Alan Bennett: An Ecological Storyteller
Recently I was fortunate enough to speak with Alan Bennett, an expert wildlife ecologist who carves life-sized, realistically-detailed sculptures of birds from wood. Bennett grew up in a rural area with abundant opportunities to closely observe wildlife; his childhood home was near Horicon Marsh, the largest cattail marsh in the continental United States. This massive marsh is a critical resource for hundreds of thousands of migrating birds each year, including Canada Geese; Mallard, Pintail, and Green-winged Teal Ducks; and Sandhill Cranes. By the time Bennett was a young man, he was a well-schooled student of wildlife (like many who grow up in rural areas) and a taxidermist.
An early meeting with Owen Gromme, a wildlife biologist, museum curator, and wildlife artist, proved pivotal for the young Bennett. Like Bennett, Gromme was a keen observer of marsh birds during his childhood in rural Wisconsin, became a taxidermist in his youth, and trained as a scientist. Bennett described the impact of Gromme’s work on his career plans: “Meeting this individual who kind of paralleled my early years, who was a taxidermist, [I] became interested in wildlife and conservation.” Of Gromme’s accomplishments in conservation biology and art, Bennett said: “Really [it] was the first time I was introduced to the concept of how those two could kind of work together and complement each other, and that meeting kind of set the stage for . . . thinking that I ought to do something similar. My skills as a taxidermist . . . led me in the direction of maybe re-creating what I was doing in mounting birds, and doing it out of wood.”
Before Bennett began making art, however, he would complete his training as a wildlife ecologist and launch a research career. The timing would prove advantageous, according to Bennett: “Well, fortunately I kind of blossomed my years in college and shortly thereafter at a time when there was still what we called field ecologists, field naturalists, in my profession. That is, the bulk of the people who were entering professional wildlife ecology, were individuals who grew up hunting and fishing, and were from a rural background, and had really polished their skills at what Aldo Leopold would refer to as ‘reading the land,’ that is, identifying trees from a distance based on their shape, looking at animal tracks and not only determining what made those tracks, but what that animal was doing, you know. Was it stalking prey? Or was it looking for a winter den?”
Bennett’s observational skills proved useful in his multidecadal scientific career, which involved research (sometimes conducted with his spouse, scientist Laurel Bennett) in wild places from Georgia to Alaska. One of his first published studies involved using audio recordings of Greater Sandhill Crane calls to survey populations of these birds in south-central Wisconsin; listening and watching carefully for a live response to the recorded calls allowed him to estimate the number of breeding pairs present. In the 1980s, Bennett conducted multi-year studies of a population of Florida Sandhill Cranes in the Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia. These birds proved unusual in several respects. Unlike other populations of non-migratory Sandhills in Florida and Mississippi, which spend part of the year in wetland areas and part of the year in uplands, Bennett and colleagues found that these birds “. . . were the only [race of] sandhill cranes in North America that exclusively uses wetlands all year round. They never came out of the swamp and used uplands. People were amazed at that. How do they do that?” In addition, the annual home range of a Sandhill Crane (a term that refers to the area used for by a bird or mammal during the course of its usual activities) is typically large. But Bennett’s research team found ” . . . that these cranes in the swamp had extremely small home ranges.” Some pairs spent most of the year on about two hundred acres. These were the smallest home ranges reported for non-migratory Sandhill Cranes at the time, an unexpected finding.
Similar observational studies would provide critical insights into nesting behaviors and movements for other species as well, including the Pacific Golden Plover, Baird’s Sandpiper, and the Surfbird in Alaska. Such observational studies, conducted with persistent scrutiny of the landscape and its inhabitants (and often with great physical effort), may be critical to resolving mysteries that can confound conservation efforts. Even today, we are still trying to discover where certain bird species live, nest, or travel throughout the course of their lives.
Reflecting on his career, Bennett was quick to credit assignments to remote areas for some of his results: “So if you happen to be lucky enough to be one of the first biologists to either enter an area that hasn’t been studied before, or even more good fortune, to work with a species that hasn’t been studied before, you really have an open door to some interesting discoveries.” But it is also true that his early training, both as a wildlife ecologist and as a landscape-reading, bird-watching boy, gave him the expertise to exploit these opportunities. Such training would prove critical when he began creating art.
The Transition from Scientist to Artist
For Bennett, the cognitive processes that generate art seem to be similar to those that produce science: “. . . those observational skills that I developed early kind of served me throughout my [scientific] career, and have also really been a big part of my art, because I have seemingly the ability to capture a snapshot of something I see in the field, for example, walking through a prairie and I see a Bobolink perched on a pale purple coneflower, waving in the wind. I kind of take a mental snapshot of that . . . it’s kind of an icon feature of the tallgrass prairie, as it might have existed even centuries ago, before humans settled southern Wisconsin . . . . So . . . if you look at each carving, there’s a story to tell. And essentially that story comes, in most cases, from personal observations that I’ve made in the field as a biologist.”
Often Bennett distills unique elements of an ecosystem into a sculpture. Bennett elaborated on an observation that motivated a carving of this sort: “. . . maybe in northern Wisconsin I look up and I see some dead white birch trees, and they have this series of little holes around them. And as a keen observer of nature, you realize that those little holes were put there by a [Yellow-bellied] Sapsucker, and they’ve visited the tree maybe once too often, and put too many holes in there; they’re going to kill their food source. So I’ve re-created that iconic image of a couple Sapsuckers on a dead white birch, showing their sap galleries, which ultimately may have killed the tree. . . .”
Sometimes Bennett’s work bears witness to changes in biotic communities. The increasing rarity of the Common Nighthawk in Marquette County, Wisconsin motivated one of Bennett’s carvings. These birds have striking black wings, perhaps well-adapted for low visibility during night flight, and patterned brown plumage that makes them difficult to discern as they rest on the ground during the day. Bennett described his carving of a successful Nighthawk hunter: “The Nighthawk is holding a white-winged black moth . . . . Nighthawks and Whipporwills have unfortunately kind of disappeared from the landscape here . . . . the last time I actually saw a Nighthawk perched on the top of a fencepost, it was holding a moth. And that was many, many years ago. I probably carved that fifteen years ago.” The absence of Nighthawks persists; Bennett has since seen Nighthawks flying through on migration, but the birds are not to be found at his central Wisconsin farm. Whipporwills have suffered a similar decline; according to Bennett, “They’re now gone . . . only a memory in this area.”
Bennett has also carved bird species that are extinct, rather than just locally extirpated: the Labrador Duck, the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet. But like many artists, he has favorite subjects, and many of these are among the living birds. Bennett estimated that he has created as least ten carvings of wood ducks, all involving different behaviors or postures. In a recent effort, he indicated, ” . . . [the carving] captures a male cozying up and courting a female, kind of grabbing her by the neck under the chin.”
If many of Bennett’s stories are familiar, and indeed, relate to events that have occurred with little change over the span of centuries (ducks courting in the springtime), the advent of climate change has brought novel events to birds and animals. Bennett’s observations and art include these phenomena as well.
Bennett described the impact of changes in the far north: “And maybe on a marine vessel outside of the Gulf of Alaska Park in front of a [tide-water] glacier, there’s some little birds diving up in the face of that glacier: in that real murky, silty water they dive down and they come up with a little fish. It just so happens that’s the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, which is a bird that over eons has developed this unique ability to see in dark, cloudy water. It’s the only seabird that can feed underwater at the face of a glacier in this cloudy water. And unfortunately, when the glaciers melt, that cloudy water turns into clear water, Kittlitz’s Murrelet can’t compete with all those other seabirds, that normally you’d see . . . hundred yards, half a mile away from the face of that glacier . . . . This little bird, the Kittlitz’s Murrelet, is in deep peril as a direct result of climate change.”
The plight of this bird motivated Bennett’s carving of a Kittlitz’s Murrelet catching a capelin fish, which is one of its primary food sources. Of the sculpture’s educational value, Bennett noted: “It can be a real conversation piece when you’re lecturing to a group of tourists on how climate change is impacting what they see, when they go on an Alaska cruise.”
That interaction—the way in which the carvings spark conversations with people about our environment, our birds, and the ways in which we interact with them—is at the heart of Bennett’s artistic mission. He makes beautiful carvings; he makes scientifically realistic carvings; but he also makes carvings that make the viewer think and talk about birds—their habitats, their behavior, their needs. From this foundation of shared concern, one hopes that a richer conservation ethic might develop.
For these reasons, Bennett has long gravitated towards educational contexts for the display of his art. One of his most comprehensive efforts to date in this arena involves the sea ducks of the North Pacific, and a fortuitous collaboration with another inspired conservationist.
In the 1990s, concerned about the precipitous declines in sea-duck populations, Bennett started carving sea ducks. His efforts were synergistic with the work of a non-profit conservation organization known as SeaDucks.org, which eventually sponsored educational exhibits of the carvings. Bennett credited the leadership of this organization for its impact on sea-duck conservation, noting that Nancy Hillstrand, its founder ” . . . is basically giving the latter part of her life to sea-duck conservation.”
Bennett’s ambitious project eventually included 34 life-sized carvings of Eiders, Scoters, Harlequins, Smews, and other sea ducks, all of which are adapted to marine life at high latitudes and capable of deep diving for fish, mollusks, and crustaceans. He noted: “. . . it took me about thirteen years, carving one or two pair each year, to get that set complete. And even as it was nearing completion, it was put on exhibit rotating throughout different museums in the state of Alaska, and was quite prominent during the twenty-year anniversary of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, which, you know, had some far-reaching impacts on sea ducks.”
Bennett has also created bird collections for private business owners interested in environmental education, including one for an eco-lodge near the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Here in Wisconsin, Bennett’s art can be seen at the Aldo Leopold Legacy Center in Baraboo. Bennett has carved a collection of the birds prominent in Aldo Leopold’s classic work on environmental ethics, A Sand County Almanac. The Leopold Center’s staff has paired the bird carvings with relevant quotes from A Sand County Almanac.
These exhibits of Bennett’s work attempt to remedy a certain form of amnesia: we have forgotten that birds have stories, too—that they learn from each other, and from their mistakes, just as we do. A fledgling woodpecker, just like a human adolescent, may be at risk of a fall, if it does not receive adequate and skilled help from its parents. The ongoing changes in our environment affect birds and people alike. Bennett’s work invites us to slow down for a moment, and contemplate the story of a bird. We may have something in common, after all.
Alan J. Bennett is a wildlife ecologist and artist. He worked in National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges as a biologist for the federal government for several decades prior to his retirement. He is involved in conservation, environmental education, and ecosystem restoration work, in addition to creating art. Contact.
Shana Ederer is a graduate student in the Departments of Botany and Statistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests involve plant ecology and the function of ecosystems, both present and past. Statistical modeling is also an area of expertise. Earlier in her career, Shana was a developmental editor for college textbooks and multi-media content in science and mathematics. Contact.