The star of my most recent artistic adventure is a plant that is very dear to my heart: Sphagnum, commonly known as peat moss. At one point in my life, I spent many hours each day staring down a microscope, trying to identify half-decomposed plant fragments recovered from peat cores. A lot of these fragments came from Sphagnum, a moss that is small but mighty indeed.
Sphagnum is a prominent plant in bogs and poor fens, peat-accumulating wetlands that cover large tracts of land in boreal, subarctic, and oceanic regions. In these ecosystems, cold, waterlogged conditions limit decay, so when plants die, their remains stick around and build up over time. About half of this dead plant material – or peat – is carbon.
Over the last 10,000 years or so, peatlands have taken up and accumulated vast amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide and stored it in dead plant matter, which is why today, their fate is important in the context of global change. They also perform important hydrological functions in many watersheds, and serve as a home for many species.
And these rather stunning little guys play a huge role in making all that happen.
What is it about vertebrae? There is something about them I find absolutely fascinating. Their complex shape, the way it changes along the spine, the way they articulate with each other – I am not quite sure what it is, but vertebrae have been on my ‘must draw’ list for quite some time.
To learn about the mammalian spine, a whale is probably not the optimum choice, since the bones are modified to reflect the animal’s aquatic lifestyle. But I wanted to do a companion piece to my orca skull, and while these vertebrae may lack some features you would find in a terrestrial mammal, they are fascinating in their own right.
I am never quite sure what label to use in describing myself these days, but something I would never claim to be is a zoologist. Still, I did take some of those courses, and one of my aims when I first went to draw in the museum was to re-acquaint myself with skulls. Drawing is a great way of observing, and looking around the collection, I quickly fell in love with the bear specimens. Even among one species, however, (in this case Ursus americanus, the black bear) the variety is astounding, so the question became, which one?
In the end, I decided to make that variety part of the project, so I drew three: a cub and two larger animals, all of them males.
I was looking for something interesting that would work in a relatively small format. Then I remembered the bighorn skulls I had come across at the museum. I had not been sure about drawing one, but looking at them again, I decided to give it a try. Visually, those horns are extremely interesting, and biologically, they are an impressive adaptation. Have you ever tried walking around with ten percent or so of your body weight strapped to your head? I can’t say I have, but I am fairly sure my neck would object – and that’s before I tried to head-butt other people
[Children, do not try this at home. This skull is built for head butting. Yours is not.]
Here is another drawing that resulted from my recent forays to the museum: the skull of a male black bear. The texture of the bone is amazing, and judging by the teeth, this animal had seen a few things.