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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.


Author: Hugh Bollinger/Saturday, August 23, 2014/Categories: natural history, wildlife conservation, sustainability, art and design, environment

What do you call an ideas symposium that brings together writers, ranchers, biologists, painters, and radio hosts for a conversation in a remote Montana valley? As one attendee noted: "We need new and creative ways to engage ourselves about the environment and wildlife." Re-Imagine (conservation) was the conversation that followed at the  Taft-Nicholson Center  hosted by the University of Utah's  Environmental Humanities Program .

Painters, writers, and songsters have always found a wealth of subject matter in western landscapes to create their art forms. The first symposium group included a wildlife painter; the CEO of the National Museum of Wildlife Art; a communications professor; and the Poet Laureate of Montana, Henry Real Bird. Their thoughts were as varied as their personal backgrounds. Each presenter tried to "re-imagine" how we see art, a museum collection, or our place in this world. The painter/sculptor Monte Dolack used contemporary issues to show the impact of environmental destruction. In Superfund River , the artist depicted a Montana river restored after a mine tailings pond was drained by showing dead tree stumps and also a humorous dinosaur made of wrecked cars, T-Wrecks. The museum manager put his collections in a newer context of relationships by linking them into an internet database for worldwide biodiversity, the Encyclopedia of Life, while the poet chanted about the multiple generations that came before and those who will come after. All this while an artist-in-residence from The Netherlands was creating a painting of the valley shrouded in dense clouds.

Lomax Western Songbook (credit: SWP Media)     T-Wrecks ( Monte Dolack Gallery )

                                      Artist in Residence Program (credit: SWP Media)

The western Montana valley where the symposium was held barely has a handful of telephone wires, much less cell phone towers. But in spite of this technological limitation, Doug Fabrizio and his crack team of producers from Radio West hauled their radio wizardry and high-tech gear into the valley for a live broadcast on KUER-FM and XM Satellite radio. His panel included the writer Terry-Tempest Williams, John Varley, a biologist at Yellowstone NP, Harvey Locke from Yukon to Yellowstone, and the conservation advocate Louisa Wilcox, from the Yale School of Forestry. You can listen to the entire Re-Imagine (Conservation) broadcast here.

Doug Fabrizio, Radio West (credit: SWP Media)      Re-Imagine Conservation Panel (credit: SWP Media)

Further conversations centered on an important mantra that "real education starts with inspiration," as one presenter noted. From the Ozarks to the deserts, from Los Angeles to Montana, what we see and experience as kids can have life altering impact.

Nathan Korb, monitoring bird populations at the wildlife refuge adjacent to the symposium, spoke of his life-changing experience finding a massive white oak tree near his family home in southeast Wisconsin. The encounter turned him into a lifelong, self-proclaimed "tree hugger." Korb brought his 8-year-old son Lucas to the symposium and the little guy sat through the panel presentations. With eyes wide open, he had a book from one of the speakers and looked thrilled. Too bad he was one of the only kids there during the day. I related to what Nathan was saying since, at Lucas's same age, I spent many hours with two friends exploring an overgrown patch of ground near my home in southern California. It was a magical place to us, but that open space would soon become tract houses and shopping malls. Like Korb, that early experience burned deep into my memory, and is still a force for me today.

At the conclusion of this day of fast and furious ideas, the keynote speaker was Timothy Egan, the author of numerous books on history, the environment, and an editor with the influential Opinionator blog at the New York Times. Egan reflected that the environmental narrative of the 19th and 20th Centuries was "save big pieces of land" but that a new one was now needed for the 21st. He chose environmental restoration as the key and used examples as diverse as reclaiming salmon migrations by removing an old dam in his home state of Washington to returning buffalo on the high plains. Egan suggested that we use more humility towards the natural world, renew connections to the outdoors, and stay engaged. It was a fitting conclusion to the day.

Timothy Egan (credit: SWP Media)                        Dust Bowl book (credit: Timothy Egan )

In their own ways, each presenter seemed to suggest that reflection is needed to "re-imagine" conservation, as well as how we ourselves act in this world. In listening to everyone, a comment I've heard the Dalai Lama say kept returning to me. The famous monk has said that:

"if you want to change the world you need to change yourself.....and it isn't easy".


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