Monthly Archives: January 2016

Soft Palette Distraction

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I was hustling to get a run in before nightfall – my usual loop has a couple of kilometers that are uneven farm track, stony and rutted, perfect for the occasional sprained ankle due to inattentiveness.

So I run, eyes on the rutted road just a few strides ahead, avoiding the rocks and grooves misplaced by tractors, rain and horses.

Why pick this loop? Because when I lift my eyes, I get these views.

Mont Blanc and Lake Geneva. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc
Photo: PKR

And if I run just a little later than is safe for my ankles, I’m rewarded every so often with splendid sunsets.

And then my ankles aren’t in danger. Because I stop, pause my stopwatch, and take pictures.

Not great for my running time, but there are other benefits to running besides the physical.

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle. Photo: PKR

Mont Blanc, second time around the loop, fifteen minutes later and from a different angle.
Photo: PKR

For a growing collection of skies, mine and others, I invite you to visit my new collaborative blog – FavoriteSkies.com, and to share your own favorite skies.

Memory Lane

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There’s a large-scale project under way to turn back the clock in order to better prepare for the future.

In Napa Valley, the non-profit San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI) has been working to establish the historical ecology of a region that has seen huge landscape use changes over the past two hundred years. It has gone from being from a massive estuary with varied ecosystems to a heavily populated stretch of land famous around the world for its wines, climate and culture.

It has also become less climate resistant and lost a great deal of biodiversity.

 A map, two aerial photos and a land survey showing different stages of the area around the Napa River and the city of Napa, Calif., in (from left) 1858, 1942, 2009 and 1858.  Composite by Ruth Askevold/San Francisco Estuary Institute; from left to right: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S.D.A., U.S.D.A., Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley  Image/caption: New York Times

A map, two aerial photos and a land survey showing different stages of the area around the Napa River and the city of Napa, Calif., in (from left) 1858, 1942, 2009 and 1858.
Composite by Ruth Askevold/San Francisco Estuary Institute; (L to R) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S.D.A., U.S.D.A., Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
Image/caption: New York Times

The SFEI embarked on the task of establishing just how this key watershed once worked, in all its complexity.

Researchers dug deep into every kind of archive imaginable. From the SFEI site:

The Native Landscape View of the EcoAtlas is a composite picture based upon hundreds of independent sources of data. These include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maps, sketches, paintings, photographs, engineering reports, oral histories, explorers’ journals, missionary texts, hunting magazines, interviews with living elders, and other sources.

Guadalcanal Mitigation Site, an area restored to tidal influence in 2001. Photo: Gena Lasko (CDFW)/SFEI

Guadalcanal Mitigation Site, an area restored to tidal influence in 2001.
Photo: Gena Lasko (CDFW)/SFEI

The goal isn’t so much to recreate the Napa Valley of the past as it once looked as it is to re-establish the estuary and ecology as they once functioned. To improve the once-lush delta to the point that it can better absorb both flooding as well as withstand drought.

A side effect is the return of some of the wildlife and plants that once lived where there are now vineyards, roads and suburbs.

It’s not as extreme as the de-extinction projects of long-gone animals like Revive and Restore, but it is an attempt to re-invent a future that looks, at least just a little bit, like what went before and was almost forgotten.

Tidal mud in Guadalcanal Mitigation Site. Photo: Sally Mack

Tidal mud in Guadalcanal Mitigation Site.
Photo: Sally Mack

Gumdrop Moon

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Different cultures have different names for the full moons of the year, and January’s is called anything from Wolf Moon to Snow Moon to Winter Moon to Moon of the Terrible.

But the moon that rose over Lake Geneva last night, caught here as we drove across Mont Blanc Bridge, was nothing so fearsome as to warrant its usual names.

This was a soft Gumdrop Moon, one day before it waxes full, shining above in pastel skies and reflected in the lake below.

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland. Photo: PKR

Moonrise over Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Photo: PKR

Memory Theater

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I came across images of fallen logs painted with landscapes and images of the woods from which they might have come.

Fictional forest history painted on the remnants of real forests, a reminder of life on something no longer living, a singular specimen in its own cabinet of curiosity.

Trophy - Oil on fallen log (1998) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Trophy – Oil on fallen log (1998)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, those private collections of natural objects that have been described as ‘memory theater’ and which could include anything from antiquities and religious relics to insects and animal bones, were a way of organizing the natural world into human comprehension.

They were an era’s expression of scientific interest and exploration, and for many years, a marker of wealth and education. They were kept for the perusal of the few and the privileged.

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince. Source: Wikipedia

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636 reveals the range of connoisseurship a Baroque-era virtuoso might evince.
Source/caption: Wikipedia

Wolfgang von Goethe, for example, amassed a collection of minerals, fossils, plants, insects and other animal life, that he invited fellow writers and thinkers to examine and discuss in private at his Weimar home. A catalogue of this single collection, published in 1849, spans almost 300 pages of single-spaced entries.

The first public museum for natural history was established in 1793 in Paris, during the French Revolution. Building on a royal natural and botanical collection dating back to 1635, the object of the new Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle was to conduct scientific research as well as to instruct the populace – quite a departure from the earlier, prestige-based collections.

This seems to me a logical extension of the Enlightenment’s Encyclopédie traditions from earlier in the same century, which sought to bring knowledge to a wider public rather than keep it for a select few.

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Collection shelf, Berlin Museum of Natural History
Source: Erik Olsen/New York Times

Today, we take for granted many of the massive collections housed by the world’s natural history museums, large and small.

I know I spent many hours in semi-fascination tempered by the dusty boredom of looking at static animals posed in naturalistic attitudes against painted landscapes, birds stuffed in mid-flight, their plumage iridescent and stale, and helmeted beetles on pins.

I felt I was being educated, but to what end? There was usually little context, even with the painted jungles and savannahs of dioramas. I had no real sense of the animals or plants as a part of life.

Now, natural history museums are turning the tables, literally and figuratively. Many are publishing the vast encyclopedia of biodiversity found on their shelves online.

Several projects are well underway to scan the collections gathered over centuries, many of them originally private, digitize their images and information, and make them available to the public – not just to educate, but to be used in open research.

Through the Woods - Oil on 31 log sections (1996) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Through the Woods –
Oil on 31 log sections (1996)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

At this point, many of these specimens aren’t just curiosities – they are a last line of existence for life that has become rare, or even extinct. They hold secrets that could only be conceived of in philosophical terms back when many of them were first collected – DNA, ecological webs, life habits, connections.

They can be used to trace industrial development, climate change, and human settlement.

A New York Times article quotes Katja Seltmann, a biologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as saying that each type specimen is “like the Mona Lisa. If an antenna or a leg breaks, all of a sudden, a really large part of information about that organism is gone.”

Like the fallen log creations, these specimens are each windows to an entire world, the world in which they lived.

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001) Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Tall Sassafras Slice I (2001)
Artist: Alison Moritsugu

Polka Dot Architects

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When we humans meet another human, we often like to ask what that other human does. We often assume that what someone does is who they are, even if this isn’t necessarily true.

Still, in many cultures, what someone does comes to define how they are perceived.

Some new satellite images published this week show a strange and unexpectedly regular patterning of polka dot discs cut into vegetation, spread out across a large swathe of land near the Grand Canyon.

Patterned vegetation having a “polka-dot” arrangement (Courtesy Google Earth, coordinates: 36°17’16.79’’ N, 113° 05’ 57.66’’ W). Source: A.C. Sparavigna

Patterned vegetation having a “polka-dot” arrangement (Courtesy Google Earth, coordinates: 36°17’16.79’’ N, 113° 05’ 57.66’’ W).
Source: A.C. Sparavigna

At first glance, it looks like the land has a pale case of the measles. But a recently published paper points to a more likely reason: Each dot is an ant nest, and there are hundreds of them set neatly in a geometric arrangement.

The images put me in mind of this wonderful post over on the blog Ecology is not a dirty word, in which ecologist Manu Saunders discusses insects as they are described in an early entomology work, Insect Artizans and their Work (1919), by Edward Step.

Discs in patterned vegetation (Courtesy Google Earth, coordinates: 36°14’55.07’’ N, 113°05’05.22’’ W). Source: A.C. Sparavigna

Discs in patterned vegetation (Courtesy Google Earth, coordinates: 36°14’55.07’’ N, 113°05’05.22’’ W).
Source: A.C. Sparavigna

Saunders writes, “The book explains the insect world within a context of interest to contemporary society (economics and industry). Step chose this approach to awaken an interest in people for “whom a more systematic treatment would be considered dry and uninteresting”.

He uses the categories of artisanship or ‘industry’ (in the old-fashioned sense of craftsmanship) to group insect species.”

She continues, “Once upon a time, it was common to approach nature as functional, rather than delineated. ‘Ecosystem services’ is really just a new name for an old method. Everything in nature has a role. Before individual species were given names and separated into organisms, people recognised different animals, birds and plants through their seasonal activities. This tied in with mythologies and cultural beliefs, where every kind of plant, animal and ecosystem had a symbolism relative to human life. And so Step groups the insects he describes by the crafts they contribute to nature.”

The book’s table of contents brings us to Horticulturalists and the red harvester ant (Pogonomyrmex barbatus), the ant which is presumed to have made the polka dot arrays on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

As impressive as this large earth work is above ground, my guess is that the real artisanal work is going on below the surface.

The harvester ant, according to entomologist Dr. Walter R. Tschinkel, a leading figure in the study of ants and ant colonies, “collects seeds and stores them in underground chambers for future use, excavates a large, beautiful subterranean nest, decorates its nest disc with bits of charcoal and attracts many inquilines and myrmecophiles (Note: co-habiting organisims and animals that are associated with ants) that live in its nest.”

Dr. Tschinkel explores nests by making casts of them, and these casts are quite spectacular.

Some findings of interest – underground morphology varies among ant species, colonies may reach up to twelve feet in depth, and may hold up to 9,000 – 10,000 workers. Source: Tschinkel/DPages

Underground morphology varies among ant species, colonies may reach up to twelve feet in depth, and may hold up to 9,000 – 10,000 workers.
Source & caption: Tschinkel/DPages

These are works of intricacy, complexity and undeniable craftsmanship.

Ants are traditionally seen as hard workers (Edward Step himself asserts that one of the most quoted sections of the Bible is the injunction to consider the ways of the Ant), and being a hard worker is generally considered a virtue.

At the same time, we don’t actually like ants all that much. They bite, they infest all manner of human habitats, they can impact landscapes intended for grazing and harvest, and they are very difficult to eradicate. We appreciate their industry but not necessarily its products.

Yet if we judge humans by what they do, how hard they work and by what they create, how then are we to judge the large ant colonies that produce these structured arrays of architectural delights?

Close-up of a harvester ant colony cast. Source: Source: Tschinkel/DPages

Close-up of a harvester ant colony cast.
Source: Source: Tschinkel/DPages

From the observatory – 2016

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Universe Map – click here for a larger version
Artist: Pablo Carlos Budassi

The new year is already well under way and I’ve been tardy in sending ChampagneWhisky wishes for a good 2016.

The brilliant ‘map’ of the observable universe above, created using NASA images based on astronomical surveys provided by Princeton University, is the work of artist and musician Pablo Carlos Budassi.

It makes sense to me that since this is a vision of the observable universe, it is viewed from the perspective of where we live: Earth and our own solar system.

Budassi then works outwards, through the circle of the Milky Way, through neighboring galaxies, through the myriad of star clusters and finally, encircling everything with the plasma remnants of the Big Bang.

Is it a ‘true’ representation of the universe?

Maybe.

heavenly-spheres.jpg

Engraving from Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire

At least, one of the main steps we can do when we view the world around us is to acknowledge that we are each at the center of our own personal observatory.

We can hope our own view resonates with others, that our personal data reflects what others have been gathering from their individual observatories on the universe, and that we can learn from the information gathered from other viewpoints as well as our own.

As a new project, I’ve started a rather different blog, Favorite Skies, which welcomes submissions of your favorite skies in photos, words, and other images, and invites you to share what those skies mean to you – even if it’s just a feeling or a few thoughts. The blog is still a work in progress – I ask for patience while I get it fully functional.

I hope my thoughts on the world around us, on the environment, on champagne, whisky and the outdoors, all seen from my ChampagneWhisky observatory, continue to interest and amuse, and I look forward to seeing you all through this new year on Planet Earth.