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
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-painter-of-angels-became-the-father-of-camouflage-67218866/?no-ist=&page=1
Roy R. Behrens
Hanna Rose Shell


 

Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry

sudek detailJosef Sudek (1876 – 1976)detail

 


Because You Asked About the Line Between Prose and Poetry

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.


Howard Nemerov

A River No More

Young Kingfishers. The bird book: illustrating in natural colors more than seven hundred North American birds; also several hundred photographs of their nests and eggs by Chester A. Reed.

Young Kingfishers. The bird book: illustrating in natural colors more than seven hundred North American birds; also several hundred photographs of their nests and eggs by Chester A. Reed.

By William Yardley for the New York Times

Philip Fradkin, who died on July 8th, was a writer whose 13 books often focused on the legacy of environmental destruction in the West and took aim at what he and others viewed as the persistent misunderstanding and simplification of the region and its culture by many in the East.
One, “A River No More: The Colorado River and the West,” detailed how water wars, dams and development devastated that river’s natural course.

Philip Lawrence Fradkin was born in Manhattan on Feb. 28, 1935, the son of Dr. Leon H. Fradkin, a dentist who had migrated from Russia, and Elvira Kush, an activist who wrote and advocated for disarmament and women’s rights. He became enamored of the West during a road trip with his father when he was 14.

After graduating from Williams College he made his way westward, working for small newspapers in California in the early 1960s before being hired by The Los Angeles Times in 1964. He shared in a Pulitzer Prize the paper received in 1966 for its coverage of the Watts riots, and later covered the Vietnam War.

In 1970 he created an environmental beat at the paper. He left in 1975 — he said his editor had told him his articles were tilting toward environmentalism — and became an environmental policy expert in the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/us/philip-fradkin-writer-of-western-themes-dies-at-77.html

“We cannot command Nature except by obeying her.” Francis Bacon, 1620

The last dusky seaside sparrow

Extraordinary photographer, Joel Sartore: http://www.joelsartore.com/http://vimeo.com/8426920

Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.

Alexander Pope, Essay on Man