environment

Time + love = the wildlife art of Rachel Hollis.

The wildlife here is just so varied and colorful. Seeing it through British eyes was amazing. I loved it.

In the cities here, the wildlife is almost on your doorstep, you don’t have to go far to get to a National Park. Whereas, you know London – nature seems to be squeezed out of it.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. In previous posts, Milly Formby and Kate Cranney talked about their art. This week’s post features the beautiful drawings of Rachel Hollis.

Rachel: I’m really pleased when I’ve drawn something that has a real likeness to what I am trying to illustrate but, at the same time, I’m not trying to get a photo-realist picture.

I want to create something that lets you see the character of what I’m drawing and something that triggers an emotional response in people: something they’ve seen before or that reminds them of their childhood or where they used to live.

Sometimes I think a drawing looks finished but I just know there’s something left that needs to be done. I’ll leave it there for a day or two and I’ll keep looking at it, and then suddenly I’ll think, “hang on, that needs to be changed.” It’ll just stand out.

It’s a feeling. You’ve got to give it a few days to realize it, but once those final details are in, then I know: that’s it.

I’m from the UK originally and we lived in Spain before we came to Australia.

I’ve always had a love for art and nature, but my wildlife drawings didn’t really come to life until I’d traveled more and had been to some stunning places and seen different species of birds and animals. Those experiences really encouraged me to start connecting the two: the wildlife and my art.

It’s only this year that I’ve started drawing wildlife, it’s still quite new for me.

Before I moved to Australia I mostly painted people in watercolor. My wildlife work is mainly in pencil and I haven’t tried wildlife in watercolour yet.

You never stop learning as an artist. You always try new techniques and different types of inspiration. I’m still learning.

When I’ve drawn something that I’m really happy with, I tend to put a little bit more extra time and love into it as well. Whereas if I’m struggling with a piece – I’m enjoying the process but maybe I don’t put as much emotional energy into it. And I think people can see that.

I’d encourage new artists to get out in nature and to find something they really enjoy – whether its birds or insects or anything – something specific that really touches them and moves them, and to use that in their art.

When you put a lot of love and time into something, it works out better.

All illustrations are by Rachel Hollis, used with permission. You can view more of Rachel’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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Beautiful like a blowfly: Kate Cranney’s wildlife art

I love trying to share how surprisingly beautiful ugly things can be – [like] centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

Ian: Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. Last week’s post showcased Milly Formby. In this post, Kate Cranney talks about her love of nature and drawing. Stay tuned for next week’s instalment.

Kate: I grew up on a farm in western Queensland. I loved art as a kid, and I always loved being creative. I think the title pages on my projects in primary school were far more elaborate than the contents they held. Mum and dad always encouraged us to look closely at nature: at bower bird nests and cocoons and snake skins.

Growing up on a farm during the drought, there were lots of carcasses and flyblown sheep and dead fish in the dams. Maybe I was a little insensitive to, you know, how gross that might seem to other people, but I was always curious about that stuff. It was intriguing: seeing centipedes crawling through the stomach of a dead sheep.

I moved to Melbourne to study art but then I missed science so much that I changed my degree to a Masters of Botany. My artwork is focused on insects and fish; I do fine ink drawings with collage and watercolour. I started drawing with ink when I was taking public transport to uni. I couldn’t study on the ferry and bus or I’d get car-sick, so I drew.

I enjoy doing works that are aesthetically pleasing and educational as well. I’m working on a series called “Drawn to Science”. I’ll interview a research scientist and then do a drawing of their study subject. Recently I’ve been working on a project on insect ecology. Flies are beaut-i-ful underneath a microscope: they have metallic greens and blues and patterned wings. They’re stunning.

My favourite type of drawing is when I don’t know what I’m going to do before I start. Suddenly I’ll draw something and it’ll be something that I saw yesterday without realizing it. I think I store up memories of things that I’ve seen.

Paul Klee said, “drawing is taking a line for a walk” and I love the spontaneity of that. In a similar vein, I think the joy in creating makes it far easier for me to part with the work because I know that I had such a lovely time with that piece of paper.

You can draw wherever you are – when you’re on the side of a road in the middle of nowhere when you’re traveling. I always make sure I have access to pen and paper so that it’s always there.

I’m so happy to have art as part of my life now. It’s a core part of me. I squeeze it in – in the corners of the week. If I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t be nearly as happy.

All illustrations are by Kate Cranney, used with permission. You can view more of Kate’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

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The Bird Man of Newstead

The Nature Bloggers is a new series of interviews with the finest bloggers on nature, science and sustainability in Australia. In this first instalment, Dr Ian Lunt profiles Geoff Park, the author of the popular blog, Natural Newstead.

For nearly seven years, Geoff Park has devoted himself to Natural Newstead: his blog about the birds and the bush around a small country town in central Victoria. “I’m a bit obsessed with it,” he admits.

With more than 1,800 posts and nearly a third of a million page hits, Natural Newstead is now – according to one web site – one of the top 100 birding web sites in the world.

                Geoff Park

                Geoff Park

That is an extraordinary achievement for a local blog from a tiny town of just 500 people. I began this edited interview by asking Geoff why he started writing his blog.

Can I take you back seven years - to two days before Christmas in December 2008, when you wrote your first post. It began: “Have just enjoyed a nice walk in the Rise and Shine Nature Conservation Reserve with Joe.” Did you have any idea of what you were embarking on?

No, at that stage I didn’t really know what a blog was. I remember opening one of my books and a bird list fell out of the back of it – from Wyperfeld National Park or somewhere – and I thought, “God, I’ve got all these notebooks and lists and they’re all completely disorganized.”

I was berating myself when I thought, “there’s this idea around that you can put this stuff online now.” I didn’t think anybody would be interested in reading it, I just wanted to document my observations in a more organized way. In fact, I’d written about a dozen posts when my partner, Mary, found out – she thought I was leading some sort of third life.

After a year or two, I realized that other people – like Bert Lobert and Duncan Fraser – were writing blogs similar to mine. I certainly didn’t know there were all these bird watching sites around the world. I just didn’t appreciate the possibilities. And I had no concept that I might become completely obsessed by it.

How would you describe Natural Newstead for someone who has never seen the site?

Natural Newstead is really an online nature diary, with photos and short articles about the area close to my home in Newstead. I’m really committed to this idea of understanding the local, of making sense of my place.

I was inspired by the nature diarists from the past, right back to naturalists like Gilbert White, who recorded the daily happenings in their area over a long period of time.

Why is Newstead so special for you?

I suppose everywhere is special but there’s something quite distinct about Newstead from an ecological point of view because of the intersection of different environments.

We’ve got the Loddon River, which is the boundary between the volcanic country to our west – which is largely a cleared, agricultural landscape – and the box ironbark forests and woodlands to our east.

I’ve only got to go five minutes to the west and I’m on the Moolort Plains which is a very interesting landscape. I’m really fascinated by the plains country.

Cairn Curran Reservoir adds another dimension. It was constructed in the 1950s. As the water level goes up and down you find different birds, and birds are a bit of an obsession of mine.

I’ve got a 15 kilometre rule for the blog. [All 1,800 posts are about places within 15 km of Newstead.] That covers the area I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around in over the last 30 years. I don’t go any further north than Maldon and I don’t go very far east towards Castlemaine, because that’s sort of a different country out there.

What is the big goal – your “mission statement” if you will – for the site?

I get a lot of enjoyment out of it, that’s the principal outcome, and the fact that other people enjoy it as well is wonderful. I definitely want to encourage people to get out and experience nature.

I like to think that what I’m doing – and a lot of people are doing similar things – is maintaining the tradition of a local nature diary. It all comes back to documenting my place.

A lot of people in town now contact me about things they’ve seen because they know I’m “the bird watcher”. It made me appreciate that a lot of people who I didn’t know have a real interest in nature.

Also, I like celebrating the ordinary. Some people are really excited by rare and unusual things but I think it's important to celebrate the everyday, mundane things as well. 

Given its local focus, how do you explain why Natural Newstead has such a wide appeal?

A number of people have said that they wake up in the morning and read about an atrocity somewhere overseas, and then they get a story from me with some pictures of a Yellow Robin or something and that cheers them up a bit.

Maybe they learn something, maybe they don’t, but it’s a little vignette they can enjoy during the day.

A lot of people enjoy the photography … and I think people really just like birds.

Has blogging changed the way that you interact with nature?

It has definitely helped me become more observant. I mean, I always have been observant in nature but I tend to be more strategic and looking for something a bit different when I go out now.

I saw this amazing sight yesterday out at the Rise and Shine, where I wrote my first post. I was watching this Yellow Robin and I knew that it was about to engage in some courtship feeding.

It was a female and I knew the male was about to feed it because I’d found its nest, and it’s just sitting there and all of a sudden it started quivering with excitement, and this male flew in with a little skink, which it presented to the female, and I managed to get a sequence of photos of that. I’m not sure I would have anticipated that 5 or 10 years ago.

I try to get out in the bush every day. My day is not complete unless I’ve been out for an hour.

What I tend to do is sit. I’ll go somewhere and just sit and wait for things to happen. Sometimes you get some nice photos, other times you dip out completely.

Blogging motivated me to spend more time in the bush. I suspect Mary sees it as a “vortex of doom”: more time online, more time in the bush, more time online…

If someone came to you for advice about how to write their own nature blog, what would you tell them?

I think good blogs develop their own sort of character so I’m not sure that I’d want to offer too much advice. I would probably just describe the things that motivate me and the enjoyment I’ve got out of it.

I do encourage people to record the events in their own local area. It may seem mundane and uninteresting but in 50 years’ time some of our observations are going to be incredibly important when they’re all threaded together.

I often tell people, you can argue about the cause of climate change but you can’t argue about the fact that apple trees are flowering three weeks earlier than they used to in the U.K. The evidence is indisputable. You just need to look at the old observations by Gilbert White and the other nature diarists.

With climate change happening, I think local observations will become more and more important for documenting these changes. 

I’m sure one reason why Natural Newstead is so popular is because it's so obvious that you enjoy getting out and taking photos and writing stories. Can you keep it up for another 1,800 posts?

I hope so. I get enormous joy out of it. I mean I’ve got to the point where … I can’t really stop it…

On behalf of everybody who enjoys Natural Newstead, thanks Geoff for your wonderful work.

 All photographs are by Geoff Park.

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Unless Someone Like You: Remembering the words of the Lorax.

The Lorax is often viewed as one of the greatest environmental children’s stories of all time. Another of Dr Seuss’ many classics, it is the tale of the ‘Once-ler’ and the development of his clothing business that fashions jumper-like ‘Thneeds’ out of the local ‘Truffula trees’. This children’s book shares much in common with Dr Seuss’ other works, complete with silly words, enjoyable rhymes, vivid illustrations, and, most importantly, its astounding ability to reveal truths that an adult’s reality too often hides. In this case, as may already be obvious, Dr Seuss portrays the struggle of protecting our natural world and its beauty.

The Once-ler, a creature who is at first appreciative of the natural wonders of his new home, is quick to turn this appreciation into greed. The Lorax is a creature who ‘speaks[s] for the trees’, and shows no hesitation in scolding the Once-ler as he slowly but surely destroys not only the habitat of the native animals, but also his one source of income – the Truffula trees. The boy, a clear representation of us, the reader, hears this story from the now regretful Once-ler, the last pages showing him as a failure, every single tree having been cut down and used in the production of many Thneeds, every single animal having departed the area, and his only means of living to now demand payment from those wishing to learn the story of himself and the Lorax.

Although clearly relevant on a global scale, how exactly is Dr Seuss’ message more immediately applicable to Australia? I doubt I need to inform most of you of the many environmental problems currently plaguing our nation, ranging from habitat destruction and species extinction, to broader issues such as climate change and the economy’s reliance on natural resources. A country born out of mining booms and farming, it is obviously difficult if not impossible to completely remove our country’s need to utilise many natural elements in order to live and prosper. However, I think it is important to distinguish the terms ‘utilise’ and ‘exploit’, as this story also does. By illustrating the sadness of the Once-ler as he notices that there are ‘No more trees. No more Thneeds. No more work to be done,’ Dr Seuss suggests that perhaps if the Once-ler had been more prudent in his use of a natural resource, his business would have remained sustainable and the wildlife reliant on the trees would not have been as drastically affected. This could not be a more profound message in the current age, with many businesses and their means of production failing or predicted to fail in the near future, as certain unrenewable resources rapidly head towards utter depletion.

As well as demonstrating profound observations of the way humans treat the environment, Dr Seuss also seems to be exposing the ridiculousness of consumer culture – an issue that has a significant amount to do with our species’ exploitation of the natural world. When the Once-ler first produces a Thneed, the Lorax exclaims:

                                                ‘Sir! You are crazy with greed.

                                                There is no one on earth

                                                who would buy that fool Thneed!’

The very next passage in fact proves the Lorax wrong, depicting a (very human-like) character purchasing a Thneed, with the Once-ler boasting:

                                                ‘…“You poor stupid guy!

                                                You never can tell what some people will buy.” 

This very statement alludes to our often obsessive purchasing of seemingly useless commodities that are advertised as must-haves. Although humourous, it is both sad and frustrating to think that we are sacrificing our natural resources for items that are neither necessary nor appealing (and it’s not like I or many other lovers of the environment can talk - we are all enticed at some point or another by the allure of certain products presented to us by extremely effective marketing campaigns).

We therefore can no longer afford to view ‘economy’ and ‘environment’ as binary opposites because we now know that this is not the case. In the wake of losing countless aspects of our natural world, Australia’s economy will undoubtedly suffer, as business and production will as well. It is also not always a case of pointing the finger (although that can be gratifying), but is rather a case of educating. It is understandable that a fashionable item of clothing may be more attractive than the trees that we all drive past every day in our rush to earn a living. It is also understandable that leaving it to someone else to protect those trees is the easier option to take when we’re all so busy doing other things that may seem more immediately important. But garnering an appreciation for nature is something that I think everyone should take part in  - not just so that we can protect finite aspects of our beautiful and unique country and not just because it will in the long term strongly benefit our economy, but because - most significantly - we know that it is good for us. The health benefits of immersing ourselves in green and natural surroundings have been repeatedly shown in various studies and, just like in appreciating a good film or a well-written book, it does not do us any harm – it instead enhances our lives.

Having learnt the effects of the great deal of destruction he has caused, the Once-ler finally understands that appreciation is needed for nature to return to its former glory. The final words left by the Lorax on a pile of rocks simply read ‘UNLESS’. As the Once-ler hands the young boy the final Truffula seed, it becomes very clear that:

                                    “UNLESS someone like you

                                    cares a whole awful lot,

                                    nothing is going to get better.

                                    It’s not.”