Charles Seaborn is a marine biologist, wildlife photographer and consultant to aquariums, zoos, museums, nature centers and resorts. To learn more about his recent photographic work in SOMA magazine see “For the Love of Nature”. To read about his passion for the ocean see “How Ed Ricketts and the Ocean Brought Purpose to My Life”. Charles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About five years ago my life changed forever when I struck and killed a bicyclist with my car on a dark night on the Big Sur coast highway. Until then I was living a peaceful, productive life as a marine biologist, underwater photographer and environmentalist when my future was irrevocably changed in an instant. I went to prison for 2.25 years as part of a lengthy plea bargaining process for my part in this tragic event.
While my contrition will never be complete, as a life-long educator I assumed I would make my contribution to “the system” by teaching while I was behind bars. In addition to being a teacher’s aid and clerk I developed my own education programs with what I know best and what is most absent in prison: nature and art. My most extensive program I called “The NATURE Project.” Remarkably, NATURE became the perfect acronym for this idea: Nature (and) Art; Truth (and) Understanding; Rehabilitation (through) Education.
I started the program by giving some of my underwater photographs of starfish, dolphins, octopus and other beloved sea creatures to my fellow inmate artists to reproduce as drawings. I then took their art and self-published two books as collections of their work, which I gave to them, and them alone. The exclusive nature of our project was critical to giving us all a sense of special accomplishment. As one artist said “we did this for ourselves, to show each other that we could make something beautiful.”
Instead of drawing skulls, women and swastikas, these men expressed their artistic talents with subjects inspired by nature and beauty. For many, our books are the first tangible evidence that they remain quite capable of creating something beautiful and good that can be shared with their friends, loved ones and now the world.
The work speaks for itself in the painstaking brush strokes of a sea otter’s fur, the colorful scales of a rockfish or the precise lines of a sleeping elephant seal (drawn with a “BIC” pen no less!). These and 87 other marine wildlife drawings represent the love of nature each artist found in himself as they connected with these gifts from the sea while stashed away in a California desert prison.
Through carefully planned and orchestrated discussions on a wide array of subjects I was also able to embed a multi-layered learning program in The NATURE Project that included topics from global warming to misogyny. These talking points demonstrated the universal attributes of nature and art to solicit thoughts and feelings about all aspects of life; an intellectual exercise most of us on the outside take for granted but one that rarely happens in prison.
Through this program I was able to see how nature and art can provide a prisoner with a psychological space filled with awe, beauty and good as opposed to emptiness, ugliness and evil. I saw how nature can act as an inspirational “trigger” to recover deeply buried feelings of love that can be expressed through art. Clearly, this is a fundamental aspect of humanity necessary for any form of rehabilitation and the road to a full, meaningful life.
The NATURE Project rekindled the innocent, childhood love for nature we are all born with in many of its artists. I watched grown men laugh, smile, rejoice and cry over a pencil drawing of a comical hermit crab or a rare skilfish they never knew existed until it swam into the day room for a Sunday morning art session. Out of these remarkable gatherings I saw a confluence of nature, art, knowledge and spirit flow together to form the cardinal virtue reverence. In the process we discovered our place in the universe and celebrated the good in the human condition.