The Forest Service started an 850-acre "controlled burn" ten days ago, near an area I've frequented this summer. All of the wildlife within a mile disappeared, which of course is not surprising. I did a reconnaissance run while it was still smoking, about 1/2 mile from the burn, in an area that a group of does I've been observing have been using as a fawn nursery, and the place was deadly quiet. Not a bird, rabbit, or squirrel. Then came the rains, and life returned. Two days ago, I found the does, nervous, but apparently healthy, back in the old habitat. Today a large raven followed me, its wings beating like a heavy breath, its vocabulary impressive.
There may be some logic to controlled burns. Since people build their houses deeper and deeper in the forest, and citizens demand that every forest fire be put out immediately, fire no longer serves its natural function of wildlife habitat rejuvenation. Enter the controlled burn. Ostensibly, these are about preventing big fires, not habitat renewal. Ostensibly, they are controlled. As we learned from the Cerro Grande and other fires; in reality, they are capricious. And the Forest Service has a knack for starting them in high winds. Fires do create new habitat, but here in the high alpine desert, it is slow in coming. After the Cerro Grande Fire, the Forest Service seed-bombed, and the burned out forests sprouted with new grasses, herbs, and brush. More commonly, here in the Santa Fe watershed, the Forest Service burns and slashes, leaving behind a blackened landscape that looks pretty much dead for years. Eventuallly, new growth comes.
It's not so much the aftermath of fires that's been on my mind this week; it is the Forest Service's methods. They start fires by dropping incendiary devices (i.e., bombs) from planes. Lots of them. If you're a deer, or, worse yet, something slower-moving, this is akin to stealth jets targeting your living room. You don't have a chance. The Forest Service's protocol, as reported in my hometown paper this week, is to burn the perimeter first, trapping every living thing that can't jump or fly through a swath of fire. The apparently unharmed deer I saw after the fire were either the lucky ones or the ones who had not been inside the perimiter when the air raid began.
I was very happy to see them alive and trotting; to hear the forest, half a mile from the burn, alive and chattering, to hear the raven's wings beating. I'd like to see the Forest Service change their methods, if not their motivations. If they are going to simulate a forest fire, let them do it like a single lightning strike, not like the firebombing of Gaza. Give the forest's inhabitants a fighting chance to live to forage the new habitat.
When I returned from my run in the rain two days ago, I immediately sat down and created three new watercolors. Watercolors are good for stormy October skies and wet leaves. Those 8 days without seeing a deer were long. Not because they were 8 days; that's not unusual, but because I didn't know where the deer were. During that week-plus-a-day, I ran for hours through the mountains without that familiar feeling that the deer were nearby, watching me. I wondered, did the does and fawns get out, did they run up, down, west, east? I tried to think like they would think, knowing that they wouldn't think; they would act. On my run in the rain, I stopped thinking, and I intuited the does' location, a few hundred yards from where I had seen them before the fire. Just before I found them, my mind tried thinking again. The thought was, "they wouldn't be down at the bottom of a box canyon at this time of day." I ignored it and kept going on intuition, and I ran right to them.
The does ran; I stopped. They stopped. We stood that way, as usual, for a long time. I moved; they trotted off. I trotted off, and I came upon a most intriguing spherical object that will no doubt be reproduced in some form in a future painting. More about that later.
Picks of the day: Check out the work of Josh Keyes and James Lavadour, innovative painters concerned with deer (Keyes), and forest fires (Keyes and Lavadour).
I am a Santa Fe New Mexico painter. I have always had two bodies of work: animals and abstractions. Both are an expression of the same concern with our relationship with nature.
My currently body of representational work, Habitat, brings animals in wildlife hospitals and farm sanctuaries into environments abandoned by humans. By placing animals in human archeological ruins, I invite the viewer to consider the destruction of wildlife habitat, factory farming, and the choices we can make to change course.
I spend a good deal of time in the wilderness, tracking, observing and photographing wildlife and free-running mountain streams.
Painting in watercolors and oils is an intimate interaction with water and earth minerals. When one moves paint around on canvas or paper, the forms that are the conceptual matrices underlying conscious experience emerge. I step aside and let that process happen, allowing the painting to breathe and reveal its internal structures and symbols.
I am fortunate to have studied oil and watercolor painting with Sam Scott. He taught me to see seasonal color, to be fearless in painting my vision of nature, and to be unafraid of beauty.