As you know from tooling around this site, in the past few years I have become more and more interested about the search for unknown biodiversity -- the people who are passionate about this quest, and the amazing and bizarre creatures they find. I have been slowly working on a film about this search, and have just debuted a trailer on our COMING SOON page. If you like what you see, take a look at the project's FB page -- https://www.facebook.com/TheOther97Percent/
I just saw the On Kawara exhibit that’s running at the Guggenheim here in New York. For people not familiar with Kawara, he’s a Japanese artist best known for his long-running projects of repeated work – like painting the current date on a small canvas each day (the Today series), or sending a daily postcard that records the exact time he got out of bed (the I Got Up series). You could think of the work as a kind of meditative practice, both for the person who creates it as well as the person who views it.
It made me think of taxonomy.
Taxonomic work is also quite repetitive. Each day, the taxonomist catalogues specimens, carefully examining and describing them in a consistent way. Does this spider have a round abdomen or an oblong one? Is it partially covered in a shell, or completely soft? Does it have a color pattern? A texture? Any spines or hairs? It’s true that every spider is different, but the questions are the same – just as every date is different, but the act of painting them is (essentially) the same.
At the exhibit, my friend and I talked about what would make someone to commit to this sort of practice. I know that taxonomists are big picture people – they want to know everything that lives on this earth because that’s the way to understand the nature of life itself. The devil is in the details. I think On Kawara sees this too.
About a month ago, the NYTimes ran an opinion piece on the loss of specimen collections (see http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/opinion/libraries-of-life.html). It describes how specimen collections, like the spider collection at the American Museum of Natural History, are the foundation of the identification and study of species. So without specimens to examine, describe, and classify, we will never be able to finish this project of knowing all Earth’s biodiversity.
The article also talks about the loss of curators, scientists like Norm who study and classify these specimens so we can understand their evolution. At the Field Museum in Chicago, one of the better-funded natural history museums in our developed nation, the curatorial staff has dropped by almost half in 15 years. Recently, here in New York, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden suspended its scientific research program – and shuttered its celebrated herbarium. And more than 6 months after Norm’s retirement, the AMNH has yet to hire a new spider curator. In all of these cases, there wasn’t enough funding to keep people on staff.
It seems clear that funding for curatorial positions is getting harder to come by. What will this mean for tomorrow’s would-be curators who would continue the work of finding Earth’s hidden biodiversity?
It’s a disturbing trend. But for me, there’s an added loss. Specimen collections are extraordinarily beautiful. Working on this film, I’ve had the great joy of touring all kinds of collections, from komodo dragons stored in giant tanks of alcohol to tiny iridescent taxidermied hummingbirds. To see the unbelievable diversity of nature’s forms gathered, preserved, classified, and organized, is to begin to understand the unending process of evolution – the basis of life itself. These collections are evidence of our attempts to grasp the infinite.
What will we lose if we stop reaching?
Three years ago, I met a guy named Norm and decided I had to make a film about him.
Norm is one of those people you either love or hate right away. At first glance, he looks like a caricature of a scientist: long white beard, thick bifocals, and pens jutting out of his chest pocket. If you ask him about his work, which is studying spiders, he’ll be happy to tell you all about it. But when he talks, he talks fast, and you get the distinct impression that you better not ask him to repeat himself. He agreed to be filmed for this project –but if I stopped to adjust camera or tweak a light, I’d end up turning around just in time to see him disappear round a corner.
You see, Norm is always in a hurry.
But with good reason – there’s still about 40,000 spiders left to find.
All around the world, scientists like Norm (as well as students, teachers, nature enthusiasts, amateur photographers) are trying to find and identify Earth’s unknown biodiversity. For more than 200 years, scientists have been drawn to the big, obvious creatures – mammals, birds, reptiles, and green plants – and we now know most of those creatures. The problem, though, is that all those creatures add up to just 3% of the life on the planet. And while they get all the attention, the other 97% is rapidly disappearing.
So I’m making a film about Norm and other people on the quest to find the remaining 97% of life on earth. Along the way, I’ll be putting clips, photos, and stories up here so you can see how it’s going and be a part of the process. My hope is that this film will get the word out on the importance of this work – of finding and knowing the rest of Earth’s biodiversity – so that we can convince funders and scientific institutions to help this field flourish once again.
Thanks for being a part of this effort.
And more soon!