Feral: Shifting Baseline Syndrome & Trophic Cascades —

After writing this post I found a Ted video of Monbiot explaining what I wanted to in a much better way. So you could watch that instead.

I’ve just finished reading Feral by George Monbiot. It’s an articulate, intoxicating and inspirational read even if points are, at times, a little simplistically or evangelically argued. He advocates for rewilding as a method of more holistic conservation than simply maintaining what already exists. He argues passionately for how this could create a more imaginative, thrilling, economically and ecologically advantageous environment.

There were two particular ideas which I’d not come across before that seemed so logical and exciting that I wanted to write them here to remember:

The first is Shifting Baseline Syndrome. This is what happens when conservationists (or policy makers or whoever), seek to effect a change to put something back to the way it was, believing that this ‘before state’, is not just an acceptable scenario, but that it’s the best it could be. Monbiot uses fishing as an example of how people’s reference points move. Current fish stocks are being measured against their 1970s population, this however, is already a substantially reduced position and doesn’t provide a good reference point for the best case scenario, (which for fish populations was sometime before modern commercial fishing technology got involved).

The second is the idea of Trophic Cascade. When deer graze they eat and kill lots of saplings and would-be trees that don’t get a chance to grow. You end up with treeless grasslands, or similar monocultures that don’t provide the kinds of habitats that encourage a diverse flora and fauna. This is not good as trees are brilliant for everything it seems – from creating better soil conditions, to providing dead wood habitats for thousands of creatures, and helping to prevent flooding by helping with soil erosion and rain run-off. This situation has arisen over decades of human influence that’s squeezed out top of the food chain predators. What happens when you reintroduce these predators (think wolves, lynx etc.) is that the browsing animals begin to get eaten and so are reduced in number, limiting their effect. But the more interesting thing is that it alters their behaviour and how they eat. Rather than being allowed free reign the deer are more cautious, and so don’t hang around the river where they are in the open and are easy prey. This allows plants that would have previously been eaten to grow up around the river, leaves fall into it, which increases the ecology of the river and also provides shade. All these factors encourage shrimpy creatures and subsequently the eels etc. that prey on them. So everything is connected and can be altered by relatively smallish tweeks at the top of the ecological cascade.

This reintroduction of predators is currently being played out in Wales where they’re looking for people to let Lynx on their land.

And if that’s not far enough the Long Now project: Revive and Restore is looking to take extinct species (so completely gone, dead and not here anymore), and using Jurassic Park style technology genetically modify and selectively breed back a range of animals. Their key specimen being a Woolly Mammoth! Brilliant talk by Stewart Brand about this here.

 

Alan and the Ants —

The following are screenshots and a dictation from programme 7: Wilderness from the series The Nature of Britain, presented by Alan Titchmarsh.

 

The key to gorse’s success lies in what happens when it’s flowers fade. Now if you stand by a gorse bush on a warm June day, and listen very carefully, you may hear something surprising. As the gorse pod matures, it twists and bursts open, sending seeds flying through the air. But on the heath the seeds can dry out, so the gorse has a rather nifty way of getting them to somewhere cool and moist. 

If you pick off a pod and break it into your hand, you’ll discover that the seeds themselves have, on their sides, a little blob of yellow. Now that serves a very special purpose, and I’ll show you what.

The yellow blob is a tiny store of fat, and it’s there to pay for a highly efficient courier service. It’s a delicacy for foraging ants, but they don’t get their payment until  they deliver their part of the bargain. Foraging ants tend to be the geriatrics of the colony, so their old worn-out jaws can’t separate the fat from the seed, instead they carry it back to the nest. In here the younger workers can easily remove the tasty treat using their sharper jaws, so the seed is delivered to it’s destination. Ants though, are tidy, and any litter in the nest is cleared away in no time, but the seed delivery stays right where it is. The fat store was a kind of handle, so once it’s removed the ants have no way of carrying the seed away. Protected in the cool moist nest the seed germinates, and starts to grow into a brand new gorse bush, all courtesy of the local ants.

 

Bombs —

These three links caught my attention as a group and I thought I’d share them here.

 

Bomb Sight uses archival data and modern mapping software to display where all the recorded bombs fell on London during WW2. The delivery mechanism means people immediately search for the places and areas that they live, work and inhabit everyday. Being able to relate archival data to your life now is such a powerful way to connect with history and to understand the blitz’s impact.

 

Starfish sites where created away real bombing targets in the UK to try and draw attention and bombs from German raids.

 

Wartime factories on the west coast of America created elaborate set designs on top of their factories to disguise them as fields and suburban streets. 

 

Handmade: Slow TV —

2015-05-09_Hanmade_Glass
2015-05-09_Handmade_Metal
2015-05-09_Handmade_Wood

Handmade is a series of three programmes from BBC Four that look at three master craftsmen and their processes. The key difference is that these programmes are slow. Very slow. As Director Ian Denyer explains: “The brief was brief: no words, no music, long, very long held shots I added my own restrictions – no shot less than ten seconds, and no movement of the camera.”

This makes for an unusual and absorbing hour and a half of TV. I find the pace, the craft, and the exclusive use of diegetic sound calming, cathartic and comforting. As someone who is something of a frustrated ‘maker’ I love watching people do what they’re good at. Seeing someone use a tool that they know so well that it’s a habit rather than a thought about action is thrilling and genuinely inspirational. (I get the same feeling of wanting to create things when I’m in Atlantis looking at sketchbooks and pens…)

Check all three out here.

The series blog is also worth a look for the voices of the craftspeople and an insight into how the series was made.

 

Data Granularity —

This went round the studio the other day: catswing.io

 

It brilliantly and simply shows how much space costs in London. It got me thinking about data granularity and how you could compare this map to Whereabouts London and also Rightmove

 

Each has more and more data and information about the various areas, and of course each has their place. But I wonder if there’s not enough clear information similar to Catswing for other issues or data heavy questions. What other problems could be better of more clearly explained? Sometimes all you need is the overview where someone’s done all the hard work for you.

 

Museums Showoff —

At the March Museums Showoff the stand out speakers for me were Sharon Robinson, Collection Care and Textile Conservation Manager at the Museum of London, and Hannah Bishop, Development Coordinator at the Horniman Museum.

Sharon was talking about toxic collections and what to watch out for. The stand out thing for me was the rating of radioactive objects – in the past if you wanted something to fluoresce the coating was radioactive, so lots of war time things which needed to be read or looked at in the dark are now hazardous items. The standard for measuring these small radiations is to look up the equivalent ‘effective’ dose in bananas. The Banana Equivalent Dose (BED) takes the fact that the fruit contains a quantity of naturally occurring potassium which is radioactive. Thus one can work out that an antique compact is the equivalent of eating 4 bananas and so probably OK to handle. More details here and here.

Hannah spoke about her project to crowd fund an art exhibition at the Horniman of paintings of taxidermy in-situ in the museum’s stores. This seems a really progressive and novel way to engage with an audience and create exhibitions which people want to see. In this time of public cuts, new ways of generating money like this are going to be necessary and prominent. What other existing funding models or cash making systems could be applied to the arts and heritage sector? Exhibition shares? eBay? Google ads?

 

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector —

I went enthusiastically to the exhibition about collecting – those who know me well know that I like collecting, collections and collectors a lot. I did my final year project on it at university and it’s been a mild obsession ever since.

I was disappointed to find that this riotous, spectacular and curiosity inspiring subject had been presented in the most sterile way I’ve seen yet. Artists’ collections had been shown next to one example of their work, but in lots of cases it was a photography collection next to some photographs or a taxidermy collection next to some taxidermy. In this sense the exhibition did a very blunt job of drawing a line between the inspiration and the art it inspired, in most cases making the artworks look like bad copies of the collections.

The worst offender was the display of abstract painter Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Indian pictures. The pictures are small intricate paintings that have a strong use of colour. Outside the room was hung a piece of Hodgkin’s work, all big brush strokes and block colour. Yes, the use of colour was an obvious thread but other than that, this lone, decontextualised artwork, when hung next to the collection (of paintings!) seemed frankly inferior. Surely this is not the point of the exhibition? An exhibition which is dealing with both artist and collection should showcase each in it’s best light but this reduced both somehow.

The other aspect which was lacking was the critical angle about the politics of collecting itself. Whilst collections as artworks was tackled as a topic in the Martin Wong/Danh Vo piece, the idea of artists acquiring items as a whole collection, or from other collections was absent, as was the idea of ownership or authorship through collecting. In the case of Howard Hodgkin the fact that the pieces in his collection had been created as art, had then been collected and returned to object status, loaned to the Ashmolean Museum as ‘His’ collection and then displayed at the Barbican again seems to be a journey that could benefit from some curatorial scrutiny.

Of course all of these gripes are just that – an enthusiast rambling, and there were good bits. Showing all the packing cases that the collections and artworks had come in (albeit in a corner) was brilliant, and I liked the rugs which were liberally strewn around each area. 

(N.B. I’m sure some of these issues are at least touched on in the audio guide or the book, but I shouldn’t have to pay £40 to get a bit of thoughtful insight when I’ve already paid £12 to get in.)