x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Canadian woman captures RAK beauty before it disappears

A Canadian scientist and artist, armed only with collecting jars and paintbrushes, is on a mission to capture RAK's disappearing nature spots, flora and fauna.

Beverly McKay at home with some of her paintings of the disappearing RAK landscape.
Beverly McKay at home with some of her paintings of the disappearing RAK landscape.

RAS AL KHAIMAH // Beverly McKay's house is a gallery of moose antlers, donkey skulls, stuffed fish and animal pelts accrued from her years in the UAE, Canada and Lesotho.

But her greatest specimens are alive.

On the kitchen table, one may find a small lizard curled up in a basin filled with sand. In a few days, the lizard will be gone, replaced by an ice-cream bucket scribbled with the words "Giant Spider".

Ms McKay is no mad scientist. The animals are the subjects the conservationist and artist is painting to depict the disappearing landscapes of Ras Al Khaimah.

She is putting together a book on the emirate's flora, fauna and geography that she observes on weekly walks with her husband.

More often than not, she takes specimens home for a few days to study them before they are returned to the exact location where she found them. "I'm obligated to return them," Ms McKay says.

When the Canadian scientist arrived in 1997, most of the beaches, deserts and wadis were empty apart from these creatures. Now, like the mangrove wetlands, ghaf tree forests and empty beaches, her landscapes are crowded and could soon disappear.

"It's important to make a visual record of what is here," Ms McKay says. "I think that some of the things I've painted have probably never been painted before.

"Some of the landscapes that I've painted are already gone; they're developed. We just like being out there, we just like being out in the wilderness."

Each weekend she can be found in the wild places with her cameras, a purple scarf and collecting jars, "in case I find a beetle".

Dr Saif Al Ghais, the executive director of the Environment Protection and Development Authority of RAK, supports Ms McKay's efforts. "Definitely it will be an added value to Ras Al Khaimah's natural history. Any work in this line would be added value to the scale of information that we have," Dr Al Ghais says.

"Every day the environment changes, whether it's in Ras Al Khaimah or other places. We must have information about what we have. We cannot build on the unknown."

Each of Ms McKay's landscapes is bordered by detailed drawings of the flora and fauna found in the area and a location map.

One depicts turquoise, beach-bordered sand dunes, where the Cove Rotana hotel now stands. In another, flamingos wade through the intertidal mud flats at a Rams beach that is now almost completely covered with rubbish.

Ms McKay has so far painted 14 landscapes with watercolour, gouache and graphite. Three more are in progress.

It takes between 80 and 100 hours to paint the exquisitely tight detail, a process she likens to surgery. One stormy scene of acacia plains and crumbling stone houses in Wadi Sha'am was painted with such attention to detail that Ms McKay used a single-haired brush to paint the browns, violet and gold of its stone.

Her love for detail comes in part from her science background - she holds a bachelor of science degree in biology and chemistry - but she started the project only after she completed an honours degree in natural history and scientific illustration.

With expanding road networks and desert traffic, Ms McKay now visits the mountains more, but it is the desert sky that holds her heart. "I'm from the prairies," she says. "Mountains just clutter up the view."

Her wilderness walks have led to encounters with horned vipers, false cobras, wadi racers, cat snakes and saw-scaled vipers. Her favourite reptile is a territorial, pug-faced lizard that wags its tail and curls up like a puppy to sleep at dusk on the plateau of the dunes.

"After you hang out there, you kind of get a feeling for where these things will be," Ms McKay says. "Did you know there are mushrooms in the desert? There's about 20 different types here. We're always looking for anything that's alive. Or dead."

Ms McKay can talk at length about the red velvet mites that appear after rain, looking for breeding termites to eat.

"They're about less than a centimetre and just exactly the way they sound - bright red, fussy," she says.

Her project was inspired by the landscapes of the British artist Tony Foster. "It just seemed like such a good idea for RAK, to record the landscapes before they disappear and what is there," Ms McKay says. "I knew the landscapes were here."

azacharias@thenational.ae