Tag Archives: culture

Non-human Strangers and Climate Refugees

Iiwi_BrettHartl_FPWC.0

 

Conversations about climate change generally focus on human activity, suffering, and solutions. They often include or imply a critique of anthropocentrism, and yet our attention to the seemingly infinite variety of life forms on the planet remains extraordinarily limited and superficial. Earth is not only our home, and humans are not the only climate refugees.

In his recently published book Humankind, Tim Morton argues that we are severed from other forms of life through agriculture and industrialization. He calls it “The Severing,” a Game of Thrones style trope. One aspect of this split is a very passive relationship to animal and plant life. Unless we are directly involved with animals, in agriculture or wildlife management, for example, we simply don’t appreciate the activity, suffering, and creativity of non-human beings. We also tend to view animals as passive. Though animals must be actively adapting to climate change, we don’t generally observe or appreciate their adaptive behavior.

We have also lost our emotional connection to animals, in various ways. Contemporary animal ethics are typically founded on rational, legalistic arguments. Animals should be afforded consideration or rights because they are like us—intelligent, emotional, and self-conscious. But these arguments miss the most basic and common foundation of human ethical behavior. Love.

If reproduction is the key to species survival, and animals form emotional attachments as humans do, then various forms of love are likely a common characteristic of animal life. But is love only reserved for members of our own species? What does it mean that human children love non-human animals? When and why do children stop being fascinated by animals? It seems that society cultivates an interest in and love of animals in children, and then (for no apparent reason) expects adolescents and adults to stop loving and caring for them.

Why do pet-owners love their pets as if they were people? Is it because they engage with them—in person? Anyone who has had a pet has experienced getting to know the pet. We form personal relationships with them. They become part of the family. If we spent more time engaged with non-human animals could we cultivate or reclaim the capacity to love all animals?

We remember the principle “love they neighbor” but often forget the origin and end of this principle is to love the stranger, the “alien.” Surely non-human animals, however strange or alien, are also our neighbors.

Colleagues in academia and beyond have cautioned me, on more than one occasion, against appearing to prioritize animal welfare over human welfare. Focusing on animal rights in impoverished areas, for example, can be interpreted as a challenge to human dignity. Recognizing animals a climate refugees is out of line (out of order), in the midst of multiple and ongoing human refugee crises. This advice is pragmatic and rhetorically savvy, but is it ethically defensible?

A Guardian article recently posted on Environmental Critique gives a moving account of a refugee, Mansour Shoushtari, who occupies himself caring for animals while detained in Manus prison. (He has been waiting four years to be resettled.) While being treated as a less than human stranger, he has retained his humanity, or should I say his sense of solidarity with other animals. Here is an illustrative quote from the Guardian interview:

I asked him: “Do you love animals more than humans?” He smiled once again. He responded in a humorous way: “You’re asking some really tough questions today! The question you ask is similar to asking the question: do you love your father more than your mother? It’s an extremely tough question to answer. I love human beings and I also love animals. But I have a special affection for birds.”

Why should human suffering tacitly give us permission to abuse animals or to shut down conversations about animal welfare? Who among us, well-fed and literate, deserves consideration if sympathy can only be afforded the most downtrodden humans? Can suffering justify suffering? Returning to the subject of love, is there ever a reason not to extend love and compassion to another living creature?

“The Severing” also results in a dark underworld of violence against non-human animals. Factory farming, habitat destruction, and mass murders that are never reported in the evening news. Is there any relationship between human violence against animals, and a general culture of violence? Again Shoushtari offers insight: “It’s love. In my opinion one does not need to give reasons for love. Love is a personal matter, love is an existential state. But in my view if a human being does not love animals they are incapable of loving human beings.” Human beings do love selectively, of course, as do cultures. Sadly, we are not only taught but also encouraged to love selectively, and even to hate.

Love thy neighbor. Love the stranger. Love all living creatures. These are certainly not pragmatic solutions or policy guidelines. But neither pragmatism nor policy should prevent us from questioning and exploring ethical, dare I say moral, principles.

So I do say, impudently, non-human animals are climate refugees, as are plants, and future generations of every kind. And we have no right to destroy their home.

 

Image Source: https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/19/16334652/endangered-species-list-sonoyta-mud-turtle-iiwi-pearl-darter-protection

 

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The Upside Down World

by Jeff Tangel

The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.    –Voltaire

 . . . and the working, and middle classes.   –Tangel

In the comic hit movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard character—who, as you might expect is always hungry—turns to Mini-me and demands, in his bellowing mock-Scottish bravado, “I’m bigger than you—and higher up the food chain.  Get in my belly!”  And then licks his chops while singing, “I want my baby back . . . baby back, baby back . . . ribs.”

Perhaps this is a telling example of being utterly absorbed in, and deeply confused by one’s worldview.  Mini-me simply scoots away of course, ironically into the loving arms of Dr. Evil, leaving Fat Bastard un-sated, yet nevertheless deliriously full of himself.

Despite appearances—and our hubris—we humans “on the top of the food chain” are actually the most dependent beings in existence—we rely on everyone and everything “below” us.   Author Michael Pollan’s lengthy and eye-opening essay for the NYT Magazine, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” reveals to us that we humans are, in reality, a mere 10% ourselves. The other 90% is actually an ongoing project of other beings, primarily bacteria and microorganisms going about their business.[1]

But for them we’d be nearly-nothing.

So what sense does it make to imagine ourselves at the top of anything?  Don’t we ordinarily think of dependent beings at some sort of bottom?  The child and the invalid are dependent on their caretakers.  So too are we humans dependent on the entire structure of ecology—which, as we are just beginning to understand, includes not just the flora and fauna all around us, but other people too.  Perhaps we can understand Max Ehrmann’s line from the Desiderata in a new way.

“You are a child of the universe . . . ” indeed.

And wealth works similarly, reflecting in parallel the imagined hierarchy we impose on Nature.  The wealthy hallucinate, seeing themselves as independent, as above everyone else.  But in reality, the wealthy are wholly dependent on all of the people “below” them, from their own workers to the teachers who educated those workers, to the people who maintain and operate buildings, the means of transportation, systems of exchange, and so on, and on and on . . .

Monopoly

The wealthy are utterly dependent on the entire infrastructure of nature/culture—they are dependents—more so than any other economic strata.  Think about this. Please.

The wealthy are not inter-reliant; the wealthy are held aloft by the compliance and work and servitude of others—some of whom they pay, or exploit, or from whom they simply receive unacknowledged and unearned benefits.  Yet many strut about the world, full of themselves, like Fat Bastard(s), as if they fashioned it all from their own hands.

Thus, shouldn’t we think of the wealthy as residing at the bottom of our society? And therefore, shouldn’t they be treated just like many of them treat the poor?

Reality bites! 

Of course I’m just having fun.  We certainly can’t cure dystopia with the “technologies” that created it.  We need to treat the rich the way most of us try to treat the poor: we help them because we feel for them.  I know, I’m asking a lot. But most of us are chock-full of empathy—plenty to go around—even if it doesn’t show that often.  For me, the older I get—the more I’ve seen—the more I cry, as if the world has been waiting for me to notice.

We need to dismantle the illusory hierarchy that encourages destructive arrogance, leaving the wealthy empathically poor and all of us poorer, so we can welcome them into human inter-dependency.  As Thict Nhat Hanh might say, such a generous and compassionate act could bring multiple benefits, to those helping as well as to those helped.  Who knows how far that wind may blow?

How do we help the wealthy and ourselves at the same time? We refuse to participate in their charade. We drop out of their hierarchically structured economy-world and build a new world that acknowledges our relational dependence on each other and all others; the whole nature/culture shebang. To start, this may take the form of public banking, co-ops and so on, but we can’t limit ourselves to economics. We need a new way to live, one that recognizes our inter-relational dependence.

 

Intertwined-4

Fortunately, the world is a rich place for ideas. But to unlock real creativity and enable a critical and kinetic mass, first we have to be unchained from the hegemony of imagined hierarchy. We have to begin to see more clearly. Start with this:

Humans are the most dependent beings, and the wealthy are the most dependent humans.

The older I get the more I come to understand that reality is the opposite of the proffered convention—because the profferers of convention have a vested interest in keeping the world structured just so.  The poor suffer a lack of justice, which is what Voltaire meant when he said: The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.

But willful poverty—call it minimalism if you like—as both a personal and political act, is something to be achieved. Or better, it is something to be created, with others, as one might make art from detritus.  Finding satiety for yourself, and providing satiety for others, is a means and ends united; the wholeness of the individual secure in the inter-reliance of the community of beings. Think of this as an emancipating intervention, a reclaiming of justice by refusing to aid and abet the accumulators—the wealthy—and heal them, and us, at the same time.

Free from the servitude that feeds Fat Bastard, the willful poor weaken him and are empowered to seek authentic concert with the world—real relationships with each other and the ecosystem—and thereby change the world.

This won’t be easy.  Begin with the dismantling of illusory hierarchy that is itself a direct cause of suffering and planetary degradation.
 holypalace


Jeff Tangel
is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, an Associate of  DePaul’s Institute for Nature and Culture, and a regular contributor to Environmental Critique.  His individual blog is The Tecumseh Project.  E-mail tangel@sxu.edu

[1] Some of My Best Friends are Germs, Michael Pollan, NYT Magazine May 15, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 accessed June 13, 2013

 

Image Sources:

  1. New York Times: https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/voting-in-and-out-monopoly-games-faux-riche/?_r=0
  2. Richelle Gribble, Intertwined-4: http://richelle-gribble.com/interdependent/
  3. David Friedman, The Holy Palace: http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com/holy-palace

 

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The A.I Cargo Cult | Kevin Kelly

 

I’ve heard that in the future computerized AIs will become so much smarter than us that they will take all our jobs and resources, and humans will go extinct. Is this true?

That’s the most common question I get whenever I give a talk about AI. The questioners are earnest; their worry stems in part from some experts who are asking themselves the same thing. These folks are some of the smartest people alive today, such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Max Tegmark, Sam Harris, and Bill Gates, and they believe this scenario very likely could be true. Recently at a conference convened to discuss these AI issues, a panel of nine of the most informed gurus on AI all agreed this superhuman intelligence was inevitable and not far away.

[ . . . ]

Human minds are societies of minds, in the words of Marvin Minsky. We run on ecosystems of thinking. We contain multiple species of cognition that do many types of thinking: deduction, induction, symbolic reasoning, emotional intelligence, spacial logic, short-term memory, and long-term memory. The entire nervous system in our gut is also a type of brain with its own mode of cognition. We don’t really think with just our brain; rather, we think with our whole bodies.

These suites of cognition vary between individuals and between species. A squirrel can remember the exact location of several thousand acorns for years, a feat that blows human minds away. So in that one type of cognition, squirrels exceed humans. That superpower is bundled with some other modes that are dim compared to ours in order to produce a squirrel mind. There are many other specific feats of cognition in the animal kingdom that are superior to humans, again bundled into different systems.

Read more here: The A.I Cargo Cult | Kevin Kelly

 

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What is the Lay of the Land? Part I of II

by Joshua Mason

Editor’s note: This essay is based on Mason’s presentation at DePaul University last October. Part II will be published next month.

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

This is Lake Superior. This is the beginning. It is where I am absorbed. What I see is the edge. You can learn a lot by observing the space where water and land meet. It is a dynamic landscape, ceaselessly changing. What is solid and what is fluvial merge as motions always giving and taking, pushing and pulling. As an artist I work on the edge where interpretation meets a chasm.

Forms as landslides and pigment rundowns create a geomorphic image better than any painting. Or should I say that this is the source of painting? This is painting when the painter no longer illustrates nature. This is painting when the painter steps out of their role as a prodder of form, or as the modernists called it ‘the artist as engineer.’[1] If I leave artworks to themselves, enticing the emergence of their own material formations, then the results are not a representation of nature but instead what nature does.

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

Landscapes in art are representations of what we imagine nature to be – we see ourselves in the mirror. Nature is reified or made into a giant heap ‘over there’ and colonized by our gaze. It seems that we had to classify nature, to explode it into its various parts in order to exploit it and render it into a resource.[2] What the land appears to be and what it is, is confused. Landscape is a theatrical staging of nature: it constructs an apparatus of foreground and background, dividing what is to be there for a subject and what is to recede into the background. It presumes nature ‘made once over,’ but nature has only ever been a simulacrum—an invention of representation.[3]

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

I am fascinated by a landscape ‘landing’ itself as a direct engagement with the materials and processes of paint, soil, and fluvial transitions. It is a kind of abstraction but it does not bracket-out the world in order to construct an ideal image: the land is what it does.[4] The art object exists as a real object. It has qualities independent from representation, from beliefs, linguistic practices, conceptual schemes—whatever and however we think. It is a beauty that exists in the impossibilities of thought.

Joshua Mason_Materia Forma -North Shore - B

When I am absorbed into the land I realize that art is an object resonant with the catastrophic. As an artist I pass through the catastrophic in an attempt to emerge from it. Painting emerges out of uncertainty. Its object does what it wants to do and suggests what it wants to suggest. Painting is plastic, as in plasticity or the malleable or the flexible: it is a push and pull and tension in and out between emanation and erasure. There is no picture ahead of time – the results are not taken to be isomorphic with the origin. I am interested in a kind of painting that is immanent, always on the verge of morphing into something else. Stability is an illusion: each mark, each impact is a way-station moving on towards something else.[5] In this way one may give value to what arises, outside of origins, as what arises retains value in and of itself.

Affirming an excitation of matter as a quality beyond interpretation, engaging with materials like paint and soil, fluvial processes and geomorphic impressions where every mark or gesture slides along an equality of probabilities, as a painter I negotiate an edge between my constructs (imagistic, historical, symbolic) and the collapse of coordinates into the intensity of the object. The magic of art is when the thing’s space collides into my space and I disappear.

At every moment in the formation of a painting there is a miniature catastrophe.

Joshua Mason- Depaul Presentation(1)

On occasion symbols appear. The horizontal line is an example: it is an index for a catastrophic layer. I am a catastrophist. That is an affirmation of existence. The black horizontal line will make its appearance outside the two-dimensional surface of painting and into the world, inscribing its mark upon the land in various installation works. It is a mark like the K/T boundary[6] which as an event is completely unknown to us, but which as a trace is utterly catastrophic and relatable to our own age—the Sixth Extinction.

The point is not to create an enduring object but instead to shift through materials to find an object that is already a ruin. It is to anticipate its ruination. I’ve created a series of works I call Anthrogeodes. These objects take shape violently, like so many earth processes. They appear like geologic objects but are composed entirely of industrially-made materials. That is to say, they ape the appearance of the geologic or mimic it. The geologic is a heap of ruins. Industry is also a giant ruin and it leaves traces. The works are made of recycled foam, polyurethane, oil, acrylic, polystyrene, plastics, concrete, etc. – all found objects that are recycled into a work of art, and which would’ve otherwise ended up in the trash heap. Who knows how long they will last? They haunt a future without me.

If ‘all objects are breathing’ then art is a certain kind of breath – a special kind of tune. I am interested in the intersection between mark-making and landscape where the demarcations in the question – What is ‘human’ and what is ‘nature’ in this image? – begin to blur.

___

All images by the author.

See more of Joshua Mason’s work at Fieldwork Studios.

[1] The site of painting as a factory of elements organized by the artist’s mind, producing abstract arrangements: describing a certain quality of materialization of the artist’s mediation, the “engineering” gaze may be a modernist approach to painting like a piece of technology or manufacturing. It is an approach to matter where the relation to nature evokes a counter-image mobilized to reduce the nuances of nature to strictly quantitative harmonies. (See Werner Hartmann’s Painting in the Twentieth Century.) As a painter aware of the nuances of painting’s history, I recognize that it is not a shallow aestheticism, since in the background is an idealistic reconstitution of the human and the environment into the totality of a rational order – utopian and hygienic. (See Harold Rosenberg’s essay Piet Mondrian).

[2] Landscape conjoins to the Anthropocene. Altering the earth through industrial agriculture and fishing, mining, large-scale mineralization of the surface, chemical changes in the atmosphere and oceans, the domestication of animals, rapid population increases, and of course global climate-change, are accelerated consequences of a metaphysics played out in the re-presentations of nature.

[3] Isn’t it that off of the basis of presuming nature to be ‘over there’ that is can be made once over by vision machines? The gaze is a survey device: Eye/Painter/Man. First seeing territory before economy could colonize it, the Eye accelerates over the land turning it into a landscape; that is, not only turning ecology into a representational image, but thereupon a potential space of progress. Creating a simulacrum of nature, nature presented for us, the disembodied Eye that simulates nature stages its abstract power and will to accumulation, marking off ‘natural’ referents. It finds hold in a surveying metaphysics turned into a transcendent organizing agent – no longer a god, but Man: capital, the subject, the social, linguistic or economic realm with all of the natural referents, use-values and such.

[4] Land is a verb. It is in flux. Emerging processes are formed at the site of painting, gaining an immediacy outside the realm of what could be placed on the surface by the painter.

[5] I realize the catastrophic aspects of creativity where catastrophe embodies itself in every mark, instant impact, rundown, transition, erasure or collision of material embodiments.

[6] The K/T Boundary is a geological signature that marks the mass extinction that destroyed the majority of Mesozoic species. It refers to the point between the Cretaceous (K) and Tertiary (T) periods, dating around 65.5 million years ago.

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Jeff VanderMeer on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology and Storytelling in the Anthropocene

by Jeff VanderMeer

Helden1

In the middle of the slow apocalypse of global warming, I find great value in experiments like Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology. We live in a time when approaches to interacting with the environment, including in storytelling terms, are rapidly changing. Some methods of telling stories and some kinds of stories are going extinct, too escapist or not granular enough to survive. Others have become less useful as delivery systems for meditation or mediation on this subject because too compromised or commodified by familiar tropes. Thinking seriously about our environment and how we live within it requires that we reassess the storytelling ecosystem—it’s a habitat in which experiments and mutations will flourish during the interregnum, cross-pollinate, and then perhaps themselves go extinct or be supplanted when global warming truly overtakes us.

One useful strategy for writing about the Anthropocene that I see reflected in Heldén’s project falls under the general category of “de-familiarization.” While this strategy has been used for some time to make readers see anew what has come to seem commonplace—Vladimir Nabokov in his novel Bend Sinister using the syntax of the travel brochure to describe a prison camp comes to mind—it seems much more urgent today, when there is so much we render invisible, even in our mundane daily existence.

In the context I find most interesting, de-familiarization manifests in part as a search for greater granularity and complexity in fictions (and nonfictions), and thus becomes part of that quixotic quest for a more detailed and useful “truth.” It can apply to just a portion of a narrative work, too. Is Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island, for example, climate or ecological fiction? No, not in its entirety, but when the narrator fixates on the scenes of oil in the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal, the oil not only leaks out over fellow travelers but in its descriptions attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny, and makes it impossible to view as inert or something in the backdrop, and conjures up Heldén’s words, “We thought we could control the night.”

In Astroecology, Heldén takes the familiar space of an ordinary forest with ordinary signs of human habitation and by a process of interiority through a nameless narrator (perhaps some version of the author/creator, but not necessarily) and juxtapositions of different natural, human, and exterior-to-human interfaces (pop culture and other, which become unhinged or detached from their linkage) . . . makes both a personal and universal statement. The personal comes from Heldén’s inspiration, as he told me, in a family home, a place of loss with a “garden being reclaimed by weeds and other plants” and eventually by the forest itself. In a way similar to how scientists delivered their theses via poetry in the 1800s, before the rise of specialization, but with the added personal element of the passing of Heldén’s father as subtext and hidden from view . . . and yet still felt, even without that knowledge.[i]

*

Helden2

There’s a modern context for considering trees, and plants in general, that, like many facts about the world, is not sufficiently conveyed by or acknowledged by fictional narratives and that also creeps through the backdrop of Astroecology. The New York Times recently discussed Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, based on experiences in German forests:

[As most biologists know] trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

This is the mulch Heldén brings with his impressionistic text and his associations. He writes, “Ask: Gravity, radiation, making it visible.” That which exists behind the scenes, found in the basic expanding knowledge of the world, changes and contaminates texts like the Astroecology, makes it evolve each new month we engage with it.[ii] The cosmic streams through the space between the words because our words are never enough, even in an honest striving.

*

There is another kind of defamiliarization that speaks to ecology, which is to view war not just as a human conflict with terrible consequences, but as a history of the inexplicable enacted upon natural ecologies. To cite just one possible hypothetical example, which could occur across either experimental or traditional narratives, I was struck by the juxtaposition between descriptions of the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes and other readings of the naturalist Alexander Humboldt exploring European forests more than a century earlier, in Andrea Wulf’s Humboldt biography The Invention of Nature.

Forest warfare during World War II included targeting the tops of trees with mortar and missile fire to make them explode and kill soldiers below. While machine-gun nests would riddle trees with bullets as a side effect of pitched battles between infantry units. In short, these battles were also violence perpetrated against trees, with profoundly traumatic effects.

What Heldén dramatizes through image could be thought of as peace-time war ecology. It is peaceful enough to us, but it is a violence against the flora. There can be no reconciling the meaning of that, and no one can, once noticing this fact, see just the peace in the author’s words. Damage lives there, too, and wounding. As he puts it, “A familiar scene slowly changing.”

*

 At the far end of the scale and depth of Heldén’s ruminations lie other artifacts, outside of the confines of his project. Aase Berg’s poetry with its vigorously bleak yet oddly hopeful vision of a contaminated Earth on which, despite everything, life still exists and takes on strange new forms seems to exist at an end-point beyond the end of Astroecology, and yet contained within it with lines such as “Soot from burnt out stars falling slowly to the ground.”

There has never been a better time to be brave and pushing outward in our storytelling. Not because we wish for ecological collapse to create new stories for us, but because we hope for reconciliation. We hope that the limits of our imaginations are not what we fear they are, and that we can reach beyond those limits to find a kind of balance. We hope for ways in which the human experience can merge with the “natural,” so that nature and culture become one with the least harm to either, and so that we understand and share the ghosts of both.

An endeavor like Astroecology is more aligned with what I’ve been reading in eco-philosophy than straight-forward fiction, perhaps more attuned to the subtlety required to meet the challenge of reflecting, refracting, and projecting–internalizing—the necessary sedimentary layers and help us put aside the fallacy that what we cannot see does not exist. Heldén’s interdisciplinary approach allows us to join him in that quest.

Helden3
[i] Editor’s note: Though the notion of science poetry seems absurd today, Erasmus Darwin’s poetry was exceedingly popular in its day, and set the table for science poetry in the 19th century.  See here, some remarkable technology poems from various eras.
[ii] Editor’s note: See the Astroecology project and digital work here.

Image Sources:
1: Umea universitet.
2 & 3: #astroekologi medias.

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Filed under Art, Humanities and Ecology, Jeff VanderMeer, poetry, Poets and Poems

O. L. A. F. T.: Openlands at DePaul

O.L.A.F.T

More information here.

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Trump’s Budget

Trump's Budget by artist Michael Koester 2017 03 17 (copyright free image)

Image by Michael Koester, mike@97520.net  Koester has advised us that this image is not under copyright, so please re-post widely with your own comments and artwork on blogs and social media.  You can see more of Mike’s work on Facebook at Shawna Tre (the name of his service dog).  Koester’s work also appears in an AAAS-PD volume,  Art Inspired by Science: Imaging the Natural World, by Robert Louis Chianese.  (Click on image below to purchase the book.)

Art & Science

 

 

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