Our Place in the Universe

Monarch Butterflies Acrylic Painting
Monarch Butterflies Acrylics on Canvas

Rulers of the sky,
No vulture ever soared so high
As to see its own creation.

No butterfly ever flapped its wings
And changed the beating of our planet’s heart.
Rulers of the land,
Our footprints trampling the carbon
Out of stardust-turned fossils.

The lion never left so much waste
That the decomposers decomposed.

Rulers of the sea,
The humpback’s moonlight sonata
Drowned by hulls, by steel, by the sounds
That even silence cannot ignore.

Rulers of the cosmos,
The persieds streak through matter
To which we have no consequence
We are merely matter
That does not matter.
Against what we cannot contemplate,
Numbers to great, heat too hot,
Horizons that cannot be broken.

Looking up to the heavens we should realise
Only we can see this.
Looking down to our planet
Only we can save this.

A Comparison – Lascaux and Guernica

In the quiet village of Montignac, in the Dordogne region of France, stands one of the world’s finest examples of cave art, and in my opinion, one of the greatest artistic achievements ever. This complex network, like all prehistoric art, represents a great evolutionary leap into modern intelligence, known as ‘The Transition’. Lascaux was discovered by accident in 1940, and contains some simply mind-blowing paintings, both in skill and proportion. One only has to see the scale of the bulls in the Hall of the Bulls (one is more than 5 metres long) to be mesmerised.

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The variety of animal species, including aurochs (ancient bulls), horses, lions, ibex, bison, are painted in a seemingly uncontrolled method; with species sharing space, that would probably have given each other a wide birth in Nature. Also, some of the animals are super-imposed, painted between and across one another, some floating in odd positions, upside-side, bent around to fit with the subtle curvature of a fragment of rock. No backgrounds are ever present in cave art, the source of the rock provides it, and flora is never depicted, unless perhaps in unintelligible lines and dots. These aspects bear a certain similarity to Cubist art; the haphazard but clever layout of the composition, the intersection and angles of some of the animals, all seem to pluck them out of their realistic context, instead forcing them into an abstraction, a spectrum of un-reality. Even the reducing of some of the painted animals to a few carved or painted lines bears a similarity to later Cubism.

The Hall of Bulls and “Guernica”

The Hall of Bulls, the grandest, largest and one of the most heavily painted areas of Lascaux, sweeps across the ceiling, like the great arc of the sun from East to West, seeming to converge in the centre of the ceiling, over the entrances to the narrower, more hostile sections of the cave. Here, horses and bulls seem to run across the sky right above your head, leading us to question, how on earth was this painted, when our ancestors had no ladders, or the use of ropes and pulleys to create a painting platform? Indeed they were brave to enter in the chasms of the underworld, and for the seemingly cumbersome task of painting such majestic murals.

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In the same way that Lascaux is always mentioned at the forefront of prehistoric artistic masterpieces, so must one always mention and ponder on “Guernica” when discussing Picasso and the birth or modern art. Both create a significant impact whilst looking at them, even though their subject matter is very different. Let us first mention “Guernica”.

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“Guernica” was created by Picasso for the Spanish display at the Paris International Exhibition in 1937, at the time when Guernica, a small basque town in Northern Spain was horrendously bombed by German and Italian forces during the Spanish Civil War. The town was in ruins, completely destroyed, and Picasso felt in necessary to bring the attention of this war to the world. This huge, seven-metre-long mural is monochrome, consisting of only black, white and greys. It is shocking in its grim portrayal of the war, and though its style is cubist, and almost crudely cartoon, its impact is not decreased. In fact, the exaggerated faces of the screaming Basque people, the animated dead baby dangling from its mother’s arm, the raging horse dominating the mural and the fallen horse beneath it create a scene of almost pitiful hatred. Though controversial, “Guernica” achieved what Picasso wanted; awareness for the suffering during the Civil War. Today this painting hangs in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, as a standing testament to those who died.

The comparisons between Lascaux’s Hall of the Bulls begin here. Both murals are chaotic, with the figures, whether of animals or people, are all pushed together, almost colliding into one another closet to the centre of the painting. The positions of Lascaux’s bulls and horses, with small, barely visible stags between them, suggests an air of excitement, or fear – perhaps this scene was replicating a hunt, or a stampede, or the animals during bad weather – and its is in this same fashion in “Guernica” that certain figures are concealed and distorted by another. There is a strange mix, of animals and figures, that would not usually have shared the same space. Also, scale and proportion is altered; the fallen person in the left of “Guernica” is the same size as the wounded horse. Limbs are too large, eyes are misplaced. The stags in The Hall are tiny in comparison to the horses they run beside, when in fact, the two species are of fairly similar size. The horses and bulls trip over one another, all heading towards the centre of the ceiling Perspective is practically unapparent; it is only evident in Lascaux due to the shape of the cave walls, and background too, is minimal.

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These common traits give the murals further impact. Where perspective and background fall away, the mind is freed by their restrictions, able to draw up fresh conclusions that would have otherwise been limited. Is “Guernica” a scene inside a building or a house, is it in the ruins of the town itself? Are Lascaux’s bulls running at each other, or are they actually running in the cave? There are numerous possibilities.

Both creations leave us feeling mystified, amazed and insignificant. They are both depicting scenes that we can never truly touch, and never truly understand. They leave us questioning our own destiny; where we have been and where we are heading as a species. Perhaps Lascaux symbolises the fight for evolution between the species, and “Guernica” reminds us harshly of our own.

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As our ancestors re-emerged from the cave and began to create words, language, civilisations, obviously their production of art and their need for it changed. Art became something much more decorative, with body adornments such as jewellery, pendants and figurines being carved. Art became more portable, and pottery flourished. As art movements develop today, rapidly changing from one to the next and colliding in the middle, to create something entirely new, the same is true in Pre-history. Stone-carving took a back seat and metalworking was developed, and the Bronze Age brought about greater skill and diversity of art. Just like today, art was taken over to the artisans, instead of being mass-produced by the civilisation as a whole. The ‘Primitive’ art created by our hominid fathers gave way to the Symbolism of Ancient Egypt and the architecture of the Nile Valley. The richly detailed art of the Americas was the first Romanticism, and in the Southern Hemisphere, the Aborigines of Australia gave us the first glimpse of Surrealism.

As artistic movements reappear, as suddenly as though the sun sets, perhaps Pre-historic art will re-emerge, in thousands of years to come. Its importance in our transition from ape to man should not be underestimated. Without the ochre horses of our ancestors, we would not have any of the masterpieces we see today, in our museums, in our homes, and in our hearts.

Do We Really Need Zoos?

I’ve visited many zoos around the world in my twenty five years on this planet, and I always looked forward to indulging in my love of nature in whatever small, humble way I could, land-locked in the centre of the UK or, more recently, relocated on a tiny Mediterranean island with virtually no native mammal species.

So during my recent trip to Madrid a day out to the city’s zoo was definitely on my to-do list. However, after my visit I found myself feeling unusually hollow and felt as though I had come to a new realisation since my last zoo experience eight years ago.

Zoos have moved on a great deal since 1828 when weird and wonderful animals were transported from across our colonies for our gawking eyes and our amusement. Facilities have improved, cages (or enclosures) have gotten bigger, and education, welfare and conservation have become a much higher priority. Zoos have allowed many people, me included, to learn about species that they would not have otherwise been able to see, and zoos inspire and intrigue us at all ages.

However, I left the city zoo feeling that this showcase of the natural world, as diverse and immersing as it was, was just a falsity. A portfolio of species in a context that simply does not exist in the wild. I struggle to see the benefits of zoos claiming conservation aims when they have managed to successfully breed a family of rare giant pandas, only to keep them confined to a relatively small and featureless enclosure with no possibility of ever introducing them into the wild to diversify its minuscule population.

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I struggle to see the educational purposes of keeping (as far as I could see, at least) a lone wolf in an area not big enough for it to break into a run. This is not a typical or an accurate representation of the wolf in the wild. We all know that the wolf is a highly intelligent, social and transient species that roams vast areas and holds a huge territory with diverse habitat.

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The rather lonely (and also rather scrawny) Arctic wolf 

I struggle to see how children benefit from being held in front of a fence by their parents for a photo, when the child is not even old enough to know that he is a child. Or how older children can learn anything aboutanimals by banging on the glass screaming, or commenting (yet again) that they found Dory.

It’s problematic for me, one who wishes to indulge in nature as much as possible, and who craves contact with the natural world, to feel such apathy for this place. Whilst I am certain at least that the animals that I saw had their basic needs taken care of, behavioural, spacial, social and psychological restrictions are clearly felt. It definitely gave me some serious food for thought.

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I’d love to know your opinions on this matter.

You too can join the Conservation Conversation. Click here to find out more.

A Baby Boom for the Booming Parrot – The Kakapo

I always love reading about conservation success stories, they fill me with hope and the drive to continue painting, researching, and just generally getting involved in nature.

I find the kakapo’s heartwarming story particularly moving, partly because of my love of New Zealand and it’s stunning wildlife, partly because it shows just what we can achieve when we put our minds to it. A story of conservation and human dedication at its finest.

The kakapo might be world famous, but its current population would just about be enough to fill every seat in New Zealand’s parliament.

There are many reasons to admire the kakapo and want to save it, not only because it is one of the few, tough, island survivors from New Zealand’s era of great flightless birds, but because it is a prime example of evolution ‘gone wrong’. A squat, fat parrot that lives on the ground, sleeps during the day, can’t fly (but seems to have forgotten that it can’t) and makes a highly unusual low-frequency boom; very unlike our typical view of a chirpy, delicate parrot flitting around the trees in the sunshine.

Kakapo Watercolour Painting
The Parrot that Goes Boom, Watercolours

The kakapo is unfortunately under threat due to its changing habitat. Since humans arrived, many flightless birds, marsupials and other species fell victim to humanity’s vices including their tasty appeal and easy capture for the cats and dogs that found their way onto the islands. The kakapo is no exception, now restricted to a few predator-free islands and living in a state of permanent intrusion, in the sense that humans are constantly monitoring their movements, their health, mating habits, breeding successes etc. But in this case, human interference is actually their salvation. And, thankfully, this year, the population of booming parrots are having a little baby boom.

If there’s hope for the world’s rarest parrot, there’s hope for every species.

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160715-baby-boom-for-worlds-rarest-parrot

Read. Watch. Learn. Get to know about these little stories; get involved.

You too can join the Conservation Conversation. Click here to find out more.