A Beautiful Law of Nature

camouflage caterpillarAbbott Handerson Thayer (August 12, 1849 – May 29, 1921)


“Less Thing-Like”

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.


Richard Meryman
Roy R. Behrens
Hanna Rose Shell


Audubon’s Birthday

Jean Rabin, Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon, John James Audubon  1785 – 1851 was born in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti) to a French naval officer and privateer, and his mistress Jeanne Rabin, a chambermaid, and raised in France.
At age 18 he sailed to the United States to live on the family’s homestead on the Perkiomen Creek, just a few miles from Valley Forge. Audubon lived with the tenants in what he considered a paradise. “Hunting, fishing, drawing, and music occupied my every moment; cares I knew not, and cared naught about them.”

On a prospecting trip downriver with a load of goods, Audubon joined up with Shawnee and Osage hunting parties, learning their methods, drawing bird specimens by the bonfire, and finally parting “like brethren.” Audubon had great respect for native Americans: “Whenever I meet Indians, I feel the greatness of our Creator in all its splendor, for there I see the man naked from His hand and yet free from acquired sorrow.”
After 1819, Audubon went bankrupt and was thrown into jail for debt. The little money he did earn was from drawing portraits, particularly death-bed sketches.

In 1826, Audubon took his growing collection of work to England. With letters of introduction to prominent Englishmen,he gained their quick attention. “I have been received here in a manner not to be expected during my highest enthusiastic hopes.”
The British could not get enough of his images of backwoods America and its natural attractions. He met with great acceptance as he toured around England and Scotland, and was lionized as “the American woodsman.” He raised enough money to begin publishing his Birds of America.

A contemporary French critic wrote, “A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle…It is a real and palpable vision of the New World.”
King George IV was an avid fan of Audubon and a subscriber to the book. He was elected to the Linnaean Society, and London’s Royal Society recognized his achievement by making him the second American fellow after Benjamin Franklin. While in Edinburgh to seek subscriptions for the book, Audubon gave a demonstration of his method of propping up birds with wire at the Natural History Association where student Charles Darwin was in the audience. He was also a hit in France, gaining the King and several of the nobility as subscribers

He followed Birds of America with a sequel Ornithological Biographies. This was a collection of life histories of each species written with Scottish ornithologist William NacGillivray.

In 1839 having finished the Ornithological Biography, Audubon returned to the United States with his family and bought an estate on the Hudson River (now Audubon Park).
He’s buried in the Trinity Churchyard Cemetery and Mausoleum at 155th Street and Broadway in Manhattan.
Charles Darwin quoted Audubon three times in On the Origin of Species and also in later works. Among his accomplishments, Audubon discovered twenty-five new species and twelve new subspecies

 Audubon worked with  multiple layers of watercolor and added colored chalk or pastel to add softness to feathers, especially those of owls and herons. All species were drawn life size which accounts for the contorted poses of the larger birds–made to fit within the page– and sometimes used several birds in a drawing to present all views of their anatomy.  There were usually male and female variations, and occassionally juveniles. Smaller species were usually placed on branches with berries, fruit, and flowers, frequently with nests and eggs, and sometimes even natural predators, such as snakes. In later drawings, Audubon used assistants to render the habitat for him.
from TheFreeDictionary

In medieval times, the Gyrfalcon was considered a royal bird. The geographer and historian Ibn Said al-Maghribi (d. 1286) described certain northern Atlantic islands west of Ireland where these falcons would be brought from, and how the Egyptian Sultan paid 1,000 dinars for each Gyrfalcon (or, if it arrived dead, 500 dinars). Due to its rarity and the difficulties involved in obtaining it, in European falconry the Gyrfalcon was generally reserved for kings and nobles; very rarely was a man of lesser rank seen with a Gyrfalcon on his fist.

In the 12th century AD the Jurchen tribes rebelled against the Chinese Liao Dynast which was ruled by the Khitan. The primary cause was that the Khitan nobles, among whom swan hunting had become highly fashionable, extorted a big tax of Gyrfalcons (海东青 hǎidōngqīng in Chinese). Especially under the last Liao Emperor Yēlǜ Yánxĭ (耶律延禧), tax collectors were even entitled to use force to procure the demanded quantity of Gyrfalcons. The rebellion caught on, and the Jurchen under chieftain Wányán Āgǔdǎ (完颜阿骨打) annihilated the Liao empire in 1125, establishing the Jīn Dynasty in its stead.

Gyrfalcons are today expensive to buy, and thus owners and breeders may keep them secret to avoid theft. They can and often do fly long distances, so falconers may fit them with radio-trackers in order to aid recovery. Wild Gyrfalcons have immune systems that are naive to many pathogens found around human environments, and when taken from the wild often die quickly from disease.
from W

The seven-year-old Charles Darwin in 1816

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 6:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Temple of Nature

Georg Flegel 1566–1638

Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802) was an English physician who turned down George III’s invitation to be a physician to the King.

He formed the Lichfield Botanical Society in order to translate the works of the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus from Latin into English: A System of Vegetables and The Families of Plants, in which he coined many of the English names of plants that we use today.

Darwin then wrote The Loves of the Plants, a long poem which was a popular rendering of Linnaeus’ works, and Economy of Vegetation, and together the two were published as The Botanic Garden.

Darwin’s final long poem, The Temple of Nature, centers on his own conception of evolution and traces the progression of life from micro-organisms to civilized society.

He established a lifelong friendship with Benjamin Franklin and shared his support for the American and French revolutions, he endorsed a proper education for women, and along with other members of the Lunar Society he opposed the slave trade.

His experiments in galvanism were an important source of inspiration when Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein.”

Cosmological speculation of Erasmus Darwin:

Roll on, ye Stars! exult in youthful prime,
Mark with bright curves the printless steps of Time;
Near and more near your beamy cars approach,
And lessening orbs on lessening orbs encroach; —
Flowers of the sky! ye too to age must yield,
Frail as your silken sisters of the field!
Star after star from Heaven’s high arch shall rush,
Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark center fall,
And Death and Night and Chaos mingle all!
— Till o’er the wreck, emerging from the storm,
Immortal Nature lifts her changeful form,
Mounts from her funeral pyre on wings of flame,
And soars and shines, another and the same.