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.

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.

The Brick

Brick, American, 20th century
Brick, American, 19th century

There’s a great post on Next Nature about brick sculpture by Maarten Vanden Eynde. Bricks are one of my favorite technologies for being incredibly long lived and durable. The basic form of fired brick has hardly changed in over 6,000 years! They are living proof that technologies don’t go extinct.

The landscape where we live is littered with bricks, the residue of our recent industrial past. They erode from hillsides and stream beds like fossils. A great many were spread along the Mill River by the Flood of 1874, forming a technological smear in the landscape that will persist for millennia. Still functional, the bones of old mills make their way into my garden terraces.

Bryophites Rock

Poking around the garden yesterday with my robotic tripod, I captured a lot of moss and a few odd interlopers. Did you know that moss that was frozen under a glacier for 400 years can come back to life? Or that little moss tumbleweeds support an entire ecosystem as they bounce around the tops of glaciers? Here we have them growing happily on top of glacial till and outwash.

puff-ball-web

 

Click for the higher res image – the original is in the 50 megapixel range! I like the way a long exposure and tiny aperture increased my depth of field and caught the evening light.

Soil Maps and Lost Landscapes

General Soil Map

I just discovered these incredible soil maps of Western Massachusetts. Produced by the USDA in the 1980s, they contain a wealth of information on what is under our feet. Here in the Pioneer Valley, we live on vast piles of glacial till and outwash. An ice sheet 2 miles (!) thick slid across this area 12 to 14,000 years ago, leaving behind sand, gravel, stones, boulders, and bedrock when it melted. Continue reading Soil Maps and Lost Landscapes

Weather and Climate

Severe WeatherI heard about the tornadoes on the TV in the library court yesterday afternoon. Then I drove home through a warm breeze, carrying wisps of fog from the snow banks across the road and down to the river. The same weather system that brought destruction to the South gave us a night that reached 60 degrees in January and a gentle rain.

I’m tired of listening to scientists remind people that no individual weather event can be directly attributed to climate change. This is an intellectually honest and precise description of the descriptive power of scientific knowledge regarding an immensely complex system. It also completely misses the point.

The climate is defined by the sum total of the weather on this planet. If the climate is changing, then we will see the weather changing. And we can, with every freak snow storm, warm spell, hurricane, drought, etc. As disturbing as the weather has become, at least it is reaching a point where denial is no longer a tenable response.

Climate and Contours

It’s been a while since I’ve written here. A lot has been going on! We dodged a hurricane in the Valley, as Sandy only winged us. Olde Lyme CT wasn’t so lucky, with over 200 houses flooded. The older part of town did OK though, and we are reminded that it was settled on a hill in the estuary of the Connecticut River for the same reason Northampton is on a small bluff. Close to rich farmland, and good in a flood.

I’ve been thinking about land forms and contours a lot lately. Here in the Pioneer Valley we seem to be getting more of our rain in short bursts, with long dry periods in between. Since I live on a hillside with sandy soil and an erosion problem, catching rainwater has quickly become a priority. Reading The Urban Homestead will give you five or six good ideas for storing rainwater, and I’ve stumbled upon another that also eats leaves. I’ve dubbed it the “leaf weir.” Continue reading Climate and Contours