Friday, January 29, 2016

Art and Science: Eyes on the Natural World

By Jordan Daley
Research and Education Coordinator

My dad often took me hiking as a little girl. I’d fill my pockets with granite I found along the trail and tuck leaves and bird feathers in my hair. Over peanut butter sandwiches next to a lake or atop a mountain Dad would pluck each little treasure from my ponytail saying, “Leave only footprints, take only photographs.” Sheepishly I’d turn out my pockets, “but we didn’t bring a camera!” “Then you better pay attention so you don’t forget.”

Winslow Homer, A Good One, Adirondacks 1889
Some Sundays we would visit The Hyde Collection which is where I saw the Winslow Homer painting, A Good One, Adirondacks. Immediately I recognized it. It wasn't so much the place or the activity. The tree in the foreground is likely a log beneath the Hudson River by now. The thing I recognized was the way I felt on countless wanderings. Homer had captured on canvas what I had been trying save in my pockets.

I recognized the warmth reflecting from the water just below the cool breeze coming down the river. I recognized the smell of the river's mud and aquatic plants that creep up the edges of logs and stones jutting into the water. I felt the peaceful rocking of the canoe and the river's quiet lapping against the boat. My fore arm tensed and released as I remembered the tensile arc of a fishing line casting into a deep pool under the shade trees of the riparian forest.

I had many similar experiences throughout my academic career. I took a physical environmental chemistry course as an undergraduate and as we started to investigate the complex interactions of chemicals, temperature and decomposition in a marsh, the numbers and graphs grabbed me with the same nostalgia as Homer's work. 


A biogeochemical schematic of carbon cycling in wetlands is framed by images of Barnum Creek and Heron Marsh
I had smelled the unmistakable methane stink of  the marsh. I had waded through Barnum Creek into it's neighboring bog and felt the temperature change around my ankles. The chemical reactions I drew in my notes were animated by my memories of exploring outside. This gut connection told me the science was right. I knew this equation must be accurate because I had lived it countless times. 
At first when I drew this all the lines were straight. However
our paths between experiences is often much more complex

At VINS we recognize the power that both art and science have to connect people to the natural world. I like to think of it as a sort of triangle where all the lines point to each other. Sort of like this. You can see it across campus, in our lessons in schools, during camp hours and in the daily lives of many of our staff. 

Judy Callens, senior adviser and long time friend of VINS reflects on her own experience of bringing art into her work. "In our daily lives, we move through our jobs and perform tasks, often without really seeing the world around us. But when I really stop myself from just moving from task to task, I am struck by the feeling of having been in a fog all day. Art is a way of making myself stop. When I hike, or go on a photo taking trip, I have to stop and really SEE. Then when I try to transform what I have seen into a painting, I am struck by the details and the beauty of the details. Why didn't I notice that amazing reflection in the pond?  How did I miss the lavender color in the background of the trees. Really, lavender??? What about the details of a leaf? Or if I sit and watch what is going on around me in the forest, the truth that I am not alone, but surrounded by hundreds of active curious creatures that know how to stay really really quiet becomes apparent. Art is a way of making people slow down, see, and reflect upon the beauty that is often lost in the daily fog of living"

Hannah Putnam, Director of the
Center for Environmental Education, put into words the educational magic that happened to me in my chemistry class, "Art and science are closely related; as scientists, we are continually honing our observation skills as we look for hidden details, new understandings and unasked questions. Often these questions arise out of our curiosity about the world around us and our appreciation for its beauty and complexity. People drawn to the field of science, math and engineering are often good spatial thinkers. They are able to visualize the world around them and see relationships as they exist in space. I like to think that many artists look at the world through these same eyes.”

So for you artful scientists or discerning artists, for you who are trying to capture something fleeting, explain something complex, illuminate our world or simply appreciate it fully, we invite you to join us. 

Here on campus you can view exhibits of paintings and photographs by local artists, on displayed throughout the year in our pavilion and indoor classroom. Seven sculptures can be found on the nature center site. We also team up with artists to develop our exhibits such as the Ice Age Mammals on the Meadow which features live sized sculptures by artists based in Norwich VT and Brooklyn NY.

Join us on Thursday February 4th from 7:00-8:30 for a Science Talk and Artist Walk about our exhibit. Geologist Meredith Kelly, PhD, will set the stage for us describing the harsh wintry world of the last Ice Age and the adaptations mammals used to survive. Then Wendy Klemperer and Bob Shanahan will walk us through the lighted path way to view the Ice Age Mammal sculptures up close, discuss their process and the amazing creatures that inspired them.

Stay in touch for more events and exhibitions exploring art, science and the natural world at vinsweb.org, vinscee.org and on Facebook, Instagram @vinsraptors and Twitter @VINS_Tweets.

The Outside Story: Have You Seen A Mountain Lion?

by Madeline Bodin

In the photo, the mountain lion lies on its side on the shoulder of a Connecticut parkway. Tail lights shine in the distance. A Connecticut state trooper snapped the photo after a motorist had struck and killed the animal on a June night in 2011.

Wildlife biologists quickly confirmed this mountain lion was the one photographed days before in front of an elementary school in Greenwich, Connecticut, about 40 miles west. (School was cancelled.) Within months, DNA evidence revealed that this animal was the same one seen in the backyard of a retired game warden in Lake George, New York the previous December, and tracked in Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2009 and 2010.

DNA testing also showed that the mountain lion came from the Black Hills of South Dakota, the nation’s eastern-most confirmed breeding population. This young male had walked an astonishing 1,500 miles.

This, said Vermont Fish and Wildlife fur-bearer project leader Chris Bernier, is why he takes reports of mountain lion sightings seriously. Although the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the breeding population of wild mountain lions east of the Mississippi extinct in March 2011, and biologists are confident there is no wild, breeding population in the Northeast, that doesn’t mean a mountain lion couldn’t show up in the Northeast because, well, one did.

The last known wild mountain lion in the Northeast died in Maine in 1938. The last wild mountain lion in New Hampshire may have been killed in the White Mountains in 1885. In Vermont, it was 1881.

Since then, there have been a handful of confirmed mountain lion sightings in the Northeast, although most have been thought to be escaped captive animals.

There are also many unconfirmed sightings. Bernier gets more than 50 reports of mountain lions a year. Patrick Tate, New Hampshire Fish and Game’s fur-bearer project leader, receives about 20. There is no physical evidence for most sightings in the two states, and when there has been physical evidence, it has been at best inconclusive.

The Connecticut mountain lion left tracks, scat, fur and game camera photos in four states. Mountain lions may be stealthy, but they do leave a trace.

Sometimes physical evidence shows the sighting was of some other animal, including dogs, cats, fishers, coyotes, bears and bobcats. Mountain lion sightings in New Hampshire have increased along with the bobcat population, said Tate.

You might think that it would be easy to tell the two cat species apart. Mountain lions weigh 105 to 140 pounds and can be up to eight feet long from the nose to the tip of the tail. Bobcats top out at about 40 pounds (most are much lighter than that) and are only about three feet long. Mountain lions have long, heavy tails, while bobcats have stumpy ones. But people mistake them all the time.

“I have plenty of bobcat photos from remote cameras where it’s a sideways view of the face, the torso is turned just so, hiding the tail, and it looks like a mountain lion,” said Susan Morse, a naturalist and educator based in Huntington, Vermont, who has studied mountain lions throughout her career. “I often use those photos in my presentations to show how easy it is to confuse things.”

On a research trip to Arizona, where there is a confirmed breeding population, a biologist told Morse that 90 percent of the mountain lion sightings he receives turn out to be bobcats. “And that’s in a place where there is a known mountain lion population,” she said.

If and when another mountain lion sighting is confirmed in New England, it will almost certainly be a male. Male mountain lions travel much farther than females to find a territory of their own. Morse says they are looking – or smelling, really – for a place with females, prey, and no other males. Males from known western populations have turned up in Minnesota, Missouri, Louisiana, and elsewhere. Morse is confident that there are other male mountain lions wandering in the East.

But a breeding population requires females, and Morse is not optimistic that female mountain lions will make it into to the East on their own, both because they tend not to travel as far as males, and because of intense hunting pressure.

In Vermont, says Bernier, “People want to see them, because they want to believe that they live in this rural, wild place.” For now, however, we’ll have to accept that these residents of the wild West are as rare in our own neighborhoods as true wilderness.

Madeline Bodine is a writer living in Andover, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by NorthernWoodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: wellborn@nhcf.org