Today we heard from James Prosek, artist, writer and naturalist. Mr. Prosek was born in Easton, CT and lived in a house that bordered the edge of the Easton reservoir.
This turned out to be fortuitous for the young Mr. Prosek, as he regularly ignored the “no trespassing” signs that surrounded the property to hike and fish in what was virtually a private preserve. It also led to his meeting Joe Haynes, a game warden who caught him illegally fishing, but who later developed into a mentor and instructor to the young man. In this instruction, Mr. Haynes introduced him to eels. These creatures turned out to be a fascinating subject as they inhabit every fresh water stream, creek and other body of water that has some access to the sea. This access is necessary as eels leave their fresh water homes and make their way to the Sargasso Sea in the ocean to spawn; a trip of thousands of miles. All this laid the groundwork for a later book by Mr. Prosek.
Mr. Prosek also developed a fascination with trout. His interest led him to try and find a compendium of all the trout in the United States in the local library. He discovered that the library had no such work and this led him to write to wildlife offices and biologists for information that would allow him to write the work himself. It was through this effort and the analysis of the responses that he realized that the concept of species is a fuzzy one. This in turn led him to reflect that there is a tension between languages with their desire to name and categorize when they are applied to constantly changing, dynamic living things. Language allows us to communicate concepts and information, but it is limiting in that it sets hard and fast boundaries with its labels on things that really have no hard and fast boundaries. So while labels and language are tremendously useful in aiding communication, they are inherently misleading and limiting in allowing us to understand the real nature of dynamic things like fish and birds.
Labels and language can also inhibit imagination, which Mr Prosek feels can many times give us a better picture of a subject than what is regarded as an accurate description. Similarly artistic renditions of a subject, while again very useful in aiding communication, must always be taken as the artist’s interpretation of a subject at a moment in time. They help us understand the subject and many even allow us to become better predators in gathering food. But they are not a subject’s definitive treatment that excludes any other possibility or change in the subject’s nature.
His trout studies led him to other realizations such as the fact that all trout are only native to the northern hemisphere while all southern hemisphere trout have been introduced by various explorers and conquests by northern hemisphere people. They also revealed that many so-called species of trout throughout the world are just variations of the Brown Trout and not really separate species as is commonly proclaimed.
Mr. Prosek showed pictures of various murals he has done. Frequently, in keeping with his questions about language and labels, these depict many different birds or fish with numbers next to their images. But no key is given that gives a name to the bird or fish associated with the number. He feels that this allows a viewer to better focus on the image rather than going straight to a name or label and ignoring what is really important.
Questions and Answers
Q. Do Lamprey Eels also spawn in the Sargasso Sea?
A. Lampreys are not really eels so they do not spawn in the Sargasso, but lay their eggs in gravel.
Q. When were the animal paintings done on the rock walls of France, Spain and Africa?
A. The paintings in France and Spain were done about 30,000-40,000 years ago. The African paintings that I showed you were done 750-4,000 years ago, but they have found paint pigments that date back 100,000 years in Africa.
Q. What areas in North America are still relatively pristine from a fishing perspective?
A. There are many designated wilderness areas that have pristine sections including Yellowstone Park. Others include the Adirondacks in upstate New York and the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
Q. Have you tried steel engraving?
A. No. I have done copper plate etchings, which is similar to engraving. Many early artists such as Winslow Homer sent their paintings to wood engravers so many copies could be made, but I have never done engraving.