I have been thinking a lot about a book my son gave me called Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon and how it relates to our work here at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Creativity is Subtraction,” Kleon tells us, and it doesn’t seem to make sense at first. I mean, think back to grade school, you just had to have the 64-count box of crayons. The 8-pack was just not good enough.
But, think about it some more. With the 64-count, what do you color an orange? Do you use Orange, maybe Burnt Orange, Yellow Orange, Tan, Red Orange, Burnt Sienna, Bittersweet?
With so many possibilities, you sit there unsure what to do. Having so many options is actually paralyzing.
Meanwhile, your buddy with eight crayons just used basic Orange, maybe added some tinting with plain old Red, had time to draw a really good fruit, then finished way before you and went to play. Austin Kleon’s point is that by limiting choice we don’t constrain creativity – we empower it.
The same thing happens when we approach conservation. All the wild life, and all the habitats they occupy, are a limitless palette with which to paint. And our first instinct is to paint with all of them.
But it can paralyze us. There are just so many species we have to care for.
So we are developing a process to identify a small number of species within the landscape by which to measure our progress. These “surrogate species,” on which we will focus our resources, will represent other species or aspects of the environment (e.g., water quality, habitat, etc.).
By choosing surrogate species and focusing our efforts, we will unleash our conservation creativity and free ourselves to do our best, most thoughtful work.
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but it works. Think of what we have accomplished with waterfowl conservation in the Prairie Potholes, which includes parts of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana well as Canada.
Millions of acres conserved; hundreds of partners working together; a way of life preserved for the people working that land.
The possible palette in the Potholes was about 40-odd species of hunted waterfowl, but the hen mallard who nests in the Prairie Potholes was the one color we started with.
She unlocked our creativity and put us on a path to success.
And not just for waterfowl, but for thousands of other species who depend on the same habitat.
I guess our parents probably knew what they were doing when they just bought us the 8-pack of crayons, even if the 64-pack had the box with the cool crayon sharpener on it.
I’ll have to give mine a call and thank them for freeing my inner artist.
I think tomorrow’s Service employees will thank us for the same thing. For giving them a palatte of conservation colors that unleashes rather than paralyzes creativity.