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West Papua: The Clever One
A peculiar bird with a special talent
 

 

JOSIAH HOOPER

Josiah Hooper is a freelance producer and director of photography in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was recently nominated for an Emmy for his documentary "Fruits of War," which follows four men deported from East Los Angeles to El Salvador -- part of a series of deportations that spawned the birth of the gang epidemic in that country. His most recent work for FRONTLINE/World, called "Kenya: Sweet Home Obama" with reporter Edwin Okong'o, won the Webby People's Voice Award.

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Length: 14:56

Editor's Note: This story was broadcast June 29 on PBS.

I first met artist Mary Jo McConnell at LAX International Airport. We were catching a flight to Bali, where we would try to book passage to the Indonesian province of West Papua, on the western half of the island of New Guinea.

As a documentary producer, I often meet the subjects of my films after traveling halfway around the globe. But in the case of McConnell, the journey was an integral part of her story.

A resident of Massachusetts, McConnell has been traveling to one of the most remote corners of the world -- the arboreal cloud forests of the Arfak mountain range -- for more than 15 years.

It would take six days, flying through thunder storms, driving over perilous washed out roads and swamps of orange mud and, finally, hiking up the steep cloud forest trails lined with skin piercing Pandanas trees, before we reached our destination, the village of Hungku.

What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact that McConnell is 70 years old. She had lived in Massachusetts for nearly 30 years, as a housewife and mother, before she ever decided to visit Indonesia.

It was there that she would pursue her passion for painting and encounter something that would change her life.

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Artist Mary Jo McConnell.

She found a group of artists that live and work in the cloud forests of New Guinea -- these artists are birds. The creature that has become McConnell's obsession, luring her back around the globe, year after year, is known as the Vogelkop Bowerbird.

It is no bigger than your fist, and the art it creates is called a bower. When I first laid eyes on one, I felt I had stumbled upon a Lilliputian world. It looks something like an Amazonian jungle hut built for tiny creatures.

It is made of woven twigs and has a floor and front lawn of gleaming green moss. Just outside the large entrance -- large, that is, for a bird the size of a robin -- are carefully stacked piles of bright orange orchids, shiny red berries and cascades of plum sized seeds.

The piles seem almost like ceremonial offerings, which, according to scientists, is about right. They say the bowerbird builds these ornate structures to attract a female for mating.

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To McConnell, the birds are artists. Over the years, she has even given them names with specific connotations -- for example, "Andy Warhol" uses found materials like noodle wrappers and batteries.

But to McConnell, the birds are artists. Over the years, she has even given them names with specific connotations. "Andy Warhol" uses found materials like noodle wrappers and batteries. Her favorite bird, "Leonardo Da Vinci," crosses the feathers of a Sicklebill bird at the edge of his bower every year.

What strikes her most is the way the bird works with light. It always orients the bower to the east to catch the morning sun. Like a vase of flowers in a work by Vermeer, the piles of flowers and seeds are struck by shafts of light that break through the holes in the cloud forest canopy. As the morning progresses, different piles are bathed in the warm glow of the sun. For a videographer, it is truly heaven sent.

For McConnell, it is part of a journey of self-discovery punctuated by actual scientific discovery. She collects samples of flora and fauna: butterfly sacks the size of soccer balls and mushrooms that glow in the dark -- objects from natures that scientists had never laid eyes on until she showed up at their labs on the Harvard campus.

To the villagers of Hungku, she is like family. They call her "Mother Mary Jo," and she has a close relationship with the chief of the village, Moses Saiba. Moses too has a special affinity for the birds, calling them "The Clever Ones," not only for their bower building, but for their ability to mimic human voices and sounds.

McConnell's obsession with the bowerbird seemed strange to the villagers at first, but as she returned year after year with her paintings, they realized that the bird could be a boon for the village. Encroaching logging and mining interests are forcing them to try to create sustainable ecotourism projects to generate income and help avoid the pressure to sell off their land. The bowers, they hope, will lure the birdwatchers who already visit New Guinea up to their mountaintop village.

McConnell also hopes her paintings will inspire others to experience the wonders of this remote world.

-- Josiah Hooper


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REACTIONS

Micheal Hodge - Portland, Oregon
What an amazing animal and amazing place! WOW!!

Song Weasel - Orlando, Fl
What a wonderful and inspiring story. it made my day! this woman needs a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. She is an ambassador, a teacher, an earth scientist and first and foremost, an artist. :)

Salt Lake City, Ut
What an awesome program. As an artist, myself, I was intrigued by Mary Jo and her story.

Jean Williams - pembroke pines, FL
This was most fantastic... I would love to see this nest personally. Mary Jo this was wonderful I do hope the forest will be protected from modernization that will turn nature's paradise into a concrete jungle...love the natives.

Berenice Weber - San Diego, CA
what a wonderful story, I am a bird lover but The Clever One has to be the most amazing bird I've ever heard of, what an interesting creature. Mary Jo is a fascinating artist too indeed, as good as The Clever One. Infinite thanks to Mary Jo and Josiah Hooper for following her for this heart warming story!

Lorna Salame - Harrisburg, PA
Mary Jo's and the people of Hungku's story is IMMENSE! It just goes to show that you can plant good seeds and reap good harvest in your backyard or half way around the world! Peace and divine love Mary Jo and continue to let your little light shine!

(anonymous)
I came across this documentary last night and I was stunned and in awe of nature. We humans don't respect the earth much and as I grow older and see more clearly, it tells me there must be God who have created such lovely things... We must do everything we can to save this part of the world..I know I will.

Hester Palmquist - Pacific Palisades, CA
What an absolutely fascinating story! I have always loved birds and considered myself fortunate to have seen the elusive Resplendent Quetzal in the Costa Rican cloud forest. But the bower bird takes the prize as does Mary Jo McConnell for her adventurous spirit, enormous talent and heart.

Clarisse D. - York, PA
This segment, "The Clever One," have again brought me back to an inevitable conclusion, which has been forming in my mind for the past 36 years, of watching a variety of programs, via PBS, including FrontlineWorld; vis a vis: we cannot possibly continue to believe the humans, on this planet, as the only ones capable of possessing Intelligence, consciousness, emotion, aesthetics, even a sense of ethics and altruism.

Lincoln, NE
A most fascinating story about Mary Jo. It was an absolutely incredible piece of documentary, well written and photographed. Thank you all for producing such a superb work. Thank you Mary Jo/PBS Frontline World for letting the world know about a "thing of beauty is a joy forever" as Keats has said and from all of us.

John McGraw - North Oaks, mn
The point of this story was to show people of good will be gullible. Very interesting.

Renee Adams - Alexandria, VA
I was so surprised and excited to see this on Frontline tonight! David Attenborough introduced me (and so many others) to this wonderful bird -- the bower bird -- in his various films of the natural world. I had no idea an artist has been painting them. Her story is amazing, and I love the people of New Guinea. Moses and others remind me of men shown in an old Attenborough film (when David was a young man). Such a bonding feeling I'm having! I hate to hear about "civilization" encroaching. Despite all, it will be difficult to save the forest, the bower birds, and the many other species in the forest. My joy is tempered with prescience (not that it requires much). The bower bird is one of my favorites that I watch again and again on Attenborough's "Life of Birds". Thank you for sharing this.

Nancy Gurry - Fort Myers, Fl
Amazing. When I saw where Mary Jo lived, I recalled a lithograph I bought called "Red Snapper", and further recalled her home in Marble Head with "all the birds" and at that time she had fabulous paintings of feathers, just feathers. I could not afford her paintings, but my "Red Snapper" is still a delight to my eyes.

(anonymous)
i absolutely loved this broadcast, the connection between mary jo and the bower bird are beautifully illustrated and solidify the intimate relationship between nature and ourselves as human beings.

Robert Baez - NY, NY
Magnificent. But it won't last. 'Progress' is on its way. Plus, I would love it if she were to release the birds she has in her home. Birds should be free. Otherwise, I loved what she is doing.

katia chenet - melbourne, fl
Mary Jo, what a wonderful and amazing story. It is an inspiration. Tell us more.

(anonymous)
Thank you for this wonderful report about a truly exceptional woman and a very interesting species ..keep up the good work...

William Betz - Tacoma, WA
I got a lump in my throat watching this. I first met Mary Jo at an airport in Indonesian New Guinea. She was on our her way to Borne to paint bird feathers. She asked me where I was going. I told her that I was going to Manokwari to see bowerbirds and she nearly leaped out of her chair. She was stunned when I told her that it was possible for ordinary people to go see "the clever one".
The following year found us traveling to Hungku, where we met Moses and his
wonderful extended family. It is true that Mary Jo cried when she saw her
first bower - I was there. And it is true that she was entranced by the people of Hungku.
The trip was tough. There was no road then, and when the planes couldn't come we had to walk out to the coast. But she persevered, and she has persevered against long odds ever since. I am so happy that she, the birds, and the wonderful people of Hungku are receiving some recognition. Thank you Frontline World and "terima kasih" Mary Jo!

Kimberly Cole - Newtown, PA
I have never known the background behind Mary Jo's paintings. This was a wonderful documentary. It has shown what a dedicated, talented and adventurous women she is. She has truly made her mark in life.

(anonymous)
Very inspiring life!

Mary Ann Pichacz, LPN - Pennswood Village, Pa, Nurse
Mary Jo, I am so captivated by this documentary! I can't wait to watch it again. You have such a gift and have put it to such good use. I would love to see more of your work. What a wonderful adventure. Thanks for alerting me to it. Mary Ann P. , Pennswood Village.

BJ Dollahite - Friday Harbor, wa
Fantastic inspiration and amazing story.

Polly Bonsignore - Marblehead, Mass
I have always seen your world from your paintings. It is wonderful to see your craft in the making. You are and always have been inspiring. Thank you for taking me on your journey.

Maryann Rugel - Tarpon Springs, Fl
I know Ms. McConnell's daughter Alex and she talks about her mom's paintings so I had to see for myself. Well that was awesome and I loved the video of what she is doing in Indonesia for those people. She is not your typical 70 year old and I wish I had half the talent as well as her outlook on what is important

Sandra Moore - Buffalo, New York
I am thrilled and immensely proud to say I own six of Mary Jo's early works. I lived in Marblehead for many years, while there discovered Mary Jo's talent and bought her work whenever I could.

Mary Jo's work with the Bower Bird is enormously impressive, not to mention her tenacity in continuing to hike in, rough it and make a huge difference to the village. Keep going!!!

Marain Blue - Clinton, WA
Outstanding story about how nature can inspire a nature to be creative about protecting nature and the people living close to nature. Her compassion shows in her work.

Brandy Thomas - Jacksonville, Florida
Mary Jo! I want that painting...the one that appears to be a sparrow using a flower for nesting. You have amazing talent. Best wishes.

- Hollywood, CA
Beautifully produced story about a remarkable woman full of grit and substance. Fascinating to see inside the tribe and how they have gone from abusing the Bowerbirds to understanding the dire need to protect them. Frontline World continues to rise to the top, providing stories of depth and intense interest, which serve to inspire, educate and motivate. Mary Jo McConnell is one of the planet's true treasures.

Mary Ann Mansfield - Langley, WA
Another example of how the world can be saved through art. Mary Jo McConnell is a treasure and a fearless adventurer. Kudos to Frontline/World for bringing us this marvelous story of art and nature intersecting. What a tragedy it would be to loose that rainforest and its treasures.

Teri Jo Summer - Clinton, WA
Mary Jo McConnell's dedication to her bower bird artist friends is unsurpassed in my experience with ornithologists and artists alike. She has brought several facets of our changing world together in her work. The beauty of what she shares also raises questions about the nature of creativity. I find Mary Jo's dedication has become part of a greater appreciation I have for what each one of us can do to share our brilliance with the world. Thank you, PBS, for making this wonderful video and description of Mary Jo's artistic journey available.

Salem, MA
I am so in awe of Mary Jo's dedication and genius. I have seen her paintings close up, and they are absolutely breathtaking. And Mary Jo is a delightful work of art herself. I am thrilled to see the Frontline film, and hope that this will help to bring awareness to the threatened ecology in New Guinea.

Los Angeles, CA
Great story. I've always loved Bower birds but this is beyond my best fantasies. How wonderful.

Marblehead, MA
Interesting.Mary jo, you too are the clever one and I love Moses!

Brookline, MA
FRONTLINE/World has caught the personality of this extraordinary woman who is not only accomplished artist, gardener, mother, and sailor but one of the bravest people I know. For her to go into the jungle,travel in dug-out canoes, sleep on the earth, and befriend the natives is a joy to behold. I am so happy her story can will be shared by millions.

salem, ma
Curious to know the females' reactions to the bowers, if any data has been collected. Also, curious about the painting materials that Mary Jo uses for these trips. Fascinating! I'd love to accompany her on one of these trips!

Largo, Fl
Wonderfull story. Would like to see updates on this!

(anonymous)
Great story!!!! Extremely interesting life she lives.

Marblehead, MA
Thought the video captured the artist, the birds, and the people of the village. Well done!