About three years ago I saw Cat’s photos popping up regularly in my friend Terri Farley’s Facebook feed (Terri is a fabulous advocate for wild horses and a children’s author). I quickly friended Cat and look forward daily to her wildlife photos. Last year to celebrate Earth Day, I reviewed Cat’s Parker Pastures on the blog.
[JM] Cat, you are an author/photographer and I know you write mainly nonfiction for children and adults. Does a book’s content always come first, or are photographs sometimes the inspiration for a book?
[CU] Nearly without exception, the images come first. I was a newspaper reporter for years, but taking photos of life on our western ranch for personal enjoyment. After looking at some of my images of livestock guardian dogs with their sheep flock, husband Jim prompted me to put together a book for children, to show this wonderful relationship between the animals. I selected about 80 of my best photos, arranged them into a logical order to tell the story of how the relationship develops between the animals, and that manuscript launched me into the world of books, when Brave Dogs, Gentle Dogs: How They Guard Sheep was published by Boyds Mills Press in 2005. There were no competing titles on this subject, and the book received numerous awards and honors.
[JM] Where are you from and how has that influenced your work?
[CU] I live on a working sheep ranch in western Wyoming, and I receive inspiration from the natural world around me. All of my writing is inspired from this place, and it’s led me on journeys around the world to visit other cultures also involved in a close association with livestock, nature, and food production.
I am blessed to live in a place where I see beautiful things every day, and I feel a responsibility to share that beauty with others. That is why I write books for both children and adults. Much of my work focuses on humankind as a part of nature, not separate from it.
[JM] Tell us a little of your beginnings and journey as an artist.
[CU] I was an avid reader as a child, and believed that Ferdinand the bull was my role model for life with his do-what-you-love attitude. I think it’s a natural process that good readers become writers, and I’ve written consistently since those third-grade journals and reports we all had to do.
I volunteered a few articles for my local newspaper, was promptly hired as a reporter, and ended up founding and owning a community newspaper. I believe that the more you write, and practice refining your skills – especially under the guidance of a good editor – the better writer you become.
My photography took a different route. Growing up, I was always interested in books with strong visuals of any kind – N.C. Wyeth paintings in The Yearling, pencil drawings in the old Blaze and Black Beauty books, and anything that had photographs of animals. As a teenager, I became aware that there was an entire field of science relating to animal behavior, and I dreamed of becoming a wildlife photographer. When I was 20 years old, husband Jim gave me a camera as a wedding present. I am self-taught, and dinked around with photography for years before finally finding my “vision” for images that I thought were compelling. The secret that had been hiding from me is that the stories I wanted to tell through photos involve relationships – not usually just a single subject, but the subject’s relationship to someone or some thing. I’ve talked about my dog/sheep photos, so here’s a few samples:
Here’s a few examples of other relationships:
[JM] Do you ever get opportunities to present your books to students who know nothing about shepherding/ranching etc, and if so, how do they respond?
[CU] I am fortunate that my books have been well received by groups like the International Reading Association, School Library Journal, Society of School Librarians International, National Science Teachers Association, Junior Library Guild, and the Children’s Book Council, as well as a variety of state reading associations and programs. That has opened the door for many school visits, in both rural and city school districts. My programs are interactive and noisy with student participation, and it’s great to see students respond with excitement and interest. All kids know something about dogs, and I use images and stories of our livestock guardian dogs to bridge the gap to teaching children about the relationship between ranching, agriculture, and nature. It’s hard to go wrong when you combine beautiful photos of lambs with puppies!
[JM] Your environment and work make up much of the subject matter of your photography. Do you have other subjects that might surprise us?
[CU] I’m fairly predictable, since I write about the natural world that I interact with daily. Although I’ve been strictly a nonfiction writer, I am working on a novel, but once again, it is very much based on the natural world in which the characters live. I also dabble in poetry.
[JM] What does your workspace look like?
[CU] I tidy up my workspace every night so I can start with a clean slate in the early morning hours. Fortunately it has plenty of space to spread out whatever project I’m working on that day. When I have to spend much time at my desk, my indulgent husband brings flowers for my desk, giving some cheery part of the outside world to my workspace. My toes are usually tucked into the hair of a napping dog under the desk.
[JM] Can you share a photo or two with us, maybe of a WIP and how you make your final selection.
[CU] I just signed a contract for a nonfiction ebook for an educational publisher. Broadly stated, the subject matter is the Central Asian culture of hunting with eagles. The story is focused on one young man, so although I have some really striking images of other eagle hunters, they weren’t selected for the book.
Here’s a few images I’ve selected for the book:
Here’s a few that didn’t make the cut because they don’t move the story forward:
[JM] What artwork do you have hanging in your house?
[CU] We have a wide assortment of art – from landscapes, western life, and nature scenes by local artists (both historic and contemporary), to rural scenes created by artists from Mongolia and Russia. I have three gorgeous prints of American Kestrel paintings scattered throughout the house so I can see the smallest and fiercest of falcons at any time.
[JM] I am very keen to help children become involved in conservation. Do you have any books or websites you would recommend for younger readers to help educate them about our responsibilities towards the natural world?
[CU] The Children & Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org) is a great place to find resources that can be used to connect children with nature, including a selection of recommended books.
Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?
[CU] I live a couple of hours south of both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, and it’s hard to beat a trip to Yellowstone.
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[CU] Hud, a bearded collie pretends not to understand my interest in his snow-covered face, as he perches on the couch.
[JM] Which island in the world would you like to have a month’s photographic retreat on?
[CU] Wrangel Island, off the coast of Russia. It was the final place where wooly mammoths roamed the earth, has the highest density of ancestral polar bear dens, and is very remote.
[JM] One word to describe yourself?
[JM] Snacks/drinks you take with you when you are out with the sheep?
[CU] I always carry water, and usually have a few ginger snaps stuffed in my jacket pockets. Our sheep and burros are known pick-pockets for sweet treats.
Thanks so much – I’m honored to be invited back!
[JM] I hope you have enjoyed these stunning photos and interview as much as I have and I highly encourage you to friend Cat on FB for a daily dose of natural medicine! I am very excited about this new book. I actually have a picture book story about a little Mongolian nomad boy and an idea to make a series about modern nomad children!