Natural History Illustrations

Cram as many animals into one image as you can! seems to be the thinking behind some great illustrations of the Pleistocene epoch.

Example of Natural History Illustrations of my Favorite Epoch (the Pleistocene)

Here is my own take on the genre – an early Anthropocene landscape with plenty of fauna. How many chipmunks can you spot?

By flipping my webcam project concept on its head, I took bits of motion from across many frames and blended them into one crowded shot. It was indeed a busy day in the back yard, just not all at the same time.

Erasures

I recently attended a talk by Hannah Goodwin on the fragmentation, alteration, and deletion of female bodies in digital media. I found her approach to deletion compelling, and was inspired to revisit an old project of mine that used and altered found images. For that project I wrote a script to gather images from the now-defunct Mass Traveler webcams, and created an algorithm to blend multiple frames together over time.

Coolidge Bridge Dec21

The technique has the effect of hiding almost all individual movement, much as Louis Daguerre’s 1839 photographic image, Boulevard du Temple, erases everything moving except for the shoe shiner and their customer. In my case, the traffic camera’s purpose is inverted to create a landscape that is devoid of traffic. Daylight scenes become surreal as the familiar bridge appears strangely unpopulated. As evening falls, the cars paint in light on wet pavement.

The theme of erasure is relevant to this moment, as algorithms and artificial intelligence shape more and more of the images we see. To wit, my Google Clips arrived yesterday. It is a camera that decides for itself when to take little movies, looking especially for happy faces and pets. Whereas the technological (de)selection of subjects in work like Daguerre’s was somewhat arbitrary, it has now become driven by opaque algorithms.

I find it interesting that for all the high tech wizardry behind this new device, it still has a shutter button and a lens ring to turn. In mimicking older forms of technology, these elements make the device intelligible to people more familiar with “dumb” cameras. This also serves to lessen our apprehension as it gets to know our family and waits for us to smile.

Even with the safeguards that Google has built in, such as avoiding cloud processing or automatic uploads, Google Clips is not neutral. I began to feel uneasy as my daughters looked at this thing over the breakfast table. I don’t want to undermine their sense of sanctuary within our home, which we’ve cultivated by keeping out devices like Alexa. In family settings especially, this new tool could begin to erase a sense of the private, unobserved self for people who cannot give their consent. Whether that’s an inevitable consequence of an artificial photographer or just a possible pitfall of using it around children remains to be seen.

Fungal Diversity

Six years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find much fungus on our fraction of an acre. Except for the occasional puffball, not much was growing. What a difference shifting from 50 years of chemlawn to a permaculture approach has made! We’ve been composting and recycling our yard waste in place, partly inspired by the raised log beds of hugelkultur. With so much organic material decomposing, this year’s crop of fungus was the most diverse yet.

The increase in ecological diversity is visible across plants and animals as well as fungi. The secret seems to be mostly in leaving things alone and letting nature recolonize in stages. Slugs gave way to toads and earthworms in the first two years. Centipedes and doodlebugs established a presence under every brick and stone in the next two. Skunks still visit us, but now are joined by rabbits, chipmunks, moles, woodchucks, bluebirds and flocks of sparrows.

Hello Chippy

A chipmunk jumping over a small gully

Apparently my yard offers prime habitat for the common chipmunk.

Chipmunk on stone wall
A chipmunk resting above the entrance to a burrow in the rock wall.

They’ve made a home in my rock wall. Supposedly they hide their tailings by carrying the dirt away in their cheeks. I haven’t witnessed this behavior in action, but dirt piles will often appear below a hole in the wall and then vanish over a period of days.

What the trail cam lacks in sophistication and detail, it makes up for in persistence and patience.

The Great Meadow

“The many historical uses and meanings of the Meadows have left their marks on the landscape. Today, what would a representation of the Meadows look like that pays generous attention to them? What mixtures of subject matter and means would inform them? What understanding and interpretation of the Meadows’ natural and cultural histories would shape them?” –The Great Meadow, 2016

These are the questions that Anthony Lee, Claudette Lambert Peterson and I addressed in our exhibition The Great Meadow: Natural and Cultural Histories of Northampton’s Meadow at Historic Northampton.

The Great Meadow Exhibition

I wanted to look extremely closely at a landscape that has been so well documented already, using a robotic tripod to gather panoramic images of the smallest details of the ground. You see a lot of bugs and trash from an altitude of two inches, but also features that echo river bends and stone walls.

The Great Meadow Exhibition

I especially enjoyed the creative process of working as a group to understand the Meadows, with Lee’s landscapes informing my choice of subject matter and the bits of trash I found making an appearance as natural history objects in Peterson’s work. Technology is ubiquitous in the “natural” setting of the Meadows, from the bottle caps and other human castings to the cultivated corn and bits of brick.

Leaf Litter and other Works

The names the 17th century settlers gave to plots of the Meadows are evocative. Venturer’s Field was so called because a family chose to spend a winter in a cave there. Bark Wigwam referenced an existing structure, but also the presence of other inhabitants. And you can easily imagine how Hog’s Bladder got its name. There is a ball field in the Meadows to this day.

Map of Northampton Meadows 1831

In the Meadows

You will meet a lot of people if you spend six hours in the Northampton Meadows with a robotic camera rig. Dog walkers, bird watchers, cops who want to know if you saw a suspicious SUV go by, people who just want to park and smoke and be left alone. This is truly a liminal space, where many paths cross. Looking down intently, I found many of their traces as well. Here are a few early returns from the project.

For context, here are some photos of my practice in capturing the red bit of plastic pictured above. This latest version of my robotic tripod rides on repurposed rails from a bookshelf and features two powered inline wheels for extra precision.

The damp ground and overcast skies are perfect for my purposes, but make a good set of boots into an essential component of my work.

Cast Aways

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m something of a hoarder, gathering bits and pieces of technology that have the potential for a second act as part of a robot. These cast aways have been coming along nicely over the last few months. I just finished a workshop for teachers where we built robots and drew all over the floor of the Media Lab at Mount Holyoke with them.

castaways

Meet the Trees

It’s been a busy 16 months. I’ve had a baby girl, taught Introduction to Robotics at Mount Holyoke College, and continued to apply permaculture techniques to our land. Christine asked me the other day why my technology blog had veered so far into gardening before going quiet. I see the garden and all the living creatures in it as being intimately connected with technology – a showcase and a test bed. To wit:

This spring I tapped the row of maple trees on our property. By some accounts Native Americans got 17% of their calories from maple sugar, and I have been wanting to try my hand at it. This year I got a jump and ordered the taps and tubes in December, so that when the temperatures started climbing above freezing by day I would be ready.

My mother recently completed her chemotherapy and had her port removed. This was on my mind as I inserted ports, aka spiles, into my maple trees and began collecting fluid. I’ve gathered about 3 gallons of sap so far. The biggest surprise is how tasty it is when it’s only been boiled down about 25%. It has all sorts of subtle flavors beyond sweet that put me in mind of birch beer.

2015-03-14 18.07.28
My test batch – a pint of sap yields a tablespoon of syrup.
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Gonna need a bigger pot

The process of tapping also forced me to look closely at my trees. Most of them are quite robust and are putting out a good amount of sap, but two had enough signs of distress that I chose to pass them by. One is just getting on in years and being taken over by moss. The other has a narrow fork that looks like it is starting to rot out. Both of these trees had their roots exposed by decades of poor soil management, and will probably have to come down in the near(ish) future.

In the meantime I’ll keep the sap boiling and continue to enjoy all the health benefits of locally-sourced, sustainably produced, small batch artisanal maple water and maple syrup.