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Field Note- Summer 2022

Muskrat

By Jon Stewart

During my tracking apprenticeships (White Pine and George Leoniak), I spent many happy hours immersed in the increasingly fine details of decoding the mysteries of tracks, gait, and sign.  While we were taught to start with an appreciation of the local ecology, then focus on what we were seeing, I always wanted to rush to the finer points of the track.  I took endless photographs of what we found as an aide-memoire and as a cabinet of curiosities. Tracks from above, tracks with rulers, tracks without rulers, short sections of gait, close-ups of sign.

Muskrat

Muskrat

The skill of documenting tracks has served me well in providing evidence for transects and studies. But frankly, I did little with the images that I accumulated. They didn’t help my learning in the way that sketching would, in which the eye must guide the hand and so build memories for the actual shapes and proportions.  I came to understand that the images that I returned to, that excited me, were those of the tracking experience.  Friends gathered around a circle drawn in the mud, a teacher teetering on a log in the middle of a lake, the camaraderie of the walk back to our cars. 

Stories and learning at lunch

Learning with Dan Hansche Spur Wander

I’ve learned that these images capture the memories that were most meaningful to me, though they also serve as entry points to remembering what I learnt in the woods. For my project towards completion of the White Pine apprenticeship I took on the challenge of documenting tracks in the landscape. What pulled me in this direction was trying to communicate the presence of wildlife in the landscape.  Not wildlife observed through telephoto lenses and hours spent in hides, but the types of photos that showed images accessible to anyone who would pay attention to their surroundings. I wanted to bring to others the way that seeing these indications of wildlife could change the perception and understanding of their near nature.  

Blue Heron Fishing

American Beaver Canal

In order to present both the detail of the track and the context of the landscape I found that I needed to create large images – some up to 40 by 50 inches.  And it worked!  At the first exhibition of this work, I hovered nearby the audience and listened to the conversations. Initial reactions were to the beauty of the landscape and the complexity of the scene.  Then, a moment of confusion.  After reading the title of the piece, the name of the species whose tracks were somewhere in the image, the viewers explored the landscape for the animal.  As they found the track or sign, I could see their understanding of the scene and landscape before them change, as if they had just seen the alternate figure in the Young Woman, Old Woman Ambiguous Figure. 

My work has increasingly focused on the stories that can be read from the land, not just of the presence of wildlife but also the history of the place. Tom Wessels provides an excellent guide to reading the New England landscape[1]. My background, as a transportation accident investigator, also informs this perspective, leading me to understand an area more deeply by identifying the discontinuities from the normal, then carrying out research to understand why this change took place. [1] Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels and Brian D. Cohen (1999), Countryman Press.

During the pandemic, I, along with many others, became a sub-urban wanderer in my near nature.  My daily explorations took me to the outskirts of my city (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), to the near edges of the greenbelt that surrounds our urban area.  At the western edge of Ottawa, a debilitated wetland is being brought back to life.  I didn’t know this when I first saw this area while on a hike.  But aspects of the land didn’t fit what I would normally expect – a treeless pond filled with branches; a protected area of marsh grasses mown for hay, a sign explaining the restoration unearthed and thrown into a stream (for their own reasons, some liked the status quo of how that land was being used). So, these discontinuities spurred my interest.  It also drove me to create a body of images to share with the local community that might act as an entry point for them getting to know their neighboring land better.  I believe that the better we get to know where we live, the more we will fight to protect it.  

Harvested marshland

Stormwater Pond

Artificial Aquatic Structure

Warning Sign

The reception of this work has been wonderful.  While some simply resonated with the beauty of their local place, many were as intrigued as I was with the anomalies.  The work provided an opportunity for them to make a deeper connection, which I hope will enrich their lives and provide motivation to protect the changing landscape around them. Tracking has certainly enriched my life – it has deepened my artistic practice and engagement with the landscape and the two are now intertwined. The shared adventures in the woods and in photography have given me a clearer picture of how I can contribute to the preservation of the land where I live.

Jon Stuart is a fine art photographer based in Ottawa, Canada. His work has been shown in solo and group exhibitions and is held in public and private collections in Canada and internationally.  His work can be found at https://jonstuartprints.com

All photos courtesy of Jon Stuart except hands photo supplied with use permission by Dan Hansche 

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