I started actively studying nature through birding at the age of twelve. That’s when my eldest brother came home from college after taking an ornithology class. His interest passed to his three brothers and we initially drove the country roads outside Elburn, Illinois with a set of 10 X 50 Sears binoculars and a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds.
Earlier in life, I’d been given one of those bird guides by my mother’s older sister. So the seeds for an interest in birds were planted well before I ever came of age. This 20-minute video explains that journey and how my interest in bird identification and art ultimately merged into one hobby of wildlife painting.
From the age of twelve on, I drew and painted birds all the time. Initially, my efforts weren’t that impressive. Back then, resources to copy weren’t that available and I didn’t own a camera. So I drew what I’d call “impressions” of birds from bird guides and the creatures I’d seen in the wild.
Over the years, as I learned more about birds and got a camera, my paintings somewhat improved. Yet one of the key learning tactics was copying the work of other artists such as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, as I did with this watercolor of a great horned owl.
The progression of an artist from copying the work of others to producing definitive work of their own is in some ways a lifelong endeavor. Yet once I graduated from high school and entered college, I started that process in earnest. I took an internship trip to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology and studied the works of dozens of famous wildlife painters. While there, I drew birds from life in the raptor center at Sapsucker Woods.
Once the process of creating my own work as in full swing, I took on the project of creating a set of life-sized murals for the Lake Calmar Nature Center. That involved painting four 4′ X 8′ panels in a month-long January Term project. The photo in the newspaper shows the relative scale of these paintings.
An article appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette that winter. It stated my life’s hobby in pretty succinct fashion.
I’ve gone on to sell hundreds of paintings in my lifetime. All along, it’s been my goal to teach others to enjoy wildlife and appreciate the diversity around us. I do that by leading field trips, citizen science projects and sharing work in shows, exhibitions and classrooms.
Now, I’m going to launch a new venture called a Patreon site. It will be a combination of my two deep interests, nature and art. Here’s a quick sample of the content that will appear on that site, a demonstration of how I draw and paint a kestrel while explaining some facts about the bird.
The site will be launching on the 15th of January but I’m giving readers of this blog a “sneak preview” of what is to come. I’ve always felt it’s important to share and give back, and this site will be a great way to interact with people who appreciate and support my work. I’ll send out an invitation on the 15th when the site is officially open. We’ll be doing live painting sessions through Zoom with Covid-safe, remote “painting parties” and more.
Thanks for reading The Right Kind of Pride. Now let’s create some things to be proud of together!
While out conducting a breeding bird census in a forest preserve named after a legendary local botanist named Dick Young, I was wrapping up the count and walking back the asphalt path to the parking lot when an older couple on bikes rolled up behind me. They’d gone all the way around the loop through the restored prairie on a windy spring morning.
Our conversation started when they showed me a photo they’d taken of a bird perched on one of the count posts in the prairie. I identified it as a meadowlark and they were pleased with that. “I thought it was a woodpecker with that long beak!” the man observed. It wasn’t a bad observation. This photo I took that same morning of a meadowlarks shows the long bill. Probably if it chose to use it in hammering wood, it would work. But that’s not its evolved purpose.
After the meadowlark discussion, my new friend started chatting about how he actually knew Dick Young, who did so much to identify the plants that designated the Illinois Nature Preserve at the heart of the preserve named after the man.
Along with Dick Young, it turned out we had many mutual friends as a result, because he told me, “I’m Jerry Hennen. I was President of Fox Valley Audubon sixty years ago.”
“Whoa,” I chuckled. “I was President of Kane County Audubon probably thirty years ago.”
“I’m eighty-five,” he proudly told me.
His wife Delores smiled and told me. “And he doesn’t hear that well.”
In fact, I’d noticed the song of a sedge wren right behind them, and pointed out the bird. They’re a small species with a high-pitched song that goes ‘chapp-chapp-chapp-chapprrr.” But Jerry has lost that range of hearing, so he couldn’t hear it. We talked about the problems of aging, and I told him about a website for which I’d written the content about hearing aid technology and advances. He made me repeat the name so he could look it up.
Then he related that he has a son my age. “I could be your father!” he laughed.
I’m proud of all these longtime associations. Grateful that there are people I meet almost every day that can add to the breadth of life like this. It’s also interesting that our shared interest in birds brought us together one late spring day.
Over the years I’ve lost a few birding friends along the way. My high school teacher and birding mentor Bob Horlock passed away in 1993. He was only 53 when he had a heart attack while burning a restored prairie. By coincidence we’d met that morning at the same forest preserve where I connected with Jerry yesterday. Bob didn’t look himself that morning, a fact I related to my wife at the time. Were it not for that chance meeting in the field that day, I’d not have seen him one last time.
For all these longtime associations, one of my favorite things to do these days is share birding with people new to the activity. I get texts from people sending iPhone photos of birds they’ve seen. Two months ago I accompanied a newer birder into the field and she was so excited by the thrills gained from bird photography that she invested in a lens just like mine fo her camera. She instantly nailed some beautiful results.
That’s the ‘thrill of the new’ at work in her and others. Each and every bird we find is one of those chance meetings in the field. Like our human companions, their songs and visage give us a connection to all of nature. That’s why some of us get sad when we hear that a species of bird is struggling, or going extinct. That sense of loss is hard to reconcile.
That is why, during this period of greed and squander in America, when environmental laws are being tossed aside out of selfish pride and power, that our nature connections matter the most. The eagles we treasure as national symbols made a big comeback in the Lower 48 states of America because real Americans cared enough to end the practices that were polluting the environment and wiping out habitat critical to the survival of these and many other species. That was the right kind of pride, for sure.
During that critical period of environmental awakening in America, a certain man named Dick Young carried on a secret life of civil disobedience as an environmental activist. During the polluted late 1960s and early 1970s, wildlife was suffering and rivers were catching fire in Ohio, he started punishing the industry and politicians responsible for trashing the world. Under the guise of The Fox, his activist name, he’d collect gunk from the polluters and return it to them on the white carpets of their headquarters with a written reminder to clean up their act. He was an environmental patriot of the most sincere kind.
Though some had suspicions, and others kept quiet about the mystery of The Fox, no one ever figured out or revealed the true identity until the work was long done, and that was after the turn of the new millennium.
Real change did come to America through the actions of environmentalists such as Dick Young and my new friend Jerry Hennen. The quality of the environment in America improved through legislation such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (by a Republican president, no less…) and protections such as the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty.
All our environmental protections are in the process of being trashed by a brutal narcissist with a reputation for selfish acts of power. His sycophants gladly carry out this work, and his beneficiaries gleefully relish the demise of regulations they consider fruitless. This must be stopped.
It is all our responsibility to play a role in protecting our earth. Sometimes that means dumping industrial pollutants on the carpet of a polluter, but other times it simply means voting for people who won’t destroy creation for egotistical reasons.
Why trust the future of the earth to economic zealots who can’t tell a robin from an rusted aluminum can?
Willful ignorance of nature and a selfish desire to wield dominion over it is not an acceptable way to live, in my opinion. That’s clearly not the right kind of pride in this world. Not by any means.
Which is why, every day that we can, it is up to all of us to resist these efforts to compromise the most important thing we all have in this world, the earth and its life, because it all comes down to the fact that every one of us is here just by chance, and this is the only one we’ve got.
Spring is typically more a concept than a thing. We wait all winter for spring and it arrives in fits and starts that both tantalize and frustrate us. Warm days are followed by chill and clouds. Rain spits horizontally one day and falls languid and splattery from above the next. Most of all, spring is the product of an extravagant explosion of building warmth, energy and sunlight. Spring is chemical too. all processes in nature have a chemical foundation. Plans stir into life and begin their new dance with photosynthesis that works at a molecular level. We can’t see these minute processes at work, but we do know they exist. Science has provided us wonderful insights into how nature really works. No longer are we dependent on wives’ tales and myths to help us appreciate the workings of the natural world. And that is good. Science is much more satisfying because it is verifiable. We can understand the infrastructure of spring. We know how bees and insects pollinate plants. Moving from flower to flower, these pollinators perform a work of sexual magic. It is entirely programmed into nature as a symbiotic relationship. People who pay attention to spring are much like those who go about town fixing things. The infrastructure of a community, its light poles and sewers and streets, does not happen on its own. Those informed and responsible for the infrastructure therefore look at a village, town or city through different eyes. Nature does not need human beings to function. But it does need human beings to understand the importance of its functions. It has long been recognized that the human race can have profound impact on the natural world. This is not always good. Sadly this adverse impact is often based on ignorance, but also knowingly wasteful habits. As bright as people can be, they can also be greedy and wasteful. It’s true at the community level as well. People who don’t really understand how the electrical grid works get frustrated quickly when a passing storm knocks out the lights. At that moment the television does not work, or the lights. So people whine and complain inside their homes, wondering when the juice will flow back into their abodes. Those who maintain the power grid can usually trace the source of the outage and get things working again. Sometimes it takes an hour or two because safety comes first, and the massive flow of energy through the power grid is not something one can take lightly. Our water works and sewage systems are similarly dependent on repair and maintenance of the infrastructure. Think how helpless we’d all be if that knowledge base were suddenly removed. When workers in these trades go on strike (and it seldom happens) entire cities can be put at risk. It is remarkable then how poorly the average person seems to comprehend the workings of nature as well. The incurious mind regards nature with the same bland, banal attitude that is cast upon the infrastructure of a town. Too many people only seem to care about nature when it isn’t working to their advantage or behaving like it should. You talk about lack of gratitude? The infrastructure of nature is far, far more important than the infrastructure we tend to impose upon it. Yet how many people recognize even a few species of birds in their neighborhood, or can identify the sound of chorus frogs singing from a wet ditch in spring? Spring is flowers and green grass and April showers, yet asking people to look beyond these basic cliches seems almost like an affront. That’s why it is so hard for so many people to conceive that the infrastructure of spring is at risk beyond the shifting and changing it typically does in a given year. In fact the infrastructure of the entire global climate is being impacted by what amounts to a human storm of carbon that never ceases and never releases from the atmosphere. These changes we can see happening right before our eyes. But the attitudes of some politicians is much like the ungrateful soul sitting inside a dark living room complaining that the lights are not going back on. It’s a shortsighted approach to life that refuses to look at the reasons why things occur rather than claiming the status quo is business as usual and should not have to be examined. The next time you look at a flower, be it wild or domestic, know that its bloom does not require your will to occur, yet it still depends on you caring about it to see another year. And another. Lest there come a day that it cares not that you are gone. Sooner or later we all push up daisies. Better to appreciate them while you can look them in the eye and help nature propagate its infrastructure for yet another generation.
As a person with a lifelong interest in nature and especially birds, the outdoors has always felt like a holy place to me.
These instincts were later affirmed in my faith studies. While researching my book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age (currently being revised for release on Amazon.com) I read the bible from cover to cover. Then I read the Bible all over again in a church-led project called Reading the Bible in 90 Days.
What I noticed both times was the baseline relationship between nature and God. That is not to say that nature IS God, or that God IS nature. Instead what I learned is that God and Jesus consistently use nature to exemplify and illustrate spiritual principles.
In particular Jesus taught using parables based on examples from nature. The parable of the mustard seed growing from a tiny object to a great tree illustrates the power of faith. The parable of yeast in the dough speaks to the fact that faith leavens the kingdom of God.
That relationship between nature and God made me feel good about skipping church now and then to get out in the woods and fields where nature speaks to us in a completely different language. After all, we can’t depend upon just words to make sense of this world. We need to see, feel and experience life in order to fill and fuel or souls.
Which is why the Church of the Morton Arboretum is a legitimate concept. My late wife and I would go there each season to celebrate the changing weather. I still go there with friends and my companion to immerse the mind in something other than contentious battles over who owns what in faith, politics and the environment.
Discovering the amazing detail and complexity of a simple autumn leaf can free the mind to let God in. That’s how it should be, and always will be.