Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

24 Jun 2011

Within, The Jackal

In the autumn of last year, I took part in a study headed by David Urry at the Archipelagos Institute of Marine and Environmental Research in Greece. David established a project to monitor the growing population of Canis aureus, the Golden Jackal on the isle of Samos in the Aegean Sea. Following a (human induced) large wildfire, a group of jackals are thought to have swum across the narrow straight separating the island from mainland Turkey.  

Whilst their distribution spans across much of Northern Africa, Eastern Europe and Asia, this population is of interest since it is the only such which exists on a Mediterranean island. As part of the project, the research team undertook a population survey, consisting of night time trips to vantage points across the island from which we played the territorial call of C. aureus. Recordings of the number responses and their distribution across the whole island allowed us to calculate a rough estimate of population size.  

The findings of the study correlated with those reported in scientific literature which show that C. aureus has adapted its ecology to match the increasingly managed landscapes within which it lives. This was abundantly clear when conducting stomach content analysis as part of autopsies assessing population health. These read as inventory lists for agricultural production on the island: the seeds and stones of grapes and olives; the beans and tubers of vegetable crops; the quills and bones of chickens.

Even more interesting is that rather than a decline, the population is thought to be increasing. This demonstrates the resilience of certain aspects of ecosystems to the presence of man, ultimately adapting their lifestyles in order to capitalise on new opportunities presented. Jackals have integrated themselves well to human landscapes due to their plasticity. However, rapid human developments will continue to bulldoze the future of those species less able to adapt to the loss of their existing habitats.

The Jackal is now perceived as a pest due to its dependence on agricultural landscapes for food, and yet in effect it is we who have made the jackal what it is today. It would seem that man's ties with nature extend beyond its destruction. 

(Image taken from: Beverly Joubert)

‘Edge of a Wood’ Rodney Graham (1999)

The nocturne that prevails in a temperate forest at night is one of quiet. Unlike their tropical counterparts which hum with the singing of cicadas and frogs, the woods of the northern hemisphere are only occasionally disturbed by the shrill cry of a passing owl or the crunch of leaves underfoot. But not tonight, for in the distance an unnatural hum can be heard. It grows louder and harsher till it is revealed as the distinctive drone of a low flying helicopter. Suddenly its lights cut through the darkness, sweeping back and forwards across the exposed trees.

This is the scene presented by Rodney Graham’s video instillation as part of the “Edge of a Wood” exhibition at Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art. What initially appeared to me as a scene of tranquillity, descended into an uncomfortable exposure of the invasive presence of Man. It immediately got my mind racing as to the way in which human interactions with natural spaces are viewed by different cliques of society. Here, we are presented as a foreign force, by others as a conqueror of the elements (I picture an advert for fertiliser), and finally as small part of a integrated community which has and will continue to exist without us.
This piece of art began a niggle at the back of my head which now manifests itself in the ideas I share in this blog. 

You can view a clip of the piece in question above, but bear in mind that it loses a lot of its power outside of a gallery setting.

23 Jun 2011

We Are Nature

Ever hugged a tree? As proposed by Edward O Wilson, the celebrated naturalist and pioneer of Myrmecology (the study of ants), the “Biophilia hypothesis” suggests that we all have an innate affinity with nature and a tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes.  Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the Death of God and the increasing agnostic outlook of global citizens have left us feeling devoid of ultimate meaning aside from as part of a continuum of life on Planet Earth.  Wilson goes as far as to argue that due to the emergence of the human mind as a product of evolutionary forces, we are eternally bound to the natural systems which have shaped us. In this regard we are not only a part of nature, but our perceptions are further a creation of natural process.

From the offset then, we are nature. But how do we relate to this idea day to day? Personally I was long ago yanked away from the idea of an all consuming ‘energy’ which ties me to natural spaces by a cynical friend. This probably pushed me from the romanticised view of nature to the scientific analysis which characterises my attitudes today. And yet, standing in a rainy forest, or stumbling across a group of ants building exquisite geometric structure certainly elicits a response of wonder (I think the picture below illustrates this). Is it possible to find a balance of the two?


My name is Julian, and I am a Zoologist specialising in community-based conservation of natural habitats. As such, I am fascinated by the relationship between man and nature, humanity and ecology, civilizations and wilderness. The catastrophic loss of species and habitats driven largely by anthropogenic factors suggests that the human relationship with the natural world is increasingly troubled, despite our ultimate dependence on the ecosystem services provided.

Along with an increasing diaspora of activists, artists and authors, I believe that in order to understand our position in the global ecosystem it is vital to explore human perceptions of nature. Only then can we address the rift between increasingly urbanised societies and the increasingly distant ‘wilderness’ of our origins.

In this blog I will attempt to do so by sharing my experiences of human interactions with nature, from contemporary art, natural history, through to the policy of international conservation organisations. I will post theories, images, and interviews but also day to day encounters. I may also indulge myself by posting the odd video of anthropomorphised animals in hilarious scenarios. Feel free to comment, argue, deconstruct, rant and post your own ideas, experiences, and perceptions. That after all that is the point of this blog.