Category Archives: Ecology in Art & Literature

Exploring Muscogee Culture Through Shell Carving

The art and iconography of Muscogee shell carving is a window into Native cultures, their beliefs, and connection to nature.  Thanks to Lynn Ivory for her photos of events at Fred George Basin Greenway and Park.

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Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU Public Media

Chris Thompson is practicing an ancient art form, but with a power tool.  “Used to, you would carve with a stone, or another shell that was harder,” Chris says.  “Those take a lot longer to carve with.  That’s mainly why we use the Dremel.”  Artistically, the speed of the Dremel’s engraving tip lets Chris carve deeper into the shell surface, so that modern shell carvings have greater relief than those made by Muscogee carvers of old. Continue reading Exploring Muscogee Culture Through Shell Carving

Eluster Richardson | Painting Life on a Red Hills Tenant Farm

Welcome to Part 8 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the April 14 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Through ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

A lot of history doesn’t make it into history books.  Artist Eluster Richardson refers to those “everyday scenes we took for granted.”  Kids playing under a farmhouse.  A community gathering around a mill to grind sugar cane.  A farmer working the field with a mule.  For an artist, it’s a challenge trying to recreate scenes of a bygone past, especially when there aren’t always photos or other imagery.  When he was commissioned to paint these scenes for the Jones Tenant House at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, Eluster did have one thing going for him.  He lived them. Continue reading Eluster Richardson | Painting Life on a Red Hills Tenant Farm

Cycling Monticello’s Historic Canopy Roads

Welcome to Part 10 (of 10) of Roaming the Red Hills, which originally aired on the April 14 episode of WFSU’s Local Routes.  Through ten 3-minute videos, we’ll explore the natural soul of the Red Hills of Florida and Georgia, from the pine uplands down to its rivers, lakes, and farms.  Thanks to Tracy Horenbein for creating original compositions for this video series.  The series is narrated by Jim McMurtry. 

Funding for Roaming the Red Hills was provided by Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

“First impressions put aside, I soon began to appreciate that Jefferson County was- and for the most part continues to be- a beautiful environment.”

-Dr. Flossie Byrd, Echoes of a Quieter Time

Disappointed at being uprooted from Hanes City, Florida, the Byrd siblings soon discovered Lake Miccosukee, Ward Creek, and forests in which to play.  Those Monticello woods and waterways fed them with ducks, geese, quail, wild turkey, and, as we see in the video, coot that would “fall off the bone”.  In her book, Echoes of a Quieter Time, Flossie Byrd fondly remembers that “A number of the women were excellent cooks who could prepare ‘coons ‘n possums’ that were a ‘gourmet’s delight.'” (Page 86)  It was an environment that entertained and fed Dr. Byrd and her sixteen siblings after the relocation of the original seven in 1940. Continue reading Cycling Monticello’s Historic Canopy Roads

Jim McClellan’s “Life Along the Apalachicola River”

Video: We accompany Jim McClellan, author of Life Along the Apalachicola River, as he scouts turkey hunting locations and fishes in Iamonia Lake, an oxbow of the Apalachicola.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

We met Jim McClellan at 5:00 am in the parking lot of a Blountstown McDonalds.  He took us to the Iamonia Lake Hunting and Fishing Club, from where we departed for Iamonia Island (surrounded by Iamonia Lake on one side and the Apalachicola River on the other).  We sat in the darkness, backs against a tree, unseen mosquitos conducting a blood drive from any skin we left exposed.  Turkey season began the following day; on this day we sat and listened, communicating by whisper.  I wondered, would Jim’s potential prey see the little red light on the side of my camera battery? Continue reading Jim McClellan’s “Life Along the Apalachicola River”

Seasons Out of Order | EcoShakespeare

Watch EcoShakespeare – the Complete Adventure NOW!

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

In the end, it worked out that we had to shoot the show out of season.

“And thorough this distemperature we see

The seasons alter…”

titania-headHere, Titania laments the damage done to the Earth’s climate cycles by her quarrel with Oberon, her husband and king of the fairies.  She may also have been looking at our production schedule for EcoShakespeare.  In October, we got our grant.  The product was to be (mostly) finished by the end of January.  The play we would be highlighting?  A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  It’s a summer where everyone is wearing jackets.  We tag a bird- a Henslow’s sparrow- that migrates to our area in late fall.  We forage for food that comes into season well after summer.  And that’s perfect.  How better to drive home the damage done by these nature deities’ marital discord?  As Titania said, the seasons alter… Continue reading Seasons Out of Order | EcoShakespeare

Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

Video: bird watching, nature writing, and possibly the best sunrise spot on the Forgotten Coast. Author Susan Cerulean joins us at Bald Point State Park.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV

Susan Cerulean and I are watching a bufflehead duck dive for food by an oyster reef.  We’re at Bald Point State Park, and Susan is putting me in tune with nature’s cycles.  “You can’t know when that last one’s left,” she says of the duck, which should soon be departing for the north.  This is the seasonal cycle, warming and cooling that spurs many of the birds we’re seeing to start continental and intercontinental flights. Continue reading Bird Watching & Nature Writing: Susan Cerulean at Bald Point

A Song of Protection for Wakulla Springs: EcoShakespeare

Video: Titania’s fairy retinue sings a song to ward off beasts of ill omen as she goes to sleep.  Likewise, the Friends of Wakulla Springs and the Wakulla Springs Alliance work to ward off threats to America’s largest spring.  Jim Stevenson, a board member of Wakulla Springs Alliance, leads our trip, which is based on the Wakulla Springs Overland Tour he he leads with Palmetto Expeditions.
EcoShakespeare is a series of adventures through north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  During each trip, adventurers view a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, each with its own significance to the day’s habitat.  Florida State University English professor, Dr. Bruce Boehrer, ties it all together.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.
A Suwannee cooter turtle swims among mats of algae in a sinkhole connected to Wakulla Springs.

While editing the video above, I kept hearing the Standell’s Dirty Water  in my head.  It’s a strange sort of ode to Boston, with its chorus, “Love that dirty water, Boston you’re my home.”  It refers to the polluted Charles River and contains some other less than flattering Bean Town references, but that song and Sweet Caroline are staples at Red Sox games (my wife and I were married in her native Massachusetts, where both songs were loudly sung along to during the reception).    Looking at shots of algae mats, the garbage piled into Lake Henrietta, and, most sadly, algae covered turtles, I don’t feel like writing even satirically about loving the quality of the water heading south to Wakulla Springs.  Instead, I offer you a song written by William Shakespeare for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (and arranged by Southern Shakespeare Festival’s Stephen Hodges).  In it, Titania’s fairy servants call upon Philomel the nightingale to protect her as she sleeps in the woods. Continue reading A Song of Protection for Wakulla Springs: EcoShakespeare

Foraging and the Magic of Plants: EcoShakespeare

Video: William Shakespeare grew up in nature, and it shows through in his plays. We visit Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy with wilderness survival instructor and star of National Geographic’s Live Free or Die, Colbert Sturgeon. As we walk down from Tall Timbers to Lake Iamonia, we gather wild food and explore Shakespeare’s knowledge of plants and their uses.  Once again, FSU’s Dr. Bruce Boehrer makes the connections in this second installment of EcoShakespeare.

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Oberon, the king of the fairies, sends Puck to find an aphrodisiac flower in the woods outside of Athens. Puck then uses a potion derived from the flower on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to set up some of the most comical moments of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Oberon, the king of the fairies, sends Puck to find an aphrodisiac flower in the woods outside of Athens. Puck then uses a potion derived from the flower on the queen of the fairies, Titania, to set up some of the most comical moments of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If William Shakespeare were alive today, would some local BBC producer ask him to show  the plants of his native Warwickshire on camera?  Or would he consider flying to Tallahassee to sample persimmons growing by Lake Iamonia for WFSU?  In our year-end post for 2014, Dr. Bruce Boehrer starts to paint a picture for us of a man whose classic works are inextricably tied to his country upbringing.  It’s cool to think that the things that inspired him also inspire us here in north Florida.  He might have been right at home in the Red Hills region of farms, forests, and rivers; perhaps incorporating tupelo swamps and RCW cavities into his verse.

In the scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we explore in the video above, we see that he likely had a good knowledge of the plants that grew around him.  Where Colbert Sturgeon extols pine needles’ abundance of vitamin c or the curative properties of St. John’s Wort, Shakespeare was versed in the magical properties of plants.  It’s reflective of a contemporary world view, just as his sense of ecology in our last video was rooted in interpersonal relationships.  He didn’t have the benefit of our science, but it is interesting to note that he had a general understanding of cause and effect in nature.  He might not have understood greenhouse gases and their role in climate change, but he could conceive that people could cause an imbalance that would change the weather and upset plant productivity.  Likewise, he knew that different plants had the ability to affect us, even if he didn’t understand the chemical basis for this.  Magic is just a name for all that we don’t yet understand. Continue reading Foraging and the Magic of Plants: EcoShakespeare

Clearcutting the Longleaf Forest: EcoShakespeare

EcoShakespeare is a series of expeditions into uniquely north Florida/ south Georgia ecosystems.  Each adventure is led by a master of their field and includes a scene performed from A Midsummer Night’s Dream that relates to the trip.  Florida State University English professor Dr. Bruce Boehrer ties Shakespeare’s words to our local habitats, creating a one of  kind blending of art and nature.  Part one takes place in a secret, ancient forest…

Rob Diaz de Villegas WFSU-TV
Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he's the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.
Jim Cox is the Vertebrate Ecology Program Director at Tall Timbers Research Station (he’s the one not holding the camera). Based north of Tallahassee, Tall Timbers has studied the longleaf habitat, and its dependence on fire, for over 50 years.

We begin this EcoShakespeare project, appropriately enough, in a longleaf forest that exists much as it did during the time of William Shakespeare.  The “Big Woods,” as Tall Timbers’ Jim Cox calls them, sit on private land.  Few people will ever get the privilege to walk under those ancient longleaf pines, in one of the few places where Henslow’s sparrows and red cockaded woodpeckers are relatively easily seen.  And it’s one of the few places where you might find longleaf pines that lived while the Bard’s plays were being penned.

You can see the numbers in the video above.  The American southeast was once covered in 90,000,000 acres of longleaf.  Today we have 3,000,000.  Of that, only 8,000 has never been cut.  Jim compares it to the entire population of the Earth being whittled down to a city the size of Milwaukee.  And while 3,000,000 acres is still a vast reduction from the historic number, it’s much better than 8,000.  So why do we emphasize the especially low acreage of remaining old growth forest? Continue reading Clearcutting the Longleaf Forest: EcoShakespeare

The Biology / Art Intersection

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab
Blue crab – colored pencil

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Art is something I’ve always loved almost as much as biology. If I hadn’t been a biology major in college, I probably would have been an art major, and it is the fusion of the two that I like in particular: the realistic artwork of plants, animals, other living creatures, and their environments. There is something I especially enjoy about drawing plants and animals, because to draw them accurately, you have to look at them with a closeness and a consideration beyond the everyday. You notice the forms and structures and beautifully intricate details you would have never seen otherwise. I find that you see the organism in a new light, with a new appreciation, understanding, and respect.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I discovered the field of scientific illustration – that this  marriage between biology and art was in fact an entire line of work. Artwork of biological organisms is used for a variety of purposes, including field guides, identification keys, scientific papers, descriptions of new species, textbooks, educational displays, brochures, and posters. A number of people work as full or part time scientific illustrators, often for museums or publishers, or as free lancers. Beyond the fine arts, it appears there’s a market for the exact types of drawings I’ve always loved to create.

Sand dollar and sea urchin – pen and ink

You may wonder why scientific illustrations are still important today given the ubiquity of photography. It is mainly because there are limitations to what photographs can depict clearly. With illustrations, important details can be captured and highlighted, the background and unimportant details omitted, photographic artifacts eliminated (like obscuring highlights and shadows), and the organism best positioned to convey its important features in a way that is easily interpreted. Interactions, behaviors, and assemblages can be depicted that would be difficult or impossible to capture on film. Fossil and other extinct plants and animals can be portrayed as they would look in real life. Illustrations are also very useful for schematics and diagrams, and are very commonly used to depict medical procedures.

Scientific illustration differs from other forms of art in that accuracy is imperative, but aesthetics are also of consideration. Composition is important, as is skillful use of the artistic medium and the portrayal of three-dimensional form, light, shadow, and depth. Great illustrations should look both realistic and visually appealing, capture the right amount of detail, and perform well the interpretive function for which they were created. The medium itself can range widely depending on how the illustration is to be used. Pen and ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and other traditional media are common, and digital artwork is increasingly common today.

The whelk Busycon spiratum – graphite

Last summer I decided to attend the annual conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators held that year in Olympia, Washington. It was a fabulous conference where I met many phenomenal scientific illustrators, all far better artists than me, and all wonderful and friendly people with a common love of both science and art. The talks, workshops, and field trips at the conference, like the interests of the attendees, were a mixture of art and biology, encompassing everything from techniques (like how to draw fish scales accurately) to interesting local natural history (like research on crows’ ability to recognize human faces). I picked up many new techniques and ideas to take back with me and try. Having previously attended college in Washington state, it was also wonderful to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week.

Ultimately, I plan to go into biology rather than illustration as my primary career, but I hope that illustration might be a fulfilling side venture. I hope you enjoy the illustrations of mine I’ve included in this post, which are all of species found in Florida.

For more information on scientific illustration, visit the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators webpage, or Science-Art.com, where you can peruse the work of many of its members. There are also a number of blogs on science and art, such as this one, which has links to several other blogs on its homepage.

Hughes/ Kimbro (Hug-Bro) Labs Poster
Hughes-Kimbro Lab poster and t-shirt design – pen and ink
Green sea turtle – not actually an illustration, this is a sand sculpture I made on a beach (one of my more bizarre artistic hobbies)