Saving Lives Bird by Bird: Nathan Lynch’s Ceramic Nest Modules

Nancy Selvin Ceramics Art + Perception 108 2018 Yarrobil Home

Año Nuevo Island sits in the rough waters of the Pacific Ocean a half-mile off the coast of California, fifty-five miles south of San Francisco. This small, battered landmass is one of the most densely populated animal refuges on earth.1 Access to the island is limited to scientific researchers and park personnel. The Añzo Nuevo State Reserve, as it is called, is owned and operated by the California Park Service. It serves as an important breeding ground for northern elephant seals, threatened Steller sea lions, numbers of harbor seals as well as the nesting locale for various sea birds, including Brandt's Cormorants, Western Gulls, Pelagic Cormorants, Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Cassin's Auklets, and Black Oystercatchers.

On the island, the football sized Rhinoceros Auklet nests in underground burrows dug into the soil. In 2009, when Nathan Lynch was first introduced to the Año Nuevo naturalists, they had been striving for over 20 years to construct strong, protective, nesting units using wood, plastic, or other materials in an attempt to save and extend the lives of this rare species: not from predators, but death by the massive weight of another protected island species: the 1200 pound Steller Sea Lions, who haul themselves onto the beaches to wrestle, bark and lounge in the sun crushing Auklet nests in the process In 2009, the Bay Area design team MoreLab was working with ‘Oikonos Ecosystem Knowledge’ on restoration of Año Nuevo’s native habitat. Their premise that “the best scientific solutions come through artistic inquiry: beautiful not just functional” prompted them to approach ceramic artist, Nathan Lynch about possible design strategies for successful Auklet nesting modules on Año Nuevo Island. For problem solving, a ceramic sculptor turns naturally to clay.

The success of Nathan’s collaborative course, where students are offered the opportunity to work with naturalists solving world wide environmental problems, building habitat, prototyping and designing, continues with the excitement of the 2018 Spring semester.

Lynch, who has made collaboration and experimentation the focus of his work, is chair of the ceramic program at California College of the Arts in Oakland. Lynch studied with the late Ken Price, earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Lynch then went to Mills College in Oakland California where he received his MFA, working closely with the inimitable Ron Nagle. According to his website, Lynch’s ‘work exists in between things: between sculpture and performance, between object and installation, between the strength, beauty and [the] awkwardness to be found at transitions.’ Responding to MoreLab’s request, Lynch, perhaps inspired by his own massive, volumetric, forms, and his collaborative teaching methods, proposed: “Designing Ecology: Año Nuevo Island, an interdisciplinary ceramic course where students would work with the naturalists to solve real world, off-site problems, prototyping, designing and building nest modules to save the habitat and the lives of Rhinoceros Auklets.” The Rhinoceros Auklet spends its entire life at sea. The short breeding period on land each year is the only time when naturalists learn more of their habits and how to conserve their habitat. So, an important design component Nathan and his students needed to address was human access to the nests. The Auklet lays only one egg each season. The naturalists must monitor the interior of the module for the health and survival of the chicks. The other and the most dangerous problem Nathan’s team faced was how they would transport the 270 components that made up their ceramic habitats a half-mile off the coast of California, onto the rocky shores of an uninhabited island guarded by sharks and rough seas.

After much testing and prototyping, in 2010, Nathan and his class collaborated with Oikonos Ecosystems and Park Service naturalists to design, build, and fire 90 multi-part stoneware modules that the students buried in the sands above the shoreline on Año Nuevo. These large, hand-made ‘pots’ with their detachable extended neck and “lid” allowed the naturalists a peek inside, even as they formed a strong, crush proof burrow in which the Rhinoceros Auklet could raise their chicks. Hiring a landing craft so they could deliver the 3,600 pounds of stoneware components to the island solved the transport issue.

Once installed, these below-grade condos were immediately 80% occupied, successfully saving nests and baby Auklets from inadvertent squashing by their half-ton neighbors. “By 2015, nesting success was above average for the third consecutive year, with 75 % of pairs laying eggs in burrows and [ceramic] modules raising a chick to the fledging stage.”2 The initial success with the Rhinoceros Auklets prompted Oikonos and the Park Service to approach Nathan and a new group of students to collaborate on an effective nesting solution for the endangered Ashy Storm Petrel.

For this ecosystem, on Santa Cruz Island, one of five ecologically rich Channel Islands further down the coast in Southern California, Nathan’s 2012 Designing Ecology class was charged with creating a smaller, ceramic, nest module to protect the endangered Ashy Storm Petrel. The tiny, eight inch Ashy Storm Petrels maintain a restricted range up and down the west coast and have a small global population of around 10,000 but can live to 34 years old.”3

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