WYOMING AND CALIFORNIA, USA
BISON, BEAR AND CONDOR
The stories from the wild west of the native Indian tribes, the settlers and the huge herds of bison are well known. In about 1800 there were believed to be over 40 million bison on the plains of North America, the bison herds were decimated towards extinction and by 1890 there were apparently less than 600 bison left, but that is history. I am a great believer in conservation matters and that although one must learn from past mistakes, we are where we are today and as in the case of the bison, it was a matter of bringing back from the dead the herds that had so nearly been lost. Through careful and well managed conservation, the herds now exceed 100,000, largely in Yellowstone National Park. America still has a very rich base of wildlife both large and small. It also has a very strong artistic tradition which can be witnessed at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I was very keen to go out and see the bison, herds of elk, mule deer and most particularly the bears, the grizzly and the black – the latter of which I had not seen before. Very importantly, I also wanted to take my eldest son Jamie to see this aspect of America as he shows a strong interest in wildlife and in painting. This gave me a wonderful excuse also to play cowboys on a dude ranch, to cast a fly on the Snake River and to savour the delights of the rodeo and pig-wrestling!
Sculpturally, the bison has fascinating proportions – the head forms an enormous weight which hangs off the extended thoracic vertebrae. The heavy forequarters are covered in thick hair accentuating the bulk and yet as you head further back you find a lighter and comparatively hairless hind quarters, giving the animal the appearance of being two different beasts stuck together somewhere in the middle. In the winter, the hair especially around the head, shoulders and chest is very long and includes a magnificent beard. In the summer it sheds its hair in huge matted clumps, but that in itself can be interesting from the artist’s point of view. Although, as with all wild animals, you have to treat them with large degrees of wariness and lashings of respect, they appear and are reputed to be suprisingly placid, particularly in comparison to their close relation the European bison.
We were determined to look for both the grizzly and the black bears. This proved harder than I had expected, the best bear country being further north. Nonetheless there were heart stopping and exciting glimpses of the shy black bear which are remarkably fleet of foot. All too often you would blink and either they had gone or you had missed them altogether. We saw two grizzlies in a pool, playing with a rock; the mere sight of them playing gave me a huge urge to pull out my wire and plasticine!
Neither time nor the mission for this safari allowed me to sculpt all that I wished to. We had one remarkable sighting of an osprey holding a fish in its talons, dog –fighting with a bald eagle. Twisting and turning, the osprey tried to escape with its catch, but almost inevitably gave up, dropping its fish. The bald eagle collapsed its wings and dived, catching the fish as it tumbled through the air…only then to be chased by another bald eagle leaving the poor osprey forlorn and hungry. It was surprising as we floated down the Snake River just how many large birds of prey we saw. The rarest bird of prey in the United States does not however live in Wyoming. For that I went to California to try to find the California condor.
The California condor’s range used to stretch throughout the length of California and also down through the Southern States to Florida. They were however persecuted by the farmers and ranchers almost to extinction. By 1987 the species no longer existed in the wild, there were just 27 held in captivity. Through the efforts of the California Condor Recovery Program, the numbers have grown over the last twenty five years from 27 to 299 today with a careful breeding programme. The captive population is currently 159 birds held in six different locations. The wild population is now 140 birds, most of which were bred in captivity and then released. The breeding of birds in the wild is proving less than easy. Of the last 17 successfully fertilised eggs, only one chick has survived to maturity. The problems are all too often again caused by man. Condors have been lost through lead poisoning while feeding off carcasses shot with lead bullets, they have also suffered by consuming human litter such as bottle tops, (although these may pass through the adult condor, they can prove fatal to the young birds). The efforts of the Recovery Program staff are admirable to say the least. Many such as Phil Penksley, who was instrumental in helping me to find the condor in the wild, are dedicated volunteers who have worked with the Program for many years purely for the love of the bird.
The thrill of seeing one of these incredibly rare birds was extreme. Not only for its rarity, but also because it is so impressive with a wing span of about nine and a half feet. I saw a bird on a stretch of the coast south of Monterey and the Big Sur at the Julia Pfiffer Burns State Park. It was on the beach below a dramatic waterfall, feeding on the carcass of a pelican. I spent the whole morning with it; occasionally it wandered off and let the turkey vultures feast. To my delight it took off and gave me a fly-past and then landed to rest in a tree nearby. Knowing that it would need to return home to its roost higher up in the mountains, I waited for it to fly off as I sculpted what I had seen so far. When the bird finally took to the air, it circled around the bay, flying remarkably close to me as it gained height and found a thermal. The excitement trebled as my bird got higher because to my surprise it was joined by a furthertwo condor! I could not believe at the outset of the day how incredibly lucky I would be.
A condor fliies with great economy of effort. For a bird that weighs up to about thirty pounds, it is remarkable how infrequently they need to flap their wings. After their initial effort to get airborne, they fly by reading the air and the air’s currents, soaring and turning through rising air with total efficiency. The primary feathers bend upwards reaching for the sky and its large tail feathers constantly adjust its flight. The condor is a wonderful bird to sculpt. It has not been blessed with a beautiful head but after all it is a vulture! The sheer size of the bird and the very obvious and prominent lines that the feathers form make it exciting to sculpt. The wings form a broad and shapely platform and with the exciting splay of the primary feathers they give me the sculptor, a magnificient challenge in my attempt to make such a quantity of bronze want to fly.