Yesterday was one of those marathon travel/work days that have become more common in my life. I'm thankful to be going anywhere to deliver the "word" as far as conservation is concerned. It's a humbling thing to have others want to hear your thoughts about anything and so off I went on another jaunt in Beulah May (my 290,000 mile GMC pickup) cutting down through the piedmont across the once mighty but now dam-tamed Savannah River into "Jawja". For those deprived of the southern experience, that's the state bordering South Carolina to the west! Through little towns like Carnesville and Ila (which I now understand used to be named “Opossum” before somebody got proud and gave the town a shorter but less charismatic name) I made my way through what my friend Dorinda calls the “left bank” . Up and down and winding around the small towns, I whizzed through forests and pastures; crossed creeks and kudzu patches and wrinkled my nose at the odiferous trails of the ill-fated striped skunks that didn’t make it across the two-lane. Rain had been threatening all day but nothing more than a few drops ever fell. The brooding overcast and the drive through interesting places helped me relax and to ponder the events ahead. Public speaking is actually something that I like to do but I’m always a little nervous before a performance. I think that’s a good thing.
I finally reached my destination; Athens, the home of the University of Georgia. I had arrived on the invitation of my dear friend, Dorinda Dallmeyer, to deliver a lecture on African-American land ethic. Yes, I am a birder by trade but for those of you who haven't noticed, I also happen to be a black man! Over the past few years I've begun to turn my heart and mind towards trying to understand how my people, see land and the natural resources-water, wildlife, forests-- that reside on it. As Leopold wrote of the "...state of harmony between men and land", I think it's important that we ask the question as to whether or not everyone hears the same music or dances to the same tune. And so that was the word to be delivered and the work to be done. The talk went well enough and I think the “congregation” took something good home with them. See color; respect it and how maybe it colors our perceptions of nature beyond the expected.
Before the session though, I got to spend some time with Dorinda, Philip Juras and Bud Freeman. Dorinda heads the Environmental Ethics Program at UGA, Philip is an artist-friend and Bud is an ichthyologist and Professor in the School of Ecology. Bud is also the Director of the Georgia Museum of Natural History. He and I seemed to hit it off instantly and I am glad to have him as a new kindred spirit. After lunch he guided us to the museum to see some things that perhaps no one will ever see again. Some of the specimens, on loan from Ohio State University, were due to be returned soon and so I was there just in time, to see the dead things before they left.
The Georgia Museum of Natural History seems tucked away in the catacombs of UGA’s not-so-easily solved complex of academic buildings. Probably an afterthought of some administrator who begrudgingly gave some leftover space to the dead things, it deserves better. I was even more convinced of this injustice when we walked through the door and through an ecological worm hole to enter the southern landscape somewhere around the year 1720 or so. In front of me on the walls and in glass display cases was a lost southern world. Animals and landscapes that once defined the very places I know now only as leftovers of what once was.
The walls held a dozen or so Juras masterpieces. Some the size of something that you could reasonably hang in on a den wall, a couple of others, mammoth in proportion, were best suited for the expanse of a museum wall where the space and lighting there would do them justice. Saying that Philip Juras is an artist is a little like calling Ray Charles a singer. Philip is a restoration landscape artist; an uber-talented, gentle soul of nature who specializes in depicting how the southern landscape used to look. Sometimes he even dons the yellow fire shirt and hardhat to paint in the midst of backfires in the piney woods. Maybe that’s why you can almost smell the aftermath of the burns in his work, the acrid-sweet after-scent of a lightning strike hangs there somehow, frozen in brush stroke. Close your eyes and you can hear what Philip has painted. Slow down and stand there long enough and you can smell the river churning, steely with the roe-heavy shad that used to run its unimpeded course.
I’m constantly amazed at how his depictions of what was pull me in. It’s as if you can see beyond the paintings—beyond his colonnades of noble long-leaf pine, through his tangled jungles of rhododendron and beyond his hazy salt marsh horizons. The frames seem to hide what’s around the next corner. There are things in his paintings that you can’t see but that you know are there. Maybe there’s an eastern cougar lurking beyond that mitered edge? Surely shaggy-headed bison would have wallowed there—just where the shadow of the exhibit lighting highlights that gap between those frosty ridges. Perhaps the canvas is simply not “…deep enough for ivorybills” as James Kilgo mused but you know that Philip meant for them to be there.” My mind sauntered from painting to painting, noting the amazing details of botany and lighting in one and the inexplicable expansiveness and grandeur in the next. I feel so fortunate to have Philip as a friend and am honored to have witnessed his work.
And there was indeed an ivory-bill in the room. But it did not have the privilege of living in Philip’s wishful world. It was dead. Some curator’s sacrificial specimen mounted underneath a glass box and hitched forever to history as the largest woodpecker in North America, its tattered and fading plumage once shone brightly black and white as it haunted the bottomland forests of much of the South. There was a study skin of a pileated woodpecker in the case next to it and the size differences were obvious. The huge, piano-key-colored beak of the ivory-bill was a wood-rending maul compared to the pileated’s hacking hatchet. As drawn as I was to the ivory-bill and the dusky seaside sparrow in another case though, there were two birds that kept calling me. Just as dead as the woodpeckers but somehow more animated were a Carolina parakeet and a passenger pigeon. Laid out stiffly and stretched to their anatomical limits by wooden dowels and cotton, I could somehow hear the wing beats of tens of thousands of the brownish-blue pigeons. I imagined them overcastting the afternoon in numbers that may have made them the most abundant bird species in North America at one time. The Carolina parakeet, though, was beyond my imagination. It suddenly possessed me. Instead of the curator’s cotton eyes that protruded rudely through the sockets that used to hold dancing orbits of the passenger pigeon, the parakeet had parakeet eyes, glass psittacine orbits of yellow that looked back at me through the glass box. The Conure’s eyes somehow followed me like parrot eyes will do, asking me “why?” and maybe if I could somehow release it from the Plexiglas world that encased it to fly free in the world of Philips’s bald cypress swamps and fallow fields of cocklebur the bird once inhabited. I could see it flashing emerald and golden in small, tight flocks through the landscapes Philip wished for with oils. I could hear it shrieking sociably at roost in the hollowed-out trunk of the big-butted bald cypress in the painting of rainy old growth forest on the Altamaha. I could see it settling in the Oconee old field --that now lies under a hydro-electric lake.
The room where I got lost in this world that used to be was maybe thirty by thirty. But somehow it seemed bigger than anything I’d been in. It was an ode to what was and reminder of what we stand to lose if we don’t think more carefully and feel more deeply. In the birds gone forever, it was sadness and regret in not getting to know them outside of the glass boxes. But in Philip’s imagination and world of wishes, there was hope. Honestly, I did not want to leave a place that seemed more dream than real. Had the animals been revived-birds calling, Altamaha Spiny Mussels burrowed snugly in the mud, panthers prowling, wind blowing and sun slanting just so-- I would have my heaven be nothing more than this. Maybe I’ll ask Philip Juras to paint it.
To learn more about Philp Juras and his amazaing artwork, please visit his site at: