The recent Notre Dame fire grabbed global headlines. The morning I woke to see it on the news, I felt sad. I’m not a Christian and I’ve never been to Paris. But my mother is an artist and I studied French and ancient history for years. I recognise the intrinsic cultural value of Notre Dame and everything within it. The iconic cathedral has value, not only for Parisians, but for many parts of global society: art, religion, history, architecture, popular culture…
As concern over the fire grew, I was surprised at the response from some people online, including scientists, who began criticising support for the burning cathedral. They compared the cultural losses of Notre Dame with nature conservation and species extinction. What about forests? What about species extinction? What about the Great Barrier Reef? The implication was that if you cared about the Notre Dame fire, then you didn’t care about Nature (see these great blogs by Sam Perrin and Jeff Ollerton, including the comments from readers).
Every year, I get to share my birthday with these guys:
I’ve been mildly obsessed with both of them for years, for obvious reasons. But it was only recently that I discovered their early contributions to the land-sharing/land-sparing debate, something directly relevant to my own work. Darwin’s ecological legacy is well-known, but how often do we consider Lincoln’s impact on environmental history? Continue reading →
Science and humanities are often segregated in education and professional development. Even as a personal interest, the two disciplines are usually considered incompatible. In reality, they are complementary. Imagine if all science degrees included core humanities subjects in the first year? How would scientists, and science, benefit from a basic humanities perspective? This series looks for answers in some of the most common humanities disciplines.
Studying art is a bit more scientific than simply loitering at gallery openings. The discipline of Art History is the study of how visual art styles and movements have evolved over time. It teaches how to read and interpret art; but it also provides valuable insight into how humanity, society and their values have developed across the ages…insights that are very relevant to science. Here are a few ways that scientists could benefit from studying Art History:
In the modern age of Twitter, Instagram and camera-phones, we sometimes forget the natural history we can learn through art of the non-digital kind. Yes, Darwin’s sketches taught us a lot about ecology and biogeography. But he wasn’t the only artist to leave us with a stunning legacy of natural history resources. Continue reading →
There is no better way to appreciate ecological change across landscapes than by taking a road trip.
My partner and I just had one of the best holidays of our life: two weeks driving from our home in Albury in southern New South Wales, to the Sunshine Coast in south-east Queensland, where I grew up. We have done this trip a few times, but have always used the drive (about 1500 kilometres, one way) as a means to an end, i.e. getting to the coast to see friends and family. This trip, we took our time, sacrificing a few extra days at the beach for more time to explore en route. And it definitely paid off!
Australia is one of the lucky few countries that include most of the major terrestrial biome types. An interstate road trip is one of the best ways to see them! Ecologically, our trip was well-timed; the end of August signals the start of spring and wildflower explosions all over the country. The wattles were already in full swing around Albury, lifting our damp, grey spirits from a very long winter. Continue reading →
Music is one of the greatest storytelling media. Art can lay claim to being the oldest – but only from a human perspective. Birds, insects and animals were sending messages through song long before we started drawing on cave walls.
Music has the euphoric power to move us in a way that rivals a cliff-top ocean sunset. It connects us to environment, warns us of danger, and inspires us to change.
Because it’s World Environment Day every day (and you can only listen to Rip Rip Woodchip so many times), here is some of my favourite earth music to keep you in an ecological mood year-round. Continue reading →
Stone walls are central to the rich cultural heritage of human history. Some of the oldest stone walls in the world still stand in ancient Mediterranean lands, and also provide the foundations for Incan architecture (think Macchu Picchu) and the castles and ramparts of feudal Japan. In the UK, Ireland and Europe, stone walls are key elements of pastoral landscapes from a thousand postcards, and numerous regional specialities maintain their own unique cultural and ecological foundations. This colonial heritage is also preserved in the new world, particularly North America’s New England region and Australia’s southern states.
Stone walling is more than simply stacking rocks. A harmonious balance of art and science are needed to keep the wall standing. Each stone is fitted into the negative space around its neighbouring stones, like a jigsaw, so that the final wall holds itself against the pull of gravity. Continue reading →
I watched a very thought-provoking film the other night called Surviving Progress – it is loosely based on a book called A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright. I recommend it to absolutely every person, particularly those under the age of 25. The film lays a very convincing case for the idea of ‘progress traps’. To quote from the film’s website, progress traps are “alluring technologies [that] serve immediate needs, but ransom the future”.
An example is given of a Neanderthal man who learns to hunt and kill a mammoth. Then he works out that with 2 or 3 mates, they can hunt 2 or 3 mammoths at once, which equals more food. Then, as human populations increase, they realise that a whole bunch of them can hunt a whole herd of mammoths and drive them over a cliff, killing them all at once…and that’s the progress trap. Continue reading →
I was reading an article (Everything Old is Green Again) in Conservation Magazine the other day which confirmed something I have suspected for quite a while – older buildings are often more energy-efficient than any built today.
The story uses the example of the Monadnock Building in Chicago, once the largest office building in the world. Completed in 1893, Monadnock had very thick brick walls (around 2m wide) to keep heat in during winter and out during summer, transoms and bay windows to allow natural light in, and windows were usually positioned to allow cross-breezes.
These features were very common to most commercial buildings of that period, before we decided that quicker, cheaper construction meant more cash to go around the table. Continue reading →