Blog Archives

Vintage Nature Illustration Wednesday – Ladybugs

Carl Brenders, 1982

Carl Brenders, 1982

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Ole Worm and the History of Curio Cabinets

I am an avid collector of small things both natural and cultural: rocks, seedpods, carvings, fetishes, art, more rocks, curiosities, skins, and – wait – did I already mention rocks?

Many of my naturalist comrades share this tendency to hoard similar items, perhaps as a way to remember the places we’ve been or to bring the outdoors inside. Our fascination with these items is not a new trend; in fact, collecting “curios” (defined as a rare or unusual object, considered attractive or interesting) dates back to the ending of the Middle Ages and the opening of the Renaissance.

1592 collection of engravings by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel. University of Massachusetts Amherst. Photo credit: www-sicd.u-strasbg.fr

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Roaming to the National Museum of Natural History

roam: verb - To move about without purpose or plan; to wander.

I am spoiled rotten to live so close to the Smithsonian Institution. If you’re not familiar, the Smithsonian is a group of museums, galleries, and a zoo that are located in Washington DC. I will admit with great shame that I have only visited a couple of the many locations, but the trouble is they’re so amazing that I end up returning to the same one(s) over and over.

I recently took my niece to the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), since at the end of April the Fossil Hall dinosaur exhibit will be closing for renovations – FOR FIVE YEARS. As any good auntie should be, I was panicked and made sure, come hell or more winter weather, that I’d get her there.

Now of course, being a standard 4 year old, she was only mildly interested in the bones, particularly after  overhearing someone say the phrase, “dinosaur gummies,” in reference to candy available at the gift shop. These were essentially the only dinosaurs she was thereafter interested in, but I persevered.

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“RAAAR” is dinosaur for “I love you.”

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Random Acts of Interpretation

When I lived in Portland, Oregon, I took the bus everywhere. Sometimes it meant standing in the rain or being crushed against a damp herd of strangers, but it also often meant walking through beautiful neighborhoods and getting to see things blossom in the springtime.

On one such jaunt, I happened to be walking through a small park; really, more of a median to get from one side of a main road to the other. I almost missed it, but noticed this sign taped to a tree:

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So I did.

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I wish I had better photos, but I only had my cell phone with me that day. I was so excited that I told everyone I knew about this magical mushroom and the sweet, amazing person that told me about it via hand-written note. I wondered how many people had noticed that day, or, perhaps equally as curious, how many hadn’t. I wondered if the anonymous nature-lover had posted more signs around the city, or if this was a regular gig whereby said interpreter sought out secret goodies to expose via note. It was so exciting (and I don’t give one shit how dorky that is) that I wanted to run around the city myself and recreate the experience for others.

What would the world look like if we took the time to point out things of beauty and curiosity to strangers? I love this random act of interpretation.

Have you ever seen anything like this before? If so, please tell us in the comments! :) Thanks for reading!

Vintage Nature Illustration Wednesday – the Midland Naturalist

Volume V of the 1882 Midland Naturalist, printed in London.

Volume V of the 1882 Midland Naturalist, printed in London.

Vintage Nature Illustration Wednesday – Snake

1735 by Albertus Seba (1665–1736) volume 2, Sloane Collection

1735 Thesaurus by Albertus Seba (1665–1736) volume 2, Sloane Collection

{Book Review} Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs

Let me start off by saying that this is one of my favorite books of all time.

Feel free to cross the jump if you need more of a review than that.  Read the rest of this entry

{Book Review} Interpretation by Design

Long, long ago, when I was but a sparkly-eyed college student, I wanted a career in graphic design. No one told me to make sure the college you select HAS the career you want – I just assumed all colleges carried the same majors. (Yes, it’s quite a miracle I achieved a degree at all, isn’t it?) Well, none of that mattered anyway, because I took an Anthropology class elective in my first semester and immediately changed my major (and then later took an Ecology elective and realized I had, yet again, chosen incorrectly, but it was too late by then).

I’m not sure how I keep ending up with embarrassing personal stories for you guys when I try to make a point, but what I’m getting at is a very cool book and a very cool blog that you might enjoy if you have an inclination towards graphic design but don’t want to get a degree.

Put this book in your library.

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{Book Review} A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman

If you’re anything like me, you have trouble fitting all the books you own into your home in a manner that says, “I’m intelligent and organized,” and not so much, “I don’t care how old they are or if I’ll never read them again, they’re mine, they’re my babies, and you can’t make me give them up.”

I suffer, as one could guess, from the latter.

I like to blame it on the fact that I enjoy books with lots of pictures (which take up more space and make for larger books), but the truth is that books are knowledge – when you want to learn something, you read a book. (Or use Wiki, but you get my point.) Books allow people to transcend boundaries, and there’s something unbelievably gratifying about carrying a ratty old tome around with you, turning the bookstore-scented pages as you absorb word after word. Sure, a Kindle would be convenient, but I’m positive it wouldn’t give me the feeling that I’m spending time with a friend I don’t get to see as often as I’d like – which is how a book makes me feel.

So, to honor my book addiction, I’d like to review books for you. The first in this series is one that I admittedly spent more time reading than I meant to, but thoroughly enjoyed.

 

Ackerman talks history, culture, and physiology when it comes to our human senses: touch, smell, taste, vision, and hearing. I wonder if some of her scientific data may be out of date now, but the vast majority of her book is still full of facts that had me raising my eyebrows and mumbling, “Wow!”

For example, in the chapter on our sense of smell (my personal favorite), Ackerman reports that many of the first perfumes developed by humans were actually derived from animal parts: ambergris from sperm whales, castoreum from beavers, genital secretions of the civet, and musk, a secretion from the gut of an East Asian deer. Why did we lust after such bold scents? Ackerman says it’s because these chemicals’ molecules are of similar shape to human hormones and affect us the way human pheromones might. In essence, these four animal secretions are similar to our own steroids, and we therefore respond to them with arousal. Thus anyone wearing the bum juice of a beaver becomes instantly more attractive, even if the smell isn’t exactly floral.

Ackerman also tells us that we can smell animal musk in as little as 0.000000000000032 of an ounce. Which, to me, is cool because 1) we respond to a different species’ chemicals and 2) because that says something about how our sense of smell is still somewhat sensitive. (Say that five times fast.)

In the chapter on touch, Ackerman tells us that in a study performed in Oxford, Mississippi, waitresses lightly and unobtrusively touched their customers on the hand or shoulder. The diners that were touched didn’t necessarily rate the food or the experience any better than untouched diners, but consistently tipped the waitresses more money.

If you’re interested in learning more about why humans behave the way we do, put this book on your To-Read list immediately. We tend to think of ourselves as thoughtful and emotional creatures, but our experiences are completely informed by our senses; some of these we are aware of, and others we don’t even realize we have. (When was the last time you remember smelling testosterone? Right, but you did smell it.) Ackerman is a sense-driven person and so often her writing reads like a poem written in an opiate stupor, but if you too are a sensual person, than you’ll love this book!

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More?

Diane Ackerman has also written these books that are on my To-Read list:

A Natural History of Love

An Alchemy of the Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain