Alex Boersma and Nick Pyenson Talk with Roger

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Once teacher and student, now longtime collaborators, Alex Boersma and Nick Pyenson join forces in The Whale Who Swam Through Time: A 200-Year Journey in the Arctic to make us think differently about scales of size, time, and environmental change.

Roger Sutton: How did you two start to work together on this project?

Alex Boersma: We've worked together in a bunch of different capacities over the years, starting when I was finishing up my undergrad degree. I interned with Nick at the Smithsonian, doing research; and I kept working with him after I graduated. When I made the transition from research to scientific illustration, Nick was one of my first clients. Our first big project was Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, which I illustrated with linocuts and scratchboard illustrations. After that book came out, we talked about other things that we could do together.

Photo credits: Nick Rueda-Sabater (L), Caorlyn Van Houten (R).

Nick Pyenson: Alex is incredibly talented. I’ve mentored close to two dozen scientists over my career, and Alex is unusual in that she’s equally talented in science and art. She really wrestled with the decision of whether to do research or do art. By striking out on her own as a scientific illustrator, she was able to combine her love of the natural world and her knowledge about it with artistic expression in a variety of different media.

RS: What drew you to the bowhead in particular to focus on?

AB: There were so many stories in Spying on Whales that could be expanded upon, and we kept coming back to the story of the bowhead whale, and how, because they can live well over two hundred years, they’re really interesting and cool subjects for a story about climate change. For me, that fact sparked my fascination. What must that be like, to live for that long, and to see your world changing around you over such a long period of time?

NP: With bowheads, in particular, there’s a great intersection of traditional ecological knowledge from Indigenous peoples of the North and modern scientific research. We are both concerned about the impact that humans have had on the natural world, especially at high latitudes like the Arctic. Alex has spent time in the Arctic, and that kind of firsthand experience is valuable.

RS: Alex, what was it like for you to move from the linocuts of Spying on Whales to the watercolor in this book?

AB: In my scientific illustration work, I use a variety of different media, including linocuts, watercolor, pen and ink, so the media wasn’t the challenge with this project. Both of these projects gave me a little more artistic freedom in terms of the style in which I portray these different subjects. In my normal illustration work, I don’t get to work in quite as stylized a way as I did with the linocuts. In this book, I get to do pastel spreads and more elaborate landscapes.

RS: You both got to bust out.

NP: It was a challenge. I knew Alex could meet the challenge, but I was surprised by how hard it is to tell the story of a long span of time in a way that’s compact and effective. The limited page space ensures that you can’t go on and on, as academics sometimes do. You really have to focus on exactly what you want to express, in a way that has a heart and soul, because you want readers to care about the plight of this one particular bowhead. Alex is a scientist as much as she is an artist, so you’ve got two scientists who are tied to this text as well. We wanted this to not just be speculative, but to work within what we know about the extraordinary biology of bowhead whales.

RS: I thought it was interesting that although you did have this whale thinking about things, you didn’t create an individual personality for the whale, if that distinction is clear. And you had to have imagined so much. You note that you had to do a fair amount of speculation about the whale’s consciousness.

AB: It’s similar to what you said before, Nick, in reference to your research — your research is about whales, but really it’s about using whales as a tool to think about other things — to think about time, and what it’s like to exist in an aquatic environment. The whale is really more of a vehicle to think about those bigger ideas, and I think that’s also true of this book. The whale is a character, but also a way for us to think about the Arctic, and how the Arctic has changed over the past two hundred years. Thinking about it that way made it a little easier to walk the line between making the whale too much of an individual, too much of a character, and also allowing the whale to represent all bowhead whales, all creatures of the Arctic.

RS: The book made me want to go there, but then it also made me feel guilty about wanting to go there, because I don’t want to screw it up any more than has already been done.

NP: Then it sounds like we succeeded in making you feel like an individual in the world. Isn’t that tension the tension of our time? Humans do have a role to play in the story of how we get out of the twenty-first century. If you’re saying that, Roger, it sounds like we’ve succeeded in making you feel that your actions do have a broader impact. A journey to the poles is sort of like time travel in the scales of experience. Can you imagine what it’s like to live underwater ninety-nine percent of the time? Each one of those steps is imaginative and demands steps outside of our own experience. A way to keep that bounded is to connect it to what we know. What we know is not just the biology of the whales but also their whole environment. That includes all the other species with which it lives.  We spent a lot of time drilling down on the research of what species would have been around during specific time slices, and how that mapped to eras of historical importance. The important stuff over the last two hundred years doesn’t happen evenly, so we did have to make certain decisions about what we wanted to show and the time slices to focus on.

RS: Your focus is so clearly on this one whale’s imagined experience that I felt like I sort of understood that two hundred years from her point of view, which is very different from two hundred years from a human historian’s point of view.

NP: I’m glad to hear that because I don’t know what it’s like to live two hundred years either. That’s similar to my job as a paleontologist. Any time I pick up a fossil from any time period, you just kind of step back and think, Earth from millions of years ago or billions of years ago is as different from the world we have now as Earth might be from Mars or Venus today. When you start to imagine all the differences, it feels like a different planet. It’s just the same planet at different times. I think it’s pretty important to undertake these journeys of the imagination and to push yourself to imagine what it might have been like; it does help you grasp the scale. I do think the call to action is important. We all have a role to play. That’s an active way to think about the crises that we face as a species. We share the planet with other species that have been around much longer than us, including the bowhead whale. That’s a good thing for people to keep in mind.

RS: There’s going to be a certain segment of teachers who are going to get mad at me for saying this, but I have to. Why didn’t you use photographs? Those are more realistic and accurate.

AB: Doing some initial research for this book, one thing I kept running into was not being able to find good photographs of bowhead whales. They’re actually really hard to photograph. They’re hard to find, and then once you do find a bowhead, they don’t tend to travel in large groups. They’re not pod whales. They’re often surrounded by ice or other things that make it difficult to photograph. And they’re underwater all the time. Most of the visual references I could find of bowhead whales were showing the blowhole or a bit of the front of the face — limited views of the whales. And in this case, we’re dealing with historic times, so to find photographs of the whales today — having images of whales in a historical context is something that I took some artistic license with.

RS: But illustration has also held on, as you were saying, within more hard scientific work. You both talked earlier about how Alex, you have done, and still do, illustration for scientific work. I’m assuming textbook-like things and article-like things. Is that right?

AB: Yeah, a lot of work for scientific journals, magazines, things like that.

RS: And it’s not just whales. Science uses this generally. They still use illustrators. They don’t take photographs of everything. Why do you think that is?

AB: There are a lot of things you can’t really photograph. A lot of my work ends up being related to animals, partially because I enjoy it, but partially because of the need for a lot of ecological illustrations. A lot of those illustrations are describing behaviors or processes that you wouldn’t actually see if they were photographed. I was just working on an illustration about how animals in the rainforest that eat fruits off the trees produce rainforests that are more ecologically diverse, because they will eat and then travel to a different part of the forest and redeposit those seeds, and, as a result, the forest ends up with more diverse tree species. A lot of times it’s about explaining more complicated processes and visualizing a story that couldn’t necessarily be told very easily with photographs, or not as elegantly and as clearly. Nick works with extinct species, so we can’t exactly photograph those, but we can visualize what those animals might have looked like. There are a lot of surprising applications where photographs really can’t do the job.

NP: The other thing I would add is for whales, in particular, there’s so much we don’t know. They’re animals that live underwater ninety-nine percent of the time. They are the size, in the case of a bowhead whale, of a city bus. And they live human lifetimes or longer. Just trying to get close to them is a challenge of accessibility. Have you ever looked at their bones? Those are really, really complex objects. How to display them, how to express them, how to point out what is interpretable about them is challenging. When you’re talking about a visual challenge, that’s something artists are very comfortable tangling with.

AB: It's what we live for.

RS: I love going on whale-watching trips, out to the Gulf of Maine here from Boston. Sometimes you’ll just see a tail, and you have to extrapolate from that. What am I not seeing? That’s something that an illustration can do?

AB: I was working on some of the illustrations, showing the whale from a more unusual angle than you would usually see, face-on or from the back. My husband came over, and he commented on how weird these animals look from some of these viewpoints. There are some animals we don’t have the opportunity to see that often, except in the most conventional viewpoints — whales are usually shown from the side, so you can see the whole body. Turn the animal around, and you’re seeing it from the front. The overall profile of their body becomes almost like a spear, they have these giant flukes sticking out behind, and their mouths are these crazy cavernous openings. That was one of the fun things to play around with, giving you a more full-fledged idea of what these animals actually look like, and how strange some of the morphology actually is.

RS: I’m thinking about how, to a whale in the water, that environment for that whale is very different from the way we interact with our environment on land.

AB: How strange to be constantly suspended in this matrix of fluid and dense matter. Physically, it’s hard to think about what that must be like. We think of swimming, but to have that be your constant every day, every minute.

RS: I was thinking about birds, who live in an environment of air, but they land, they rest. But whales are always suspended, is that right?

NP: A whale will occasionally rest, and when they do that, it’s kind of like what a 400-pound gorilla does — whatever it wants. They’re not like fish; they don’t have to keep on moving to stay alive. One of the really interesting things about bowhead whales is that while they are restricted to the Arctic, they still migrate, and they follow the ebb and flow, so to speak, of pack ice, which changes. The Arctic is a dynamic environment that changes seasonally, and that means bowheads change seasonally, too, in where they go, what they do, and how they look, too — they fatten up and thin out. A lot of that is tied to what scientists call their life history — where they reproduce, where they feed, where they eat, where they give birth. These are really important aspects of how a bowhead whale lives.

RS: And it’s not just the change in the pack ice is seasonal; it’s also changing historically. Your whale’s descendants are going to be living in a very different environment.

NP: Exactly. It’s changed historically for sure, but with the burst of fossil fuels, the great carbon burn over the last two hundred years — that’s really the frame for the book, learning about what we use for energy in the world. This is part of carbon extraction infrastructure that happens in the Arctic. It’s because of that great carbon burn that started with the Industrial Revolution that the environment has changed. We thought that juxtaposition was an important one to point out.

RS: Are you hopeful?

NP: Yeah. I’m excited. We are alive in the time when we will figure it out. It’s good news. It’s just that early stuff can be really gloomy and distracting. There are a lot of good reasons to be optimistic. One has to do with being better informed. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, but we also live in a golden age of knowing about the world. Think of all the ways we can know about the animals that we share this world with. That’s just amazing. No one on this call has any idea what someone today will dream up to figure out these solutions. The solutions are all there; they just have to be implemented. I’m really excited because these next ten years, this next generation, is when we have to make all these changes, changes for the better. A lot of the children who walk through the museum doors, here at the Smithsonian, any museum, will be alive in 2100. There’s a long shadow to decisions that are made right now, and people will remember what decisions and actions were made. I’m motivated by that forward-thinking, long-term view.

RS: Alex, how about you?

AB: The bowhead whale was a really good subject to focus on in terms of thinking about climate change in all of its complexity. In the story, we focus on all these changes in the Arctic, and we acknowledge that a lot of them are not great but not all of them are terrible. Some of them are neutral, if not actually positive in some ways. Water warming does mean that there will be more food in the Arctic for different animals higher up the food chain as the water gets warmer. It can hold more nutrients, and you’ll get more plankton for bowhead whales to eat. I think we tried to end the book on not too apocalyptic a note. We wanted to remind the reader at the end that a bunch of stuff has changed in the Arctic in the last two hundred years, and bowhead whales have survived and proved resilient through all those changes, and there’s no reason why they can’t also continue that into the future.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc. from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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