Hubbard Fellowship Blog – No “Earth” without “Art”

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Katharine is multifaceted and very talented – exactly the kind of person we like having in our Fellowship program.  

I used to be a fairly prolific artist. As soon as I could hold a pencil I began drawing and copying whatever pictures of horses I could find. As a teenager, I explored multiple media and subjects, including colored pencil landscapes, watercolor and acrylic paintings, ceramic dishware, and illuminated Celtic calligraphy in inks and metallic finishes. My hands would wander over the paper, canvas, and clay for hours, creating from whatever came into my head or caught my eye. I would get frustrated, I would get inspired, and almost always something would find its way out of my head.

Around when I finished graduate school, this drive began to fade. It hasn’t disappeared – there have been occasional spurts of creation, but overall the last two and a half years have seen a huge drop in my artistic inspiration. When I did create, it was painstakingly slow and the hours no longer slipped away from me. This stressed me out. Art had been so huge in my life for so long, what was happening? Would I ever be able to access that drive again, or was it gone? Over time I became resigned, and figured all I could do was keep my mind open to any inspiration that might reemerge.

One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan

One of my few recent pieces of art, inspired by the fields of sunflowers seen along the Platte River in late summer. Photo by Katharine Hogan

This past week, while I was cutting out the windows on the metal shipping containers that will eventually be The Nature Conservancy’s new sand hill crane viewing blinds, I was thinking about how even land management tasks that seem repetitive and straightforward have varying degrees of hidden skill behind their successful implementation.

The plasma cutter I was using to create the crane blind windows has a tiny spatial range where its electric arc most effectively cuts steel, and the evenness of the cut depends on holding the tip at a very consistent angle while simultaneously moving the cutter at a precise rate.

Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.

Katharine using a plasma cutter. Photo by Eric Chien.

Safely and effectively spraying invasive plants depends on literally moment by moment interpretation of air movement, requires an understanding of how the leaves of different species shed or hold herbicide, and, of course, knowledge of sometimes subtle botanical differences between native and non-native species in various life stages.

Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan

Pausing beforehand for a sip of coffee is arguably not one of the more subtly demanding aspects of spraying weeds (in this case, reed canary grass) – but on chilly days it is one of the nicest! Photo by Katharine Hogan

And don’t even get me started on working with the tractor grapple. It takes less than five minutes to learn the basics of grapple operation, but it took me hours of operating those two levers until I truly began to grasp (pun intended) the subtleties of picking up and piling tree branches.

These tasks of subtle familiarity and mastery are not unlike the learning curves of artistic mediums. So, I wondered, have shop skills and land management techniques become my new artistic pursuits? Have I traded one skill for another that is often not recognized as art because it is narrowly defined with a specific, practical objective? Perhaps, but I believe it goes deeper than that.

I believe there is art hidden all around us. There is art in every efficient system of organization. An herbarium of native prairie plants is artistic in creation and appearance. Communicating with diverse audiences about the importance of prairies is an art both subtle in execution and many layered in its implications.

Our daily lives hold art as well. Aside from the more obvious sources such as cooking or interior design, there is also art in the words we give to the people in our lives, and in how we choose to spend our time so as to be more responsible with the resources in our possession. Every life can be treated like a work of art.

Art is many things. Among others, art is simultaneously the most intellectual and most visceral form of communication in its dual capacity to make us both think and feel. This communication can be purely aesthetic, or it can be pragmatic. We are all artists, whenever we take a concept to its completion in the way that best brings our talents to the rest of the world.

I still hope to rediscover my inspiration in the “traditional” studio art forms. Until then, I will simply have to do the best I can to recognize the hidden art before me every single day.

I would love to know your thoughts and responses to these ideas. Please let me know in the comments, or email me at katharine.hogan@tnc.org. Thanks! I hope you go forth and create.

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – What Does the Fox Eat?

This post is written by Kim Tri, one of our two Hubbard Fellows for this year.  Kim is an excellent artist, as well as an ecologist, writer, and land steward.  As you can see, her drawings of animals are exceptional.

If you take a look at the official taxonomy of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), and you follow it up the classification ladder to the Order level, you’ll see that it belongs to the order Carnivora.  The meat eaters.  It keeps company there with such formidable predators as mountain lions, wolves, and polar bears (oh my!).  But if you know much about foxes, you know that they’re real punks.  They don’t care what we’ve labelled them.

A drawing inspired by the indiscriminate dietary habits of foxes. Everything inside of the fox itself are things that they will eat if they can get them. Marker drawing by Kim Tri.

A drawing inspired by the indiscriminate dietary habits of foxes. Everything inside of the fox itself are things that they will eat if they can get them. Marker drawing by Kim Tri.

While they do eat meat, as much of it as they can, they are not obligate carnivores—creatures that subsist only on meat.  Felines are obligate carnivores.  Foxes, however, eat a diet quite similar to that of the poster child of omnivory, the raccoon.  Omnivores are real opportunists, eating whatever is available.  During the summer and fall, nearly 100% of a fox’s diet may consist of insects and plant matter such as fruit and seeds.  During these seasons, these represent the most abundant and least energy-intensive of food sources.  I imagine that during the summer on our prairies, a fox could subsist entirely on grasshoppers if it desired; it could just sit with its mouth open and let them hop right on in.  It is during the winter when foxes rely on what most people think of as more typical prey, such as small mammals and carrion.  If you want to kill some time and your boss isn’t looking, I recommend looking up videos of foxes hunting mice in the snow.  They’re quality entertainment.

To get a real good idea of what comprises any given animal’s diet, take a look at its dentition.  Below, I’ve included some quick sketches comparing the teeth of different native mammals.

The skull of a fox, with different types of teeth labelled with their intended purpose.

The skull of a fox, with different types of teeth labelled with their intended purpose.

First, the fox.  It does have the pronounced canines and big shearing carnassials of a carnivore, but in the back of its mouth also possesses flat molars for grinding plant matter.  You can see evidence of our species’ omnivory inside your own mouth—our canines aren’t just there to look pretty, after all.

raccoonteeth

Compare this with a raccoon.  Their array of teeth is quite similar, though a raccoon’s canines are more blunt and less finely developed, being more adapted to crunching crayfish than catching mice.

bobcatteeth

The bobcat, an obligate carnivore, as you can see only possesses the teeth developed for meat eating: canines, premolars, carnassials, incisors.  If you have a pet cat who permits such familiarities, you can take a look at these teeth for yourself.  Fun fact: according to the people who take it upon themselves to research such things, felines also cannot taste sweetness.  Since they don’t eat fruit or other plant matter, it does not make sense for them to be able to detect the ripeness of fruit, which is what the ability to taste sweetness is really all about.

deerteeth

The white-tailed deer has only flat grinding teeth, as well as a single set of lower incisors, which it uses for stripping bark to eat during lean times.  There are actually species of deer which possess formidable canines, but they are more omnivorous and definitely not native to this country.

And now back to foxes.  It is partially the red fox’s ability to eat anything that has allowed it to thrive in the face of human expansion.  Our overflowing trash cans, roadkill-covered roads, and unattended pet dishes are like a buffet.  The fox’s big cousin, the coyote, has experienced similar success.  A large part of this success is also due to human’s extermination of large predators such as wolves and cougars, as well as our introduction of the fox to new areas, but that is a different and more contentious subject.

On the flip side, there is another fox native to Nebraska, the swift fox (Vulpes velox), which has not done so well since settlement of the country.  This has much more to do with habitat than diet.  It is strongly tied to grassland habitat and used to range nearly statewide.  Since much of its original habitat has been converted or degraded, it is now only found in the sparsely populated grasslands of the panhandle and is a state-listed endangered species.  The red fox, being a habitat generalist, has taken advantage of the range vacated by its smaller cousin.

Unfortunately, I must admit that I’ve never actually seen a red fox on our prairies, though I feel safe in assuming that they are here.  After all, this is wonderful habitat for them, with lots of wooded edges, prey, and forage.  They are generally fairly elusive creatures—I’ve seen more wild wolves in my life than I have foxes.  Though with the arrival of winter, I’m excited to keep an eye out for little canine tracks in the snow.