Category Archives: Animals

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check out our partner blog, field notes on biology and culture, for short postings, links, quoted, and photographs surrounding the synapses between biology, literature, ethnography, and the “feeling of being there” with wildlife.

Ghosts of Calvino’s “The Aquatic Uncle:” Langdon Smith’s “Evolution”

(i’ll explain/write about the Calvino connection later—”The Aquatic Uncle” is in the running for my favorite short story)

When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tide
We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
Or skittered with many a caudal flip
Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.

Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
And mindless at last we died;
And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
We slumbered side by side.
The world turned on in the lathe of time,
The hot lands heaved amain,
Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
And crept into light again.

We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
And drab as a dead man’s hand;
We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
Or trailed through the mud and sand.
Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet,
Writing a language dumb,
With never a spark in the empty dark
To hint at a life to come.

Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
And happy we died once more;
Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
Of a Neocomian shore.
The eons came and the eons fled
And the sleep that wrapped us fast
Was riven away in a newer day
And the night of death was past.

Then light and swift through the jungle trees
We swung in our airy flights,
Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
In the hush of the moonless nights;
And, oh! what beautiful years were there
When our hearts clung each to each;
When life was filled and our senses thrilled
In the first faint dawn of speech.

Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.
Till there came a time in the law of life
When over the nursing side
The shadows broke and the soul awoke
In a strange, dim dream of God.

I was thewed like an Auroch bull
And tusked like the great cave bear;
And you, my sweet, from head to feet
Were gowned in your glorious hair.
Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
When the night fell o’er the plain
And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
We mumbled the bones of the slain.

I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
And shaped it with brutish craft;
I broke a shank from the woodland lank
And fitted it, head and haft;
Then I hid me close to the reedy tarn
Where the mammoth came to drink;
Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
And slew him upon the brink.

Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
Loud answered our kith and kin;
From west to east to the crimson feast
The clan came tramping in.
O’er joint and gristle and padded bone
We fought and clawed and tore,
And cheek by jowl with many a growl
We talked the marvel o’er.

I carved the fight on a reindeer bone
With rude and hairy hand;
I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
That men might understand.
For we lived by blood and the right of might
Ere human laws were drawn,
And the age of sin did not begin
Till our brutal tush were gone.

And that was a million years ago
In a time that no man knows;
Yet here tonight in the mellow light
We sit at Delmonico’s.
Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
Your hair is dark as jet,
Your years are few, your life is new,
Your soul untried, and yet –

Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
And deep in the Coralline crags;
Our love is old, our lives are old,
And death shall come amain;
Should it come today, what man may say
We shall not live again?

God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
And furnished them wings to fly;
He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
And I know that it shall not die,
Though cities have sprung above the graves
Where the crook-bone men make war
And the oxwain creaks o’er the buried caves
Where the mummied mammoths are.

Then as we linger at luncheon here
O’er many a dainty dish,
Let us drink anew to the time when you
Were a tadpole and I was a fish.

Interesting and gorgeous art that reverses the idea of species and habitat. #beautiful

I can see all sorts of cool ways to use these images to talk about various biodiversity issues. Habitat nuances come to mind, but also the general idea that our industrial system is pretty much propped by things that are alive.


“The Take Over”


“Pigression”


“Sheep Country”

By the awesome Brandy Masch. Lots more to see at her website (Note, she also did some amazing work for phylomon which I’ll try and highlight later.

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Natural history books you should read before you die

I can’t say enough good things about The Natural Histories Project / Natural History Network, birthed out of a series of workshops to initiate dialogue between ecologists, geologists, educators, university presidents, and artists about the re-imaging of natural history. The audio and video clips of different perspectives on natural history are fantastic. But what really caught my eye was the Journal of Natural History and Experience, in particular the ongoing series of “101 Natural History Books That You Should Read Before You Die.”

So far, the (early) list includes the following.

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

A Naturalist on a Tropical Farm by Alexander Skutch

The Art of Falconry by Frederick von Hohenstaufen

Field Notes on Science and Nature by Michael Canfield

The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin

The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates

Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinocital Regions of America by Alexander von Humboldt

It’s a great list so far (myself only having read, and only then in part, half of these). Having a community-agreed upon canon of works to read, or a reading list to guide you in general, is always welcome. Like having a steady professor-friend by your side to offer advice only an insider would harbor.

British Lions

“When lions started speaking English, animal keepers were the only ones who could understand them. Others didn’t take the whole thing seriously – Wittgenstein famously said that if lions could talk, they would stop being lions. He didn’t clarify, however, if animal keepers would remain human, should they understand lions’ roaring.
On Sundays animal keepers and lions sit up straight at the round table in the local inn and, scarcely exchanging remarks, divide between them a huge Union Jack cake.”

– Anatoly Kudryavitsky

Charles Darwin on beauty

[From The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter III: Maldonado]

July 26th, 1832

Maldonado is situated on the northern bank of the Plata, and not very far from the mouth of the estuary. It is a most quiet, forlorn, little town; built, as is universally the case in these countries, with the streets running at right angles to each other, and having in the middle a large plaza or square, which, from its size, renders the scantiness of the population more evident. It possesses scarcely any trade; the exports being confined to a few hides and living cattle. The inhabitants are chiefly landowners, together with a few shopkeepers and the necessary tradesmen, such as blacksmiths and carpenters, who do nearly all the business for a circuit of fifty miles round. The town is separated from the river by a band of sand-hillocks, about a mile broad: it is surrounded, on all other sides, by an open slightly-undulating country, covered by one uniform layer of fine green turf, on which countless herds of cattle, sheep, and horses graze. There is very little land cultivated even close to the town. A few hedges, made of cacti and agave, mark out where some wheat or Indian corn has been planted. The features of the country are very similar along the whole northern bank of the Plata. The only difference is, that here the granitic hills are a little bolder. The scenery is very uninteresting; there is scarcely a house, an enclosed piece of ground, or even a tree, to give it an air of cheerfulness. Yet, after being imprisoned for some time in a ship, there is a charm in the unconfined feeling of walking over boundless plains of turf. Moreover, if your view is limited to a small space, many objects possess beauty. Some of the smaller birds are brilliantly coloured; and the bright green sward, browsed short by the cattle, is ornamented by dwarf flowers, among which a plant, looking like the daisy, claimed the place of an old friend. What would a florist say to whole tracts, so thickly covered by the Verbena melindres, as, even at a distance, to appear of the most gaudy scarlet?

The umwelt of a paramecium

On days when it rains and I am stuck inside at a desk, I often find my thoughts return to a single thematic idea: how does a single-celled organism perceive the world? Having recently read Devin Johnston’s Creaturely and Other Essays, I was struck by the author’s same general thought with regard to the higher vertebrates—in this case, the starling: “As science discovers the spectral sensitivities of birds, their sensory world proves alien to ours, their consciousness recessed from us.” Unlike that of humans, the eye of the starling does not filter out the ultraviolet spectrum of light. The organism sees the world with a fourth dimension attached—its world is, in essence, unknowable to us.

Season: organic/plant motifs and structures of microorganisms. Print by Yellena James (www.yellena.com)

As a sensory experience of one’s environment, this seeing is subjective, what the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll called each organism’s umwelt—what in German literally means “environment,” but which is typically taken as “subjective universe.” The term stands against a typical assumption of modern ecology that all organisms in an ecosystem share the same environment. Instead, von Uexküll argued that the subjective perception of organisms drives ecological interactions—parasitism, mutualism, etc. The entomologist/molecular biologist Alexei A. Sharov, who himself moved from ecology into the emerging field of biosemiotics, contextualizes the theory best with an example from plant ecology:

Uexküll thought that organisms may have different umwelts even if they live in the same place. A stem of a blooming flower is perceived differently by an ant, cicada-larva, cow, and human. Umwelt is not an ecological niche because niches are assumed to be objective units of an ecosystem which can be quantified using external measuring devices. On the contrary, umwelt is subjective and is not accessible for direct measurement for the same reason that we have no direct access to perceptions of other people.

Pistil. Photograph by author.

von Uexküll argued we cannot know the precise, quantified experience of the ant, cicada, or cow, just as Johnston struggles against studies of animal behavior that claim to have understood the way a starling sees. Each organism’s umwelt exists in a reciprocal exchange between phenomenological experience and the biophysical world—one of von Uexküll’s main ideas from the umwelt theory is that each component of this subjective universe has functional meaning to the agent. The stem of a blooming flower may be food, shelter, landmark, etc, depending on the species and context of the interaction. Each organism actively participates in the production of umwelt through these repeated interactions. In Sharov’s words,  the organism “simultaneously observes the world and changes it; the phenomenon which Uexküll called a functional circle.” Because these interactions are tied up with functional use and subjective experience, von Uexküll’s approach to animal behavior could not separate subjective (experience) from objective (biophysical matter), as modern-day approaches to the subject commonly insist—mind makes the world meaningful, a staple of cultural anthropology. In the related field of the philosophy of science, Sharov allies von Uexküll with pragmatism, the school of thought that argues how objects cannot be separated from interpreters.

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