Be a citizen scientist for nature

I recently discovered iNaturalist, which is a website and smartphone app that encourages you to collect observations of plants, animals, and insects. By recording when and where they were observed, you contribute to the store of data about these organisms. This place must be every biologist’s dream come true! Data for free!

They’ve put some thought into how to ensure high quality data. When you log an observation of, say, a ladybug, you can simply record it as “insect” and let others refine it, or be as specific as you feel confident to narrow down its precise species. The crowd of other users will review your tag and vote for it as correct or make corrections. When an organism is pinned down at the species level, that observation becomes “research grade.”

So far I have contributed observations of a praying mantis (needs review) and a raccoon (research grade!). When you log an observation and connect it with a species, you also get to see a map of where else that species has been seen.

You can also “subscribe” to get updates whenever a particular organism of interest is spotted! I signed up for praying mantises (mantis religiosa), spiny lizards (at the genus level (sceloporus), not a species), and collared lizards (family crotaphytidae – a beautiful creature from my childhood). Just today I’ve seen a bunch of new lizard observations (one dead). I’m looking forward to more. (I’m also being exposed to the Latin names for things. What fun!)

Another cool feature is that you can browse an area (say, where you are currently standing) to see what has been observed there.` You can also join specific research “projects” and contribute your matching observations (e.g., a project might specify that they want only pictures of reptiles observed in southern California).

I love to see well constructed efforts to engage people in the process of science. This one seems particularly compelling and enjoyable to use.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Shackleton

If you thought Scott’s final expedition was gripping, consider Ernest Shackleton‘s 1914-1916 voyage on the Endurance. Shackleton was a colleague of Scott’s and had accompanied him in his first trip to Antarctica. Shackleton himself had mounted a 1908-1909 expedition to the South Pole, but was forced to turn back just 97 miles shy. After Amundsen and Scott reached the South Pole in 1912, Shackleton seems to have grown antsy with the desire to find some other “first” to accomplish. He decided that he would attempt an overland crossing of the entire Antarctic continent, by way of the South Pole. It would constitute a distance of 1800 miles. When he announced the expedition, he received 5,000 applications for ~50 positions! The ad read:

MEN WANTED for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.

The Endurance sailed south, aiming to land at Weddell Bay. But before they could reach the shore, the ship was trapped in pack ice. As winter, and darkness, descended on the crew, they realized they would be stuck in the ice for months, until summer could break up the ice and set them free. So they sat there, wedged in the ice, huddled against the tremendous cold and perpetual darkness. To relieve boredom, they played hockey and football out on the ice. The ship lasted a phenomenal 10 months in this state until finally it succumbed to the pressure of the ice on either side and was crushed. This image, by Shackleton’s photographer, Frank Hurley, shows the end, with the sled dogs in the foreground as though at a funeral. The crew was left stranded on the ice. The Heart of the Great Alone includes many of Hurley’s dramatic and beautiful photographs, well worth browsing.

The ship, however, had not been stationary despite being stuck. Instead, it had drifted with the ice, traveling over 1100 miles north and west, away from Shackleton’s original goal, but closer to the possibility of rescue. Shackleton knew of a hut with food and stores in it, on Paulet Island, 346 miles away. They had three lifeboats, but they couldn’t sail to the island, because there was no open water. Two months later, the ice was weakening beneath them, so he and his 27 men set off across the ice, dragging their lifeboats and stores with them. They ended up camped on an ice floe. Four months later, they finally were able to launch the lifeboats into open water. They landed on a different island, Elephant Island, which had no stores for them to reach. Shackleton decided to set off with 5 men in one of the lifeboats, aiming for South Georgia, in hopes of persuading a whaling boat to return and pick up the rest of his men.

South Georgia was 800 miles (!) away, across one of the stormiest seas in the world at that time of year. Shackleton and his men managed to cross it in an open lifeboat, over 16 days of storms, cold, and thirst. Unfortunately, when they finally landed on South Georgia, they were on the wrong side of the island. So Shackleton and two of his men climbed over the island’s mountains and glaciers (a feat no one had yet achieved), with no sleeping bags or tent, through a day, a night, and the following day. On May 16, they reached the whaling station and, the next day, headed back in a whaling ship. They picked up the other three men on the far side of the island and headed south, but were turned back by pack ice. Two more failed attempts were made until finally, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton was reunited with his men on Elephant Island.

This story is just incredible. And the most incredible thing is that, in all that time, and through all that hardship, not one man was lost. (Frostbitten toes were, however.)

Check out this map of Shackleton’s voyage (beginning and ending in South Georgia), and marvel at this amazing accomplishment:

When Shackleton finally returned to England, any celebration of his achievement was muted by the fact that England was embroiled in World War I, and thousands of men were dying by the day. The great yawning brutal abyss of Antarctica, and its shivery challenges, and the heroic battles Shackleton and his men waged to stay alive, all were dwarfed by the horrors that humans back home managed to inflict upon each other.

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott

108 years ago:

“Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.” — Robert Falcon Scott, late March, 1912

These are words whose power continues to ring down through the years, lending Scott’s second (and fatal) Antarctic expedition perhaps a more weighty awe than if he had survived. What a moment it must be, to look your death in the eye, and in putting pen to paper, write from a future about your own passing. (“Had we lived…”)

I had the great fortune to visit “The Heart of the Great Alone” at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh, Scotland. This is an exhibition of photographs taken by photographers that accompanied Scott and Shackleton on their Antarctic journeys. Herbert George Ponting traveled with Scott to his base camp in McMurdo Sound, where the crew spent an Antarctic winter before Scott set out for the South Pole in the spring. During this time, Ponting took many beautiful and breathtaking photographs of the sea, the ice, the ship, and the wildlife, and as I moved through the gallery, I marveled at the quality of the photographs. They were taken on glass plates and had to have been a terrible burden to drag around. He developed them himself in the base camp hut, using chemicals he’d brought along. All of the photos have a marvelous depth of light and even color. The dynamic range that Ponting captured, of both sunlit ice and shadowed grottoes, is incredible. He also had a gift for composition.

Scott, on the other hand, was unlucky and (it seems) also not entirely well prepared for his South Pole mission. Roald Amundsen had landed closer in to the Pole, and set out on his own expedition two weeks before Scott did. Amundsen had better experience and had chosen his equipment more carefully, relying on sled dogs for both transport and (intentionally) food. Scott had some dogs but did not know how to best use them. He felt that it was most honorable to attempt the Pole by “man-hauling” everything instead. It is heartbreaking to read bits of his diary from when they finally made it to the Pole, only to learn that Amundsen had reached it five weeks earlier; and even more terrible to read about the despondent, doomed attempt to return to McMurdo Sound (~850 miles). In fact, three of the five men made it to within 11 miles of their final pre-laid depot of food and fuel, near 80 degrees south, but a bad storm trapped Scott and his two companions in their tent, where they starved.

The photographer, Ponting, did not accompany them on the Pole trek, but did train them in the use of a camera. The photo at left was taken at the Pole soon after discovering the tent and markers Amundsen had left behind. The Pole party’s photos have a much grittier feel to them than the ones Ponting took. Maybe they had a lower-quality, more portable camera, or maybe they weren’t as experienced at working the camera settings. But the power of all of these photographs, no matter who took them, printed large and displayed in a gallery, is hard to convey. As I looked at them, it hit me that the only reason we have these final photos is that the negatives must have been carefully carried along by Scott and his men, and then later discovered in the tent where they died.

[As a side note of curiosity, I wondered how Scott and Amundsen navigated, to determine when they had reached the South Pole. They knew in advance that it was not the same as the magnetic South Pole, so compasses wouldn’t tell them where it was. It turns out that they used solar measurements to determine their longitude (so as to maintain a straight south bearing) and (as best as I can determine) used this to determine how much their compasses had to be “corrected” to point to the true South Pole. That sounds like a fascinating bit of history I’d like to know more about!]

Scott left behind a wife and a two-year-old son. These are the dependents to which he referred in his final hours. No doubt much anxiety and despair accompanied the writing of those words. I’m left to marvel at the mind and the will possessed by those who engaged in these formidably risky, all-nigh incredible expeditions, with primitive gear and little understanding of the environment or their destination. We later generations stand in debt to their hardiness and determination in exploring the last frontier continent.

Thoreau’s moonlight and mountains

Henry David Thoreau was a fascinating character: intense, passionate, obnoxious, arrogant, and possessed of a lyrical mind. I cannot help but like the man, even as he exasperates. He was given to making jabs at society, the government, technology, law, his neighbors, and anyone who wanted to give him advice:

“I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.”

Yet he had his own heroes, and looked up to Emerson (as just one example) enough to follow the latter’s advice on variety of subjects.

Walden itself starts humbly enough:

“I should not obtrude my affairs so much on the notice of my readers if very particular inquiries had not been made by my townsmen concerning my mode of life…”

but quickly moves on to convey a sort of impatience with us as readers, lazy desperate folk that we are; if only we would wake up and realize the brilliance of his own plan, that we could live mortgage-free and debt-free by simply walking into the woods, building our own simple houses, and giving up meat.

Thoreau is most pleasurable to read when he is least snarky (he does love a good pun), as when advocating an open and curious approach to life:

“We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries each day, with new experience and character.”

or when he is exalting in the beauty of his beloved Pond and its surroundings:

“Sky water. It needs no fence. […] a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun’s hazy brush,—this is the light dust-cloth,—which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still.”

And I know what he means when he says he cannot spare his moonlight (and I know he does not mean that he dislikes people).

And he offers some other valuable ideas, aside from the musings on solitude and self-sufficiency that pepper Walden:

“… the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust.”

And most everyone’s heard the bit about why he went to the woods in the first place. But this quote perhaps is the one that will stick with me most, for now:

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

We have so very many lives to live! As many as we choose. Kudos to Thoreau for being willing to try out his Walden experiment and, when he’d learned what he wanted, to move on. Everything changes.

Crater Lake, the Coast, and Corvallis

I recently returned from five days exploring southern Oregon, an area of truly breathtaking beauty. I took the Coast Starlight train up the coast to Klamath Falls (a 22-hour trip, and deliciously enjoyable), visited Crater Lake, then drove out to the coast (Gold Beach) and spent some time wandering north to Waldport. At that point I headed back inland to Corvallis, then Albany, and finally to Eugene, from whence I flew back to Los Angeles. I had more adventures than would reasonably fit in this post, but here are some of the moments that really stood out:

  • Waking up to see Mount Shasta lit up by the sunrise, outside my sleeper car

  • Standing on the rim of Crater Lake, amid snow and sun and distant thunderclouds

  • Savoring a shiitake mushroom and green onion omelet in Ashland
  • Running on the beach at Cape Blanco

  • Climbing up into the Fresnel lens of the Umpqua River Lighthouse

  • Hiking Hobbit Trail down to Hobbit Beach
  • Dancing to Becki Sue & Her Big Rockin’ Daddies at the Corvallis Riverfront Festival 4th of July celebration
  • Hiking through the Peavy Arboretum (Corvallis) with Thoreau for company

  • Enjoying blueberry pancakes at the Train House Inn for breakfast on my birthday!

This was an incredible trip, filled with one breathtaking scene after another. Where words fail me, perhaps more pictures can suffice.

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