“Colossal Octopus,” 1828–1840, by Orra White Hitchcock, one of America’s first female scientific illustrators, on view at the American Folk Art Museum. Credit George Etheredge for The New York Times
Women remain grossly underrepresented at the highest echelons of American science, and continue to face absurd claims of “innate” inferiority, whether from former Harvard presidents or senior engineers at Google. But until the mid-19th century — when the sciences became professionalized, and when Charles Darwin and others put Christian doctrine under pressure — a woman’s place was in the laboratory, or among the geology and zoology specimens.
Back then the humanities (classics and philosophy, especially) were understood as masculine academic pursuits. It was the more genteel disciplines of natural science, astronomy, chemistry, botany and anatomy, to which women of a certain class gravitated.
Orra White Hitchcock’s “Fungi Selecti Picti, Vicinity of Conway, Massachusetts” (1821), watercolor, pencil, pen and ink, and ink wash on paper in sewn album. Credit Smith College Special Collections
Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) was one of the most remarkable women from this more egalitarian age of scientific study. She had a deep knowledge of botany, zoology and paleontology, and she was also an artist — though that “also” would have seemed unnecessary to her. She produced two albums of botanical illustrations, and later, as introductory materials for her husband’s classes, she diagramed volcanoes, sketched the skeletons of extinct fish and mammals, and drew undulant squids and octopuses on large cotton sheets.
They’re all united at the American Folk Art Museum in “Charting the Divine Plan: The Art of Orra White Hitchcock,” a handsome and unexpectedly passionate exhibition on art, science and education in the early American republic. More than 100 watercolors and classroom charts are here, from painstakingly accurate paintings of reeds and mushrooms to boldly colored abstractions of the earth’s crust and core, and they share space with a splendid array of diaries and correspondence, redolent with the Hitchcocks’ intertwined loves for science, God and each other. Continue reading →
“In the desert, you see, there is everything and there is nothing,” Balzac wrote. “It is God without mankind.” The sensation of sublime emptiness, of a sacred void, explains the enduring romantic appeal of a place like Death Valley,: Continue reading →
Becoming a Master Naturalist is easier than you think. You don’t have to enroll in years of coursework or explore the world a la Darwin. In fact, there may well be a comprehensive naturalist class near you. Continue reading →
We humans are part of a very tiny slice of history, whereas in Western Australia we can have a glimpse at a big slice of history. It is humbling, and at the same time inspiring. As good science journalism should be. We are not too proud to admit that these had completely escaped our attention until just now:
Stromatolite-building bacteria once ruled the Earth, then changed its climate so much they nearly became extinct. Michael Slezak visits the world’s largest surviving colony in Hamelin pool, Western Australia
Just shy of the westernmost tip of the Australian continent lies a pool that provides an unparalleled window into the origins of life on Earth. In its warm, briny waters a biological process takes place that began just as the continents were starting to form.
It is this very process that made the abundance of life on the planet possible and studying it today promises insights into how life began as well as what the Earth was like 3.7bn years ago. Continue reading →
Ginseng with berries. Photo by US FWS via Wikimedia Commons
We first heard of ginseng in the New Yorker, where Burkhard Bilger wrote an article titled “Wild Sang” that explored the history of ginseng hunting and the very modern efforts to protect remaining plants from poaching in the Smoky Mountains. This week in Cool Green Science, the nature writer and conservationist Hal Herring reflects about his own personal experiences hunting ginseng in Alabama, and thinks about the future of the root:
I grew up in the flat-topped foothills of the Cumberland Mountains in north Alabama, and my mother was a student of wild herbs, wildflowers, and native medicinal plants. On my desk right now is a book called Tales of the Ginseng that my parents gave me for my twelfth birthday in 1976. It is a book of collected lore, of Manchurian folktales, of kings who become ginseng roots, of ginseng plants that withdraw, just ahead of the digger, to lure them into a deep-earth spirit-world from which they never return.
The Spectrum of Life, at the American Museum of Natural History, an evolutionary trip through the amazing diversity of life on Earth. Credit Matthew Pillbury/Benrubi Gallery
We’ve said often that we’re die-hard supporters of natural history museums before, and even quite recently. So it’s nice to see yet another article championing the role these institutions can have in scientific discoveries, education, and more. Here’s an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times by Richard Conniff, highlighting some threats to some US museums:
When people talk about natural history museums, they almost always roll out the well-worn descriptive “dusty,” to the great exasperation of a curator I know. Maybe he’s annoyed because he’s spent large sums of his museum’s money building decidedly un-dusty climate-controlled storage sites, and the word implies neglect. (“Let me know,” the curator advises by email, “if you want to hear me rant for an hour or so on this topic.”)
Worse, this rumored dustiness reinforces the widespread notion that natural history museums are about the past — just a place to display bugs and brontosaurs. Visitors may go there to be entertained, or even awe-struck, but they are often completely unaware that curators behind the scenes are conducting research into climate change, species extinction and other pressing concerns of our day. That lack of awareness is one reason these museums are now routinely being pushed to the brink. Even the National Science Foundation, long a stalwart of federal support for these museums, announced this month that it was suspending funding for natural history collections as it conducts a yearlong budget review.
Poas Volcano crater on a clear day. Photo credit: Juan K Gamboa
Today in Costa Rica we celebrate Poás Volcano National Park, which is the oldest national park in the country. It was founded on January 25th, 1971 and is the most visited national park by locals and foreigners alike. The volcano remains active to this day, with clouds of smoke frequently emitting from the main crater. Since 1989 the size of the lake crater has been shrinking and the amount of acid rain increasing, damaging some of the flora in the surrounding areas of the park and farming lands nearby.
Poas Volcano National Park, Lake Botos fills an extinct crater at the end of one trail, and is home to many cloud forest birds including hummingbirds, tanagers, flycatchers, toucanets, Costa Rica’s national bird the clay-colored robin. Photo credit: Juan K. Gamboa
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has long been a leading presence in the study, appreciation and conservation of birds. From citizen science programs, to eBird, to research collaboration with the the National Geographic Society, the Lab has helped to educate the public about the environmental importance of birds. The Wall of Birds, titled “From So Simple a Beginning,” from the Darwin quote above, celebrates the world of birds, showcasing biodiversity and evolutionary change, by featuring species from all surviving bird families alongside several extinct ancestors.
The scale of the mural is mind-blowing! The world map covers the largest wall of the Lab’s visitor center, with life-sized birds from each of the 243 taxonomic families of the world, placed in their geographical endemic locations. Check out the scale of the flying albatross in the lower left of the mural! The pale, gray scale depictions of the extinctions and ancestors adds to the complexity of the mural.
S. electri. COURTESY GEORGE POINAR / OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY
Amber is awesome. In so many ways, it is the definition of a natural wonder. One of those definitions might be its role as unintentional conservator of ancient natural history. This collection of images, from an amber-trapped flower to an prehistoric stingless bee, make the case for this definition:
The flowers of Strychnos electri are slim and small and trumpet-shaped. Their petals flare out at the tip to form a star, out of which a single spindly pollen tube protrudes. They look as if they might have fallen from the stalk yesterday, but they are ancient. At least fifteen million years ago, and possibly as many as forty-five million, they landed in the sticky sap of a tree that is now extinct, in a kind of forest that no longer exists on Earth. The sap hardened into amber, the tree died, and eventually geology took over. The fossilized flowers were submerged in water, buried under layers of gravel and limestone, and finally thrust upward into the foggy hills of the modern-day Dominican Republic. There, in 1986, an American entomologist named George Poinar, Jr., unearthed them. Continue reading →
The dioramas at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History—those vivid and lifelike re-creations of the natural world, in which the taxidermied specimens almost seem to breathe and the painted horizons seem to stretch for miles—are very much products of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century milieu in which many of them were created. Temporally and aesthetically sandwiched between the cabinet of curiosities and “Planet Earth,” the dioramas grew out of the intersection between a nascent conservation movement and an age of swashbuckling adventurism…
Of course, we prefer natural history in natural places, preferably intact and living and resplendent as hinted at in this video which we have featured previously. But museums have their place, and the mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is just the most recent of a long line of efforts to get the inanimate to animate our interest. But for those of us who grew up making dioramas, this feature brings to mind the power of three dimensions, even when inanimate, to animate.
An eagle for the bird-group exhibit, 1961. COURTESY AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
Chinatec elders prepare stone soup the traditional way, by the Papaloapan River. PHOTO: SARAH BOREALIS
National Geographic’s The Plate explores the “global relationship between what we eat and why, at the intersection of science, technology, history, culture and the environment”. The latest in its daily discussion on food is the preparation of real stone soup in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The soup originated in a remote ritual site in the Papaloapan River basin, about 12 hours by car from Oaxaca City, in the highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The geography there is very rocky, and in the Pre-Ceramic [period,] Chinantec ancestors developed an elemental way to cook their food using fire and stone. The ritual site features large boulders excavated to serve as large cooking pots, and I guess you might say that the rest is history! The recipe for stone soup features local ingredients and really is a product of this unique environment.
Archaeologists will turn Victoria Cave and its ancient bone collection into a digital museum. PHOTO: BBC
Victoria Cave was discovered by chance in 1837 and since then has been completely excavated. Within the cave’s thick clay deposits, scientists found an amazing record of climate change in the Dales over thousands of years. Excavators were particularly fascinated by ‘bone caves’ where there might be a possibility of finding evidence for the earliest humans along with long extinct animals. And now the cave and its bone treasures are being digitized.
A variety of birds, frogs, and crocodiles can be spotted while cruising the mangrove-lined Daintree River. Photo: David Wall/Dinodia
Unique to Australia, the flightless cassowary bird lives a solitary existence for most of its life. It is integral to the survival of many of the plants of this rainforest. Photo: CCOPhotostockBS/Dinodia
The list of the World Heritage Sites, as recognized by UNESCO, is a goldmine of history, natural and cultural patrimony. It tells of places and cultures that warrant a second look, an effort to better understand them. And of all the geography the list covers, there’s only one place where two Heritage Sites meet: the Daintree Rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef.
Bison, like these at Custer State Park, in South Dakota, were central to the Plains Indians. But when the U.S. National Parks Service tried to reintroduce them to Lakota lands, it tore the community apart. PHOTO: SARAH LEEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE
Rewilding is the idea that, having extirpated many species, by returning large animals and birds like the California condor to the landscape, we can restore key ecosystem functions. The most famous example is probably the reintroduction of grey wolves to the northern Rockies and the Mexican grey wolf to the desert Southwest in the mid-late’90s. There’s a phenomenon called trophic cascade, which means that a large predator like a wolf has a regulatory effect on the entire food chain. In Yellowstone, the return of wolves has meant that the elk can’t be fat and lazy and start to browse in a different fashion, which in turn allows aspen and beavers to come back.
If 20th-century conservation was about drawing lines on a map and saying, this is a park or preserve, 21st-century conservation is about filling in those lines, bringing back animals that have been extirpated.
This is the 2,000-year-old welwistchia, a plant that lives only in parts of coastal Namibia and Angola. It has two leaves which it never sheds. PHOTO: Rachel Sussman
This isn’t a rock, it’s actually moss from a Chilean desert, and it’s been there for more than 2,000 years. PHOTO: Rachel Sussman
This Swedish spruce is nearly 10,000 years old, but you can see the effects of the last 50 years of climate change in its new growth patterns. PHOTO: Rachel Sussman
This creosote bush has just been minding its own business for 12,000 years. PHOTO: Rachel Sussman
A photographer’s pilgrimage to see the world’s oldest. Before the signs of climate change sees them disappear.
In 2007, photographer Rachel Sussman made a pilgrimage to Florida’s 3,500-year-old Senator Tree. The pond cypress’s mottled gray trunk stretched 125 feet into the sky, and sported a bronze plaque gifted by Calvin Coolidge in 1929. Sussman snapped a few pictures, but, upon review, wasn’t thrilled with the results. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just come back sometime,'” she remembers.
Five years later, a meth user snuck into a space in the trunk of the tree, lit up, and burned the whole thing down. Sussman came back and photographed the charred remains. “It really was this moment challenging my sense of permanence and impermanence,” she says.
A few years ago the Ministry of Environment included the Sagano Bamboo Forest on its list of “100 Soundscapes of Japan” — a selection of everyday noises intended to encourage locals to stop and enjoy nature’s music. PHOTO: CNN
What does it take for a government to officially recognize a natural soundscape? The bamboo forests of Kyoto. Growing tall on the edges of Kyoto, the Sagano Bamboo Forest is a once tranquil nature spot that is now a series of tourist-packed pathways, but if one can escape the sounds of camera shutters and boorish visitors, they can hear the rustling, creaking, and swaying of one of Japan’s governmentally recognized soundscapes.
The deep volcanic crater, top, was produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in April 1815 – the most powerful volcanic blast in recorded history. PHOTO: Iwan Setiyawan/KOMPAS, via Associated Press
That the volcanoes have power is plain, cemented truth. You hear of their trail of ravage – ash, rocks, lava, evacuation, barren lands. The volcano vocabulary is dreary, if you may say so. But not the eruption of Mount Tambora. For this be the reason for many a flood, famine, disease, civil unrest and economic decline.
“The year without a summer,” as 1816 came to be known, gave birth not only to paintings of fiery sunsets and tempestuous skies but two genres of gothic fiction. The freakish progeny were Frankenstein and the human vampire, which have loomed large in art and literature ever since.
“The paper trail,” said Dr. Wood, a University of Illinois professor of English, “goes back again and again to Tambora.”
Also known as candlefish, eulachon (Thaleichthys pacificus) are so oily that they can ignite when dried. Traditionally, eulachon were used at times as lights by Nisga’a people. PHOTO: PAUL COLANGELO
A Nisga’a woman hangs eulachon on a ganee’e, or air-drying rack. PHOTO: PAUL COLANGELO
Often referred to as “salvation fish” for safeguarding native people from starvation, the eulachon is now in need of a lifeline itself—as its habitat and population are in danger. National Geographic reports on the fish’s historical and cultural significance and the the many changes in the ocean that have led to the decline of the eulachon’s numbers:
The fish are also known as halimotkw, often translated as “savior fish” or “salvation fish.” Eulachon return to the rivers here to spawn at the end of the North Pacific winter, when historically food supplies would be running low. In lean years the eulachon’s arrival meant the difference between life and death for people up and down the coast.
Today, the fish that used to safeguard native people from starvation is itself in need of a lifeline.
An ancient 4,800-year-old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, the Methuselah Tree grows high in the White Mountains of eastern California. PHOTO: AGrinberg Creative Commons
Did you know that the exact location of the world’s second oldest tree is a Forest Service secret? Or that a woman was charged with setting a fire that burnt down one of the oldest tree organisms? Well, “The Senator” must have sprung up roughly 3,500 years ago — a tiny cypress tree, no bigger than a fist, in the swamplands of Central Florida. In 2012, that very same cypress burned to the ground. The majestic 118-foot tall tree was one of the oldest organisms in the world. Over the course of its long life, it survived hurricanes, disease and logging sprees, serving as a tourist attraction and a spiritual epicenter for pilgrims hoping to bask, literally, in the shade of history.
Martha in a display case in the National Museum of Natural History, 2015. (Photo: Ph0705/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 4.0)
If you happen to visit the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C, don’t just walk by this innocuous stuffed pigeon. Take a good look at Martha, because she’s the last of the world’s flock of passenger pigeons. And now the subject of the ambitious The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback, a “de-extinction” project aimed at reviving the species. Using the genomes of the rock pigeon and the band-tailed pigeon as a reference, project scientists aim to assemble a complete passenger pigeon genome and transfer it into the germ cells of band-tailed pigeons in order to generate live passenger pigeons. The target date for the passenger pigeons’ triumphant return is 2022.