Benjamin Britten setting (1933) of a Middle English carol from an anonymous manuscript written around 1504.
Abbott Thayer was a lifelong wildlife advocate whose artistic focus never strayed far from his personal fascination with the natural world.
On 11 November 1896 he made an appearance at the Annual Meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Cambridge, Massachusetts arriving at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology on Oxford Street bearing a sack of sweet potatoes, oil paints, paintbrushes, a roll of wire, and two new principles of invisibility in nature that together formed his “Law Which Underlies Protective Coloration.”
In his afternoon open-air lecture, Thayer argued that every non-human animal is cloaked in an outfit that has evolved to obliterate visual signs of that animal’s presence in its typical habitat at the “crucial moment” of its utmost vulnerability.
Thayer arrived at camouflage inadvertently, in the process of pursuing art.
As a student, he had learned that any shape drawn on a flat surface can be given volume and dimension by a venerable process called shading. This is reliably achieved by rendering the shape lighter on the top and gradually darker toward the bottom.
As we know from current brain research, this takes advantage of an inborn visual tendency called the top-down lighting bias: when we look at anything, we default to the assumption that its light source is coming from overhead.
Observation then enabled him to realize why so many animals have light colored bellies with darker coloring toward the tops of their bodies. The effect is the inverse of shading.
Appropriately, it became known as countershading, because the effect counteracts the shadows resulting from cast sunlight, making an animal look less dimensional, less solid, less “thing-like.”
Though some of Thayer’s other proposals have been disregarded, countershading is a widely accepted biological principle today, and stands as the artist’s most significant contribution to the natural sciences.
By 1896, Thayer was increasingly inserting himself into what was a longstanding debate over the origins, effectiveness, and pervasiveness of protective concealment in the natural world.
After the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, animal coloration—both its origins and its role in animal behavior—had become a key locus of debate among natural historians, artists, and the lay public.
Prior to this period, naturalists had noted instances of animals’ blending in with their backgrounds. It seemed remarkable that God had “dropped” them into place just so—“nature by design.”
By contrast, in an evolutionary model, there was a gradual “fitting together” over time. Evolutionary theories, both Darwin’s and that of his colleague Alfred Russel Wallace, presented a range of explanations for animal colors. Darwin emphasized interrelations between the sexes as the cause of the showy coloration found in the male of many species; females chose the more colorful males for mating.
Wallace, studying the colors of many insects, interpreted bright hues and complex patterns alike as either warning signals to potential predators, modes for assimilation in the environment, or mimicry of other, more dangerous, species.
Meanwhile, philosopher-psychologist William James, a friend of Thayer’s and a fellow birder, discussed the experience of bird watching in his 1890 Principles of Psychology, describing the study of illusions, or so-called “false perceptions,” as critical in efforts to understand human apprehension of depth, color, and movement.
Thayer’s New Hampshire summer home, to which he and his family relocated around 1900, was transformed into a year-round laboratory for studying protective coloration.
His communion with nature permeated the entire household. Wild animals—owls, rabbits, woodchucks, weasels—roamed the house at will. There were pet prairie dogs named Napoleon and Josephine, a red, blue and yellow macaw, and spider monkeys
Soon, his wife Emma, son Gerald, and daughters Mary and Gladys joined him as fellow investigators, technicians, and artisans.
Between 1901 and 1909, their generative theories were built up into a universe of paintings, photography (a new technology), collages, stencils, and essays. Each format addressed the enigmas of coloration and invisibility in different ways.
Thayer was simultaneously producing, witnessing, and documenting the processes of a living being’s assimilation into its habitat.
John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)
Rocks in Unrest
Phoebe Sarah Marks in Hampshire, England, was born on 28 April 1854. She was the third child of a Polish-Jewish watchmaker named Levi Marks, an immigrant from Tsarist Poland; and Alice Theresa Moss, a seamstress. Her father died in 1861, leaving Sarah’s mother with seven children and an eighth expected. Sarah took up some of the responsibility for caring for the younger children.
At the age of nine, Sarah was invited by her aunts, who ran a school in London, to live with her cousins and be educated with them.
In her teens she adopted the name “Hertha” after the heroine of a poem by Algernon Charles Swinburne that criticized organised religion.
By age 16, she was working as a governess, but George Eliot supported Ayrton’s application to Girton College, Cambridge.
Eliot was writing her novel Daniel Deronda at the time. One of the novel’s characters, Mirah, was said to be based on Ayrton.
During her time at Cambridge, Ayrton constructed a sphygmomanometer, led the choral society, founded the Girton fire brigade, and, together with Charlotte Scott, formed a mathematical club. In 1880, Ayrton passed the Mathematical Tripos, but Cambridge did not grant her an academic degree because, at the time, Cambridge gave only certificates and not full degrees to women.
Upon her return to London, Ayrton earned money by teaching and embroidery, ran a club for working girls, and cared for her invalid sister.
She was also active in devising and solving mathematical problems, many of which were published in “Mathematical Questions and Their Solutions” from the Educational Times.
In 1884 Ayrton patented a line-divider, an engineering drawing instrument for dividing a line into any number of equal parts and for enlarging and reducing figures. Its primary use was likely for artists for enlarging and diminishing, but it was also useful to architects and engineers. From then until her death, Hertha registered 26 patents.
That year Ayrton began attending evening classes on electricity at Finsbury Technical College, delivered by Professor William Edward Ayrton, a pioneer in electrical engineering and physics, and a fellow of the Royal Society.
In 1899, she was the first woman ever to read her own paper before the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Her paper was entitled “The Hissing of the Electric Arc”. Shortly thereafter, Ayrton was elected the first female member; the next woman to be admitted to the IEE was in 1958.
She petitioned to present a paper before the Royal Society but was not allowed because of her sex, and “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc” was read by John Perry in her stead in 1901.
Ayrton was also the first woman to win a prize from the Society, the Hughes Medal, awarded to her in 1906 in honour of her research on the motion of ripples in sand and water and her work on the electric arc.
By the late nineteenth century, Ayrton’s work in the field of electrical engineering was recognised more widely. At the International Congress of Women held in London in 1899, she presided over the physical science section, and she spoke at the International Electrical Congress in Paris in 1900. Her success there led the British Association for the Advancement of Science to allow women to serve on general and sectional committees.
Ayrton’s interest in vortices in water and air inspired the Ayrton fan, used in the trenches in the First World War to dispel poison gas.
She helped found the International Federation of University Women in 1919 and the National Union of Scientific Workers in 1920.
by Robert Macfarlane
In 2003 the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to mean a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”.
Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales, when he realised that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control.
He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness.
Plastics in particular are being taken as a key marker for the Anthropocene.
We currently produce around 100 million tonnes of plastic globally each year.
Because plastics are inert and difficult to degrade, some of this plastic material will find its way into the strata record. Among the future fossils of the Anthropocene, therefore, might be the trace forms not only of megafauna and nano-planktons, but also shampoo bottles and deodorant caps – the strata that contain them precisely dateable with reference to the product-design archives of multinationals.
What will survive of us is plastic – and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.
Recent publications indicate that scientists will recommend the designation of the Anthropocene, and that the “stratigraphically optimal” temporal limit will be located somewhere in the mid-20th century.
In 2010 Timothy Morton adopted the term hyperobject to denote some of the characteristic entities of the Anthropocene. Hyperobjects are “so massively distributed in time, space and dimensionality” that they defy our perception, let alone our comprehension.
Among the examples Morton gives of hyperobjects are climate change, mass species extinction and radioactive plutonium. “In one sense hyperobjects are abstractions,” he notes, “in another they are ferociously, catastrophically real.”
We are living through what is popularly known as the 6th great extinction
A remarkable artwork by the American writer and conservation biologist Julianne Lutz Warren is called “Hopes Echo”.
It concerns the huia, a bird of New Zealand that was made extinct in the early 20th century due to habitat destruction, introduced predators and overhunting for its black and ivory tail feathers.
Many of the new words we have had to invent are ugly coinages for an ugly epoch.
Taken in sum, they speak of our stuttering attempts to describe just what it is we have done.
As a boy, Thomas Say, born into a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia, often visited the family garden, Bartram’s Garden, where he could take butterfly and beetle specimens to his great-uncle William.
A self-taught naturalist, he became an apothecary, and helped found the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia in 1812.
He served as librarian for the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, curator at the American Philosophical Society, and professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania
In 1816, he met Charles Alexandre Lesueur, a French naturalist, malacologist, and ichthyologist who soon became a member of the Academy and served as its curator until 1824.
To collect insects, Say made expeditions to the frontier, in spite of the risk of attacks by American Indians and the hazards of traveling in wild countryside.
In 1818, Say accompanied his friend William Maclure, then the ANSP president and father of American geology; Gerhard Troost, a geologist; and other members of the Academy on a geological expedition to the off-shore islands of Georgia and Florida, then a Spanish colony.
In 1819–20, Major Stephen Harriman Long led an exploration to the Rocky Mountains and the tributaries of the Missouri River, with Say as zoologist.
Their official account of this expedition included the first descriptions of the coyote, swift fox, western kingbird, band-tailed pigeon, rock wren, Say’s phoebe, lesser goldfinch, lark sparrow, lazuli bunting, and orange-crowned warbler.
In 1823, Say served as chief zoologist in Long’s expedition to the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
He traveled on the “Boatload of Knowledge” to the New Harmony Settlement in Indiana (1826–34), a utopian society experiment founded by Robert Owen.
He was accompanied by Maclure, Lesueur, Troost, and Francis Neef, an innovative education reformer.
There he later met Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Schmaltz, another naturalist.
Say married Lucy Way Sistare, whom he had met as one of the passengers to New Harmony, near the settlement.
She was an artist and illustrator of specimens, as in the book American Conchology, and was elected as the first woman member of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Say was a modest and unassuming man, who lived frugally, like a hermit, in New Harmony. He abandoned commercial activities and devoted himself to his studies.
He died, apparently from typhoid fever, when he was 47 years old.
The quality of the plates, in his book on American insects, and the clarity of Say’s description won him immediate fame abroad, and he was made a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London.
Say named some 1,500 new species – many of his discoveries (such as the American dog tick) were crucial for the future study and control of disease in humans, livestock and crops
In Memoriam (Easter, 1915)
Edward Thomas (3 March 1878 – 9 April 1917)