tales convey an interconnectedness that is largely lost in today’s world. Science tells us more about nature than we ever knew before, but folklore lets us experience it on a more visceral level. In a recent interview, director Tomm Moore says, “I felt it important to reinforce that losing folklore from our everyday life means losing connection to our environment and culture.” The film manages to bridge all of these worlds very effectively.

Song of the Sea

Another way the film celebrates nature is through the animals. The big sheepdog, even though he doesn’t speak (which is refreshing in an animated film) is more perceptive than most of the humans, and serves as a link between the world of humans and the magical world of animals and fairies. The seals are another constant presence, beckoning the humans to sea, and helping them in their time of need. The film is populated with creatures of all shape and size, and the constant tug between land and sea is a central conflict and highlight of the film.

Song of the Sea

Finally, the visual style of the film is not only gorgeous to look at, but has an organic quality that helps convey the natural setting. The watercolor backgrounds evoke the watery world of the sea, as well as the damp hills and landscapes of Ireland. The geometric abstraction of Secret of Kells gives way to a softer, more organic design sense, though the strong shapes and patterns make each scene a marvel of beauty and design. Nature is built on pattern and form, and the style of the film conveys this beautifully.

Everything works together for the greater good of the story, which is not just about Selkies, it is about humans and families and never giving up on each other. We are all part of a bigger world, we are all connected, and that is a message worthy of any work of art.

For more information about the film, visit the official website.


The amazing whale photographs of Bryant Austin

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.

North by East: the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent

N by E coverLast summer I did a whole series of posts about the ocean, and how it was depicted in books, paintings and films. My post about Moby Dick featured artwork by Rockwell Kent, known for his dramatic woodcut illustrations for that story. A few months ago I came across another nautical book by Kent, this time written by him as well, called N by E.

Rockwell Kent was a traveler and adventurer who spent his life painting and drawing epic scenes of nature. N by E is, in the words of the preface, “the story of an actual voyage to Greenland in a small boat: of a shipwreck there and of what, if anything, happened afterwards.”

These illustrations are little gems of composition and line. They are all the more remarkable when you realize they are woodcuts, where the white is literally carved away and the black areas left alone. There is no “undo” in this process. There’s something stark and powerful about these images, which evoke more drama with two colors than many artists do with a full palette.

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Illustration by Rockwell Kent

* * *

Cartooning under the sea with Jim Toomey

This recent talk by cartoonist Jim Toomey, creator of Sherman’s Lagoon, is a great example of an artist who not only draws inspiration from the ocean but also uses his art to educate and raise awareness about earth’s largest ecosystem.

As he says, there are things in the ocean that are more strange and bizarre than anything an artist could dream up, and humans are destroying it little by little. You can see more of Jim’s work at his website.

And with this post, I bring my summer ocean theme to an end. I’ve had fun this summer writing about how the ocean has inspired authors, artists and filmmakers all over the world. You can be sure I will return to the sea from time to time, as I’ve only scratched the surface of this vast and deep source of inspiration. Thanks for sharing the voyage with me!

Turner and the art of the seascape

The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner
The Slave Ship - J.M.W. Turner

J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) was one of the greatest English painters of land and sea, and far ahead of his time. Many of his works are so wrought with raw color and emotion as to be nearly abstract.

The ocean has always been a subject for artists, though I sometimes wonder how far we have come since the 19th Century. Are any painters still exploring nature with the kind of vision that Turner had? I don’t mean just showing the beauty of nature, but really trying to get to the heart of it, to discover new ways of seeing it.

Many seascapes today are happy depictions of sun-soaked waves and smiling dolphins, which is all well and good, but only shows one side of the teeming, turbulent, mysterious ocean. Turner seemed to be searching for something deeper, trying to discover something that no one had ever seen before. One hundred and fifty years later, his paintings are still remarkable.

Fishermen At Sea - J.M.W. Turner
The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner
The Shipwreck - J.M.W. Turner
Stormy Sea With Blazing Wreck - J.M.W. Turner
Shipwreck of the Minotaur - J.M.W. Turner
Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner
Waves Breaking Against The Wind - J.M.W. Turner
Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner
Sunrise With Sea Monsters - J.M.W. Turner

Animated films under the sea

Many animated films have used the ocean as a setting. It’s a colorful place that appeals to all ages, and has a mystery that lends itself to the imaginings of a creative animator. Crabs can sing, clown fish can converse with sharks, sponges can live in pineapples. Rarely do animated ocean films stick to realistic portrayals, though ironically there are many real things under the sea that are more strange and bizarre than anything Disney ever came up with.

Here are several animated films that take place under the sea. It’s interesting to see how many different ways the ocean can be seen through the eyes of an animator.

Fantasia – Disney, 1940

This film is a classic in the world of animation, and one of the few feature-length films that focus entirely on the artistry of its subject, not on a traditional narrative. The beauty of the animation speaks for itself, and it recalls a time when animation was more unique in the film world, and appreciated for its own sake.

The Little Mermaid – Disney, 1989

See how much Disney has changed in fifty years. This film has been criticized for draining all of the magic out of Andersen’s original story, and replacing it with trite Disney formula. But it does have some creative portrayals of the ocean, and some of the best songs ever written for the movies (by Menken and Ashman) which lift it to emotional heights that the scriptwriters don’t deserve.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie – Nickelodeon, 2004

This movie is just plain silly, and a great example of how creatively you can portray the ocean in animation. Although the focus is on the characters and the sight gags, the ocean is ever-present, and the film mixes live action and animation in unique ways.

Finding Nemo – Pixar, 2003

This film has some amazing ocean animation, covering the bright coral reefs down to the murky depths, and featuring whales, sharks, jellyfish, turtles, and hundreds of other sea creatures. Besides being a great story, brilliantly written, it is like a virtual tour of the ocean and a feast for the eyes. It even sprinkles in some real facts about the ocean.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea – 2008, Ghibli/Disney

This film is quite realistic in its portrayal of people and setting, but also the most fantastical of all the films here in its use of mythology and imagination. Ponyo is a magical goldfish who can turn into a human but in doing so offsets the balance of — oh never mind, the story is too complicated, and in a way, beside the point. This is really a visual poem about the human world and the ocean world coming together and making peace. It contains beautiful, breathtaking, awe-inspiring animation of the ocean by one of the world’s greatest animators. (You can read more of my thoughts on Ponyo here.)

So, there are just a few animated films that feature the ocean as a major theme. Out of all of these, I think Fantasia and Ponyo are the ones which provoke the deepest thoughts about the ocean. What are your favorite animated ocean films or scenes? How well do you think animators have done in portraying the ocean, and what new depths are there to be explored? As the ocean becomes more and more of a focus in our shrinking world, I hope more artists choose to explore it through animation.

Moby Dick, a whale of a book

Illustration by Rockwell Kent
Illustration by Rockwell Kent

Continuing my summer ocean theme, I’d like to discuss one of the great novels of the sea, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was never forced to read the book in school, and probably wouldn’t have liked it if I did. This is not a book that one can step into lightly or reluctantly, you have to dive in head first and grapple with it, like the great sea creatures it describes. It was only later that I discovered the quirky qualities of this epic tome.

The book is more famous today for its reputation and symbolism than for the actual text, which is too bad. The writing is unlike any other book I’ve read, rambling and unfocused, yet sharp and perceptive. Everyone knows the storyline, of the manic Captain Ahab who hunts the world over for Moby Dick, the white whale who took off his leg; it’s a gripping allegory with enough symbolism for a dozen dissertations.

But the tragedy of Captain Ahab is, to use another nautical metaphor, just the tip of the iceberg. The book goes far beyond its characters and events to delve into matters of philosophy, culture, science, religion, human nature — in short, it’s a book about everything. I’m sure the kitchen sink is in there too.

book coverI think this is why movie versions can never do the book justice, for the actual scenes in the book are merely hooks for the author to hang his litany of metaphors and observations about life, the real subject of Moby Dick.

As far as the nautical theme of the book, the author spends a great number of pages contemplating whales in excruciating detail, right down to their anatomy and bone structure. There is also detailed description of how the crew hunts, kills, and dismantles a whale on board the ship, scenes that have nothing to do with Ahab or the storyline at all. So then we might ask, why are they in the book? Would this have been a better novel if all of that had been trimmed down, leaving a compact 400-page adventure story?

If this were simply a tale about revenge or a sailor’s journey, something along the lines of Stevenson, then certainly it could have used a good editor. But this is a book where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and all the minute details and melodramatic ponderings contribute mysteriously to its power. Even as it expresses some 19th Century notions that we might find outdated, the scope of its insight far outweighs its datedness.

One of the ironies of the book is that even as the author describes the capture and slaughter of whales, often portraying them as monsters, he also expresses admiration and respect for them, as he does for everything he writes about. Here is a brief excerpt, concluding one of the many chapters describing the power and majesty of whales:

“Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. He swam in the seas before the continents broke water; he once swam over the site of the Tuileries, and Windsor Castle, and the Kremlin. In Noah’s flood he despised Noah’s Ark; and if ever the world is to be again flooded, like the Netherlands, to kill off its rats, then the eternal whale will still survive, and rearing upon the topmost crest of the equatorial flood, spout his frothed defiance to the skies.”

One of Melville’s famous quotes is, “It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” This weighty book might fail a modern writing class, but it certainly is original and amazing.

. . . . .

Whale Rider revisited

The film Whale Rider won acclaim in 2002 for its moving story of a young Maori girl and her struggles to find her place in a changing society. It brilliantly weaves together themes of tradition, family, gender roles, and indigenous culture.  Based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, this is one of those rare cases where a film veers away from the book and yet remains true to the book’s spirit.

At the heart of both is an ancient legend of a man who came out of the sea riding on a whale, and who founded the village where the story takes place. The heroine of Whale Rider is his descendant, and must come to terms with her identity against all the pressures of family and society.

The sea is an omnipresent backdrop to the story, and a powerful symbol of the struggles the characters endure. The book and film evoke the magic of the sea in different ways. The film incorporates stunning images of the ocean and landscape, as well as the music and poetry of the ancient culture. The book delves more deeply into the Maori mythology, and incorporates some beautiful writing about the sea. Here is a brief excerpt, telling the ancient legend:

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

The book skillfully intertwines the modern and the mythical stories, provoking questions about how our ancient stories define who we are. And the film is brilliantly directed by Niki Caro. I recommend the book and the film, which both contain universal themes that will inspire teens and adults alike.