We take solace in nature by appreciating its form. The colors of leaf and sky, the plants carpeting the surface of the land, the shapes of branch and riverbed. When I paint I am trying to capture this beauty, the form of living bodies. But nature is not defined primarily by form: It is defined by relationships.
The body of every living thing is the emergent result of its reliances on land, sun, water, mineral, air, and every other living thing around it. It is best perhaps not to think of any living body as discrete so much as being one part of the vast body of our planet’s living system, in which all parts feed each other, take from each other, communicate, feedback, and influence. Our living system is one big cooperative out of which everything emerges.
The ʻiʻiwi or scarlet honeycreeper (Drepanis coccinea) and the ʻōhiʻa lehua (Metrosideros polymorpha) are cooperating species native to Hawaiʻi. The ʻiʻiwi bird eats nectar—its curved beak lets it sip from flowers–and the lehua flowers of the ʻōhiʻa tree are one of its favorite food sources. The ʻōhiʻa is a powerfully important tree both ecologically and culturally: Its forests provide habitat to many native birds like the ʻiʻiwi, but it also provides a scaffold for Indigenous art and myth. In legend, the tree is a great warrior who rejected the goddess Pele’s love, and was transformed into a gnarled tree. It is the first tree to grow on settled lava flows—the first tree to return after Pele has shaped the land.
This piece was commissioned by a coral reef biologist who sees these cooperative species as symbols both of the great resilience of nature, and also its fragility. In nature and in our own lives, interdependence makes us vulnerable—but it is also our greatest source of strength.
The ʻiʻiwi and ʻōhiʻa are dependent upon each other. They are also each threatened by invasive species and climate change. The ʻiʻiwi, like other Hawaiian honeycreepers, is vulnerable to avian malaria from introduced mosquitoes, and the ʻōhiʻa is threatened by a newly discovered, virulent and lethal fungal disease known as Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death.
Starting on Saturday, December 12 I will be taking pre-orders for a postcard set based on this painting, and a small portion of the proceeds will go towards replanting Hawaiian trees like ʻōhiʻa through donations to the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project! When the shop is up Iʻll be posting the link here, and I hope youʻll join me in protecting these interreliant native species.
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