Last week as 70 environmental scientists joined a bid to protect 43,000-square-kilometres of the Boreal Forest in Manitoba and Ontario, West Kelowna artist Julia Hargreaves sat hunched over the acrylic paints in her basement, painstakingly working on her own measure of the conservation effort.
Hargreaves is one of a small group of hand-picked artists, scientists and First Nations representatives assembling an exhibit for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History on this critical northern environment.
With an eye to protecting Canada’s portion of the forest—known as the largest terrestrial ecosystem in the world—the group will stage its exhibit three years from now, in 2014, using research assembled this past summer around the Bloodvein River, flowing from northwestern Ontario to Lake Winnipeg.
“Being there was the most spiritual, wonderful experience,” said Hargreaves, a British immigrant who settled in Kelowna a decade ago in hopes of furthering an environmental art career.
The group she travelled with, the Wilderness River Expedition Art Foundation, was on its 14th art and natural history venture, having chosen to concentrate on this specific area because it is the largest contiguous block of forest remaining in the world.
It launched canoes from Red Lake, in Woodland Caribou Wilderness Park, but quickly turned back from the first attempt as Ontario’s now infamous summer of forest fires began to swallow their plans.
“It was kind of like being a part of the landscape; you didn’t know what (the fire) looked like. So that was very scary,” said Hargreaves.
But it also proved a perfect learning opportunity and a window into the reasons scientists from around the world are advocating with such passion for the forest’s preservation.
Where forest fires will occur naturally and simply skim the surface of the forest floor, development and forestry destroy the Sphagnum moss, or reindeer lichen, which ensures caribou can continue to follow their migration path to the Northern Shield. It is food.
Perhaps even more important, the peat bottom of the forest is thought to contain up to 22 per cent of the world’s carbon, according to reports generated by the Seattle-based International Boreal Conservation Campaign.
Should the forest floor dry up, it could have dastardly consequences for the atmosphere.
“The Smithsonian realizes the importance of keeping this ecosystem intact,” said Hargreaves.
“We’re talking about conservation for animals, for people and the climate.”
Hargreaves was recruited for the exhibition off a juried website called Artists for Conservation because she could document the plight of one particularly threatened species.
“They wanted to get these certain migratory songbirds,” she explained.
“When they go south, their habitat is being destroyed and it has started to affect the population.”
Hargreaves’ work resembles famous Canadian artist Robert Bateman for its detail. The first of her Boreal Forest paintings, a landscape with two birds and a wolf, has taken two weeks of work, morning to night and through the weekends, just to get the basic landscape down—but she’s used to the hours.
Her accomplishments to date include a three-dimensional picture book titled Birdscapes—done in conjunction with Cornell University.
She now works full-time on her artwork, but has only done so in the last six years.
Both she and her husband, a dry cleaner by trade, immigrated to Canada in order that Hargreaves might be closer to the environment and animals she loves to paint.
She gave up a “good job” as a graphic designer for the government in England to make the leap, earning a master’s degree in business administration over and above her master’s degree in fine art to make her application seem more appealing to immigration officials.
“Nobody ever said I was a great manager. Nobody ever said I was great at economic development, but when I started doing the art, people said I should pursue that,” she explained.
While she picks away at building her name, she hopes all her efforts can now also go toward helping a much larger cause.
The application to declare the 43,000-hectare swath of forest located on the east side of Lake Winnipeg the Pimachiowin Aki UNESCO World Heritage Site will be submitted for consideration in 2012; efforts to do so have been underway since 2005.
Advocates say the forest might serve as a landing pad for animals displaced by climate change in future generations.
To follow Hargreaves (www.Hargreaves.com) and the WREAF exhibitions check out wwwwreaf.org and www.borealcanada.ca.