Santa Fe, Snow Crystals

I had an enlightening conversation with an astronomer at the Santa Fe Institute. Everything he wore was black. Black cowboy boots, black levis, black button-down shirt, black wide-brimmed hat. 

Wuensche et al. The Global Dynamics of Cellular Automata: An Atlas of Basin of Attraction Fields of One-Dimensional Cellular Automata. The Santa Fe Institute. 

On the dark balcony at a party in the mountains, he lectured informally and at great length to anybody who would listen. He explained the ways distant heavenly bodies are "inferred" rather than actually "seen." He explained the reasons binary stars change colors as they shift direction. He struck an enigmatic figure, in the dim light of tiki-torches, although anywhere else he surely seemed ridiculous.

He held up his dark hat in the dark night, to show us how we could infer it's existence by the stars that it blotted out. As the demonstration clicked in our heads, he was already receding verbaly into the farthest reaches of tangent-land.

Wuensche et al. The Global Dynamics of Cellular Automata: An Atlas of Basin of Attraction Fields of One-Dimensional Cellular Automata. The Santa Fe Institute. 

The way he presented the sciences was so warm and appealing. Why? Maybe because it was so anecdotal - a casually moralized (and in this sense anthropomorphized) universe.

He came to my mind recently while trolling the library for material related to an essay I was working on. I came across this collection of Santa Fe Institute papers on cellular automata. As in the pages above and below, the math is somehow less bewildering when it resembles snowflakes or water striders.

Somehow, the idea of mathematics underlying nature becomes more appealing when the math resembles the natural objects, or is mixed into a cocktail party anecdote.

Wuensche et al. The Global Dynamics of Cellular Automata: An Atlas of Basin of Attraction Fields of One-Dimensional Cellular Automata. The Santa Fe Institute. 

Creating Landscape / Generating World

Around the corner of my parent’s house, yard chickens lay eggs in the husk of our family’s first computer - a bondi blue iMac. It’s been dead for a long time, and rather than throw it out they've removed the inner hardware and re-purposed it as a hen hutch. Reflecting on the handful of games we once used it for, the morning fog drifting through the trees and brush reminds me of the omniprescent mist at the margins of those late-nineties pixelated landscapes. Presumably the constriction of view to a small immediate area made it easier for a graphics card to process the visuals. (In some earlier three-dimensional first person worlds, the edges of the gameplay area were simply blacked out). The more realistic solution of mist also functioned, perhaps accidentally, to create some melancholy and mysterious landscapes, such as those in Cyan World’s Riven or Pangea Software’s Nanosaur. 
Screenshot from Cyan Worlds' Riven
It seems fitting that the place we once explored these imaginary worlds is now overgrown with grass and housing a brooding chicken. 

Screenshots from Pangea Software's Nanosaur
In worlds like these, it’s precisely the lack of clarity that draws the user further and further into the imagined landscape. The gameplay becomes a sort of metaphor, that mirrors in many ways the experience of childhood - even in fantasy, the player is at the center of a small realm of control, and while shifting the objects and scenery within that circle is easy enough, observing the world beyond that circle is impossible. Increasingly as I grow older, I’ve noticed the surroundings I seek out starting to resemble the fantasy worlds I was drawn to as a kid - cold and cloudy places, preferably surrounded by water, with the opposite shore either obscured or far away. 

I discovered the comic below on a recent camping trip to Vashon Island, Washington, in search of exactly these cloudy and distant landscapes. They were being sold for fifty cents a page at a street festival by the local boy who draws them - unfortunately, I discovered no name anywhere on the comics themselves. The line quality and coloring is fascinating. Blake-like in method, the author explained that he was annoyed by how the colors came out in printing, and so hand-copied and hand-colored many of the comics himself by hand. 

The conflict in Creating Landscape / Generating World struck me as particularly clever, given these digital/childhood themes. As the two characters argue over which is better at building with digital blocks, the window behind them reveals strange visitors from the outside world - a spying boy with black hair, and a panting red-mouthed dog who says: “arrf haff ha.” Although neither visitor is noticed by our protagonists, they provide a subtle commentary on the relation between inside/outside world in the story. In these pages, the digital world is partly a game, but the subject of that game is, as the title suggests, "generating worlds." In an unexpected twist, the digital world seems able to affect the physical world - this is embodied most directly in the second to last panel, when one of the players "turns into dust." 

That evening we camped on a rocky Maury beach, between piles of bleached white driftwood. Across Poverty Bay, the sliver of Federal Way's shoreline balanced between the water and the distant Cascades. There was a full moon, and we fell asleep ten feet from the high tide line. Waking the next morning, the clouds had descended again - looking across the water it might as well have been the edge of the earth.

Maury Island Marine Park, Maury Island, WA
A long walk down the waterfront revealed the the evidence of others' experience with the child-like exploration the mist encourages. The beach was lined with driftwood bowers reminiscent of secret forts. Many of them housed strange offerings - plastic starfish, weather-worn hats, empty bottles of Bacardi. Like the characters in the pages above, the solitary and removed landscape seems to encourage landscaping among the beachcombers - a whimsical environment yields whimsical structures, while a routine environment yields the sorts of houses most of us live in. In both, the basic action seems to be constructive, "laying down bricks." If mist and solitude weren't an element of these bowers, I wonder what sorts of houses we would choose to live in. I also wonder if children would play in the imaginary worlds of computer games, or dismantle their computers to build play houses, or real houses, or at least chicken houses, as my parents have. 

Frames of Nature

Albrecht Dürer, Great Piece of Turf - 1503

 As a human, it's very easy to look at the world through our own sense of scale.  When we take to the woods, we're typically seeking grand landscapes that capture our imagination by virtue of their immensity.  However, if we travel in the opposite direction  down the scale, we can have a similar experience when observing nature in intimate detail.  Above, Dürer's nature study Great Piece of Turf illustrates this idea.  Viewed up close, this clump of grass suddenly becomes a complex and mysterious landscape unto itself, not unlike a forest or jungle.  

I've long been fascinated by this concept of miniature, unseen worlds.  Stories like Watership Down and The Secret of NIMH have always captivated me with how they vividly imagine epics that all take place within a few square (human) miles.  The notion that great drama can be unfolding at our feet without our noticing is powerful.  And unfold it does - although without anthropomorphic characters.  An investigation into even the humblest backyard, park, or field reveals life forms of all kinds, struggling to survive and thrive.  Below, a rural scene by Robert Bateman helps visualize this.  The eponymous groundhog is placed within a pasture, with the old fencerow stretching back towards the shrunken human elements in the right hand corner.  Although humans are part of this landscape, the barn and farmhouse are scaled down, which helps us to imagine the groundhog as the protagonist in this story.  From this perspective, the pasture becomes the entire world, encompassing all the food, shelter, and danger that this particular rodent will ever know.   

Robert Bateman Grandfather's Farm & Groundhog - 1995

We encounter miniature worlds within human environments as well.  Here in New York City, the metropolis is divided by boroughs, neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods.  Much like the turf in Dürer's painting, a city and it's people can be studied in miniature.  Worlds exist within small frames, and they are no less magnificent than sweeping views of mountains or urban skyline.   

To Know the Bobolink

Source: Bird Biographies by Alice E. Ball, via the BHL Flickr 

What makes birding such a great pastime is that new discoveries are a regular occurrence.  Such was the case this past Saturday,  when I saw my first Bobolink.  While hiking the trails at Osgood Hill in North Andover, MA, a sunny meadow revealed at least a dozen of these energetic birds. The moment that you see a new species for the first time is thrilling.   

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote more than one poem about Bobolinks.  "The Way to Know the Bobolink" captures some of the vibrant essence of this bird's character.  "The bird of birds" strikes me as a pretty apt description:


The Way to Know the Bobolink

The Way to know the Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him —
Obliged to be inferred.

Of impudent Habiliment
Attired to defy,
Impertinence subordinate
At times to Majesty.

Of Sentiments seditious
Amenable to Law —
As Heresies of Transport
Or Puck's Apostacy.

Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy —
He compliments existence
Until allured away

By Seasons or his Children —
Adult and urgent grown —
Or unforeseen aggrandizement
Or, happily, Renown —

By Contrast certifying
The Bird of Birds is gone —
How nullified the Meadow —
Her Sorcerer withdrawn!

Foraging: Basketology

Hat, maps, binoculars, french press, Peterson guide to wild edible plants, rain jacket, energy bars. 
Packing for camping is a thoughtful sort of tetris - the goal of the game is to prepare half for survival, half for amusement. It's a design challenge. This is particularly evident when bicycle touring because of the obvious space limitations. When touring with baskets rather than panniers, the space to be filled is, like tetris, a literal box, except three-dimensional. Minimalism can get ridiculous fast - that being said, it generates insightful choices. If you can only bring one book, which book is it? Which is more important - extra flashlight, or ukelele?

Ukelele, binoculars, french press, coffee, map, climbing rope and carabiners. 

Brood II

The Brood II Periodical Cicadas have emerged by their untold millions on the East Coast of the United States.  Their continuous buzzing was the soundscape of a weekend trip to Virginia.  Above, this mated pair was a tangle of wings.

These cicadas showed a strong preference for truck tires.

After a few frenzied weeks, the magicicadas will slowly die off.  The next generation of Brood II will not be seen until 2030.  


More information about Brood II here

Bull Hill/Mt. Taurus

The first train from Grand Central slowly pulled out of the city, making its way north along the shore of the Hudson River.  Within a couple of hours, I was at the summit of Bull Hill, looking out over the highlands and the valley below.

To Snare the Nimble Marmoset

As the ecological details of the natural environment pervade a text, the reverse is sometimes equally true - a text might colonize the natural environment, if only through influencing the dreams and behaviors of its readers. 

Eugene Schieffelin was an eccentric drug manufacturer in the early twentieth century who dreamed of introducing every species of bird mentioned in any of Shakespeare’s plays into North America. His attempts to establish wild populations of bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks in the new york area never came to fruition. However, a population of starlings he released in central park grew from sixty to one of the predominant invasive species in the US [1]. 

This anecdote illustrates a related idea - as an island can be colonized by the mainland, the reverse may also occur. In this case, birds from an imaginary world first colonized an island (Manhattan) and then overran an entire continent (North America). 
Natural history of the animal kingdom for the use of young people.
Brighton :E. & J.B. Young and Co.,1889.
Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library
Schieffelin's starling isn't the only member of Shakespeare's bestiary that demonstrates success in colonizing human-dominated environments. 

         I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow
         And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts, 
         Show thee a jay’s nest, and instruct thee how
         To snare the nimble marmoset. I’ll bring thee
         To clustering filberts, and sometimes I’ll get thee
         Young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me? 

                                                (The Tempest, II.ii.78-83[2]

These lines are spoken by Caliban, the "savage" native inhabitant of the Desert Island where Shakespeare's play The Tempest is set. Caliban mentions several unusual animal prescences on the island - jays, scamels, and marmosets, among others. Portrayed in the text as "hidiously deformed," hunchbacked and only partially human, Caliban might have identified with the marmoset - as Caliban is “half man, half fish,” the marmoset also straddles a strange place between kingdoms of classification. Most mentally advanced primates have fingernails - marmosets have claws, among other primitive features not generally associated with that order of animals (which is to say, "advanced" animals like chimpanzees and humans). Their brains are much smaller than those of other primates their size. 
Johnson's household book of nature
New York,H.J.Johnson,[1880]. 
Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library
In spite of their low status by any taxonomist's estimation, these animals have proven themselves surprisingly adept at eking out a living in unexpected environments, be it as islanders or as colonists - and have found prosperity in our own century colonizing a modern sort of island - the green spaces within cities, oasises of "natural" environment surrounded by seas of urban sprawl. The marmoset colonists of these islands interact daily with park-goers in many South American cities, even capturing the interest of scientists: 
The city of Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil, has fragments of “green areas” (i.e. natural habitat or human- cultivated vegetation) spread throughout the city with 150 of these areas being greater than 2ha in size. It is in these fragments that we encounter black-tufted marmosets (Callithrix penicillata), a primate species able to adapt to urbanized environments, probably due to its efficient ability to exploit different food sources. [3]
Whether urban living marmosets are city ‘invaders’ or animals that have become ‘stranded’ within the urban environment remains to be resolved; that is, whether they actively enter urban environments or were incorporated into urban environments due to urban sprawl. [4] 

Like Caliban, or perhaps more like Robinson Crusoe, these primates find themselves castaways in a strange microcosm. Their challenge is first to survive, and second to assert dominion over their adopted home. Like Crusoe, it's not entirely clear whether they are truly "shipwrecked," or choose to inhabit these islands for personal reasons. As Crusoe seemed to grow to prefer his island kingdom, the marmosets have also become seemingly very comfortable with island life.

Map of a city park in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
Their boundaries can be sharp and discontinuous, or gradational. They can vary from large oceanic islands, to islands of forest surrounded by grassland, to trees within the forest, to leaves on the tree. What is perceived as an island will depend on the organisms being studied ... as such they are basic functional units of ecology. [5] 
There is a suggested connection here between an island and a stage - the island is portrayed as a setting more than a geography, and the border is more or less imagined. The ecology of such a place is secondary (the mainland ecology is primary). In literature, any environment or animal represented is by definition a "secondary" representation of a first-hand experience - this distinction is important because it points to how an island is well suited to the task of literature generally - the boundaries between one realm and another are constantly in sight, even as they shift from one place to another. There is also a suggestion here that we might consider islands as the constituent building blocks of the world at large - the phrase "basic functional units" points to a theory of "island as axiom." In light of this, the ecological islands of Belo Horizonte are seeds from a single imaginary island. The role of the marmosets has shifted from "native" to "colonist," as the impassable ocean shifts from waves to high-rises. 
The zoology of the voyage of the H.M.S. Erebus & Terror. v.1.
London,E. W. Janson,1844-1875.
Source: Biodiversity Heritage Library
The marmosets also mirror Crusoe in their interactions with the "natives," if we might consider the human inhabitants of the city to be the natives of an urban environment - which is to say, they are friendly towards the park-goers when useful for the sake of being fed, but are equally comfortable with aggression and theft when necessary: 
The other common type of interaction we observed with the public involved problematic marmosets. In these cases people had fed marmosets in their houses and subsequently the marmosets had started to aggressively ‘invade’ their houses. Unfortunately, many people think it is “cute” to have marmosets feeding off their kitchen table; however, marmosets quickly lose their fear of people and start to raid houses looking for food and causing negative interactions. [6]
The marmoset's relative lack of higher intelligence, small size and adaptability make them good breeders in captivity, and they are consequently popular laboratory animals. [7] However, that same lack of higher intelligence combined with their status as a squirrel-like common pest makes them a less than fascinating subject for literature. Common and unintelligent animals rarely make good subjects for stories, unless highly anthropomorphized.

So, what were they doing on Shakespeare's island in the Tempest? There's no definitive answer to this question - regardless, their presence there provides an unwitting but still intriguing play on the idea of "boundary" within the island's domain. Like Caliban, the marmosets dance on the line between two taxonomic groups, both in their physiology and in their behavior. While Prospero and Caliban argue their rights to jurisdiction over the island, the only true "natives" in question may be marmosets. Analyses of the play often focus on Caliban as a "native" figure, portraying the play as a parable of colonialism. However, if we may consider any primate as a "sentient" being, it's the marmosets who hold the longest-standing hereditary right to dominion of this imaginary space. Therefore, I propose a reading where the parable is of taxonomy and imagination rather than colonialism - and where it is the boundaries between the individual and the environment that are at stake, rather than the boundaries of an expanding nation.  
Caliban, Sir Joseph Noel Paton, 1868


[1] Gup, Ted. 100 Years of the Starling. The New York Times. Retrieved 5 May 2013. Digital. 
[2] Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Print. 
[3] Leite, Giovana C. et al. Human-marmoset Interactions in a City Park. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2011, Vol.132(3), pp.187-192 
[4][6] Duarte, Marina H.L. et al. Designing laboratory marmoset housing: What can we learn from urban marmosets? Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2012, Vol.137(3-4), pp.127-136
[5] Osman, Richard W. "Artificial Substrates as Ecological Islands." Artificial Substrates. Ed. John Cairns, Jr. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ann Arbor Science Publishers Inc, 1982. pp.71-114. Print. 

Augurs and Augury

I only recently became aware of Augurs, thanks to an excellent essay by Brian Kimberling in the New York Times last month.  A special class of priests in ancient Rome, Augurs were responsible for studying the flight of birds, which would reveal the will of the gods.  Important decisions such as whether or not to go to war required the interpretive skills of an Augur.  

 Bernhard Rode (1725-1797) -  Source: Wikimedia Commons 

An Augur performed his duties by choosing a location from which to make his observations, as shown in the image below:
 Erdmann Barbara - Source: Wikimedia Commons

This method is not unlike the modern-day Big Sit event, where birders will spend a day in a fixed location, only counting the birds that they can positively identify from within their small circle.   

Most birding excursions I take are done at a slow walking pace.  In recent weeks I've come to enjoy staking out a particular spot and simply waiting to see what comes along.  When standing still,  it never ceases to amaze me how much activity (avian or otherwise) I notice that I would otherwise pass by.  Sparrows foraging in the underbrush, a hawk soaring overhead, a kingfisher watching the water for its next meal -  such things may not reveal the will of the gods.  However, perhaps the Augurs were on to something much more meaningful.  

The Green-Wood

Cemeteries are a source of good history, and good birding.  With this in mind, a walk in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery seemed a good way to spend time on a Sunday.  

The massive stone gateway that stands at the entrance to the cemetery has been colonized by Monk Parakeets, the descendants of escaped domestic specimens.  The screeching of the parakeets deepens a sense of passing from the mundane world and into an otherworldy realm.

Green-Wood is not populated by stone memorials alone.  Plant and animal life abounds within the cemetery.  A combination of mockingbirds, robins, and warblers provided the soundscape to the excursion.  

“It is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the [Central] Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-Wood.”  - so said the New York Times in 1866.  

Within view of the cemetery, Manhattan appears.  Those sleeping in Green-Wood are never far from the streets where they took their airings.