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

21 Dec 2012

Seasons Greetings from Sápmi


Straddling the Arctic circle of Fennoscandia, Sápmi is home to Europe's last self governing indigenous people, the Sámi. A christmas card take on this group is that of one sheltered from the terrors of modern day culture, tending to their family troop of reindeer under the swirling lights of the Aurora.  In reality, the herds of reindeer now number up to 15,000 heads, often corralled using helicopters, quad bikes and skidoos, modern methods of otherwise ancient upkeep.

Technologically switched on yes, but no less deeply tied to the boreal tundras and pine forests. The northern forests are shared with remotely operated silvicultural robots, cutting, ripping, stripping and packaging trees within the space of 5 minutes for the industrial scale forestry conglomerates. An efficient exploitation of the forests resources, but one which is increasing revealed to have damaging impacts on the rest of the forest flora and fauna. The trenches cut into the moss and lichen carpets repress future regeneration of natural trees and plants, also deteriorating the grazing grounds (guohton in lapon) of the reindeer.

A deeply entrenched knowledge of vegetative regeneration, snowfall and grazing impacts all guide the movements of the Sámi and their herds, as opposed to the emotionless claws of the multisaw machines. It is encouraging to see that this indigenous culture is at the forefront of Nordic forest policy and folklore poetry, but the case for experience based knowledge as opposed to economic based extraction is far from won.

Over this festive period, remember that the reindeer pulling that sleigh are fighting an uphill battle day in day out, so this year, leave an extra carrot. Merry Christmas readers!


12 Dec 2012

Rain: A Very British Love Affair

I'm back in Britain, back to my capital, and for once, the steely grey skies of London have been replaced by a crisp winter baby blue. So why do I find myself at the back of an hour long queue to stand under a heavy downpour? The absurdity of heading into the depths of the Barbican (London's very own ugly icon), to stand in the rain is quick becoming a must for savvy Londoners. In our bowler hats and mackintoshes,we queue, patiently, politely, waiting to fulfil the cultural cliche and partake in a favoured national pastime, a brisk walk in the rain. For, in our very hearts, weathered by many a washout, the Briton is an amphibian, impervious to drizzle, and relishing a rain cloud.



Through the doors and down the dark sloping corridor, which slowly curves round to reveal a wall of water. Random International, an installation art collective, have crafted the rain room, a terribly simple but technically challenging indoor cloudburst. Tickling British sensibilities, the next step is familiar to many a commuter, the step from the bus, out the door, off the tube into the soaking open air. The inevitability of it, and the inability to turn against the polite but determined queue behind forces you forward. And it stops. But only above you. For all around the hammering cords continue, an invisible umbrella shielding the visitor from every single drop, only a smile reaching their faces, an immense satisfaction but unnerving sensation of having conquered the elements.

26 Nov 2012

The Life Scientist



"Our human eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other, non-human eyes, as our ears are now tuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the truming of frogs. While gliding in huge undulating schools through the depths of the ammotic oceans, or later, while crawling upon our bellies from puddle to puddle (our scaley skin glinting in the sun). While racing beneath the grasses as tiny noctural mammals, or leaping from branch to branch as long tailed primates, our brainy bodies have steadily formed themselves in dynamic interaction with the texture and rythms of terrestrial nature."

Given this evolutionary entanglement with our animal ancestry, and a deep rooted sensitivity to our natural surroundings, what good can be gleamed from the detatched observations of a scientist? Screened by the lenses of microscope, or the crystalex screen of my laptop, what purpose does my retreat from directly experienced reality serve? The detached states of mind  and clinical practice necessary to derive insights proper to science has yielded insights and explanations which in my opinion justify this objective and materialist position. But caution must be applied, for the rise of science and technology deadens the senses to our carnal embedment in a world ultimately beyond our control.

Abandoning the animate landscape that has formed the very eyes that now peer through our microscopes, the very intelligence that now seeks to interprate the data, is not an option. "Every coherent image we can have of those other, ostensibly more objective dimensions is secretly rooted then, in the ambiguous, ever-shifting terrain of our ordinary experience."

Quotes taken from David Abram- Becoming Animal
Image taken from the MRS Science as Art Collection


18 Nov 2012

The lie of the land

The rupturing power in seismic shifts, juttering earthquakes, scraping glaciers and bombastic volcanoes shape the landscapes which characterise our horizons. This is the foundation for the springing up of sprouting vegetation, accompanied by a myriad of organic organisms. Physical process driving biological diversity. But a landscape can also be a product of a collision between nature and culture, with the lie of the land, and the corresponding community of creatures unfurling like text on a rumpled parchment. By reading the signs, we can come to learn that rather than virgin vistas, a pristine myth, our land is also a product of long gone human settlement.

For European cultures, this idea is less surprising, given the dramatic reshaping of the Mediterranean earths as a result of Roman expansion, extraction and expulsion, followed by feudal furrows and enparcelment of crops. But what of the Great Green of the neotropics: Amazonia, Indonesia, and the Congo Basin, the last bastions of a non-human heartland? Beneath the buttress roots of a towering fig tree, the sprawling canopy of a dipterocarp, lie the remains of a flint here, a charcoal fire there. Buried by an accumulation of vegetation, by the sands of time, but not completely hidden are traces of monumental human civilisations.

And now for one more shock to the system. Contrary to our current role as the horseman of the apocalypse, harbingers of a natural necropolis, what if our actions paved the way for the flourishing diversity we see before us today? Research has shown that human societies of neotropical lowlands, as a result of expansive subsistence activities, remodelled soil fertility and reconstructed landform heterogeneity. From the earthworks of Eastern Bolivia, the forest islands of Guinea Bissau, a blossoming of diversity as a result of human intervention.

11 Nov 2012

Declaration to the dying leaves of Autumn

"Parc Ballons des Vosges in November" by my friend Stefano Zanini
















Where does my humble appreciation,
Of the farewell fanfare of Autumn come from? 
My own growing maturity? 
Knowing reflections on dying love? 
Or is it that this yearly ritual, 
Played out like a dog eared novel, 
Brings comfort in knowing that life will spring again,
From the withered bows of the old oak trees?

5 Nov 2012

Hugo Pratt, Corto Maltese and the Ballad of the Salt Sea

I can think of no better book to read when staying on a small Breton island on the Atlantic coast. Corto Maltese and the Ballad of the Salt Sea is an exceptional showcase of the talent of comic book artist Hugo Pratt in capturing wild landscapes. The eponymous hero, whose adventures see him travel to exotic locations, mirror the authors own wanderlust, and document the memories that Pratt has of his destinations. The french appreciation of comics (BDs, bande dessinée) is missing from British literature, hard to justify when scanning the beautiful imagery of Corto's latest adventure.



28 Oct 2012

FIAC 3: Mark Dion, The Tropical Collectors

The final piece is by an artist renowned for works which draw on the culture of natural sciences. Inspired by childhood school trips, and a subsequent post as artist in residence at the Natural History Museum in London, Mark Dion is well aware of the importance of a museum in influencing public opinion. Whilst art galleries have their place, the scientific basis of natural history museums lends power to art works exhibited there.  The culture of scientists, field research and data collection are heavily referenced in his works, with Dion constantly questioning where the distinctions between 'objective' science and corresponding 'subjective' politics lie: "Nature is one of the most sophisticated arenas for the production of ideology."


Within the enclosures of the menagerie, accompanied by the chirruping of tropical birds and the strong odour of rutting mountain sheep, "The Tropical Collectors" is at odds with its surroundings. Seemingly dumped on a tropical beach is a mountain of field equipment to be used by a team of Victorian-era natural historians. Cages, nets, callipers and candles. Amongst all of this are certain objects which reference the work of Bates, Spruce and Wallace, documenters of the ecology of South America at the time. The irony of the setting is palpable, given that these objects of "discovery" led to capture, categorisation and measurement, reducing the unknown wild to a cuckoo in a cage.


The work of these explorers was great, and here Dion exhibits their methodology as opposed to the resulting findings.  For it is the results of scientific research, usually detached from cultural ties, which become bogged down in their institutional context. A discovered tropical bird, becomes a bundle of feathers in a zoo, as opposed to a detailed jigsaw piece in our understanding of ecological webs. In doing so, he reminds the viewer that whilst science can strengthen the foundations of knowledge, it is often misused in the hands of its perpertrators. As such, Dion is wary of those who attempt to present solutions to the ecological crisis in their art: “I’m not one of these artists who is spending a lot of time imagining a better ecological future. I’m more the kind of artist who is holding up a mirror to the present.”


22 Oct 2012

FIAC 2: Allora & Calzadilla, Raptor's Rapture

As well as natural history, the muséum also facilitates research into the prehistory of human society. The gallerie d'anatomie comparée is filled with a sea of bones, with mammoths and giant elk arranged alongside skeletons of our own ancestors. It is in this context that the artist's video holds sway. The installation is a projection of a woman using the oldest musical instrument known to date; a flute consisting of the carved wing bone of a griffon vulture. The sound produced is the same as that first heard by our Homo sapiens ancestors roughly 35,000 years ago.

This link between "man and beast" is all the more striking given that the performance is played out in front of a contemporary vulture, today threatened with extinction. The vulture, at ease and possibly indifferent to the sound of its ancestor interlaced with that of our own, drags the prehistory to the present, and confronts us with our continual and long term link with the wild world.


FIAC 1: Wood & Harrison, Butterfly


The hall of extinction in the grande gallérie d'évolution is a particularly sobering place. Here, the power of taxidermy is put to its best use, by illustrating the beauty of the living who are long gone dead. The dark wooden cabinets are sombrely lit, so that as if peering from beyond, the viewer meets the eyes of a dodo, a quagga or a bubal hartebeest. The iridescent wings from a cabinet of butterflies quickly attract the attention. A particular favourite of the naturalist explorer, the sheer number of these immobilised specimens makes you wonder whether they would have avoided extinction were they to have escaped the mouth of the net. 

Surrounded by all of this death, imagine then, the shock of the viewer at seeing the delicate wings of one of the butterflies fold in and out, like a ghost of its former self. Anamatronic trickery accompanied by the artist's statement challenges us to reassess our relationship with the tomb.

 "And I don't feel any sorrow

One museum
Hundreds of specimens
Once living

One museum
One specimen
Still living"

FIAC: Au Jardin des Plantes


I'm back in Paris for my final year as a masters student, focusing on the research speciality, Biodiversity and Conservation. It is with great pleasure that I have returned to the Jardin des Plantes, the hub of french natural history. It is also the leading name when it comes to the communication of societies interaction with nature. My daily walks from the library to the canteen (french style, think cheese and patisserie buffets) are interspersed with diversions to see 300 year old trees or sperm whale bones.

As if that werent enough, like last year, the FIAC (festival internationale d'art contomporain) has descended on the city, with 29 nature specific works scattered around the grounds. By using the Jardin as an alternative gallery, the artists are able to strengthen the messages of their oeuvres, but also target a non-art gallery audience. The following three works are examples of the importance of context when exhibiting work with a message.

15 Oct 2012

Biophobia

When the sun sets, the canopy closes over, and the chirping of birds gives way to the noise of the night, it is hard to remember that nature is what sustains us. Instead it becomes an unknown, a direct threat to our humanity, instilling in us the very biophobia which it could be argued is responsible for the brutal divide between us and it. Quick legs, sharp teeth, and piercing eyes all lurk within the hungry shadows. Lars von Trier highlights the idea of "nature as Satan's church" in his film Antichrist.

 
Fear stems from an inability to predict the unknown, but it could also be argued that we have constructed rational fears based on previous knowledge. Ssssnakes and spiders across the globe elicit reactions of terror, further enforced by cultural practice, rightly so given their nefarious defensive mechanisms which will have been of fatal importance to our ancestors. The nostalgia felt for the savannahs could be construed as viewed with the same eye, an area of abundant game but importantly visible enemies, unlike the dark dank green hell of the tropics. Biophobia must be an important consideration when tackling human enduced eco-cide, and understood when addressing our relationship with nature.

28 Sep 2012

Human Nature

Previous BIOPHILIA posts have addressed the destruction and degradation of natural process as a result of our drive for expansion, extraction and an overpowering sense of a need for progress. Discussions on the role of conservation organisations, international governance and centralised strategy have often pointed to failure as a result of the human condition. Is it that our very nature has led us along the path of destruction, or can we escape the downward spiral by coming to terms with what it means to be Homo sapiens? Philosophers and poets are often addressed when searching for The Answer, but I prefer to ask the evolutionary biologists. This may seem dismissive and self-congratulating, but given my training, I increasingly see life and mind anchored to a physical basis, with humanity originating as a biological species in a biological world.We have evolved our intelligence, both through selfish genes as promoted by Dawkins and selfless altruism as elucidated by Hamilton.

Rather than being born with the mind as a blank slate, man is born rather with a pinball machine. We have evolved channels, predisposed to certain adaptations which have served our ancestors well, but the direction our ball takes is changed according to the environment around them. A stronger push at the start will lead to a change in trajectory. As Wilson discusses in "On Human Nature", we are predisposed to cultural acquisition, whether that be language, behaviour or religion, but it is our environment which determines their influence. Culture may be an environmental construct, but its adoption is already rooted in our genes.

Like the inside of this guy's turban, our newborn mind is a multichanneled pinball machine

To hand over the responsibility of our being from angels to alleles is not easy, as illustrated by the tragedy of George Price. Early on in life, his elevated intellect gained him a position on the Manhattan Project, the scientific drive for creation of the atomic bomb. He soon became disillusioned with the development of tools which strove to destroy, and instead dedicated himself to understanding the genetic basis of altruism, our innate drive to support others. By elaborating the importance of inclusive fitness, and the protection of the genes shared by our closest, it also revealed the darker side of gene based cooperation: spite against non-relatives. The discovery of this selfish reasoning for kindness disturbed Price deeply, so much so that he dedicated the rest of his life to acts of goodwill to complete strangers, providing a home to the homeless, increasingly sapping his own reserves in the process. Acts of theft combined with his own extremism led to him to destitution, depression and alienation, eventually pushing him to suicide on January 6th, 1975.

A young George Price
The saddest part of the story is that Price's revelations in the field of evolution, when combined with more recent developments, should be a cause for celebration. By demonstrating that nature is hardwired to cooperate amongst its own shows that whilst humanity has developed a social structure based on personal reproductive success, it is also founded on the benefits of group membership. We have evolved the ability to memorise, construct scenarios, and plan strategies in relation to others in our clan. Off-shoots of this mental buildup include morality, conformity, and imagination. It is also human to value achievement, but to level ill-merit, inequality within social-systems is eventually addressed because it is immediately obvious to other members of the group. In essence this is a biological founding for justice, honour and human rights.

And so to the future. What strategies will our society adopt to face ever changing situations? We can be sure at least, that those most adapted to the new conditions will survive, but also that these strategies will favour not just closest kin, but also our globalised community. We will strive to survive based on the essential components of human nature: aspiration, compassion and creativity.

This post was inspired by the unstoppable force of E. O. Wilson, the bloody handball to my Tom Hanks Castaway. For more on the genetic basis for human nature and social cohesion, read his books "On Human Nature" and "The Social Conquest of Earth".

13 Sep 2012

Oiling the cogs of the Conservation Machine

Our society runs on oil, and despite leaps and bounds made in alternative fuels, it is still the most energy efficient source we have in terms of reliability. Until that changes, it will remain a growing market. Fears of "Peak Oil" have been brushed aside following discoveries of fresh wells to tap, but also technological advances which allow access to extreme oil; fracking every last drop out of the Dakota tar sands. Geopolitical threats from Iran have spurned this prospecting, and the squeals of the environmental sector are drowned by the monetary muscle of the petro-lobbyists.

Whilst the oil companies rake it in, environmental NGOs are feeling the pinch, and not just in their pockets. Human induced climate change is exacerbated by our addiction to oil, increasing the degradation of natural systems. With previous pots of government funding running dry, the NGO community is turning to big business to pay its way. Indeed, the current message of the conservation clique is clear “capitalism is the key to our ecological future and ecological sustainability will help end our current financial crisis”. Rather than renounce the system which has promoted the exploitation of resources across the globe, these BINGOs (Big NGOs) have leapt to make alliances with money spinning corporations. Whilst it is naive to believe that a globally operating environmental NGO can function on voluntary donations at a ground level, it does not detract from the issue of the green washing effect this has on our view of corporations, nor change the influence they exert in turn. As they hold the power to switch off the tap of cash at any moment, BINGOs are forced to follow company line and the capitalist tenet of returns on investment and demonstration of growth.

One such BINGO who is trying to bridge the gap between the seemingly polar opposite worlds of conservation and corporations is the Earthwatch Institute. Since 1971, they have worked with field scientists and institutions to develop citizen-science-based research and environmental monitoring programmes. Last year, they supported close to 80 different projects in more than 30 countries, contributing to scientific journals, but also changes in management strategy for at risk environments. What distinguishes Earthwatch from others is their attempts to engage with their corporate partners rather than take their money and run with it. Most impressive is the 5-year partnership between HSBC, focusing on the impacts of climate change on tree growth. Regional Climate Centres were set up in China, India, Latin America, North America and Europe, where scientists, supported by local community members and HSBC employees, carried out field research to establish the health of the forests. More than 10,000 employees across the globe took part in field research before returning to their offices and implementing 700 initiatives to ingrain sustainability into their business. Whilst big banks mean big bucks, they too are implicit in every major transaction, and thus their actions have a global reach. But by partnering with Shell, have Earthwatch bitten off more than they can chew?

 
Over 500 Shell employees have now been on projects, who return to their business well aware of the threats of climate change as a direct result of oil extraction. This has spurned internal funding to support projects through their Biodiversity and Ecosystem services initiative, and employees are partnering with UNESCO world heritage sites to transfer their business skills. I truly believe that this goes beyond greenwashing and that within the company, certain individuals are realising the future impacts of unsustainable business. Unfortunately, this represents a drop in the ocean, and with Shell numbering close to 100,000 employees, it seems that the partnership still has a long way to go.
Kader Attia. Oil and Sugar #2, 2007
Are Shell to blame for the oil glut? They, after all, only represent 5% of the total oil market, and yet receive probably the loudest condemnation. Governments are those who are directly responsible for the fate of their country, but how can we expect a government to reject a 5 billion jumpstart to their economy, and an oil lobby who force it down their throats. The shambles of Shell's operations in Nigeria both on an environmental and human rights scale demonstrate the corrosive power of oil, and should make anyone wary of operating with them. This week, Shell have done the unthinkable but unavoidable, and have begun to prospect for oil at the fringes of the receding Arctic icesheets. The shameful irony of a positive feedback loop; more oil consumption has made more of it available.

8 Sep 2012

Smoke and Daggers in the Ant Mound

My week at Copenhagen University only serves to strengthen my fascination for the Formicines. The course on ant ecology i was attending opened my eyes to the ecology of Denmark's ant fauna, with one subfamily in particular capturing my imagination. The Mirmicenes are small and inconspicuous to the naked eye, hidden away in clumps of grass and subterranean citadels of soil. But under a microscope, their heavy armour and formidable dorsal spines mark them out as a foe not to be messed with. Colonies regularly wage war with their neighbours, even claiming slaves to take home and rear their brood. It takes a being honed by the hand of evolution to match and surpass these ants defences.

Enter the delicate blue butterfly of the Maculinea genus. These lay their eggs on the flowers of a plant species found in an area near to the otherwise discrete ant nests. These eggs then hatch and the butterfly larvae are released onto the ground. Rather than fend for themselves like other caterpillars, these individuals have evolved to mask themselves with a hydrocarbon coat which mimics that of a developing Mirmica ant queen. Within minutes, the butterfly larvae are taken back to the nest by foraging ants, who then fatten up the parasite until it undergoes metamorphosis, escapes and returns to the sky as a fledged butterfly.

Nature is as nature does, and even under the watchful eye of the blinded ants, the parasite is parasitised itself by a parasitic wasp! The wasp has a different approach to the nest, sniffing out the caterpillar and entering guns blazing. Otherwise outgunned by the thousands of Myrmica soldier jaws, the wasp employs chemical warfare. The wasp secretes a chemical which initially attracts the defending ants, seemingly jeopardising it's life. But then, once the initial ant arrives and grabs it's invader, it is contaminated by a secondary secretion, even more infuriating to its colony mates. Like a Charlie Chaplin-esque bar brawl, the ants attack and contaminate each other further, whilst the wasp slips away. The docile fattening caterpillar is thus left defenceless as the wasp swoops in and injects its own developing larvae, who will internally suck it dry as it attempts to pupate.

Such a complex community is only just being understood, the timing of which is important given the Endangered status of the butterflies. When people question my interest in ants, and what benefits I can draw from their studies, not only can I point to these fascinating examples, but also the crucial role of an increase in knowledge to prevent the extinctions of otherwise unknown species.   

An alternative guide to Copenhagen's Gastronomy


Tucked away in an understated storehouse on the tip of Christianshavn island, Copenhagen's Noma serves up the worlds best food (Restaurant Magazine's annual S.Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants). With prices starting at a cool 850 Krone/£100, and bookings required months in advance, the restaurant showcases the elite of Scandinavian style, class and ingenuity. Seasonal, local ingredients are smoked, pickled and salted, before being combined to culminate with immaculate results.

Although I didn't make it through the door, I did try some of their food. Well, sort of. Because I came to Denmark to track down Lasius fuligonosus, one of the key ingredients to the plethora of dishes crafted in the hallowed kitchens at Noma. A dollop of yogurt is added to a small water biscuit before being topped with... an ant!
I imagine that similar to myself, the supplier of the larders (apparently an amateur naturalist too) arms himself with some waterproofs and collection vials, before heading north of the city to the temperate forests, heathlands and bogs of Zealand to find colonies to harvest. Naturally, since this is Noma, the ant in question is the most elegant I have ever seen. Shiny and jet black, with a delicate narrow petiole (waist) separating its spherical abdomen and thorax, L. fuligonosus can also be characterised by a fresh lemongrass taste.
If that wets your taste buds, then it is best to find these delectable invertebrates in established woodlands, given that they nest in old tree stumps, creating labyrinth like tubes and caverns from chewed wood and saliva pulp. We found one at Bøllemose, a stunning bogland known amongst myrmecologists for its ant diversity, with further treats of edible clover, fungi, cranberries and bilberries hidden amongst the sphagnum moss and carnivorous sundew plants. A few more treats to accompany our arthropod amuse-bouche. A quick lick releases the initial blush of lemony defensive chemicals, whilst a swift crunch spreads the flavour to the roof of your mouth and around the palate.
With rises in food prices, predictions are being made that insects will be adopted more and more to supplement proteins in our diet. Across the harbour in a houseboat, the Nordic Food Lab, also established by Rene Redzepi of Noma, examines our potential as insectivores, with ecologists, anthropologists and gastronomists all working to create the main course.

27 Aug 2012

Drowning Ophelia in an English river


Ophelia 1852. John Everett Millais

17 Aug 2012

Facing the Dark Mountain



It is easy to be pessimistic, cynical and disillusioned. As we are constantly reminded by both the mouth of the media and measures of empirical evidence, the world is crashing down on our heads. Economies, ecosystems and everything in between are taking a turn for the worse. And whilst solutions are constantly spouted by those at the helm of human civilization, so far the track record of responses are pretty dire. 

A week ago, sat in a grassy field in the Cotswolds, I listened to a sermon delivered by Paul Kingsnorth, founding father of the Dark Mountain project, named after the apocalyptic poetry written by Robinson Jeffers in 1935 as a response to the rearmament for WW2:  “Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses, the dance of the Dream-led masses down the dark mountain”.

Here, he outlined his call for contemporary art and literature to face up to the reality of our situation, and to promote Uncivilization, elaborated in their eloquent manifesto. I was not alone in admiring this movement, its aims to target the public consciousness, and strip away the value of growth, progress and human glory. But to embrace the demise of the very civilization which has made me and many of those I hold dear safe from hunger and ill health is a hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, by turning away to art as opposed to finding inspiration in humanity, the project risks becoming an exercise of unfruitful navel-gazing. 

I celebrate an artistic movement to strive to understand and deal with our situation, and I will continue to follow their ascent of the Dark Mountain from the vulnerable flood plains below. But to turn my back on human achievement, intellectual advancement and the discovery of solutions to our problems is something the scientist in me is incapable of.

8 Aug 2012

Birding Britannia

Britain is birding mad. No other nation tackles the observation of birds like an Olympic event. But perhaps that's not the best way to describe it, as for many a twitcher, the self-proclaimed mission of observing their flighty friends stretches long beyond a 2 week event every 4 years. For those to whom the RSPB bird guide is gospel, the arrival of an off course migrant to our shores can mean the delay of a wedding or a journey of hundreds of miles, and weekends are usually booked up with ornithological observations. I am known to fix binoculars to my eyes to take in a grouse, gull or gannet, and this weekend even missed Andy Murray's Gold to visit the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust HQ. But I tip my hat to those to whom a bird-list becomes a passion, making them members of a community based on an unwavering devotion to the natural world.

The extent of it's influence on British culture, aside from the political weight of organisations such as RSPB and WWT, is the list of collective nouns for bird groups, of which I leave you with my favorites. A Charm of Goldfinch, An Exaltation of Larks, A Tiding of Magpies, A Watch of Nightingales, A Parliament of Owls, A Bevy of Quail, An Unkindness of Ravens, A Murmuration of Starlings.
An Asylum of Cuckoos

Beyond Titus; The Sea, The Sea

Rembrandt's The Artist's Son Titus strikes a remarkable figure. Unlike the scenes of wealth and status in many of the other portraits at the Wallace collection however, this figure is simply dressed, and the luxuriant landscapes of ancient Greece or Italy are instead replaced by a inky black, broken only by what appears to be the crashing waves of the sea.

The piercing gaze clearly had an effect on Iris Murdoch, whose magnum opus The Sea The Sea features a tragic figure whose fate is decided by the pulling tides. Indeed, the pathetic fallacy of sea links the elemental landscapes of a rocky shore, with the swirling consciousness of a murderous mind, acting as a mirror to the tumultuous developing plot. By using a wholly natural force to represent that of the workings of the mind of a man, Murdoch captures the power that perceptions of the natural world have on our emotional state. 

26 Jun 2012

The Pitt Rivers Trilogy III: Ghost Forest

Ghost Forest is artist Angela Palmer's statement against deforestation. The displacement of these trees not just out of Ghana but out of the soil and onto concrete slabs impacts every passer by, with the gnarly knotted roots demanding more than a glance. This immediate connection with the audience leads onto subtle questioning of the works significance. Reading the artist's statement outside the ONH museum reveals the horrifying scale of the shearing of our rainforests and its impacts on our climate. Such a powerful pronouncement has resulted in tours to the grand squares of Copenhagen and London, the courting of  power brokers such as Kofi Annan.  But can art such as this really force a change in our society? For me art should aim not to change the world, but to change our perceptions of it. Only in seeing the realities of our situation can we hope to address them.

The Pitt Rivers Trilogy II: Woodcuts from Wytham

Fir and Oak
Tomorrow morning, I will be hopping on my bike, cycling along the Thames towards the village of Wytham, beyond which lies an area of woodland of extraordinary significance to ecological study. Over 500 species of vascular plants, and 800 species of butterflies and moths rightly qualify this site as a SSSI. Bequeathed to Oxford University in 1942 by the Ffennel family, it has become possibly the most studied habitat on the planet, with every single tree measured and tagged (where I fit in) and all birds measured and identified at birth.
On the Edge
Such a hive of activity is not limited to scientists, with artists equally inspired by the wonder of the woods. Robin Wilson and Rosie Fairfax-Cholmeley are currently exhibiting their beautiful works inspired by the trees and their inhabitants at the ONH/Pitt Rivers Museum. For more information on their fantastic work, see:
http://wythamwoodcraft.webplus.net/

The Pitt Rivers Trilogy I: Oxford's Dream Receptacle


The dreamy spires and the cobbled streets of the city of Oxford belong to another period, of romanticism, escapism and wonder. Behind the walls of the university colleges lie years of knowledge, bound in press or simmering at the nib of a biro. Tolkien, Lewis and more recently Rowling and Pullman were inspired by the cities otherworldly aurora, and dreamt up mythical lands of magical quality. But beyond the borders of books, the city houses its dreams in other venues.

Beneath the rare spires dedicated to science, one can find all manner of objects to set your mind racing. The only difference is that these come from our planet, equal in its infinite wonderment. Start by following the  footprints of a long vanished giant lizard up to the oak door, before stepping into the great hall of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Home to ammonites and zorillas housed beneath a canopy of glass and steel, here dreams and reality unite. This meeting of fact and fiction is best illustrated by the legendary debate on evolution between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, or perhaps more whimsically by the Dodo skeleton of Alice's wonderland.

But more lies within, by stepping through a back door to a real cabinet of curiosity: The Pitt Rivers Museum. Depository of eccentric anthropologists, it acts as a time capsule to the 1800s, with shrunken heads and feathered capes housed amongst other obscura. Once again, the visitor is transported, not to Narnia but to Oceania or Patagonia, to consider the magic of our own world.

18 Jun 2012

Move over Michaela Strachan ...

Chris Packham, halfway up a tree, Panama. BBC2 Secrets of our Living Planet
 " Stretched out around me is the most complex ecosystem on our planet, home to millions of different species. And whilst there is wonder in the details of their individual lives, nothing competes with the sheer beauty of the bigger picture. The dynamic, functional, living, breathing rainforest. For me, science is the art of understanding truth and beauty."  


(Don't worry Michaela, you will always hold a special place in my heart...)

7 Jun 2012

In the Jungle, the mighty jungle...

As the end of my year in France approaches, I am sad to leave but also glad to have had the opportunity to experience the francophone perspective of the natural world. Whilst the differences are slight, they exist nonetheless. Slight curveball, but take this infamous Africana tune, which according to popular legend originally describes Shaka king of the Zulus (with "Wimoweh/Mbube" the Zulu for lion), who is not dead but rather sleeping after defeating European colonisers. Naturally the Anglo version dumbed down any attempts to dampen their colonial power, but the french version takes it a step further. Not a mighty jungle but a terrifying one, not a sleeping lion, but a dead one. Awimoweh Awimoweh...


1 Jun 2012

The Waterlilies at Giverny


Larzac: The Concequences of a Rural Exodus


After thousands of years of grazing, the flocks of inhabitants followed the shepherd of urbanisation and abandoned their pastures. During the 20th century, the Larzac lost 2/3rds of its inhabitants, draining the character of the land with it. For it was the extensive agriculture which shaped the open moors and plateaus, and without the control of sheep, indigenous species like the heliophile orchids faced serious decline. In addition, the march of imperial ambition seemed certain, with an 6 fold expansion of a military camp set to irreversibly alter the makeup of this community and ecosystem.

Instead thankfully, the actions of traditionalist farmers stepping out of their comfort zone and occupying the land along with as many as 100,000 activists in the early 1970's meant that the Larzac was saved. The surrounding land would soon be protected as the Cevennes National Park, and the cultural makeup of the region was preserved. I was lucky enough to spend a week in the region for a field course. Roquefort from our farm, bread from our fields and wine from the valleys below. This intrinsic link of french culture and agriculture proves time and time again a driving force behind the conservation of natural heritage.

Thus, the exodus was halted, and indeed reversed. The sheep have reclaimed their pastures, even the threatened vultures have reclaimed the skies, and the farmers, those most in tune with the soil have taken the helm of the land they know the best.

11 May 2012

Elemental Memories: An innate link


For a long time I thought that the satisfaction brought from the smell of woodsmoke came from childhood memories, but I have come to theorise that this innate feeling of contentness comes from further beyond. Not unlike deja-vu, the same sensation of joy comes with the feel of the air just before a spring storm, and the sound of rain under a tent. To me, these are sensations which harken back to the days when humanities detachment from nature was less pronounced. Then, the presence of the elements fire, wind and rain were of much greater significance, and the signals of a cooked meal, the ending of a drought or the satisfaction of a robust shelter were of higher importance.



Is it possible that along our evolutionary pathway, a mental state of satisfaction has developed which corresponds to a long since depleted valuation of protection from the uncertainties of the wilderness? At the same time, does the response of wonder upon entry into a cathedral reach out to our primitive ancestry amongst the trees? In essence, do we inherit the memories of our ancestors via a genetic basis? By spending time amongst these elements, then, we not only connect with the present but reach out to our intrinsic link with our past, when nature and man were one.


11 Apr 2012

Fluorescence

My eyes are fixed down two tunnels of darkness, searching to find signs of life. After weeks of preparation, of tedious training, my tutors have unleashed me on the light machine, so that I may gaze at what others can only dream of. With a shift of my hand, I reveal a constellation of blue stars, an astral cloud. Who would have though that the fat cells of an ant larvae could be so beautiful. By highlighting the nuclei of cells with a fluorescent compound, we escape the boundaries of human perception to reveal a depth beyond our understanding. Whilst these images will help me to unravel the complex evolutionary history of caste divisions in a Madagascan species of ant, their contemplation takes us to distant galaxies.

29 Mar 2012

Same vision, different line of sight: WWF and Mbou-Mon-Tour


As the worlds largest conservation organisation the World Wide Fund for Nature has a heavy mantle to carry. WWF is rightly seen as one of the most active forces in the global conservation movement since its conception in 1961, exuding an image of goodwill and diplomacy. Yet the vulnerable exterior of a 'soon to be extinct' panda hides beneath it a behemoth of extraordinary power and influence, with international offices across the world and annual revenues of over $200 million, $80 million of which came from corporations in 2010 including Coca-Cola, Lafarge, and even the ever shady Monsanto.

Far away from the manicured lawns of WWF HQ in Gland Switzerland , is the Bandundu province, 200km North-East of Kinshasa DRC. Here, indigenous animist communities rely on the bounty of the forests, with inextricable links between their culture and subsistance. One evening in 1997, a reunion of elders in the village square decided that action was required to protect dwindling forestry reserves in bushmeat and riverine fishstocks. A reduction in cultural values meant that even taboo meats such as the Bonobo, which was thought to have human origins, had declined. Despite no formal education, and little awareness of international conservation policy, they agree to parcel off certain areas of the surrounding forest and forbid access, but also to actively monitor these areas through a voluntary system. For no pay, and effectively a reduction of otherwise free protein, these villagers commit themselves to the preservation of nature.



Jean-Chistophe Bokika, the President of Mbou-Mon-Tour makes it clear that his association is driven by an inextricable link of his community with nature, the impact of which is evident on a daily basis. Arguably what may eventually lead WWF to shady backroom deals is a temporary lack of conscience, but also a detachment of administrators from the natural dynamics they aim to preserve. Furthermore, a level of hypocrisy comes with an elevated status in the eyes of the global naturalist community. The Bandundu community have long since sustained the presence of endangered Bonobo in their forests, but it was only when WWF began to make links and themselves make the declaration in 2005, that the voice of Mbou-Mon-Tour was heard. Despite grievances, and cultural differences, the two organisations are now working together, in order to facilitate research teams and media to achieve the shared aim of protecting the regions wildlife.

21 Feb 2012

Time-Lapse


Sometimes, it takes time to see the world for what it is. And for some such as Momoko Seto, speeding up time taken can reveal even more. The use of time-lapse footage, whilst originally adopted by the scientific community to illuminate processes slow relative to human understanding, has become an artists tool to distort our perception of reality. From the clinical development of a human foetus,  the sensual blossoming of a rose, to the creation of an eerie alien planet composed fungi and rotting fruit, time lapse widens the eyes and fuels our imagination.

14 Feb 2012

The Art of an Entomologist: Carsten Höller


Carsten Höller's foundations as a trained scientist have deeply influenced his art. Whilst originally a researcher in the olfactory communication of insects, he now constructs experiments more akin to instillation pieces in art galleries. In particular, he examines how natural stimuli influence human perceptions of the world around us. The hallucinogenic properties of mushrooms have been central to his latest pieces; giant reconstructions of Amanita muscaria toadstools elicit the shamanic tribal rituals of Siberian indigenous populations. A previous instillation, entitled Solandra Greenhouse consisted of a tunnel of vines which produces chemical compounds said to illicit amorous sensations, which when coupled with strobe lights completes the disorientating feeling of falling in love. By exploring the influence of Nature on Human perception, Höller highlights a deeper meaning to the relationship between man and the diversity of life.

8 Feb 2012

Bjork's Biophilia

Well this is post #50, one year on from the start of the blog, and over 1000 views later. Throughout all this time, I have neglected to mention one particular artist who has long been inspired by natural forces. But last year, in my hometown of Manchester, Björk unveiled her latest venture parallelling my very own: Biophilia.


Thanks David, my perpetual inspiration and collaborator. Nature, Music and Technology then, are the focus of the Icelandic sirens particular project. And as per usual she takes it to another level, creating a wholly new concept of an Ipad app based album, where tactile imagery simulations match her 10 tracks, inspired by lunar cycles and gravity, viruses and DNA, the crash of lighting and the slow juddering of tectonic plates. I recently snuck into an Apple store to have a play around with the app on one of their display units (no ipad for me sadly readers). Whilst initially intriguing, I imagine that these software simulations ultimately distract from the real success of the project, the songs themselves.

The electro/drum and base rhythms work effectively to capture the physical process of nature, whilst the celestial choirs and sweeping orchestral strings used in previous albums such as Vespertine continue to tap into the romanticised vision of Icelandic landscapes. A combination of technologies were used to capture the gravitational pull of the moon or movements of the planet in order to calculate a musical time signature most suited to the natural mood. The resulting 'Solstice' and 'Moon' really do sway and undulate like a rising and falling tide.

Björk will be touring the concept later this year (please come to Paris!), in addition to premiering further multimedia installations inspired by her very own Biophilia.


1 Feb 2012

Nature's place in a Nuclear Space

A Critically endangered Prezrwalski Horse inside the Zone of Alienation (Photo from BBC)





















The spread of humanity across the planet is relentless, and seemingly unaffected by natures barriers. But in 1986, a now infamous nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl plant resulted in the withdrawal of man. The eternal conqueror, pushed back not by the forces of nature, but by his own malfunction. A 30km "Zone of Alienation" was put in place by the Ukrainian administration, and all 120,000 human inhabitants were evacuated. Left to its own devices, nature has reclaimed her dominion, with wolves, badgers, wild boar, deer, lynx and bears flourishing. In particular, bird species were quick to colonise the zone with white-tailed eagles and black stork using the abandoned concrete structures as nesting sites.

Realising the value of the zone as a nature reserve, the Askania Nova Biosphere Reserve launched a programme in 1998 to utilise the zone as a shelter for 31 Critically Endangered Prezrwalski's Horse. An enigmatic paradox appears, a never domesticated species of horse in an area seemingly tarred by the brush of humanity. Given that at one point the global population stood at 31 individuals, it is encouraging that this founding population at Chernobyl has almost quadrupled in number.

The enclave of course, can never be free of human influence. Underlying radioactivity has been shown to exist within sampled birds and mice but not at dangerous levels. Meanwhile, certain areas of "red" forest are still at levels too high for pine trees to recolonise. Instead, the real concern is the return of man into the zone, with poaching on the rise. A twenty year period of respite allowed populations to flourish; will a fall in radiation result in the fall of nature?


15 Jan 2012

Soundscapes and Songlines


I am enthralled, enraptured and enchanted by Jay Griffiths's "Wild: An Elemental Journey". Within, she documents her time spent in regions of wilderness, poetic prose metaphorically binding emotional sentiment and scientific precision along the way. She travels from the Amazon to the Arctic, Oceana to Outback constantly striving to define wilderness as interpreted by indigenous populations: "self-willed land does what it likes, untilled untold, a place and a whole way of being that has its own internal rules and habits." In particular she finds that the lives of those intertwined with wild spaces have laws under the guise of "myths and magic, tales and enchantments that make up a society's culture; ecologically informed, emotionally charged and morally binding"


Music plays a strong role in the interpretation of natural spaces. Canadian composer and environmentalist, R. Murray Schafer coined the term soundscape, music to reflect the sensation of immersion in an acoustic environment.  The “Listening” of Cree Indians, and the “Dreaming” of Aboriginals permit the creation of Songlines, inspired by the voices of the wind, trees, rocks and animals, and the trails of their spirits.  These pieces of music describe the lie of the land to such an extent that people upon hearing songlines are said to comfortably navigate unknown territories, not unlike reading a map. “The Dreaming is inside the land, latent as a dream lies in sleep”. Furthermore, by mapping the soul of a landscape, they reveal the past when development comes to desecrate natural spaces: “We still see the land. Beneath the concrete we know where the forest grows, where the kangaroos graze. We see where the Platypus digs her den, where the streams flow. That city there... it’s just a scab. The land remains alive beneath it.”


Amongst the Dreamtime work of artists at the Quai Branly in Paris lies a small, dark, and usually neglected room, but which to me is the strongest part  of the whole museum. This "music box" combines sound spatialisation which the projection of immersive images; the vivid green of a rainforest in Equador accompanied by the ululation of village women. The lure of the hymnal music transports you far away, and upon arrival you feel a sensation of having been here before.

La Clé des Champs: My Childhood in the Fields



La Clé des Champs was released late last year, whilst I was in the thick of exams, but I managed to see one of the last screenings yesterday. Using exquisite footage of a marsh microcosm, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou capture the summer of a city boy spent at an abandoned marsh, a theatre of natural splendour, a stage of the mini-sagas of life. As a child, innocent, inquisitive and carefree, such natural spaces provide an unlimited source of joy.

My strongest memories of childhood are of exploring the backwoods behind our house, collecting frogspawn and tadpoles from the murky ponds and building houses for spirits. Over long summers in France with my family I would be shooed outside, commanded by my brother to construct dams. But whilst searching for perfect fitting rocks, I would end up distracted, fascinated by the caddisfly larvae casings on the river bed. Other times, we would collect woodlice, weave together twigs or race snails against one another. I have a vivid memory of catching an enormous cricket in my hands, running after my parents to show them, only to reveal a strong smelling yellow secretion but no cricket.

The freedom and fascination of youth is to be treasured, and I look back now with a deep longing when superficial day to day worries lodge in the back of my mind. The wilds were not an escape, or a release, but simply an immediate source of being, comfort, and revelation. Sheltered from suffering, loved by my family, the fields and forests were not a threatening unknown, but an inviting adventure, an eductation in understanding and a window to the wider world.