View from Above

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

17th century celestial map by Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

We’re always looking for reasons, causality, connections, in life and in science. There’s an ongoing project that might be an invaluable tool in discovering unexpected interconnectivity on the planet’s surface.

The ICARUS Initiative (“International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space”) is a scientific collaboration working towards placing a remote sensory system on the International Space Station to track tagged animals around the globe.

The Icarus team is developing tag sensors that can be placed on any kind of animal, from zebras to butterflies, and which will relay the animals’ movements to the ISS antenna for distribution and analysis.

Movebank map. Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

Movebank map.
The data will be collected and stored with Movebank.
Click on the image for an interactive view, which can be filtered by animal identifiers.

By allowing scientists combine data sets from separate studies in new ways, including meteorological and geological data, entirely new questions can be proposed and ideas tested.

Suggested uses include tracking the spread of disease, gaining insight into migration, ecological patterns and better understanding of evolutionary processes.

And then there’s the example given by Dr. Martin Wikelski, head of the ICARUS Initiative and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology: By observing the movement of goats on Italy’s Mount Etna, volcanic eruptions can be predicted up to six hours in advance.

Huichol cross ('God's eye'). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.  Source: Geo-Mexico

Huichol cross (‘God’s eye’). The four points represent the eternal processes of earth, fire, air and water. Colors carry symbolic meanings, as well.
Source: Geo-Mexico

When I was a kid growing up in California, it was common to pass the pre-Internet, pre-digital time of day by making God’s eyes, stick and yarn creations that symbolize the power to see and understand the unknown. God’s eye weavings are mostly decorative now, but the basic colors represent various aspects of life. Weaving together a God’s eye can be a way of meditating on how the various strands of life work together in unseen ways.

There isn’t really a scientific equivalent to the God’s eye, but projects like the Icarus Initiative might just be a start.

Where Fading Paths Lead

Photo: © Phillip CollaVia: oceanlight.com

Photo: © Phillip Colla
Via: oceanlight.com

I have the feeling that a few of the skills I learned from my late grandmother, the old-fashioned stuff of pre-radio days like how to crotchet a blanket or to  preserve a batch of the family recipe for apple butter, will probably not be passed along to the next generation. This doesn’t matter much, really, since plenty of people still know how to crotchet and preserve fruit.

Not all skills are so widespread, not all knowledge so easily replicated. My grandmother’s grandfather knew how to live in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, much of which he navigated on foot long before there were many roads. He could build a house, find water or catch and tame a horse. By my mother’s generation, we were living in apartments, driving cars and water always came out of the tap. The only horses I was taught to catch were the ones on a merry-go-round.

With the change of wild habitats and the habits that abide them, there follows a slow attrition of those who are able to find their way through the wilderness. And so there are the last few traditional bush trackers across what remains of wild country on different continents. People who learned to track as they were growing up, for whom it is really a second nature. I read about the handful of master trackers in South Africa and Australia, who are trying to record their knowledge in a variety of ways – written, on the Internet, through classes held for others who would like to learn the art and skills, through professional training of future trackers for parks. The true heirs seem to be scientists – zoologists, botanists, wildlife management specialists.

I suppose I should have known, but I had no idea that the art of going where human rules don’t apply had become more rarified than learning ancient Greek.

More:

CNN article – Last of the bush trackers on the trail of a dying art

Don’s Maps – Australian tracker profiles