interspecies communication in Central Park, 1904

Below are some wonderful images of human-squirrel interactions in urban parks around the turn of the 20th century, found in a Dec. 4, 1904, article in the Washington Post titled “Squirrels Come at the Bidding of Stranger in Central Park: Every Day He Is to Be Seen Holding Communication With Them and Giving Out the Supply of Nuts and Dainties Which His Generosity Supplies.” The gentleman in question is depicted in the two photographs at the bottom; the illustration of a girl feeding a squirrel captures perfectly the ideas about charity that guided humane understandings of squirrels and certain other urban animals, such as pigeons, at the time.

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coding SIMPLOT

I think there are two reasons that I didn’t become a programmer or computer scientist despite some enthusiasm in that direction at one point. One reason is that I wasn’t particularly good at programming. The other is that, despite not being very good at it, I found it addictive. Once I had a problem and a goal in mind — a little machine of code I wanted to build within the bigger machine of the computer — it was difficult to let go until I was able to watch all its little gears and cogs whirling around. When I’m building one of these machines, time seems to vanish. Suddenly it’s 3 a.m., I have bags under my eyes, and I haven’t eaten for hours. Somehow that never happens to me when I’m trying to finish writing an article.

My recent attempt to recreate the logic and aesthetic of a computer simulation of animal movements written in the mid-1960s sucked me into one of those time-holes. At each step of the way, I realized there was some language or tool I needed to learn how to use or some new feature I had to add, and what was initially intended to be a modest experiment ended by chewing up an amount of hours that I am too embarrassed to estimate. I’ll just say that I didn’t get out much for a couple of weeks. If you want to take a look at the code that eventually resulted, it’s available for perusal via Github. The following is a partial reconstruction of how it was produced.

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Unbearable Future

Unbearable Future,” Limn 3, Sentinel Devices (2013).benson_polarbear_72-220x293

I wrote this piece in response to an invitation by Frédérick Keck and Andy Lakoff to contribute to a special issue of the new online/print magazine Limn on the idea of “sentinels,” i.e., what Keck and Lakoff describe in their preface to the issue as “signs of an ominous and rapidly encroaching future.”

Polar bears recently have come to symbolize the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change to biodiversity, or even to nature writ large. My very brief article is an attempt to understand the roots of this development by going back to a moment in the 1960s when there was also great alarm about the polar bear’s fate, but when the main culprits were hunting and Arctic development rather than melting ice.

This understanding of threat launched the construction of what one politician at the time described as a “machinery for the future” that would monitor the status of the polar bear. Much has changed since then, I argue, but many of the basic assumptions about the future, risk, and the human impact on nature remain the same. (The U.S. polar bear trophy import program that I have mapped here can be seen both as a result and a component of this machinery.)

Many of the other pieces in the issue focus on the use of animals as sentinels; see for example Chloe Silverman on bees, Adriana Petryna on swallows, Hannah Landecker on experimental rodents, Ann H. Kelly on mosquitoes, Christelle Gramaglia on shellfish, Frédérick Keck on poultry, and Lyle Fearnley on waterfowl.

All of these articles (as well as the non-animal-related pieces) are well worth checking out, as are the previous two Limn issues on “Crowds and Clouds” and “Systemic Risk.”