Relict Nature | Páramo

Picking up on my last post on remnant natural environments surrounded (perceptually or in reality) by human-dominated landscapes, this one will look at another example—from the páramo of Northern Ecuador, where I spent a few days in June 2018.

Typical  páramo  landscape with  frailejones.

Typical páramo landscape with frailejones.

Frailejone  with bromeliad to the left. The bromeliads (genus  Puya ) have bright blue flowers, though I was too late in the season to catch them.

Frailejone with bromeliad to the left. The bromeliads (genus Puya) have bright blue flowers, though I was too late in the season to catch them.

Páramo is a type of alpine moorland—cold, wet and windy—concentrated in the northern Andes above the treeline from Venezuela through Northern Peru. In parts of it the most distinguishing feature are the stands of frailejones (“friar’s ears”), tree-like members of the genus Espeletia reaching 20’ in height. Looking from a distance like giant succulents but in fact members of the sunflower family with spongy stems and soft, fuzzy leaves, these plants give the landscape a surreal and oddly animated look. (I find unbranching “trees” like these with a tuft of leaves at the top to be endearingly human-like, probably part of the reason I’m drawn to them.)

Historically the extent of the páramo ecosystem, and particularly frailejone habitat, was limited given its narrow temperature and precipitation tolerances. But today that habitat has been further reduced, and will be increasingly so, by the spread of agriculture and global warming-induced changes in temperature, rainfall and susceptibility to disease. The area that I visited, El Angel Ecological Reserve, lies between 11,950 and 15,640’ above sea level and is one of the few remaining accessible zones of frailejones in Ecuador (though there are others in Colombia and Venezuela).

Satellite view of El Angel Ecological Reserve, Ecuador
View into the Reserve, overlooking the forested valley.

View into the Reserve, overlooking the forested valley.

Inside the  Polylepis  forest.

Inside the Polylepis forest.

I was fortunate to visit two parts of the Reserve. The first, in the area of Polylepis Lodge where I spent two nights, includes one of the last relicts of another type of ecosystem, a unique cloud forest dominated by a gnarled, orange-barked tree in the genus Polylepis. This forest filters into stream valleys like the one where the Lodge is situated, just below the páramo.

Despite the Reserve’s relatively small area, the experience of the El Angel from this accessible part at its very edge was more of butting up against civilization (in this case agriculture) rather than being surrounded by it. So the empowering feeling of being in a wilderness relict wasn’t dominant here, but the sense of the páramo rippling endlessly into the distance did reinforce the contrast between its “wildness” and the adjacent fields.

Páramo  meets civilization.

Páramo meets civilization.

The contrast was accentuated also by the mysterious and even mystical atmosphere of the landscape (which has inspired some creepy legends in local folklore), created by the shifting mists and the surreal forms and ghostly white of the vegetation. That the area supposedly also has a real element of danger—the State Department had posted an oddly specific warning about visiting the Reserve due to its proximity to the Colombian border—contributed to the slightly sinister feel, even though literally no one in the country, major tour agencies included, knew what that was about. Back home, putting the experience on paper around Halloween while listening to a “real-life” ghost stories podcast probably had a compounding effect on these impressions.

Cloud forest in a stream valley, paramo and frailejones in El Angel Ecological Reserve, Ecuador
Polylepis cloud forest and paramo, El Angel Ecological Reserve, Ecuador
Frailejones and polylepis cloud forest below in a stream valley, El Angel Ecological Reserve, Ecuador

The worldview based on this part of the Reserve (entitled simply Páramo) focuses on the meeting of these wild and domesticated landscapes; I accentuate the contrast by bringing the town of El Angel right up against the Reserve despite its being some distance away by car. I also incorporate the internal contrast between the páramo and cloud forest landscapes.

Páramo , watercolor on paper, 32”x40.”

Páramo, watercolor on paper, 32”x40.”

In a later post I’ll talk about the second zone that I visited (Voldero Lagoon) and the worldview it inspired, in addition to more general impressions from the trip. Even though I don’t like to focus on the “tourist” component of these experiences, I’ll end here with some tidbits about my lodging in the Reserve because it was an unexpected highlight. As the name suggests, Polylepis Lodge is nestled into the edge of the cloud forest, in the stream valley at the foot of frailejone-covered hillsides. It’s rustic yet has some touches of luxury and creative design.

Darren

The Lodge’s rustic “courtyard” with  polylepis  forest and  páramo  beyond. It has its own mini-museum of Pre-Polumbian artifacts; that’s one specimen in the center of the pool.

The Lodge’s rustic “courtyard” with polylepis forest and páramo beyond. It has its own mini-museum of Pre-Polumbian artifacts; that’s one specimen in the center of the pool.

I was the only guest at the time (contributing to the “weirdness” factor), which meant I got a free upgrade to one of the jacuzzi rooms. The brownish stream-fed water took some getting used to.

I was the only guest at the time (contributing to the “weirdness” factor), which meant I got a free upgrade to one of the jacuzzi rooms. The brownish stream-fed water took some getting used to.

The restaurant’s built over a canal that channels a natural stream, hence the partial glass floor.

The restaurant’s built over a canal that channels a natural stream, hence the partial glass floor.

Relict Nature | Hidden Valley

Looking north across cultivated land on Flinders Island from Strzelecki Peak.

Looking north across cultivated land on Flinders Island from Strzelecki Peak.

In my recent post on Sanctuary, inspired by Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania, I brought up the tension between two factors motivating my interest in relicts of native ecosystems surrounded by human-dominated landscapes:

  1. These ecological remnants are becoming smaller and rarer due to habitat destruction, invasive species and climate change, driving me to depict and “preserve” them on paper.

  2. On the other hand I also find these isolated pieces of nature exciting, similar to the way I’m generally drawn to environmental edges, contrasts and “islands” (whether encircled by water or by something else). A natural environment is easier for me to comprehend and appreciate when I can experience it in opposition to a contrasting one, creating a feeling of empowerment. In the case of nature surrounded by human-dominated landscapes, that sense of control takes on a “taming” aspect—not very consistent with the conservation angle of #1.

Applying these contradictory reactions to design or conservation in the real world would at the very least require more justification. In fact they tie into a few competing (sometimes heatedly so) contemporary approaches to design and planning, relating to a wider philosophical debate on the relationship between nature and culture—including what “nature” and “natural” actually mean. These are issues that I’ve had an interest in since I was in design school. While the worldviews grow more out of an emotional response to the nature-culture relationship than my intellectual take on it, creating them has led me to dive more deeply into those interests. I’ll be writing a lot more about them in later posts, as one purpose of this blog is to put the worldviews in a wider, more interdisciplinary context. For now I’ll add one more thing—words like “nature” and “wilderness” are highly loaded but I’ll be using them freely, without the scare quotes (even though some of my professors would be shaking their heads). My reasons for doing so go beyond just a lack of better terms. More explanation to come.

Hidden Valley,  watercolor on paper, 24”x18.”

Hidden Valley, watercolor on paper, 24”x18.”

The town of Kununurra with the western half of Hidden Valley National Park (outlined in dark green), and the accessible portion around the actual “hidden valley” (in lighter green) that inspired the  worldview.

The town of Kununurra with the western half of Hidden Valley National Park (outlined in dark green), and the accessible portion around the actual “hidden valley” (in lighter green) that inspired the worldview.

Unlike in the real world, in the worldviews themselves I consider the tension between #1 and #2 to be inspirational in itself rather than a potential problem. In real life the natural environment depicted in Hidden Valley is far from encircled by development, but the “insular” feel of the place led me to imagine it simultaneously from both the “conservation” and “control” perspectives.

The work is inspired by the national park of the same name (alternatively called Mirima, in the Aboriginal language) in the far northeast corner of Western Australia,. The park features an “island” of dramatic sandstone formations right adjacent to the town of Kununurra; the accessible part of those formations is cut by a valley that contains the park’s entry road. But as much as the geology, for me what defined the wild character of the park was its baobab trees (Adansonia gregorii), the only species of the genus outside of Africa/Madagascar. There were in fact many baobabs planted in the town itself—an empowering juxtaposition too, if you consider each tree to be its own bit of wilderness “tamed” by sidewalks and parking lots. But despite this intermingling, walking among the baobabs and colorfully banded cliffs in the park I felt much more than a few hundred feet from the city streets.

Hidden Valley is highly idealized in order to accentuate nature/non-nature contrasts. The park is actually bordered by development only on one side and extends far beyond the “hidden valley” itself (the only part of the park interior accessible or visible by road and trail) in every other direction. But, given that the valley zone is the part that I could experience, the park felt like a much smaller, isolated piece of wild nature and I imagined development surrounding it on all sides. So on paper I shrunk the park down to just the valley zone, densified parts of the town, and surrounded the rest of the park with agriculture. Other artistic liberties included borrowing a palm-filled valley from another nearby site with similar geology (Keep River National Park)—I wanted to dial up the internal, natural contrasts a bit too—and adding more baobabs to the valley interior.

The park-town relationship can be experienced in multiple ways. From inside the “hidden valley” itself the town might as well be miles away, and yet because you know it’s there just beyond the wall of rock formations, the contrast is still felt. From observation points atop the rocks overlooking the town, and looking at the rocks from points within the town itself, the park feels a little less wild and isolated but the contrast is right there to see. Hidden Valley incorporates all three of these vantage points. This idea of “revealed vs. concealed” contrasts and the resulting impacts on feelings of insularity and empowerment are more just introduced here than explored, but later works and posts will go deeper.

Night-lit baobab outside a restaurant in Kununurra.

Night-lit baobab outside a restaurant in Kununurra.

Overlooking the “hidden valley.”

Overlooking the “hidden valley.”

One note on the “design” of the town, which is partly real and partly meant to match the part that is. Like most urban/suburban environments, from above and from within, it’s pretty banal (car-oriented, disorganized and scrappy). But I would strive for this effect even if I were designing the town from scratch, which I plan to do in some future worldviews. The reason I’m not inclined to represent avant-garde, master-planned cities alongside wilderness might have something to do with motivation #1 above—I see these constructed environments in a somewhat sinister light, and their being chaotic and lacking clear intentionality of design could reinforce the vulnerability of the relict environments they surround.

View of the park from the eastern edge of town, with young baobabs (the white sticks) on the slopes.

View of the park from the eastern edge of town, with young baobabs (the white sticks) on the slopes.

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Natural relicts tend to have both an ecological and geological component—vegetation as well as landform —so the edge created by agricultural or urbanization coincides to some degree with a topographical edge that would’ve been there anyways, heightening the contrast. (Of course geology usually explains in part why these particular places have been preserved in the first place—rocks, slopes and cliffs will discourage development more readily than plants.) In Hidden Valley both components are significant; in the next post vegetation will play a more important role. Usually landform alone isn’t enough to draw me in, but later on I’ll have a lot to say and show about one important exception—volcanic cones.

Darren

Inside the “hidden valley.”

Inside the “hidden valley.”

Great Walk | Worldview

This post picks up on the last one, describing my experience hiking the 78-km Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s seven “Great Walks.”

Great Walk, the work inspired by the trek, depicts a more purely linear journey than other worldviews to date, the main reason for the long and narrow format. As such it’s brought up considerations that haven’t come up in previous works, like endpoints, relative emphasis/salience of experiences along the way, and direction of “travel” and of the individual perspectives. (The orientation of the perspectives was determined mostly by compositional considerations, but I think whether the viewer is looking “ahead” or “backward” does matter to overall experience of the journey.) This approach is most applicable to places I’ve experienced on a single long hike rather than just wandering around without a single destination in mind. None of the other multi-day hikes I’ve done that don’t form a complete loop (the nearby Milford Track, Iceland’s Laugavegur trek, Mt. Kilimanjaro, the Inca Trail) have ended up on paper yet, but they will.

Great Walk , watercolor on paper, 25”x50”.

Great Walk, watercolor on paper, 25”x50”.

In sketching out composition options for Great Walk, I discovered that integrating moments covering the entire trek start to finish would result in an overly busy layout. I decided to leave out Day 4, downhill from the highest point of the trek to the finish, which I generally found to be less evocative and distinctive than the rest of the trip. Having already hiked uphill through the rainforest on the windward side of the route, the species were familiar and the overall feel of the forest was less luxuriant, particularly toward the end. Or, maybe I was just exhausted, kept awake all night worrying that my phone would die before the alarm went off at 5am, or I was just ready to return to civilization. In any case, I didn’t take many photos during those last few hours despite the sunniest weather of the trek.

Great Walk  with a very rough overlay of the walking route. The numbers on the perspective views correspond to their locations on the satellite view below and the images representative of each experience.

Great Walk with a very rough overlay of the walking route. The numbers on the perspective views correspond to their locations on the satellite view below and the images representative of each experience.

Northeast corner of the South Island of New Zealand with the “painted” portion of the Heaphy Track in red. (The remainder of the trail, mostly the descent on Day 4, is in black.) The numbers correspond to the scenes depicted in  Great Walk  above and in the images below.

Northeast corner of the South Island of New Zealand with the “painted” portion of the Heaphy Track in red. (The remainder of the trail, mostly the descent on Day 4, is in black.) The numbers correspond to the scenes depicted in Great Walk above and in the images below.

1.  A dramatic beginning— Nikau  palms along the beach.

1. A dramatic beginning—Nikau palms along the beach.

2.  Dry Riverbed behind the beach.

2. Dry Riverbed behind the beach.

3.  Rainforest behind the beach, with  nikau  palms.

3. Rainforest behind the beach, with nikau palms.

4.  Crossing a larger riverbed near the beginning of the ascent.

4. Crossing a larger riverbed near the beginning of the ascent.

5.  Climbing higher—view of a river valley below.

5. Climbing higher—view of a river valley below.

6.  Montane rainforest—no more palms.

6. Montane rainforest—no more palms.

7. Climbing higher through “drier” forest.

7. Climbing higher through “drier” forest.

8.  Crossing the Gouland Downs.

8. Crossing the Gouland Downs.

9.  The Gouland Downs.

9. The Gouland Downs.

10.  Nearing the edge of the grassland.

10. Nearing the edge of the grassland.

11.  Entering the forest again.

11. Entering the forest again.

12.  An understated end to the story (but not the walk).

12. An understated end to the story (but not the walk).

13.  View from the highest point of the trek, beginning of Day 4.

13. View from the highest point of the trek, beginning of Day 4.

The big exception to this relative lack of drama/novelty on the last day was the view, from the exact high point of the trail just as the sun was coming up, of snowy mountains framed by tropical-looking heaths encrusted with ice. But I left that landscape out of the composition too, because I decided that the clearest “ecological narrative” from the uphill part of the trip was moving from the exotic and luxuriant to the familiar and subdued—the progression from “tropical” palm-fringed beaches to grassland and forest that at times looked not just “New Zealand temperate” but “Northern Hemisphere temperate,” seemingly a world away. As I wrote in the last post, this narrative might’ve felt more natural and dramatic in reverse, but in fact I like the subdued way that the journey in Great Walk ends, even if it’s a bit open-ended. Finishing with the sunrise vista would’ve been a return to the drama and novelty of the beach.

Having just written that though, I’m thinking that that alternative idea—bookending the journey with equally dramatic jungly beach and snowy mountain scenes—is also worth trying out. I might also work in an image or two from the downhill portion at the expense of a few from the uphill, but de-emphasized in relation to the mountain scene so that the work still “ends” (literally) on a high note. The descent would be treated as an afterthought, with the mountain view simultaneously representing the elevational climax of the journey announcing the beginning of that descent and what I experienced to be the end of the trip.

Darren

Great Walk | The Heaphy Track, New Zealand

Great Walk , watercolor on paper, 25”x50” (now with a proud new owner, my friend Richard Ervais!).

Great Walk, watercolor on paper, 25”x50” (now with a proud new owner, my friend Richard Ervais!).

In fall 2017 I spent about three weeks traveling around the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Four worldviews have come out of that experience—there will be more!—including the recently completed Great Walk, inspired by the Heaphy Track in the northwest corner of the South Island.

The Heaphy Track is one of seven “Great Walks” throughout the country—multi-day treks of exceptional environmental interest maintained to a certain standard including electrified huts. The most famous of these is the Milford Track, which I did also, and you’ll definitely hear about that one too later on. But while the scenery was less dramatic, the Heaphy Track made a greater impression on me in terms of its diversity of species and ecosystems.

New Zealand with the Heaphy Track location in red.

New Zealand with the Heaphy Track location in red.

The Heaphy Track (from the  New Zealand Department of Conservation ).

The Heaphy Track (from the New Zealand Department of Conservation).

The 4-day “walk” (I love how the Kiwis call them “walks,” as if they’re everyday activities, and in fact they’re much more ingrained in the culture than something comparable in the USA) runs about 50 miles through Kahurangi National Park, taking in subtropical coastline, varied forest types, and high-altitude grasslands. It can be done in either direction; most walk east-west, beginning at the foot of the mountains and ending at the coast, though for logistical reasons I did it in reverse. As I’ll talk more about below, I was reminded that if such environmental journeys are experienced as narratives (which for me they always are), directionality matters as much as it would for a novel or symphony with its structure read or heard backwards.

Nikau palms along the coast, a few hours into the trek.

Nikau palms along the coast, a few hours into the trek.

Rainforest with nikau palms behind the beach.

Rainforest with nikau palms behind the beach.

Day 1 began in the early afternoon in a light rain (actually much better weather than predicted), on a trail hugging the coastline just a few meters back from a string of beaches. Occasionally the sand is interrupted by rocky outcroppings lifting the trail upward for dramatic views along the coast, or by streams crossed by narrow suspension bridges. (Until a few years ago these stream crossings were done on foot, requiring close attention to weather and tides and resulting in more than a few tragedies.)

The most striking thing about this part of the South Island coast should be obvious from the photographs. Though at a latitude roughly equivalent to that of New York, thanks to a warm ocean current this coastline is home to the world’s southernmost naturally-occuring palm, the nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida), which is the dominant canopy species in the rainforest fringing these beaches. The nikau is noteworthy not just because palms in general are unexpected this far south, but because such a tropical-looking palm is even more surprising. Most of the world’s other hardiest palms—the Mediterranean fan palm, the needle palm, the dwarf palmetto—look decidedly non-tropical, with their shrubby forms and fan-shaped leaves. This is considered subtropical rainforest (or even temperate by some measures), but aside from the pleasant temperatures it feels as tropical as any in the quintessential “South Pacific.”

At the start of Day 2, the trail turned inland and began to climb. The palms became sparser and eventually disappeared, the exotic look of the rainforest sustained by tree ferns and giant heaths (genus Dracophyllum—in the same family as azaleas but looking deceptively like tropical houseplants). It was at this point that I started wishing I had done the walk in the more popular direction. Most people choose to end at the coast, because of the dramatic ocean views that open up on the last day plus the fact that the beach always feels like an appropriate place to end a long hike. For me though, given my obsession with palms, the reason had more to do with wishing I could have experienced the transition from temperate to tropical-like, seeing the palms slowly appear and then overwhelm. It seemed like a more natural progression, maybe because traveling from the more-familiar to the less-familiar is a storyline that tends to leave us with the strongest impressions. Briefly I decided that one day I would come back and do the walk again “properly”—though that conviction faded as I gradually realized the current progression was in fact creating its own unique narrative. More on that later.

Rainforest at a slightly higher elevation as the trail turns inland.

Rainforest at a slightly higher elevation as the trail turns inland.

A gigantic southern rata,  Metrosideros umbellata , with my hiking poles (bottom center with white handles) for scale.

A gigantic southern rata, Metrosideros umbellata, with my hiking poles (bottom center with white handles) for scale.

Looking up toward the canopy of the tree in the previous image.

Looking up toward the canopy of the tree in the previous image.

Giant heath ( Dracophyllum sp. ).

Giant heath (Dracophyllum sp.).

As the trail climbed higher and slowly began to level out, the character of forest became coarser, shorter, and “drier” (probably because of a change in soil type rather than precipitation), with decreasing species diversity. The tree ferns disappeared, though the occasional tropical-looking heath still stood out sharply against the tiny leaves of the surrounding foliage.

Rainforest along the Heaphy Track, New Zealand
Rainforest along the Heaphy Track, New Zealand
Rainforest along the Heaphy Track, New Zealand
This and previous 3 images—the changing look of the forest as the trail climbs.

This and previous 3 images—the changing look of the forest as the trail climbs.

A boggy area of the Gouland Downs (the white on the trees in the background is a trick of the morning light, not snow).

A boggy area of the Gouland Downs (the white on the trees in the background is a trick of the morning light, not snow).

Early on Day 3, the scrub gave way to a boggy, moody tussock grassland (the sky was mostly overcast with off-and-on rain) known as the Gouland Downs. While the landscape does look alpine in some ways, the absence of trees is due to the poor, wet soil rather than low temperatures—the elevation is only around 800m/2,600’—and in fact the grasslands are surrounded and broken up by forested hills, mountains, and rocky karst zones. Given the overall temperate look of the vegetation, I actually found the place vaguely reminiscent of a field-and-forest matrix in Europe or the Eastern USA, as English settlers apparently did too when they tried and failed to graze sheep there in the 1800’s. In any case the tropical-looking nikau forest felt a whole lot farther away than a day’s walk, a sense of separation amplified by the self-contained feel of the Downs—a special world unto itself. The forested mountains blocked any views or reminders of the more luxuriant environments below.

Looking across the Gouland Downs.

Looking across the Gouland Downs.

Toward the end of the day, the trail left the Downs and passed into the forest again—one very different from any of the previous types. Those were either scrubby or rainforest-y depending on the substrate; the higher-elevation ones certainly felt temperate, but still like Southern Hemisphere forests because of the unfamiliar species. This one felt like a typical forest in the northeastern USA—I think it was some combination of the spindly trees and light, ash-like foliage. It certainly seemed like I had temporarily left New Zealand.

The Enchanted Forest—mossy, gnarled beech forest in a karst (limestone) area within the Downs.

The Enchanted Forest—mossy, gnarled beech forest in a karst (limestone) area within the Downs.

“Non New Zealand-like” forest on the other side of the Downs.

“Non New Zealand-like” forest on the other side of the Downs.

Day 4 began just before sunrise in a driving wet snowstorm. Reaching the highest point of the trip, first light revealed tropical-looking heaths with a light covering of ice, framing a view of snowy mountains across the valley that I would be following for the remainder of the walk. The weather improved, soon becoming sunny, as I descended again into ferny temperate rainforest. About 4 hours later I began to catch glimpses of an agricultural valley through the trees, the topography leveled out, and the trail exited the forest.

Sunrise vista from the highest point of the walk, with giant heaths in the foreground.

Sunrise vista from the highest point of the walk, with giant heaths in the foreground.

Heading downhill and back into the rainforest on the last segment of the hike.

Heading downhill and back into the rainforest on the last segment of the hike.

The end of the trail, looking back toward the mountains.

The end of the trail, looking back toward the mountains.

In the next post I’ll describe how I distilled my experience of the Heaphy Track into Great Walk—stay tuned!

Darren

Sanctuary | National Park and Worldview

This post picks up where I left off two posts ago with Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania, and the worldview it inspired. The Park protects the most intact and diverse ecosystems of the island, where I did a month-long artist residency at Mountain Seas Art and Wilderness Retreat in September 2017.

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Strzelecki National Park, and the relatively pristine mountains and coastline adjacent, has only three interior routes. The 4-5 hour round-trip hike to Strzelecki Peak begins about a 15-minute bike ride from Mountain Seas; a much longer but basically level one follows a road and 4wd track just inland along the south coast; and an hour-long walk winds along the coastline north from Trousers Point.

I hiked to the summit twice, both times lucking out with the weather. It’s definitely in my top five day-hikes of all time, and isn’t difficult except for a few steep, rocky patches near the top. The trail begins in dry mixed and Eucalyptus forest, punctuated by bare or scrubby areas of granite boulders and cut by a dramatically lush, tree-fern filled rainforest gully. As the trail rises and approaches the sheer cliffs of the peak, the rocky areas become more frequent.

Rainforest gully surrounded by  Eucalyptus  forest.

Rainforest gully surrounded by Eucalyptus forest.

Dicksonia and Cyathea tree ferns in a cool rainforest gully in Strzelecki National Park, Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia
View of Strzelecki Peak (above my head) from the lower slopes.

View of Strzelecki Peak (above my head) from the lower slopes.

Mid-slope view down to Trousers Point.

Mid-slope view down to Trousers Point.

Patches of montane rainforest start to appear, mossy and windswept. Where the soil allows, the rainforest becomes more luxuriant, though unlike the gully far below the tree ferns are short and ragged. It’s wet enough for them up there but almost too cold—an ecological “zone of tension” (there’s probably a proper scientific term for that?), world-shrinking in the way that I experience other ecotones but here in a particularly visceral way. Reaching the peak itself, the vegetation becomes drier and sparser once again, reaching tree-height only in pockets between the boulders.

Wind-sculpted rainforest approaching the Peak.

Wind-sculpted rainforest approaching the Peak.

View of the Peak from below the last push.

View of the Peak from below the last push.

Tree ferns near the upper limit of their range.

Tree ferns near the upper limit of their range.

Tree fern in montane rainforest near Strzelecki Peak, Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia
Rainforested slope just below the Peak.

Rainforested slope just below the Peak.

View south from the summit.

View south from the summit.

The south coast walk is more homogeneous given the constant elevation, though it passes through impressive stands of grass trees (Xanthorrhea australis) and provides access to a number of completely empty, idyllic beaches and areas of coastal forest.

A few of the south coast’s many empty beaches.

A few of the south coast’s many empty beaches.

Beach and coastal forest in Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia
Grass trees in dry forest along the south coast.

Grass trees in dry forest along the south coast.

Grass trees with coastal forest and view of the ocean in Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia

The short coastal walk from Trousers Point joins two more spectacular beaches, but the combination of windswept coastal heath, giant boulders (stained red by algae) and open views is unique on the island. I did that walk two or three times, the last on one of my final nights during a spectacular sunset that worked magic on the red ground and ochre vegetation.

Coastal heath vegetation, backed by windblown forest, near Trousers Point.

Coastal heath vegetation, backed by windblown forest, near Trousers Point.

Coastal heath vegetation near Trousers Point in Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia
Coastal heath near Trousers Point at sunset, with Strzelecki Peak hidden in the clouds beyond.

Coastal heath near Trousers Point at sunset, with Strzelecki Peak hidden in the clouds beyond.

After walking each trail once, I decided that although the interior of the park and adjacent natural areas is mostly inaccessible, I could work with the portion of it that, from the Peak trail and the perimeter combined with some satellite imagery to get my bearings and tie everything together, I could get a handle on. (This work of overlaying my experiential map onto the “actual” aerial map isn’t truly essential for the worldviews in paper, since I only have space to fit a few experiences that I decide are key to visualizing the essence of the whole. But the “artworks” are only an incidental, imperfect manifestation of my urge to structure and comprehend the natural world, rather than ends in themselves—hence the quotation marks. In my head, I’m driven to complete the experiential map as much as possible.) I took the satellite view of that “knowable” subset of the Park and sketched it as if it were its own true island surrounded by water, imagining that the new coastline would resemble the existing one. I then pared down my photos to the most representative and interspersed them among pieces of the aerial view that gave the most complete sense of the overall geography.

In-progress watercolor, with multiple layers to be collaged

As always happens, the painted version diverged from the photos to varying degrees, most significantly in the coastal view in the lower right of the finished work. There I added grass trees that didn’t actually grow so close to the rocky water’s edge, “compressing” several experiences into one as a way to structure and intensify the overall diversity of the landscape. I decided on the cut/layered paper approach partly because I felt it would be truer to the compositional style and partly because I thought it would result in crisper edges. Both considerations ended up being not valid enough to justify the added complexity, but it was an interesting exercise to determine the layering order of the sheets—which views felt more “interior” vs. “exterior.”

The original plan was for this small piece (15”x15”) to act as a study for a larger one that would be more feasible to create back home after the residency. I never ended up doing that—I think Sanctuary works well enough as a stand-alone work—but ultimately I think there’ll be another one or two worldviews that come out of this experience. The one I currently have in mind puts the National Park back on Flinders Island, placing more emphasis on its real-life role as a refuge from mostly human impacts.

Sanctuary , watercolor on layered paper, 15”x15”

Sanctuary, watercolor on layered paper, 15”x15”

Looking north across the mostly cultivated plains of Flinders Island from the ecological sanctuary of Strzelecki National Park.

Looking north across the mostly cultivated plains of Flinders Island from the ecological sanctuary of Strzelecki National Park.

Sanctuary highlights a tension within my focus on islands and island-like, isolated environments. On one hand the worldviews carry a conservation-oriented message. The natural places they depict are now few and far-between, and the species and ecosystems within are in danger not just because by definition rare things face a more precarious existence than common things but because smallness and isolation bring unique vulnerabilities. A higher percentage of edge habitat means more exposure to harmful influences such as invasive species, light, and wind. Real or “ecological” islands historically isolated by water, climate, soil conditions etc…are particularly susceptible to invasive species against which they have no defenses, and their native species have nowhere to go when climate change makes their homes uninhabitable. Small population sizes are difficult to sustain not just because numbers are few but because genetic diversity is reduced. And many animal species require geographic ranges of a minimum size to thrive.

But on the other hand, it’s the very smallness and isolation of these places that attracts me—not just because (like many people) I find rare and unique things particularly interesting, but because these places are easier to grasp. The smaller they are, the easier to explore and absorb. So a part of me actually likes the fact that so much of Flinders Island’s native environment can only be found within Strzelecki National Park, even though it also frightens me. This conflict has surfaced even more clearly in some of my more recent worldviews where I depict natural relicts within human-dominated landscapes—I find the juxtaposition simultaneously exhilarating and distressing. I get the sense that these are in fact the works that people are most drawn to, and I’m curious as to which half of the conflict—or possibly the tension itself as in my case, or something entirely different—has the primary impact. I’ll be posting a lot more on this particular question!

Darren

Strzelecki National Park at sunset, from the beach north of Trousers Point.

Strzelecki National Park at sunset, from the beach north of Trousers Point.

Exhibition | Ecological Niche

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This blog won’t deal much with “news” but I’m making an exception for my first exhibition at Hang Art Gallery in San Francisco’s Union Square, running until May 15. I’m fortunate to share the spotlight with Veronica Diament, whose works are also botanically-inspired. Here’s the announcement plus a few shots from the Artist Reception on May 4—if you’re in the Bay Area, there’s still time to see the show!

In my next post I’ll return to my artist residency experience at Mountain Seas Retreat in Tasmania. Stay tuned!

Darren

Me with  Floreana , inspired by the so-named island in the Galápagos.

Me with Floreana, inspired by the so-named island in the Galápagos.

Center and right, Ecuador-inspired  Lagoon  and  Ghost Isle.

Center and right, Ecuador-inspired Lagoon and Ghost Isle.

Watercolor paintings by Darren Sears and Veronica Diament at the art exhibition "Ecological Niche" at Hang Art Gallery in San Francisco

At right, New Zealand-inspired Great Walk, soon to be with its lucky new owner!

Sanctuary | Residency on Flinders Island, Tasmania

Sanctuary , watercolor on layered paper, 15”x15.”

Sanctuary, watercolor on layered paper, 15”x15.”

The worldview that initiated my current series of work—watercolors in the “fractured” style integrating aerial and perspective views—is Sanctuary. Unlike the others it’s made of multiple pieces of paper, layered and glued onto a wood panel, and as the “archetype” I’m keeping it in my own collection for now. I created it (minus the gluing and mounting) at the end of a truly idyllic artist residency at Mountain Seas Art and Wilderness Retreat, on Flinders Island off the northeast coast of Tasmania, Australia, for the month of September 2017.

(In a nutshell, artist residencies provide artists of all types with opportunities to focus on their work in new surroundings, usually in the company of other artists and often with opportunities for presentations or exhibitions. They typically last anywhere from two weeks to six months, and while some come with an award or stipend, most work out similar to a very inexpensive hotel stay. This was the latter type, and I was the only resident with the exception of a photographer and his wife for about a week. The Retreat also caters to tourists, but it was still low season, so there were none at the time.)

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This was actually my second residency of that summer. The first was at the Gullkistan Center for Creativity in Laugarvatn, Iceland, inland from Reykjavik—I’ll have more to say about it in later posts—a great place to explore my passion for volcanic geology and soggy, windswept landscapes. The second was at the opposite pole: yes Iceland and Tasmania are nearly antipodal, but the environments also couldn’t have been much more different, Flinders Island being subtropical and ecologically complex with the ocean ever-present. Given the island’s ecological and botanical diversity, its small size of 30 by 60km (I won’t get into my small-islands obsession here—check out my statement for that!), and admittedly the cushy accommodations, in researching it I thought it sounded too good to be true. But, it wasn’t at all.

Tannin-dyed stream and forest behind the beach on Flinders Island, Tasmania, Australia
Coastal scrub vegetation and rocky Mount Killiecrankie on Flinders Island, Tasmania
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Sun peeking through Dicksonia and Cyathea tree ferns in a lush rainforest gully in Strzelecki National Park on Flinders Island, Tasmania

Flinders Island has been largely cleared for cattle grazing, though with a population of less than 1000 it has significant pockets of native forest, wetlands, dunelands and scrublands remaining. The largest, most pristine, and most diverse of these is Strzelecki National Park in the southwest corner of the island, containing the island’s tallest peaks. Its elevation and varied topography have produced a stunning mix of ecosystems, from coastal scrub and dry forests to ferny rainforest gullies, cloud forests and rocky summits. The ruggedness of the landscape has kept it safe from deforestation and development, but the Park is and feels like a “sanctuary” in other ways too—some of its habitats are relicts from a period of wetter overall climate, and would be restricted to these mountains even if the entire island had been left untouched by modern humans. I probably don’t need to add that its refuge status is under threat from multiple directions—catastrophic fire (which has ravaged other parts of the island), invasive pests, and a warming/drying climate.

Guestrooms at Mountain Seas.

Guestrooms at Mountain Seas.

View into the National Park from my bedroom with usually cloud-obscured Strzelecki Peak (756m) in the center.

View into the National Park from my bedroom with usually cloud-obscured Strzelecki Peak (756m) in the center.

Walking trail through streamside forest at Mountain Seas.

Walking trail through streamside forest at Mountain Seas.

Pond, forest and ocean view at Mountain Seas.

Pond, forest and ocean view at Mountain Seas.

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Mountain Seas couldn’t be more perfectly situated—right up against the main, mountainous sector of the park and a few minutes’ walk to the much smaller coastal sector (the southern end of it called Trousers Point). Each day for a month I woke to views of the usually cloud-shrouded Strzelecki Peak (756m) and passed through fields of wallabies and wombats and patches of tea tree and tree fern forest on the walk between my room and the Art Centre. Though it was often wet and windy (it was still the tail end of winter), the weather worked with the vegetation to give the landscape a moodiness that I found moving, and there were just enough perfect days to avoid monotony and allow exploration of much of the island by foot, bike and rental car. That, plus the dreamy perfection of my surroundings, and the fact that it was a mostly solitary existence (I encountered fewer than five tourists, and the Retreat’s two staff people were usually elsewhere on the grounds) gave the whole experience a surreal, meditative aspect that rarely comes to me effortlessly, living as I usually do in my head….

Wombat and…

Wombat and…

…other deck-dwelling wildlife of Mountain Seas (with the sea in the distance).

…other deck-dwelling wildlife of Mountain Seas (with the sea in the distance).

One idea I had before arriving was to depict my impression(s) of the entire island by “compressing” its diversity into just one or several compositions—structuring and humanizing it as I’ve done with other islands, real and imaginary. But after doing some exploration I realized that the island didn’t feel compact or “cohesive” enough to provide a starting point for that sort of idealization: it lacked a unifying feature (like a singular mountain range), was too heavily altered, was mostly private inaccessible land, and despite my expectations simply felt too large to really comprehend. So I turned my attention to the National Park—much more manageable in size and in fact—ecologically and psychologically—just as much an “island” itself.

In the next post I’ll say more about the National Park and how my experience of this real-life natural sanctuary culminated in the worldview of that name. For now I’ll share two other works I began during that month (below), imagining the Park as its own literal island as I did for Sanctuary. Both are in a style, set aside for now in favor of the fractured worldviews, consisting of aerial views overlaid with layered laser-cut/etched plexiglass representing topography and waterways. Barnacle Island is much more generic, having been conceived before I studied and explored the Park in detail; Bat Island is much closer to the aerial component of Sanctuary, and depicts the colors of the rocks and vegetation as they appeared at sunset. Take a look at the mixed media gallery for larger images of both.

Stay tuned for more!

Darren

Barnacle Island , watercolor on paper with layered plexiglass, 15”x15”x1”.

Barnacle Island, watercolor on paper with layered plexiglass, 15”x15”x1”.

Bat Island , watercolor on paper with layered plexiglass, 15”x20”x1”. The plexiglass in the center is layered like a topographical model; on the left side it’s a single layer etched with waterways and topo lines.

Bat Island, watercolor on paper with layered plexiglass, 15”x20”x1”. The plexiglass in the center is layered like a topographical model; on the left side it’s a single layer etched with waterways and topo lines.

The National Park just before sunset, viewed across the lawn at Mountain Seas.

The National Park just before sunset, viewed across the lawn at Mountain Seas.

View of Mountain Seas (the most distant cleared area) and the coast from Strzelecki Peak. Trousers Point is hidden by the rock in the upper left.

View of Mountain Seas (the most distant cleared area) and the coast from Strzelecki Peak. Trousers Point is hidden by the rock in the upper left.

Strzelecki National Park, with Strzelecki Peak shrouded in cloud, viewed from the beach north of Trousers Point at low tide.

Strzelecki National Park, with Strzelecki Peak shrouded in cloud, viewed from the beach north of Trousers Point at low tide.

Welcome!

From alpine grassland down to rainforest and farmland, Mt. Taranaki, New Zealand

From alpine grassland down to rainforest and farmland, Mt. Taranaki, New Zealand

Rio de Janeiro from the urban rainforest of Tijuca National Park

Rio de Janeiro from the urban rainforest of Tijuca National Park

Dear readers,

Greetings! And thanks for checking out my worldviews—views of the world that go beyond traditional, disjointed representations of landscape. In doing so they also represent my particular “worldview” (as in a view about the world)—it’s described in depth in my statement, but I’m hoping this blog will go further by relating the works to real-life environmental patterns.

A note about the term “art”—as odd as it sounds, I try not to use it in relation to what I do. I don’t set out to create art objects for their own sake—rather I imagine worlds that I wish were really out there (or idealizations of ones that are), but since even as a landscape architect I can only do so much, objects are my only option. The works are incidental products of a much broader urge. (Now if only I could think of a replacement for “artist”….)

This blog will focus on:

  • Connections between completed, in-progress or planned worldviews and actual edges, contrasts and sequences in the natural world and between “natural” and “constructed.” Given that all the works to date, and most of those still in my head, are inspired by places I’ve already visited, I’ll stick mainly to firsthand experiences. (All photographs are mine unless noted otherwise.)

  • A more general look at ecological patterns, not necessarily related to specific worldviews but still emphasizing my own travel experiences, with some overview of the science but primarily with an aesthetic and psychological angle.

  • General thoughts on edges (physical and metaphorical) between the built and natural environments, including whether we should be thinking of them as separate entities in the first place, and implications for design and conservation especially in this era of rapid environmental change.

Wet and windy páramo (alpine moorland) incongruously bordering farmland, El Ángel, Ecuador

Wet and windy páramo (alpine moorland) incongruously bordering farmland, El Ángel, Ecuador

My reasons for the blog are twofold. First, I’m always curious to what degree these interests (obsessions?) and observations are idiosyncratic vs. more widespread. Either way, I believe that nowadays they have implications far beyond my own head and what it produces, so besides creating the works themselves, I see it as my duty to share them as widely as I can. Second, I hope to embark soon on some form of larger writing project (in article or book form) expanding on these ideas, and these posts will help me to get things going.

So in light of all this, please don’t hesitate to leave your comments or questions—I’d love to get some conversations started!

If you aren’t yet receiving automatic email notifications of new posts and would like to, please subscribe at the top of this page, and please contact me using the form if you’d like to be added to my mailing list (since this blog won’t include much in the way of “news”). You can also add me on facebook or instagram (both @darrensears.worldviews) to stay up-to-date on upcoming projects and events.  

Many thanks and more to come soon!

Darren

Volcanic and wild Rangitoto Island seen from suburban Auckland, New Zealand

Volcanic and wild Rangitoto Island seen from suburban Auckland, New Zealand