I was out walking the dog this morning with my husband, having observed when we left the house that it looked like it wanted to rain and, as it happened, it started to sprinkle a few moments later. It continued for a short way up the street, then stopped. He remarked that the showers were early (which had been predicted for later today).
My response was that I thought that was an inversion. Showers, and any other weather phenomena, come when they come. They are neither “late” nor “early”. That concept is a result of human-designed weather forecasting, which definitely has a margin of error and can change hourly. I made my observation by scanning the clouds, sensing what the air felt like and from having lived in Humboldt County most of my life. And I never bother with the hourly forecasts or take any particular day’s forecast as more than probabilities that one can plan around, but that are subject to change.
But it got me thinking about how detached so many people are from the “real” world. From thinking that if they’ve seen something on tv, they seen the thing itself, to animal artists who only paint captive animals thinking that they’ve seen anything truly relevant to, or reliable about, that species. (More on that in a future post)
To me, the real world is the one that would go on if humans and all their human-created stuff disappeared tomorrow. Despite the ego-driven belief of too many, our presence here is not required. It is actually a privilege that we are busily squandering.
Western Homo sapien’s collective tendency to rely on information about the world in an abstract way via human-created means and then be surprised or shocked when nature does something different bodes ill for the planet and our continued ability to live on it with any degree of comfort.
It makes me think of a possible cartoon in which someone is hunched over a computer looking at a weather report and never thinks to look out the window behind them to see the tornado bearing down on the house.
I guess this will only change when climate change is so dramatic that it simply can’t be denied anymore. But by then we’ll be, if we aren’t already, far past the tipping point and starting to learn what the saying “Mother Nature bats last” really means.
Hard to believe it, but I have reached 400 posts. I started my blog on December 10, 2007. It doesn’t seem like it has been that long. It’s become part of my weekly routine and a fun way to share my art and my travels.
I also really appreciate the support and comments that I get from my readers. Thank you!
Now, on to Mongolia Monday! Today I’m going to post links to 10 of my favorite sites, ones that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in learning about Mongolia or who is planning to go there.
1. News.mn: http://english.news.mn/home.shtml– News.mn has consistently been the best place I’ve found for keeping up with what is going on in Mongolia. There is also the UB Post, which is better known, but the load time on the site is glacial.
2. Asian Gypsy: http://asiangypsy.blogspot.com/– He doesn’t post nearly enough, but this is definitely my favorite blog written by a Mongol. I get the email feed so that I don’t miss a post.
4. Altan Urag: http://www.altanurag.mn/en.html– One of the best known groups to come out of Mongolia, Altan Urag (which means “Golden Lineage”, a reference to the family and descendents of Chinggis Khan), describes themselves as a “folk rock band”, which means an amazing synthesis of modern western and traditional Mongolian music, including morin khuur and khoomii (horsehead fiddle and throat singing). Their music can also be heard in movies like “Khadak” and “Mongol”. And their website is waaay cool.
5. Ganbold: http://www.ganbold.com/– Ganbold, who currently lives in the USA, is a graphic designer and artist with a very impressive client list. I had clicked on a banner ad he had placed on a Mongol site and really liked what I saw. Then, sometime later, a “Ganbold” left a comment on this blog. I clicked the url in the commenter info. and. low and behold, it was the same person! We’ve stayed in touch on and off since then. The home page of his website is, literally, a work of art. Click “Enter”. Highly recommended for bird lovers.
6. Budbayar Boldbaatar: http://www.budartist.com/– I absolutely adore his work, but Budbayar is also standing in for the many, many excellent artists that Mongolia produces and who deserve to be known to the world.
7. Circle of Tengerism- http://www.tengerism.org/– One thing that many westerners do know about Mongolia is what we call “shamanism” and the Mongols call “Tengerism”. “Tenger” is Mongolian for “sky”, also known as The Eternal Blue Sky or Eternal Heaven. This ancient belief system has survived centuries of persecution and suppression and today is an active part of the culture of the country.
8. Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve- http://www.ikhnart.com/home.html– My entry point into Mongolia in 2005, Ikh Nart is where I’ve been able to become actively involved in conservation and working with local herders. The reserve is home to the world’s only argali research project.
9. Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve- http://www.argalipark.com/– Very different habitat from Ikh Nart, but also home to a population of argali sheep. This reserve was set up by the local government and is administered by a community association. Visitors can ride a horse or in a yak cart, try Mongol archery, take a boat out on the river and hike the surrounding area.
10. Nomadic Journeys- http://nomadicjourneys.com/– Finally, a tip of the hat to the tour company that I have relied on to get me around Mongolia since 2006. The website not only describes their trip offerings, but is a wealth of information about Mongolia, the country, land, people and wildlife.
It’s clear that one lesson we, as a species MUST learn, is to share. All of these animals have just as much right to be here as we do. As they go, in the end, so shall we.
I’ve never made a point, for the most part, of specifically seeking out endangered or threatened species to photograph for my paintings. But, as it’s happened, in less than ten years I’ve seen two dozen, plus one, all in the wild. Quite a surprise, really.
Sometimes they’ve been pretty far away, but that in no way diminished the thrill of seeing them. Close-ups in a zoo or other captive animal facility can be useful, within certain limits, but seeing a wild animal in its own habitat, even at a distance, is much more satisfying and gives me ideas and information for my work that I couldn’t get any other way.
In no particular order, because they are all trying to survive on this planet:
I’m proud and pleased to announce that I am one of four Americans and seven Mongols who have recently been appointed by the Dornogobi Aimag Governor (an aimag is the equivalent of a state or province) to the Ikh Nart Natural Resource Area Working Group!
Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve is becoming a model for how a reserve or park can be managed in Mongolia, which has set aside one of the largest percentages of its land area of any country, 13%, as protected in some way.
The other Americans are Dr. Richard Reading, the Vice President for Conservation at the Denver Zoo, who in charge of the research camp that was established at Ikh Nart in 1994; retired Anza-Borrego California State Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen, (Anza-Borrego is officially a sister park to Ikh Nart and its supporters have been very generous in their support of Ikh Nart, donating both money and equipment like spotting scopes and binoculars) who will continue to nurture the sister park relationship; and retired state park employee Lynn Rhodes, who has been offering her expertise on law enforcement policies and training.
I have been tasked with continuing to support Ikh Nart Is Our Future, the women’s craft collective and also to publicize Ikh Nart and the collective outside of Mongolia.
The Mongols in the Group include the scientist in charge of argali research for the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, Amgalanbaatar (Amgaa), who has become a good personal friend; the head of the aimag’s environmental agency; two soum (county) governors; the reserve ranger; and a representative of the local herders. So I will also have an opportunity to see how another country’s government operates at a local level.
I feel very privileged to be included in this on-going effort to conserve a very special place and to work with the Mongols in doing so.
UPDATE AS OF MARCH, 2012: As of a few months ago, the Working Group decided to create an advisory council on which the four westerners would serve. I am now a member of that council. My direct work with the collective, Ikh Nart Is Our Future, has not changed.
The world’s largest undeveloped copper deposit, which also turns out to include significant deposits of gold and silver, is located in the Gobi of Mongolia at a site called Oyu Tolgoi, which means “Turquoise Hill”. The story of choosing who will operate the mine and how that was negotiated is a long and convoluted one. The super-short version: Nothing much happened until the Democratic party took power a few years ago. Not long after, a joint venture of two huge mining concerns, Ivanhoe and Rio Tinto, along with the government of Mongolia, was formed and work began.
Why would I blog about this?
First, it will be a major test of how well Mongolia is able to enforce its environmental laws, since this the first mine to come online since the changeover from communism to democracy. It will be both open pit and underground. The size of the deposits is mind-boggling: (as of 2010) 79 billion pounds (35,833,000 tonnes) of copper, and 45 million ounces (1,275,000,000 grams) of gold. In ten years, over 3 million ounces of silver is expected to be produced. The copper extracted on a yearly basis will account for 3% of the world total.
Mining activity at this site is expected to continue for 45 years and account for 30% or more of Mongolia’s GDP. Mongolia has set up a sovereign wealth fund to handle the anticipated $30 billion in royalties and tax revenue. Once the contracts were signed a little over a year ago, Mongolia received its first check for….$10 million. How will the traditional Mongol land ethic, not to mention environmental and conservation considerations, hold up in the face of this kind of money pouring into the country?
Needless to say, this single mine is a total economic game-changer in a country where the current average income is $3200 a year. And this is one mine. There is a huge coking coal deposit, Tavan Tolgoi, also in the Gobi, that will be developed in the not to distant future. There is already a new east-west railway planned to move the coal to the current north-south line, along with many other planned improvements in infrastructure.
Second, I personally know two Mongols who work at Oyu Tolgoi. One was a bird researcher I met on my very first trip to Mongolia in April of 2005 when he was at Ikh Nart during the Earthwatch team. I saw him again my first evening in UB this past July when I was invited to attend the farewell dinner for the most recent Earthwatch team. He had recently become the Environmental Officer at the mine. We’ve been Facebook friends for almost a year.
The second is a guide I’ve had on two of my trips, once in 2006 and again in 2008. He has worked as the Safety Officer for the subcontractor who is sinking the main shaft for, I think, a little over three years. He’s down at the site for a month at a time and must stay within the fence perimeter. Then he comes back home to UB for two weeks. He found me on Facebook a few weeks ago and we had a great “catching up” chat.
The two men have met a couple of times at the mine site, so it’s a small world story. To be continued….
My plan was to go back to Kenya in 2005 for an Earthwatch Institute-sponsored research project “Lions of Tsavo”. But I was leafing through the new Expedition guide and a project I hadn’t seen before caught my eye, “Mongolian Argali”, whatever those were. Oh. Wild sheep. But….Mongolia. Now there was a place that seemed like it might be interesting to travel to. And who knew how long the project would last. Some went on for a decade or more. Others only for a year or two. I called the Earthwatch office, changed projects and, without realizing it at the time, changed my life.
Argali (Ovis ammon) are the world’s largest mountain sheep. A big ram can weigh close to 400 pounds. The horn curl can reach 65″. Their preferred habitat is rocky uplands, mountains and steppe valleys. They are currently listed on the IUCN Red List as Near Threatened and Appendix II of CITES. Accurate population estimates are hard to come by. The most current one is perhaps as many as 20,000 in Mongolia. It is known that the total continues to drop in the western and central parts of the country, is stable in the south, but seems to be increasing in the east.
Threats include poaching, both for subsistence meat and for the horns, which are now in demand in China for use in traditional medicine. It has also been shown that there is a nearly 100% grazing overlap between the wild argali and domestic livestock, which includes horses, sheep, goats and cattle. Predation by the herder’s domestic dogs, particularly on lambs in the spring, is also a problem. Trophy hunting is not currently a large factor, but the license fee income (18,000 USD) ends up going almost entirely to the federal government. Very little trickles down to either the local people or for conservation projects. One response at the local level has been to create reserves where hunting is not allowed.
As you can see below, there is now an Argali Conservation Management Plan. My on-going involvement with the womens’ craft collective comes under item four on the list.
“Additional conservation measures are desperately required in Mongolia. Clark et al. (2006) outlined the following:
• Implement the recommendations outlined in the Argali Conservation Management Plan. • Improve enforcement of existing legislation that would help conserve argali. • Enhance conservation management in protected areas where argali are found at high population densities, and increase the capacity of protected areas personnel and other environmental law enforcement officers. • Work to improve the livelihoods of local communities in areas where argali are protected by local initiatives and re-initiate community-based approaches to argali conservation (Amgalanbaatar et al. 2002a). • Develop public education programmes to raise awareness of the status of and threats to the species. • Continue ecological research, monitor population trends, and study the impacts of threats, including work in the Altai and Khangai Mountains to complement research occurring in the Gobi Desert. • Implement the recommendations from the Mongolian Wildlife Trade Workshop as outlined in Wingard and Zahler (2006).
Until a joint research effort was started by the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Denver Zoological Foundation at the Ikh Nartiin Chuluu Nature Reserve in 2001, very little was known about argali ecology, behavior and population status. This was the research that I had signed up to help with as part of the second Earthwatch team ever to go to Mongolia.
It was April of 2005. Spring in Mongolia is a time of cold, wind and dust storms. Daytime temperatures during the team’s two week stay, living in a traditional felt ger, sometimes only reached 32F. I had the time of my life. When they found out I was an artist, one of the scientists asked if I would be willing to go out and do direct behavioral observations. And that’s what I did for the last three days, trekking out alone into the 43,000 hectare reserve with a clipboard, data forms, GPS, cameras, water bottle and snacks, trying to see the sheep before they saw me, otherwise any data I collected was invalid.
Although a lot of the animals were in poor condition coming out of a typical Mongolian winter in which temperatures can plunge to -40F, I saw many groups that included rams, ewes and lambs, gathered some useable data and got some pretty good photographs. It was a perfect two-fer. I was able to contribute to scientific knowledge of a species and at the same time get information that would be invaluable for painting them.
I’ve been back to Ikh Nart five times since then and argali have become a particularly favorite subject. I’ve also seen them now at two other locations: Baga Gazriin Chuluu Nature Reserve and Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I thought that I would share some of the photos I’ve taken and the paintings that have come out of them. It usually takes around three, often quite a few more, reference shots since I move animals around, change backgrounds or whatever it takes to make a composition work. I’m only going to show the main animal reference that I worked from. This fieldwork is critical. When working on a painting, I’m also remembering what it was like to be at that place, how the wind felt, the utter quiet when I stopped for a break, then trudging along, looking up and seeing that the sheep had already spotted and were watching me.
I ordered these to get the first stamp shown, but the whole set, uncanceled and in perfect condition, is so well-done that I wanted to share them all with you. I think that they are of interest not only because of their subjects, but as lovely little works of art. I wish I knew who the artist was.
Next week, I’ll be featuring two Mongolian equids, the takhi and khulan.
I spent a day last week at the Ornithology Department of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, doing research for a painting that I have been asked to do. I’ll write more about this project as it goes along, but this was a necessary first step.
Readers of this blog know how uncompromising I am about seeing my subjects in the wild and how much doing fieldwork feeds into an animal artist’s paintings. In this case, however, no matter how much money I was willing to spend or how far I traveled, I wasn’t going to see this species in its native habitat for the simple fact that it has been extinct for almost 100 years.
The Carolina parakeet was the only member of the parrot family native to North America. Although the passenger pigeon is better known, this very colorful bird also originally was seen in enormous flocks in a range that covered most of the eastern United States from the Atlantic to Florida to Ohio and west to Kansas. They were shot for their feathers, meat and because they were considered a pest, as they liked grain fields and orchards.
And now, except for specimens in museums they’re gone, all gone. Forever.
So my only option was to do my fieldwork at one of those museums. I was going to be in New York for a Society of Animal Artists board meeting and was able to secure access to the rare and extinct bird collection at the AMNH. The room is locked and every drawer in it is locked. After all, there won’t be any more specimens collected of any of those species. I spent all day with two drawers of fifty skins, plus a number of mounts, measuring, photographing and sketching them. And marveling at how beautiful they were.
Now back at home, I’ve started to do drawings in graphite to learn what the birds look like. I will have to rely on the understanding, accuracy and competence of the taxidermists of the AMNH who prepared, preserved and mounted them. I hope to get permission at some point to post some of my photos, but for the time being what I can share is the art that I’m creating from them.
I will be working with a few colleagues who specialize in painting birds to ensure that I get their structure and body positions as correct as possible. I will also be consulting videos of a couple of similar species to see how they move and behave. This is a challenging commission, but one that I know will be very rewarding.
But there is a Mongolia connection with all three.
When It Rains It Pours Department: The first two announcements are somewhat related since they both involve very special invitations to travel to “interesting” locations and work with fellow artists.
Update Jan. 2011: Guy and I both bailed on this one when it became clear that it wasn’t very well organized, but who knows, I may still make it to India sometime.
The first invitation has been extended to me thanks to my good friend and colleague, Guy Combes. Even though I’ve bought the plane tickets, I’m still pinching myself about this incredible opportunity. I’ll be departing on January 18, 2011 for Nairobi, from where Guy and I will fly to…..India! We will be part of an international group of artists from the UK, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Peru, the USA and Australia who have been invited to the Kanha Tiger Reserve for an Artist’s Week. We will be exploring the park, shooting reference and sketching in order to be able to produce art for a show which will tour internationally and then be auctioned to raise funds for tiger conservation. All expenses except airfare are being covered by our hosts, who own the luxurious lodge where we will be staying.
This is the place that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book stories. It is home to 22 mammal species and over 200 species of birds and is one of the remaining strongholds of the Bengal tiger.
And the Mongolia Connection? Babar, who conquered part of India, was a descendant of Tammerlane, who claimed descent from Chinggis Khan. Maybe or maybe not. But he did come from Central Asia and the part of India that Babar ruled became known as “Mughulistan” or “Land of the Mongols”. We know it as the Mughal Empire, which lasted from the 1500s until the British took over India in the 1800s. The most famous artifact of the Mughals is the Taj Mahal, built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan.
After our week in India, we’ll go back to Kenya, where I will stay, visiting and animal watching until I come home on the February 15.
The second invitation came via an email from Dr. David Wagner, who specializes in curating shows of animal art, including the Society of Animal Artists annual exhibtion “Art and the Animal”. He has invited me to join him and a number of my colleagues on the Sea of Cortez at the end of March, 2011. We will be accompanied by a scientist familiar with the Sonoran desert and Sea of Cortez ecosystems. Our mission is to learn about them, shoot reference, sketch and paint, hang out on the beach and eat great Mexican food while talking art shop. The end result will be a show at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in 2013. More details and who else will be going soon.
The Mongolia connection? I will be able to compare the Gobi with the Sonoran Desert ecosystem to see what the similarities and differences are of climate, plant and animal life. I already know that the far-western edge of the Sonoran Desert extends to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where there are desert bighorns and that there are argali sheep in mountain areas of the Gobi.
Last but not least, I am pleased to announce that Plaza Design, with stores in Eureka, Arcata and McKinleyville, is now offering a large selection of my small, original oil paintings! There’s a little bit of everything, including landscapes and American wildlife. They will be offering a selection of my greeting cards, too.
The Mongolia Connection? There are currently a couple of takhi (Przewalski’s horse) paintings available, with more Mongolia subjects to come.
Here’s a look at the display in the Arcata store:
Next week I’ll wrap up The Best Camping Trip Ever.