Saturday, October 22, 2016

Geometric Harmony

Many living organisms, inanimate objects, and geologic formations have polygonal shapes. Polygons are a chain of straight segments that form a closed chain like the hexagonal cells of honeycomb:
Hexagonal paper wasp honeycomb
by coniferconifer

The pentagonal shape of a sweet potato flower:

The variably-sided segments of desiccation cracks:

Polygonal desiccation cracks in sewage plant sludge
by Hannes Grobe

Our observable universe seems characterized by a curious preponderance of geometric forms.

Seventeenth century astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler wrote of the harmony and congruence in geometrical forms and physical phenomena in The Harmony of the World (Harmonice Mundi).

Archimedean polyhedra used by Kepler in Harmonice Mundi

To me it seems that diversity in things is created from nowhere other than matter, or from occasions caused by matter, and where there is matter there is geometry.

— Johannes Kepler, 1601
In The Nature of Order twentieth century architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander writes of the relationship between life and space.

Alexander argues that life is not merely in space, but of it. He proposes that the nature of space accounts for the occurrence of life.
I believe that all centers that appear in space - whether they originate in biology, in physical forces, in pure geometry, in color - are alike simply in that they all animate space. It is this animated space that has its functional effect upon the world, that determines the way things work, that governs the presence of harmony and life.
Christopher Alexander


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Prairie Dust

On Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, sixty mile per hour winds buffeted the North American prairie displacing some 300 million tons of topsoil. The term Dust bowl was coined by an AP reporter.

The ecology of the plains weren't well understood. Farmers over-planted. Crops weren't rotated. Successive drought years kicked up massive dust storms that stripped topsoil.

Buried machinery in barn lot
Dallas, South Dakota

Dryland farming that would have limited topsoil erosion was not commonly practiced. Thousands lost their livelihood and their property. Subsequent waves of migration contributed to joblessness, social strife, and prolonged economic depression.

Thousands of young men were rescued from dust bowl devastation by enrolling in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the spring of 1933.

Civilian Conservation Corps Camp No. 2, Jackson Lake
by George A. Grant, circa 1933

The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Roosevelt's New Deal social programs was an exemplary work relief initiative enacted by Congress in 1933 and operated until 1942. Nearly 3 billion trees were planted, 13,100 miles of foot trails were constructed, and more than 800 parks were developed or upgraded.

Civilian Conservation Corps worker weeding white spruce seedlings

An excerpt from Franklin D. Roosevelt's second Fireside Chat:
First, we are giving opportunity of employment to one-quarter of a million of the unemployed, especially the young man who have dependents, to go into the forestry and flood prevention work. This is a big task because it means feeding, clothing and caring for nearly twice as many men as we have in the regular Army itself. In creating this civilian conservation corps we are killing two birds with one stone. We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources, and we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress. This great group of men has entered upon its work on a purely voluntary basis; no military training is involved and we are conserving not only our natural resources, but also our human resources.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

Looking Glass Light

In Six Lectures on Light: Delivered in America in 1872-1873, physicist John Tyndall observed that the human construct of Nature is phenomenological.
All our notions of Nature, however exalted or however grotesque, have their foundation in experience.

Out of this bias of the human mind to seek for the causes of phenomena all science has sprung.

— John Tyndall, 1875
Scientific inquiry sprouted from the soil of innate curiosity.

Cloud Pool, Artist's Point
by Bob MacNeal


The change in direction of an incoming wavefront, commonly experienced as water, sound, and light waves, is reflection. Reflection occurs at the interface of two media like air and water.

Sunlight traveling through the air meets a still, dark pool which reflects the wavefront back into the atmosphere.

Reflection of light must have been an early curiosity.
Light was a familiar phenomenon, and from the earliest times we find men’s minds busy with the attempt to render some account of it.
They satisfied themselves that light moved in straight lines; they knew also that light was reflected from polished surfaces, and that the angle of incidence was equal to the angle of reflection.

— John Tyndall, 1875

A ray from a single incoming direction reflected into a single outgoing direction is called specular reflection. Specular reflection occurs in a mirror.

Mirror Reflection

Mirror reflection surely was a curiosity for self-reflective animals like humans. Specular reflection requires a surface roughness that is less than the wavelength of the incoming light.

The word mirror was once considered lowbrow by educated classes who preferred the more poetic looking glass.

The first mirrors might have been pools of dark, still water.

Cloud Reflection, Artist's Point
by Bob MacNeal

The X-Y image reflected in a mirror hasn't been swapped from left-to-right or from top-to-bottom, rather inverted from front-to-back in the Z-direction.
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Søren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855


Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Human Imprint

Humans are changing Earth on a massive scale.
Nothing is made, nothing disappears. The same changes, at the same places, never stopping.
― Dejan Stojanović, The Shape
The Anthropocene is the proposed name of geologic epoch to mark the era when human activities began to have an observable impact on Earth's geology and ecosystems.
Busy with the ugliness of the expensive success
We forget the easiness of free beauty
Lying sad right around the corner,
Only an instant removed,
Unnoticed and squandered.
Dejan Stojanović
Each year humans:
  • Emit 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide,
  • Produce 60 billion tons of non-biodegradable plastics, and
  • Extract and process innumerable tons of rocks and minerals.
A satellite image of Chuquicamata, the largest open pit copper mine in the world, shows the surface impression of moving, extracting, and processing countless tons of rocks and minerals for over a century.
image: ASTER/Terra/NASA

The Holocene is the name given to the geologic epoch spanning the last 11,700 years since the ice age. Scientists seemed poised to declare the end of the Holocene. We now exist in a geologic epoch of humankind’s making.
We will go far away, to nowhere, to conquer, to fertilize until we become tired. Then we will stop and there will be our home.
― Dejan Stojanović
The consequences of human activities on Earth’s geophysical processes are yet fully realized.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Darkness and Light

Atmospheric instability is expressed in meteorology by various mathematical formulae and indices. Instability is graded as a function of temperature change over height or time. Instability causes turbulence that in moist atmospheres can whip up thunderstorms and cause cyclogenesis.

Violent storms are used in literature as a metaphor to portend evil.
Read more here:
"The darker and stormier the weather outside the more diabolical the deeds done. When the clouds roll away, however, the rain has washed away all the blood in the streets and the world is clean and new again, as if all the violence and destruction of the storm served a divine purpose."
― Benjamin R. Smith, Atlas
Writer Cormac McCarthy probes inevitable and inescapable darkness.
"By early evening all the sky to the north had darkened and the spare terrain they trod had turned a neuter gray as far as the eye could see. They grouped in the road at the top of a rise and looked back. The storm front towered above them and the wind was cool on their sweating faces. They slumped bleary-eyed in their saddles and looked at one another. Shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world."
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Darkness looms in an approaching storm before breaking loose into sacred mayhem.

Photographer Mitch Dobrowner chases apocalyptic storms that strike the rural landscapes of Kansas, Oklahoma, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Mammatus, Bolton, Kansas
by Mitch Dobrowner

In Dobrowner's photograph Mammatus, the unworldly and mammary-like mammatocumulus add to the foreboding of the anvil cloud on the horizon.

Vortex, Long Hollow, South Dakota

Dobrowner's images evoke the immediacy and magnificence of atmospheric energy as it roils over the plains.

Darkness and instability invariably give way to clearing skies and calm.
"Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today."
Edward Abbey


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ocean Color

"After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it?"
Richard Dawkins

Pure water is colorless. The ocean gets its color from the absorption of color spectra and scattering of sunlight.

Bracing the Waves
by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1890

Romantic painter Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900) is recognized as one of the most accomplished seascape artists. Scenes depicting a range of ocean moods, like the sun, low on the horizon, illuminating the breaking wave in Bracing the Waves, constitutes the majority of his known work.

Water molecules are known to absorb proportionally more red, yellow, and green wavelengths, leaving the shades of blues and purples that Aivazovsky depicted in Among the Waves.

Among the Waves
by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1898

Suspended particles like sand or silt from coastal river runoff, will scatter sunlight as shown in the roiling shore break painted in Seascape with a Steamer.

Seascape with a Steamer
by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1897

Suspended phytoplankton contains chlorophyll. Chlorophyll absorbs red and blue wavelengths giving the ocean a greener tint.

The Ninth Wave
by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1850

"When Rachel Carson accepted the National Book Award, she said, 'if there is poetry in my book about the sea it is not because I deliberately put it there but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out poetry."
― Jim Lynch, The Highest Tide


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Ancient Paths

Walking into the wild, we shed unintentional living. Time expands in the wilderness. Immersed in the wild, our senses fill the emptiness of unintentional living with the fullness of being alive.
Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. 
Susan Sontag
Poet Mary Oliver wrote,
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
Setting out we notice the dull prick of grit in our hiking shoe. Some time later, we notice the smell of rain quenching arid rock.

Bottom of Ancient Route Up
by Jim Krehbiel, 9/6/2016

In time we turn our attention to light, wind, water, stone, plants, and other animals.

Many of the paths we walk are ancient routes. Ancestral cultures and animals navigated these routes before we arrived. Bipedals, quadrupedals and centipedes alike, these routes are well-trodden. Descendants follow after our departure.

In Native American tradition, how one walks is a metaphor for how one conducts one's life.

Basketmaker Rock Art
by Jim Krehbiel, 9/6/2016

Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning ancient ones or wise teachers. Anasazi nomads, or Ancestral Puebloans, arrived in the Four Corners region around A.D. 200. We know little of these people except that they made baskets woven from fronds of willow.

Much of our conduct and most of our actions are ephemeral. A few remain. Our remains become artifacts.

Look for light
Listen for inspiration on the wind
Let water cleanse your soul
Set yourself on a firm foundation
Serve as the plants
Do not offend your fellow creatures
Live in harmony with all creations
Anasazi Foundation


Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sustenance, Transport & Power

Water is essential. Water is finite. Water has no substitute. Humans settled by rivers of fresh flowing water. Rivers offer sustenance, transport, and power.
Children of a culture born in a water-rich environment, we have never really learned how important water is to us. We understand it, but we do not respect it.
William Ashworth

Wright Dam, Fergus Falls

To experience a river flowing through a small town or a city is to witness human nature, who we are, and what we value.
Any river is really the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part.
Hal Borland

Otter Tail River, Fergus Falls

Uninhibited population growth and non-reflective consumptive patterns and behaviors spawns water contamination and ecosystem impairment.

Mississippi River above Lock and Dam No. 1

Contamination of rivers results from a confluence of human-induced processes and patterns that call for a systems thinking approach to avert and remediate. Systems thinking is a central concept of watershed management that seeks to limit further degradation and avoid causing unintended consequences.

In a mucked up lovely river,
I cast my little fly.
I look at that river and smell it
and it makes me wanna cry.
Oh to clean our dirty planet,
now there's a noble wish,
and I'm puttin my shoulder to the wheel
'cause I wanna catch some fish.

Greg Brown, from Spring Wind in Dream Cafe


Saturday, August 27, 2016

Outward & Inward Exploration

With an estimated 100 to 400 million solar masses in the Milky Way, our outward search to identify solar systems with Earth-like exoplanets, and by extension Earth-like biospheres, is driven by an inward exploration of what it means to be human.
In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves.
Carl Sagan, The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
For centuries philosophers have posited that there are planetary systems clustered around stars like our Sun in the fervent hope that we might some day connect with life beyond Earth and beyond the solar system.
Through all of our history we have pondered the stars and mused whether mankind is unique or if, somewhere else out there in the dark of night sky, there are other beings who contemplate and wonder as we do - fellow thinkers in the cosmos.
Carl Sagan, The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
The thought that the finite biosphere surrounding Earth is the only such habitable life raft in the universe is as astonishing and as awesome as the notion that there might be others.
Sometimes I think we're alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we're not. In either case the idea is quite staggering.
— attributed to Arthur C. Clarke
The pursuit of extraterrestrial life is a quest to reconcile our significance — however insignificant.
To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow.
Metrodorus of Chios, 4th century BCE.
Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have detected the influence of, but not observed directly, an exoplanet called Proxima b on the closest star to our sun, a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri.

Proxima b is more massive than Earth and it orbits the circumstellar habitable zone around Proxima Centauri. The habitable zone is where the surface temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist.

Artist's rendition of red dwarf star Proxima Centauri
imagined from the surface of Proxima b

source: European Southern Observatory, August 2016

Proxima b lies some 4.2 light-years from our solar system at a distance 266,000 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Whether or not there is evidence of life on Proxima b remains a mystery.
"Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend to nonexistent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centered on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition. They avoid rather than confront the world. But those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries."
Carl Sagan, Cosmos


Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Glory of Shiva

Arthur Wesley Dow was influenced by the shapes, flatness, and stark lights and darks of the Japanese woodblock prints he saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1891.

Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, no. 32.
Katsushika Hokusai, circa 1830

Dow applied and refined these principles to New England landscapes for two decades, developing his work into a uniquely sensual, non-representational style, before traveling west to to paint the Grand Canyon in 1911 and 1912.

Dow painted a view of Shiva Temple. Shiva Temple is an isolated limestone cliff that rises 1,200 feet above the floor of the Grand Canyon.

The Glory of Shiva
Shiva Temple, Grand Canyon
Arthur Wesley Dow, 1912

Dow baths the shadowed canyon in purple hues that are surmounted by crimson sunlight striking the cliff.

Geologist Clarence Dutton named this formation after the Hindu god. Dutton drew from literary and mythological references to name geologic features. Surveying for the USGS in 1881, Dutton drew from his interest in eastern religions to name the Hindu, Vishnu and Shiva Temple sites in the Grand Canyon.
Fire is His head, the sun and moon His eyes, space His ears, the Vedas His speech, the wind His breath, the universe His heart. From His feet the Earth has originated. Verily, He is the inner self of all beings.
― Anonymous, The Upanishads
The Glory of Shiva sold to a private collector in 2012 for $120,000.
"Dow took on a fugitive effect of sunlight viewed at the cusp of the day, knowing that within moments the light would alter irrevocably." ― Gene Shannon, Auctioneer
Twenty million years ago a river began carving the Grand Canyon. Rising to lofty heights above the canyon floor, these cliffs now assume the almost mythological character conveyed in Dow's paintings.
"The little space within the heart is as great as the vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun and the moon and the stars. Fire and lightening and winds are there, and all that now is and all that is not."
― Swami Prabhavananda, The Upanishads


Saturday, August 13, 2016

Regenerative Capacity

Last Monday, 221 days into the year, Earth Overshoot Day was reached.

Earth Overshoot Day occurs on the computed number of days into a year that human consumption exceeds the regenerative biocapacity of the biosphere.

Earth Overshoot Day =Earth’s Biocapacityx 365
Humanity’s Ecological Footprint

For the remainder of 2016, demand outstrips supply.
"Humanity is living off its ecological credit card."
Mathis Wackernagel, founder of the Global Footprint Network
Ecological footprint is the aggregated area of land and sea needed to supply resources to a human population. The Global Footprint Network estimates that, as of 2007, humans consume natural capital 1.5 times faster than it's renewed.

by Bob MacNeal

"The insufferable arrogance of human beings to think that Nature was made solely for their benefit, as if it was conceivable that the sun had been set afire merely to ripen men's apples and head their cabbages."
Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, 1650


Saturday, August 6, 2016

Constraints & Consequences

John Wesley Powell, early expedition leader of the American West, wrote of the range of sounds he experienced exploring the Grand Canyon by boat:
"...sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain."John Wesley Powell
In his poetic description of sounds, Powell used the word diapason, a musical term denoting the interval of an octave.

The Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 chronicled the first recorded passage through the the Grand Canyon by men of European origin.

The Boats in Marble Canyon
John Wesley Powell's 2nd expedition, 1872

Diapason is a word also used in the metaphoric sense of a grand swelling of harmony.

Harmony with nature is a popular human construct. The General Assembly of the United Nations established International Mother Earth Day in 2009 to recognize "the Earth and its ecosystems are our home." The General Assembly resolved that "it is necessary to promote harmony with nature and the Earth."

Promoting harmony is a compelling, but idealized fiction. Organisms, and in particular humans, follow few if any altruistic rules. Organisms exist within dynamic constraints like predation pressure and food supply.

The biosphere is made up of dynamic and inter-dependent constraints. Constraints in the biosphere are more complex but not unlike the consumer economics concept of supply and demand. As early as the first agricultural revolution, humans have sought to defy constraints from an unpredictable food supply to the force of gravity.

Since the transition from mobile scavenging communities of hunter gatherers to the more predictable and geographically stationary communities of crop cultivation around 10,000 BC, humans have been shedding constraints and burning up resources with little recognition of the consequences.

To humans, the available resources to exploit seemed limited by ingenuity, rather than by the recognition of finite supply. Animals often act against their interests when constraints diminish. When predation pressure from foxes diminishes, herbivores like rabbits might spike in population, then overgraze a finite range of plants.

Dispassionate examination of ecological dynamics is more instructive and essential to our viability than the romantic allure of proposing to live in harmony with nature. Our existential plight depends on our recognition of the consequences of pursuing our desires with few constraints beyond the degradation of the biosphere and the hard stop of finite resources.

The Derelict (The Lost Boat)
by Arthur Wesley Dow

The challenge of our time is recognizing the grand swelling of harmony in each moment with the full range of our senses, while simultaneously recognizing the compass of consequences of self-serving behavior.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Grand Harmonies

Mathematician Henri Poincaré believed we study science and natural phenomena because we take pleasure in it. We take pleasure in natural phenomena because they're beautiful. On the motivation behind scientific inquiry Poincaré wrote:

"If nature were not beautiful it would not be worth knowing, and life would not be worth living."
Henri Poincaré

Lavender and Green
Arthur Wesley Dow

Poincaré delineated between the beauty of appearances and the beauty of intellectual abstractions like the mathematics undergirding science.
I am not speaking, of course, of the beauty which strikes the senses, of the beauty of qualities and appearances. I am far from despising this, but it has nothing to do with science. What I mean is that more intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts, and which a pure intelligence can grasp.
Henri Poincaré
Drawing these distinctions was Poincaré's preference. At some level, these distinctions becomes immaterial. Perception is subjective whether born from sensual input from natural phenomena or from the symbolic abstractions crafted to model the behavior of some natural phenomena. Sublimity is sublimity. Beauty is beauty.

Geologist and early expedition leader in the American west John Wesley Powell wrote of the harmony of form, color, and sound he experienced after he explored the Grand Canyon:
The glories and the beauties of form, color, and sound unite in the Grand Canyon - forms unrivaled even by the mountains, colors that vie with sunsets, and sounds that span the diapason from tempest to tinkling raindrop, from cataract to bubbling fountain.
John Wesley Powell
The Destroyer
Arthur Wesley Dow
circa 1911-13
American artist Arthur Wesley Dow argued against the shallow pursuit of painting imitative likenesses of nature. Rather he advocated for composition: the harmonious use of line, color, and shading.
Composition, building up of harmony, is the fundamental process in all the fine arts. I hold that art should be approached through composition rather than through imitative drawing.
Arthur Wesley Dow
The Destroyer, a curvilinear composition of the Grand Canyon is an exquisite example of Dow's use of line, color, and shading.

Dow's painting evokes a sensual experience of the Grand Canyon that arguably would've been absent in a representational painting.

Dow was influenced by Japanese art. He was taken by the compositional freedom that encouraged off-center subject matter. He was inspired by the use of flat areas of strong color, simplified shapes, and patterns of darks and lights — elements that also influenced the arts and crafts movement.

August Moon
Arthur Wesley Dow
circa 1905

Simplicity is revealed by complexity. Harmony emerges from discord. Both await our discovery.
Three Rules of Work:
Out of clutter find simplicity.
From discord find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.
Albert Einstein


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Vagaries of Habitat

Egyptian peasant farmers
The transition from human subsistence on foraging and hunting to crop farming communities began around 10,000 B.C.

Humans have been moving, tilling, diverting, mining, burning, fabricating, fouling and laying waste unabated ever since.

The agricultural revolution was born from an aspiration to exercise sufficient control over our habitat to ensure a predictable supply of food.

Human impact on the biosphere is often ignored, downplayed, or denied, but that doesn't comport with the evidence. Humans have a knack for engineering and adapting the natural environment to changing needs and desires.

In Plans for Altering the River, poet Richard Hugo writes of the human propensity to engineer habitat. Hugo explores the vagaries and absurdities of altering a river.
Plans for Altering the River
by Richard Hugo

Those who favor our plans to alter the river
raise your hand. Thank you for your vote.
Last week, you'll recall, I spoke about how water
never complains. How it runs where you tell it,
seemingly at home, flooding grain or pinched
by geometric banks like those in this graphic
depiction of our plan. We ask for power:
a river boils or falls to turn our turbines.
The river approves our plans to alter the river.

Due to a shipwreck downstream, I'm sad to report
our project is not on schedule. The boat
was carrying cement for our concrete rip rap
balustrade that will force the river to run
east of the factory site through the state-owned
grove of cedar. Then, the uncooperative
carpenters union went on strike. When we get
that settled, and the concrete, given good weather
we can go ahead with our plan to alter the river.

We have the injunction. We silenced the opposition.
The workers are back. The materials arrived
and everything's humming. I thank you
for this award, this handsome plaque I'll keep
forever above my mantle, and I'll read
the inscription often aloud to remind me
how with your courageous backing I fought
our battle and won. I'll always remember
this banquet this day we started to alter the river.

Flowers on the bank? A park on Forgotten Island?
Return of cedar and salmon? Who are these men?
These Johnnys-come-lately with plans to alter the river?
What's this wild festival in May
celebrating the runoff, display floats on fire
at night and a forest dance under the stars?
Children sing through my locked door, 'Old stranger,
we're going to alter, to alter, alter the river.'
Just when the water was settled and at home.

Hugo personifies water, writing water never complains and it runs where you tell it. The natural world seems to comply to the whims of the plan.

Los Angeles Aqueduct
by Jet Lowe

Despite our inclination to control, our most careful plans are subject to the unforeseen like a shipwreck downstream or uncooperative carpenters. Eventually it seems we must alter what's already been altered, "Just when the water was settled and at home".


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Birds in Flight

Sooty Tern in Flight
by Duncan Wright
Many species of bird travel north and south along flyways between seasonal breeding and wintering grounds. Bird migration was recorded by Homer and Aristotle 3,000 years ago.

Seasonal migration is driven by the availability of food and by the suitability of nesting sites.

Arctic Terns makes the longest yearly journey, flying from Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic.

The Southern Royal Albatross circles the Earth over the southern oceans. The Sooty Tern spends months at sea before returning to land to breed.

Migration is often arduous and carries the existential threats of predation and mortality.

In Flight
by Jennifer K. Sweeney

The Himalayan legend says
there are beautiful white birds
that live completely in flight.
They are born in the air,

must learn to fly before falling
and die also in their flying.
Maybe you have been born
into such a life

with the bottom dropping out.
Maybe gravity is claiming you
and you feel

For the one who lives inside the fall,
the sky beneath the sky of all.

by L. Shyamal


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Life's Glow

This time of year in temperate regions, many harken the arrival of firefly mating. Their chemically produced light appears like tiny lanterns floating over the landscape.

Hotaria parvula of Kurayoshi
by hm777

In their mating ritual, fireflies emit bioluminescent light from their abdomens during twilight.

Mating is a curiosity. In a summary account of more than a billion years of an evolutionary life force, Carl Sagan and his spouse Ann Druyan, explore the ever-elusive purpose of life:

“Fireflies out on a warm summer's night, seeing the urgent, flashing, yellow-white phosphorescence below them, go crazy with desire; moths cast to the winds an enchantment potion that draws the opposite sex, wings beating hurriedly, from kilometers away; peacocks display a devastating corona of blue and green and the peahens are all aflutter; competing pollen grains extrude tiny tubes that race each other down the female flower's orifice to the waiting egg below; luminescent squid present rhapsodic light shows, altering the pattern, brightness and color radiated from their heads, tentacles, and eyeballs; a tapeworm diligently lays a hundred thousand fertilized eggs in a single day; a great whale rumbles through the ocean depths uttering plaintive cries that are understood hundreds of thousands of kilometers away, where another lonely behemoth is attentively listening; bacteria sidle up to one another and merge; cicadas chorus in a collective serenade of love; honeybee couples soar on matrimonial flights from which only one partner returns; male fish spray their spunk over a slimy clutch of eggs laid by God-knows-who; dogs, out cruising, sniff each other's nether parts, seeking erotic stimuli; flowers exude sultry perfumes and decorate their petals with garish ultraviolet advertisements for passing insects, birds, and bats; and men and women sing, dance, dress, adorn, paint, posture, self-mutilate, demand, coerce, dissemble, plead, succumb, and risk their lives.

To say that love makes the world go around is to go too far. The Earth spins because it did so as it was formed and there has been nothing to stop it since. But the nearly maniacal devotion to sex and love by most of the plants, animals, and microbes with which we are familiar is a pervasive and striking aspect of life on Earth. It cries out for explanation. What is all this in aid of? What is the torrent of passion and obsession about? Why will organisms go without sleep, without food, gladly put themselves in mortal danger for sex? ... For more than half the history of life on Earth organisms seem to have done perfectly well without it. What good is sex?... Through 4 billion years of natural selection, instructions have been honed and fine-tuned...sequences of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts, manuals written out in the alphabet of life in competition with other similar manuals published by other firms. The organisms become the means through which the instructions flow and copy themselves, by which new instructions are tried out, on which selection operates.

'The hen,' said Samuel Butler, 'is the egg's way of making another egg.' It is on this level that we must understand what sex is for. ... The sockeye salmon exhaust themselves swimming up the mighty Columbia River to spawn, heroically hurdling cataracts, in a single-minded effort that works to propagate their DNA sequences into future generation. The moment their work is done, they fall to pieces. Scales flake off, fins drop, and soon--often within hours of spawning--they are dead and becoming distinctly aromatic.

They've served their purpose.

Nature is unsentimental.

Death is built in.”

Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

Male fireflies emit light to attract a female mate. When a female detects a male emitting a recognized and favorable wavelength, she'll respond with her own light to signal her receptiveness to a reproductive liaison.

Summer Night
by Yasushi Kikuchi

Nature is unsentimental, but poetic. Still, "death is built in". Fireflies live for about 10 days.
"Well, what I don't get is why do we exist? I don't mean how, but why.' I watched the fireflies of his thoughts orbit his head. He said, 'we exist because we exist. . .we could imagine all sorts of universes like this one, but this is the one that happened."
Jonathan Safran Foer


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Marking Time

The word planet is derived from the ancient Greek πλανήτης (planētēs) meaning nomad or wanderer. Nomad and wanderer are fitting metaphors for Earthborn observers on a life raft orbiting the Sun.

Points to Eastern Horizon
archival pigmented print

The construct of time, the narrative element of marking time, and the construct of orientation are traceable to the human experience of a random and arbitrary astronomical phenomenon: The elliptical circuit Earth travels around the Sun.

A 365° elliptical circuit of the Sun is the astronomical metronome that provides the clicks and markers for perhaps the most persistent human narratives which are the marking of time and a sense of direction.

Years are marked by a lap around the Sun. A year is segmented into seasons. Earth proceeds counter-clockwise through eight spatial milestones marking the beginning, midpoint and end of each season. The eight positions are visualized as spokes on what is considered the Wheel of the Year by modern Pagans.

Last month, Earth traveled through its Summer Solstice. Next month Earth passes through the cross-quarter called Lughnasadh, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of the harvest. September brings the Autumnal Equinox, followed by the cross-quarter Samhain, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest.

December harkens the arrival of Winter Solstice, followed by the cross-quarter Imbolc in February, corresponding to a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of spring. March brings the Vernal Equinox, followed by the cross-quarter Beltane, corresponding to a Gaelic May day festival. Completing the circuit brings us back to the Summer Solstice.

A rising and setting Sun is a predictable orientational prop. The force of gravity plays the principal role in our orientational fiction for up and down.

Earth's orbit of the Sun provides an additional framework for directional orientation. In native American cultures, notably the Hopis, direction is derived from observable phenomena rather than intellectual abstraction.
The four cardinal directions of Hopi cosmology, and apparently those of many other American Indian cosmologies, are not the four directions which the European tradition derives from an abstract geometrization of space. Rather their cardinal directions are empirically observable ones defined by observations of sunrise and sunset at the winter and summer solstices. The four solstitial directions not only provide a stable empirical framework within which astronomical observations are made, but they also provide a general cosmological framework which draws apparently unrelated natural phenomena into an organic unity.
Stephen C. McCluskey
Ancient humans gazed up at the night sky to observe sparkling bodies overhead seemingly stationary, but to the patient observer, moving. Our ancient ancestors would have noticed the phases of the Moon because of the opportunities and threats an illuminated Moon might have posed to them.

Antares over Moonhouse
archival pigmented print

With unaided eye, our ancient ancestors would have also noticed faster moving bodies in the sky which we now know were the planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. They likely would have noted sunlight and shadow aligning, striking, and passing across targets aligned with equinox, solstice, and cross-quarter sunrises and sunsets.
We are all one child spinning through Mother Sky.
Shawnee proverb
To ancient civilizations awed by cyclical astronomical phenomena, the ability to predict and mark such events was prized and sacred knowledge.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Many Moons

Full moons during the year have many different names in many different cultures.
Most people want something in the sky to be special and unique to their lifetime on Earth. An Earth that has been here for four and a half billion years.
Neil deGrasse Tyson
Traditional Native American names for the moons:
JanuaryDifficulty, Black Smoke
FebruaryRaccoon, Bare Spots on the Ground
MarchWind, Little Grass, Sore-Eye
AprilDucks, Goose-Eggs
MayGreen Grass, Root-Food
JuneCorn-Planting, Strawberry
JulyBuffalo (Bull), Hot Sun
AugustHarvest, Cow Buffalo
SeptemberWild Rice, Red Plum
OctoberLeaf-Falling, Nuts
NovemberDeer-Mating, Fur-Pelts
DecemberWolves, Big Moon

From Earth, the full moon appears fully illuminated because it is positioned directly opposite the Sun.

Strawberry Moon
Park Point, Duluth, Minnesota, 20 June 2016
Photograph: Grant Johnson

The June full moon is called the Strawberry Moon. Because the June full moon never gets comparatively high above the horizon, nor does the Sun get comparatively low below the horizon, the Strawberry moon is characterized by its reddish to honey-colored tint from sunlight filtered through our atmosphere.

This year the Strawberry Moon coincided with the June Solstice in the northern hemisphere. A Strawberry Moon on the summer solstice hasn't happened since 1948.