the art of surveillance

a bird caught by a “camera trap” on bumpkin island

In the summer of 2008 I was lucky enough to be able to collaborate on an artistic experiment on camouflage and surveillance on one of the islands in the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. On the principle that late is better than never, I thought I’d attempt to describe what we did and why it turned out to be such an exciting experience/experiment.

The Camoufleurs project was initially dreamed up by historian of science Hanna Rose Shell and architect Dan Hisel, who successfully proposed it to the coordinators of the Bumpkin Island Art Encampment, then in its second year. At the time, Hanna was in the process of writing what would turn out to be a fascinating book about the history of camouflage. Dan had also been studying the history of camouflage and teaching his students about its relevance to architecture. Continue reading

‘i can but offer thee a verse…’

For the moment, I offer the following literary treasure without much comment, except to say that it and its theme have been preoccupying me lately to what is probably an unhealthy extent.

“The Pensioner in Gray” was first published in the children’s magazine St. Nicholas in 1908 (Vol. 36, No. 1, Nov. 1908, p. 11) and later reprinted in Our Dumb Animals (Vol. 45, No. 9, Feb. 1913, p. 142), the magazine of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “Dumb” here meaning voiceless, of course. Its author was Marian Longfellow, cousin of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Continue reading

science vs. paperwork

Scientists get frustrated with paperwork. No surprise there — we all do. But when the paperwork has to do with the very conditions under which new knowledge can be produced, its consequences are more significant than a mere waste of time or the emotional anguish of deciphering bureaucratese. Science can be risky in a number of ways, and in the past half-century or so there has been an efflorescence of efforts to formally manage that risk without undermining scientists’ ability to do what we value them (and pay them) for: find out new, fascinating, and potentially useful things about the world. That balancing act hasn’t always been easy — rather, hasn’t ever been easy — to perform. Continue reading

squirrels at the rachel carson center

For a little more than a year now, the Rachel Carson Center in Munich has been serving as an international hub for environmental history under the directorship of Christof Mauch and Helmuth Trischler. On December 15th, I’ll be speaking in the RCC’s lunchtime colloquium on a topic that has fascinated me for a while but has only just begun to shape up into an argument about the history of human-animal relations: the adaptation of the North American eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) to the urban environment. See below for the RCC’s full lunchtime colloquium schedule for December. Continue reading

graphing wildlife and wild life

Last year, in the process of writing an article for Environmental History titled “From Wild Lives to Wildlife and Back,”  I created something like the chart below by hand in order to visualize changes in the usage of the terms “wild life” (two words) and “wildlife” (one word) over the twentieth century. The chart didn’t end up surviving into the published article, but it definitely helped me formulate my argument. Making it was painstaking, though — lots of cutting and pasting search results into an Excel worksheet. The Google Books Ngram Viewer, which went public as I was putting the finishing touches on the EH piece, makes this sort of thing much easier. Continue reading

searching for polar bears in the federal register

Polar bears have been a hot topic lately, and it’s not just because of Knut, may he rest in peace. Ursus maritimus is one of the species that has come to symbolize the threat of global climate change. In the United States, that means controversy. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the historic step of listing the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 because of the likelihood that global warming would lead to shrinking habitats for the species — specifically, less ice. The decision was highly contested and remains so. Continue reading

for a limited time only

My book Wired Wilderness is available until the end of the year as a high-quality, freely downloadable PDF via the beta site for a new interface to Project MUSE, which will give subscribers access to a library of ebooks from a number of publishers when it launches for real in January 2012. For about six months before the launch, the beta site is offering free access to approximately 300 sample ebooks from several publishers, including Johns Hopkins University Press, the publisher of Wired Wilderness. Project MUSE, which has until now focused on academic journals, started in 1993 as a collaboration between JHUP and Johns Hopkins’s library, so it’s only logical that JHUP books are represented. To go straight to the page for Wired Wilderness, click here. You’ll be able to download each part of the book separately. There’s no way to download the whole book as a single gargantuan file, though if you have access to Adobe Acrobat or another PDF authoring tool you could stitch it back together yourself. Continue reading

wildlife conservation and animal rights

For anyone who’s been following the recent anti-animal-rights crusade of Michael Hutchins, the executive director/CEO of the Wildlife Society, the fact that the society has come out with an official position statement against “animal rights philosophy” should come as no surprise. But it’s a shame nonetheless. The statement caricatures the animal rights movement and will make it harder for wildlife conservationists and animal protectionists, even many of those who are skeptical of rights-based reasoning, to find common ground. Continue reading

a revolutionary new technology … from 1960

In the past day or two a bunch of people have forwarded me an article in the New York Times about a new wildlife tracking device, touted by the author and some of his interviewees as potentially revolutionary for ecology and wildlife management — as revolutionary, the author suggests, as the smartphone and Facebook have been for human communication.

Revolutionary claims are no surprise in science journalism, but this one seems unusually thin. The collar combines an accelerometer with a GPS receiver, but the main advance seems to lie in calibration efforts that the developers are doing with a captive mountain lion (“Mischief”) in Colorado to match movement patterns with certain activities — stalking and killing a rabbit, for instance — and to calculate the corresponding expenditure of energy. Nice if it works, but not exactly Copernican. Continue reading