3 Things Nature Artists Need to Remember About Social Media

Earlier this month, our dog Dory killed an immature desert cottontail rabbit. In the past, I’ve felt despondent over these little yard deaths. Even though I know these animals do not live long and many of them die young to feed the coyotes, foxes, and owls, I was still sad. This time, however, I did something besides leaving it in the tall grass to return to dust: I drew it. Documenting what I saw seemed like a kindness. Instead of treating this life as a throw-away, taking the time to really look at it and record it in my sketchbook honored the short life it had. I suppose it doesn’t help the rabbit any; it’s still dead. But it helped me to accept the death, and to feel that the rabbit’s life wasn’t negligible.

Desert_cottontail
Sketches of an immature desert cottontail (drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

Thanks to the drawing class I took in May, my drawing came out really well, so I shared it on Facebook with a group interested in nature journaling. The responses I got really surprised me and taught me some important things to remember about social media.

1) Context is critical.

Someone thought this rabbit was a rare or endangered hare and that I had let my dog run loose in its habitat. That person lives in California. I live in Colorado. Perhaps it’s rare in California, but the desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii) is abundant in the neighborhood where I live. This little rabbit lives fast and dies young; few individuals live beyond two years, and they reproduce like, well, rabbits, in order to make up for it. Adult females can have up to four litters in one year and females born in the spring can have their first litter before the end of their first summer! It’s hard to imagine how a place wouldn’t be overrun with these guys.

Also, Dory caught this rabbit in our fenced-in back yard, which is the only place she goes off leash. I wouldn’t dream of taking her for a hike in a park or natural area off-leash. I am determined to keep any wildlife in the area safe from her (she thinks she’s a wolf) and her safe from the wildlife (she only weighs 13 pounds).

2) People can speak with authority and still be wrong.

I was told rather bluntly this animal was a hare, not a rabbit. I hadn’t thought about the difference, so I was grateful someone brought it up. One person insisted rabbits are domestic (raised and bred in captivity) and hares wild. Another argued that hares are from Britain, and rabbits from America. Curious as to who was right, I went through the books* in my house looking for an answer.

desert_cottontail_02_web
Desert cottontail (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

The “experts” were wrong. The animal I drew is definitely a rabbit not a hare. There are two main differences between rabbits and hares, but they are not the ones I was given. Physically, hares have longer ears and longer hind legs than rabbits. (Despite their name, jackrabbits are actually hares, which unfortunately confuses the issue.) Another way to tell them apart is based on their reproductive strategies. Rabbits bear naked, blind (altricial) young while hares have fully-furred, open-eyed (precocial) young. This difference means baby hares can move around and eat vegetation as soon as they are born, while baby rabbits are initially helpless.

blacktailed_jackrabbit_web
Black-tailed jackrabbit, which is actually a hare; check out those ears and hind legs! (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

I am glad someone challenged me on this, because it made me educate myself. But it also reminded me I can’t take someone else’s word for these things. I have to verify what they’ve said.

3) Not everyone agrees on what is acceptable to draw.

Some people were shocked and disgusted that I would draw a dead animal. I should have seen this one coming, right? But I didn’t. I thought people who were interested in spending time outdoors drawing wildlife would understand that, for an artist, a natural death is an opportunity to see details close up and record them. Historically, naturalists collected their specimens with guns and traps, then identified or described the species after the fact, when they could easily examine the animal close-up. While I would never kill anything for this reason, I have spent time drawing skulls and taxidermy in order to learn more about the animals I’m interested in.

I’m not alone. Some artists did chime in, saying that they also drew the dead birds and animals they found in their yard. But there were a few who responded with a short and clear “yuck”. In the same way, there are people who do not want to see your drawings of nude models, so it might be better to post a questionable image in the comments and include a warning in the main post out of consideration for others.

Have you ever gotten an unexpected response to a Facebook post? What did you learn from it?

*References used for this article:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary. Fifth Edition, 2011.
  • Fisher, Chris, Don Pattie and Tamara Hartson. Mammals of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Publishing, 2000, p. 244.
  • Halfpenny, James C., and Elisabeth A. Biesiot. A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America. Johnson Printing Company, 1986, p. 46.
  • Burton, Maurice and Robert Burton, editors. The International Wildlife Encyclopedia. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1969

Author: Kit Dunsmore

Kit is a writer and an artist who adores living in Colorado. Whether she's hiking in the mountains or walking the prairies, she's always watching the wildlife in order to learn more about the natural world.

27 thoughts on “3 Things Nature Artists Need to Remember About Social Media”

  1. Kit, it is amazing how many people can find things in a comment or posting that really is all about them and has nothing to do with your intention. I have left several lists for this reason. I love your drawings and posts and they have inspired me to finally take those lessons and stop limping along with unsatisfying sketches. Thank you!

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    1. I’m so glad you are drawing! And that I’m not the only one baffled by some of the responses we get from social media. It does sometimes feel like people turn off their brains when they turn on the computer. But of course, we all look at the world from our own particular point of view, and everyone has his or her hot button topics. It can be hard not to react when something touches our painful places.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing! Your post here not only relates to nature artists but to everything and everyone that reads, posts or is posted on social media. I am amazed sometimes at the things that “experts” come up with! 🙂 Keep drawing and Keep Sharing!

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    1. I was thinking that these points have universal value when it comes to life on social media, but I directed this to nature artists because my drawing was the thing that got me thinking about this. I appreciate your encouragement.

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  3. Oh my gosh, I can totally relate to others disagreeing on what is acceptable to draw. I paint with breast milk, and get lots of ‘yuck’ responses. I don’t know when food became a gross thing, but somehow it is. 🙂 emiscrafty.com/breastcardever

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    1. That is certainly an unusual medium. I imagine some people don’t think of breast milk as food, but as a “bodily secretion” which unfortunately puts it in the “yuck” category. They overlook the fact that babies eat it, which is ironic, because babies are also the world’s most exuberant food artists. Keep doing what is important to you and don’t let the close-minded get you down.

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  4. In my opinion everything you have said and done is spot on. I am 73 and am kind of astonished at the way so many people use social media to club others. Maybe your drawing, dealing as it does with mortality, is just too confronting for some. It is, however, part of life. How anyone could take exception to your beautiful and respectful little drawings beats me. Keep drawing, keep documenting and keep exhibiting your sane and thoughtful responses to other reactions.

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    1. The “clubbing others” problem stems from the lack of accountability that the distance of social media provides. It’s a lot easier to slam people who aren’t right in front of you. It’s harder to empathize with them and there’s no retribution to fear.

      I appreciate your kind words. Death is definitely a touch topic and not everyone is ready to think about it or look at it.

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  5. I was speaking to a patient on the telephone when I heard a thud-bang, and 30 minutes later came off the phone to find a dead pidgeon in the hall. I’m pretty sure it hit a window and one of the dogs brought it in, already dead, or at worse, stunned. On my walks this week I passed two recently-dead seagulls. I’d love to have drawn these and posted them but felt really hesitant in receiving negative comments and again, people assuming my dogs had killed them. I thought about bringing the gulls home to draw and taking my time, but again, I was pretty worried what folk might think about me carrying a seagull because they’re pretty big. I think I missed a great opportunity to make some life studies due to fear of what others might say about me. I thought I had gotton over that kind of fear at my age…obviously not!

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    1. The big problem with drawing dead animals is health issues. I wouldn’t have brought the gulls home unless I had a way to handle and transport them without touching them with my bare hands, and even then I would have thought twice. (I used a shovel to pick up and move my dead rabbit. They can carry diseases that we can get, so it’s a good idea not to touch them.)

      What others think can be a powerful inhibitor. Right when I think I no longer care about the opinions of others, something pops up and surprises me. In this case, I found myself feeling very defensive at first, due to the implication that I was an irresponsible dog owner. So I get that part of your story, too.

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  6. I think I’m often amazed by peoples’ FB comments because besides the people I run into on the net, I generally surround myself with people like me. I’m a naturalist, so your drawings make perfect sense to me, but I’m finding that many others live in, what I would consider to be, a very sterile world.

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    1. Even online, I tend to surround myself with people a lot like me. And those who are really different? I assume that they are in the minority, when in fact the world is full of as many different viewpoints and ways to live as there are people in the world. My goal is to embrace the differences by educating myself and others of our options and their costs. I too need a lot of life around me to feel alive, which is why I spend part of every day outside, watching birds, hiking, drawing.

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  7. I once read that the famous British painter George Stubbs once carried a dead horse into his apartment to dissect and sketch it. He is still considered one of the best in capturing the equine conformation and action.

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      1. All the early naturalists collected specimens so they could study the animals close up. Today, people find that shocking, but before cameras, it was the only way to get close and get a good look at details.

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  8. I posted a pic on Reddit about a rattlesnake I came upon. I took several photos of it poised to strike (with an 800mm lens!). Then some other people showed up and were determined to remove it from the trail. It didn’t respond to sticks trying to coax it along. So they used their kyak paddles to toss sand on it. I captured a great pic of this snake with sand being rained down on it. It didn’t like that so it finally slithered off into the grasses. I got so many negative comments. They thought the snake was being harrasssed so I could get some good photos. Even though I told how I got them, I still got some really nasty comments. And all we were doing was encouraging the snake to move on. No one tried to kill it.

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    1. I’m amazed anyone was brave enough to mess with the snake at all. They can strike a long distance. But how disappointing that people misinterpreted your intentions and why you were taking the photos. The online world is a harsh one, full of snap judgments and people unwilling to give others the benefit of the doubt. It is hard to know in that sort of situation what to do. You need to protect the people from the snake, but the snake from the people, too!

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  9. Even though I know how far away our culture is removed from the ‘real’ world of nature, I too am surprised by the reaction of some people to life. I’ve had people tell me that they can’t eat farm eggs. They only get their eggs from the grocery store. I try to smile politely, but sometimes I’m so tickled, I guffaw.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. I love your egg story. It really does show how clueless people are about the way the world works, especially when it comes to the food we eat. Thanks for your sharing it.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Our indoor and urban life style does impact how people perceive the world. All we can do is remind everyone that there is more to it and hope they are curious enough to go look for themselves.

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