The Art of Creating a Bonsai: One Year Condensed Condensed Into 22 Mesmerizing Minutes

To be a good writer, one must be a good reader. This is made true by the need to absorb and assess the work of other writers, but even more so by the need to evaluate one’s own. Writing is re-writing, to coin a phrase, and effective re-writing can only follow astute re-reading. This condition applies to other arts and crafts as well: take bonsai, the regarding of which constitutes a skill in and of itself. To craft an aesthetically pleasing miniature tree, one must first be able to see an aesthetically pleasing miniature tree — or perhaps to feel one. “Bonsai trees (and inspiring art in general) give me a ‘feeling’ that is hard to describe,” as practitioner Bucky Barnes puts it in the video above. “I’m not getting it from this tree yet, so I know I need to continue tweaking.”

That tree is a Japanese larch bonsai, Barnes’ year of work on which the video compresses into a mere 22 minutes. The work is more than a matter of water and sunlight: aspects that must be considered and aggressively modified, include the plant’s viewing and potting angle, the number and direction of its branches, and even the structure of roots spreading through the soil below.

Barnes breaks out a range of clippers, knives, pastes, brushes, and wires — part of a suite of tools that, at least for the masters back in bonsai’s homeland of Japan, can get expensive indeed. To us laymen, the tree that results from this year of work looks pretty respectable, but by bonsai standards its existence has only just begun. Over the coming decades — or even the coming centuries — it could take on other qualities altogether. When well maintained, bonsai only improve with age.

As demonstrated in the video just above, however, not every bonsai receives such maintenance. A product of the same Youtube channel, Bonsai Releaf, “Restoring a Neglected Chinese Juniper Bonsai” begins with a tree that, to many of its nearly four million viewers so far, probably doesn’t look too bad. Barnes sees things differently: beginning by sketching the tree, apparently a standard stage of his professional bonsai-viewing process, he sets about correcting a host of deficiencies like “lower branches competing for light,” excessive upward or downward growth (as well as something called “weak crotch growth”), and dead tissue not delineated from living. This laborious operation requires an even wider tool set, encompassing Dremels and even flames. But by the video’s end, anyone can see the difference in the tree itself — and more importantly, feel it.

Related Content:

The Art & Philosophy of Bonsai

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A Digital Animation Compares the Size of Trees: From the 3-Inch Bonsai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

What Makes the Art of Bonsai So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree, and $32,000 for Bonsai Scissors

Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Art of Balancing Stones: How Artists Use Simple Materials to Make Impossible Sculptures in Nature

Not so long ago, a wave of long-form entreaties rolled through social media insisting that we stop building rock cairns. Like many who scrolled past them, I couldn’t quite imagine the offending structures they meant, let alone recall constructing one myself. The cairns in question turned out, mundanely, to be those little stacks of flat rocks seen in parks, alongside trails and streams. They’re as common in South Korea, where I live, as they seem to be in the United States. Both countries also share a great enthusiasm for Instagram, and it’s the apparent Instagrammability of these cairns that has increased their number (and consequent ecological and cultural harm) in recent years.

No matter how many likes they garner, these common cairns require little or no skill in the building. The same can hardly be said of rock balancing, an art that demands a great deal more discipline and patience than many an influencer can muster. The Wired video at the top of the post profiles one of the most famous living rock-balancers, a Canadian named Michael Grab.

“One of my core drives is to make the formation as impossible as possible,” he says, referring to the apparent defiance of gravity performed by all the rocks he finds and arranges into stacks, arcs, orbs, and other unlikely shapes. In fact, it is gravity alone that holds his artworks together — and repeatedly destroys them in the countless trials and errors before their completion.

Yes, Grab has an Instagram account: Gravity Glue, on which he showcases his precariously solid sculptures as well as their natural contexts. So does Jonna Jinton, a Swedish “artist, photographer and Youtuber” who also balances rocks. “It’s such a great way to also balance myself,” she says in the short video just above, “and to create something beautiful at the same time.” For her, the art has become a form of meditation: “As I try to find a tiny, tiny little balance point, my thoughts are completely silent, and that’s a very good feeling.” Jinton doesn’t say whether she personally ensures the destruction of her works, as Grab does. But doing so, as one should note before entering the rock-balancer lifestyle, may keep you on the better side of the ecological recommendations and indeed the law. But then the aforementioned anti-cairnism seemed to hit its zenith in early 2020, since which time, it’s fair to say, the world has had more pressing concerns.

Related Content:

The Philosophical Appreciation of Rocks in China & Japan: A Short Introduction to an Ancient Tradition

Discover the Japanese Museum Dedicated to Collecting Rocks That Look Like Human Faces

Watch a Masterpiece Emerge from a Solid Block of Stone

A Modern Drummer Plays a Rock Gong, a Percussion Instrument from Prehistoric Times

Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Wildlife Is Now Thriving Again in Chernobyl–Even If Humans Won’t for Another 24,000 Years

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi film Stalker, a mysterious artifact renders a landscape called the Zone inhospitable for humans. As critics have often pointed out, a tragic irony may have killed the director and some of the crew a few years later. Shooting for months on end in a disused refinery in Estonia exposed them to high levels of toxic chemicals. Tarkovsky died of cancer in 1986, just a few months after the disaster at Chernobyl. “It is surely part of Stalker’s mystique,” Mark Le Fanu writes for Criterion, “that in some strange way, Tarkovsky’s explorations … were to ‘prophesy’ the destruction… of the nuclear power plant.”

Tarkovsky did not see the future. He adapted a dystopian story written by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. “Certainly,” writes Le Fanu, “there were many things in the Soviet Union at that time to be dystopian about.” But the film inspired a video game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, which in turn inspired tourists to start “flocking to Chernobyl,” writes Katie Mettier in The Washington Post: “fans of the video game… wanted to see firsthand the nuclear wasteland they’d visited in virtual reality.”

Ukraine may have succeeded, thanks to these associations, in rebranding Chernobyl for the so-called “dark tourism” set, but the area will not become habitable again for some 24,000 years. Habitable, that is, for humans. “Flora and fauna have bounced back” in Chernobyl, writes Ellen Gutoskey at Mental Floss, “and from what researchers can see, they appear to be thriving.” They include “hundreds of plant and animal species in the zone,” says Nick Beresford, a researcher at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology. “Including more than 60 [rare] species.”

Among the many animals to return to the area are “Eureasian lynx, brown bear, black storks, and European bison,” as well as elk, deer, boars, and wolves. Nearby crops are still showing high levels of contamination. According to the latest research, nothing that grows there should be eaten by humans. And as one might expect, “mutations are more common in Chernobyl’s plants and animals than in those from other regions,” Gutosky notes. But the harm caused by radiation pales by comparison with that posed by a constant human presence.

Among the many species making their home in Chernobyl are the endangered Przewalski’s horses who numbered around 30 when they were “released into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and left to their own devices…. Now it’s estimated that at least 150 Przewalski’s horses roam the region.” The horrific, human-caused accident of Chernobyl has had the effect of clearing space for nature again. The area has become an unintended experiment in what journalist George Monbiot calls “rewilding,” which he defines as “[taking] down the fences, blocking up the drainage ditches, enabling wildlife to spread.”

In order for the planet to “rewild,” to recover its biodiversity and rebuild its ecosystems, humans need to step away, stop seeing ourselves “as the guardians or the stewards of the planet,” says Monbiot, “whereas I think it does best when we have as little influence as we can get away with.” Tourists may come and go, but there may be no humans settling and building  in Chernobyl for a few thousand years. For the species currently thriving there, that’s apparently for the best.

via Mental Floss

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Scenes from HBO’s Chernobyl v. Real Footage Shot in 1986: A Side-By-Side Comparison

The Ruins of Chernobyl Captured in Three Haunting, Drone-Shot Videos

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #4 – HBO’s “Chernobyl”: Why Do We Enjoy Watching Suffering?

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Cicadas Return After 17 Years: Stunning Footage of the Brood X Cicadas

Sing, fly, mate, die.

The periodical cicadas in Brood X are emerging from underground, where they have spent the last 17 years as nymphs. They are making the final climb of their lives, intent on escaping their carapaces in order to make more cicadas. And as always they are doing it en masse.

Once free, they must quickly get the hang of their brand new wings, and make for the trees, where the males will sing (some say scream) in a bid for females with whom to mate.

The pregnant females drill cavities into narrow branches to receive their eggs.

By the time the larva emerge, some six weeks later, their mothers and fathers are long dead.

Instinct propels these babies to drop to the ground and burrow in, thus beginning another 17 year cycle, a process Samuel Orr, a time lapse photographer and filmmaker specializing in nature documentary, documents in macro close up in Return of the Cicadas, above.

His adventures with Brood X date to their last emergence in 2004, when he was a student at Indiana University, working in a lab with a professor whose area of expertise was cicadas.

While waiting around for Brood X’s next appearance, he traveled around the country and as far as Australia, gathering over 200 hours of footage of other periodical cicadas for an hour long, Kickstarter-funded film that aired on PBS in 2012.

Brood X has a way of ensuring that we humans will also observe a 17 year cycle, at least those of us who live in the states the Great Eastern Brood calls home.

Some celebrate with commemorative merch. This year, that means face masks as well as an ever burgeoning assortment of t-shirts, mugs, and other paraphernalia.

Also new this year, Cicada Safari, entomologist Dr. Gene Kritsky’s smartphone app for citizen scientists eager to help map the 2021 emergence with photos and location.

There are some among us who complain about the males’ lusty chorus, which can rival garbage disposals, lawn mowers, and jackhammers in terms of decibels.

Those concerned with the planet’s health can use the data from this and past emergences to discuss the impact of climate change and deforestation. Brood X is listed as “Near Threatened” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Some of us are moved to write poetry and songs, though we don’t always get the species right — witness Ogden Nash’s Locust-Lovers, Attention! (1936) and Bob Dylan’s Day of the Locusts (1970).

Inevitably, there will be articles about eating them. It’s true that they’re a hyperlocal source of sustainable protein, albeit one that’s rarely on the menu. (The Onondaga Nation celebrates — and ceremonially samples — Brood VII every 17 years, crediting the insects with saving their ancestors from starvation after the Continental Army destroyed their villages and food sources in 1779.)

Human nature is such that we can’t help but reflect on the twists and turns our lives have taken over the last 17 years.

A woman in Maryland planned a cicada themed wedding to coincide with Brood X’s 1987 emergence, having been born two emergences before, and graduated from Bryn Mawr during the 1970 emergence, as 50 miles away, Bob Dylan was having his fateful encounter on the campus of Princeton.

Most of us will find that our milestones have been a bit more accidental in nature.

Brood X’s emergence also serves as a lens through which to view 17 years in the life of our country. The Onion took this to the edge several years ago with an article from the point of view of Brood II, but it’ll be hard to top the 17-year chunk of recent history Brood X and the humans who have been living atop them since 2004 will have to digest.

Speaking of history, Brood X Mania has been around much longer than any of us have been alive, and probably predates a Philadelphia pastor’s description of the 1715 emergence in his journal (though we’ll give him FIRST!!! since no earlier accounts have surfaced).

Prior to the Internet, entomologist Charles L. Marlatt’s The Periodical Cicada: An Account of Cicada Septendecim, Its Natural Enemies and the Means of Preventing Its Injury (1907) was the go to source for all things cicada related, and it remains a fascinating read.

In addition to lots of nitty gritty on the insects’ anatomy, habits, diet, and habitat, he quotes liberally from other cicada experts, from both his own era and before. The anecdotal evidence suggests our obsession is far from new.

These days, anyone armed with a smartphone can make a recording of Brood X’s cacophony, but back then, experts in the field were tasked with trying to capture it in print.

Professor Charles Valentine Riley compared the sound early in the season, when the first males were emerging to the “whistling of a train passing through a short tunnel” and also, “the croaking of certain frogs.” (For those needing help with pronunciation, he rendered it phonetically as “Pha-r-r-r-aoh.”)

Professor Asa Fitch’s described high season in New York state, when a maximum of males sing simultaneously:

tsh-e-e-E-E-E-E-e-ou, uttered continuously and prolonged to a quarter or half minute in length, the middle note deafeningly shrill, loud and piercing to the ear

Marlatt himself worried, prematurely but not without reason, that the march of civilization would bring about extinction by over-clearing the densely wooded areas that are essential to the cicadas’ reproductive rituals while offering a bit of protection from predators.

Dr. Samuel P. Hildreth of Marietta, Ohio noted in 1830 that “hogs eat them in preference to any other food” and that birds were such fans “that very few birds were seen around our gardens during their continuance and our cherries, etc, remained unmolested.”

Dr. Leland Ossian Howard was erroneously credited with conducting “the first experiments of cicada as an article of human food” in early summer 1885. Marlatt reproduces the account of an eyewitness who seemed to fancy themselves a bit of a restaurant critic:

With the aid of the Doctor’s cook, he had prepared a plain stew, a milk stew, and a broil. The Cicadae were collected just as they emerged from pupae and were thrown into cold water, in which they remained overnight. They were cooked the next morning, and served at breakfast time. They imparted a distinct and not unpleasant flavor to the stew, but they were not at all palatable themselves, as they were reduced to nothing but bits of flabby skin. The broil lacked substance. The most palatable method of cooking is to fry in batter, when they remind one of shrimps. They will never prove a delicacy.

We leave you with the thoughts of Dr Gideon B. Smith of Baltimore, whose attempt to capture a mercurial month turns bittersweet, and all too relatable:

The music or song produced by the myriads of these insects in a warm day from about the 25th of May to the middle of June is wonderful. It is not deafening, as many describe it; even at its height it does not interrupt conversation. It seems like an atmosphere of wild, monotonous sound, in which all other sounds float with perfect distinctness. After a day or two this music becomes tiresome and doleful, and to many very disagreeable. To me, it was otherwise, and when I heard the last note on the 25th of June the melancholy reflection occurred. Shall I live to hear it yet again?

Related Content: 

Sounds of the Forest: A Free Audio Archive Gathers the Sounds of Forests from All Over the World

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Welcome back, Brood X Overlords! Follow her @AyunHalliday.

BirdCast: You Can Now Forecast the Migration of Birds Across the U.S. Just Like the Weather

We talk about the weather more often than we talk about most things, other natural phenomena included. We certainly talk about the weather more often than we talk about birds, much to the disappointment of ornithological enthusiasts. This could be down to the comparative robustness of weather prediction, both as a tradition and as a daily technological presence in our lives. We can hardly avoid seeing the weather forecast, but when was the last time you checked the bird forecast? Such a thing does, in fact, exist, though it’s only come into existence recently, in the form of Birdcast, which provides “real-time predictions of bird migrations: when they migrate, where they migrate, and how far they will be flying.”

Developed by Colorado State University and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BirdCast offers both live bird migration maps and bird forecast migration maps for the United States. “These forecasts come from models trained on the last 23 years of bird movements in the atmosphere as detected by the US NEXRAD weather surveillance radar network,” says BirdCast’s web site.

Unprecedented in both the kind of information they provide and the detail in which they provide it, “these bird migration maps represented the culmination of a 20-year long vision, so too the beginnings of new inspiration for the next generation of bird migration research, outreach and education, and application.”

You can learn more about the development and workings of BirdCast in the recorded webinar below, featuring research associate Adriaan Dokter and Julia Wang, leader of the Lights Out project, which aims to get Americans spending more time in just such a state. “Every spring and fall, billions of birds migrate through the US, mostly under the cover of darkness,” says its section of BirdCast’s site. “This mass movement of birds must contend with a dramatically increasing but still largely unrecognized threat: light pollution.” The goal is “turning off unnecessary lighting during critical migration periods,” and with spring having begun last weekend, we now find ourselves in just such a period. Luckily, our fine feathered friends shouldn’t be disturbed by the glow of the BirdCast map on your screen. View live BirdCast maps here.

via Kottke

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Watch “The “Art of Flying,” a Short Film Capturing the Wondrous Murmurations of the Common Starling

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Sounds Are Faked For Nature Documentaries: Meet the Artists Who Create the Sounds of Fish, Spiders, Orangutans, Mushrooms & More

We think of nature documentaries as primarily visual works. As well we probably should, given the countless, mostly dull and uncomfortable hours spent in the field they demand of their photography crews. But what comes to mind when we imagine the sound of nature documentaries — apart, of course, from the voice of David Attenborough? Listen closely during the breaks in his narration of such hit nature series as Planet Earth or Our Planet, and you’ll hear all manner of sounds: the sound of sharks swimming, of orangutans chewing, of spiders shooting their webs, of mushrooms sprouting. Hang on — mushrooms sprouting?

Nature documentaries, as narrator Abby Tang says in the Insider video above, are full of “sounds that would either be impossible to capture, or ones that are straight-up made up.” In this they differ little from scripted films, whose actual shoots usually manage to record only the actors’ dialogue, if that.

Working in the wild, far indeed from any studio, nature documentarians “might actually be shooting a subject matter that’s across a valley, or they’ll capture objects normally too small to have a registered noise to it.” Hence the need for a category of professionals previously featured here on Open Culture: foley artists, those inventive creators of footsteps, door-knocks, punches, sword-unsheathings, and all the other sounds viewers expect to hear.

Here foley artist Richard Hinton demonstrates his methods for breathing sonic life into a range of nature scenes. A shoal of mackerel? Old magnetic audio tape sloshed around in a tub of water. The vibrations of a spiderweb? A slinky, held perilously close to the microphone. The northern lights? A pair of cymbals and a set of wind chimes. Often, just the right sound emerges from those of two distinct objects layered together, a principle known to foley artists since the early days of radio drama. In fact, though foley sounds today go through a fair bit of digital editing and processing to make them more convincing, the tools and techniques used to produce them have changed little since those days. The next time you watch a bear onscreen open its eyes after months-long hibernation, consider the possibility that you’re hearing an Englishman making noises with scraps of fur and his mouth.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Explore a New Archive of 2,200 Historical Wildlife Illustrations (1916-1965): Courtesy of The Wildlife Conservation Society

Between the 1910s and the 1960s, a nature-lover with a sure artistic hand and a yen to see the world could have done much worse than signing on with the Wildlife Conservation Society. During those decades, when the WCS was known as the New York Zoological Society, its “Department of Tropical Research (DTR), led by William Beebe, conducted dozens of ecological expeditions across tropical terrestrial and marine locales,” says the organization’s web site. This long-term project brought together both scientists and artists, who “participated in field work and collaborated closely with DTR scientists to create their illustrations.”

Now the fruits of those artistic-scientific labors have come available in a free online archive containing “just over 2,200 digitized color and black-and-white illustrations of living and non-living specimens created by DTR field artists between 1916 and 1953.”

Their subjects include “mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, marine invertebrates, plants, and fungi,” all originally found in places like “British Guiana (now Guyana), the Galápagos Islands, the Hudson Canyon, Bermuda, the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Venezuela, and Trinidad.”

It was in Trinidad and Tobago that Beebe established his first ecological research station in 1916 — and where his long life and career came to an end more than 45 years later. “Although Beebe’s name is unfamiliar to most today, he was a celebrity scientist in his time,” says the WCS’ about page. “The DTR’s expeditions were covered by the popular press, Beebe’s accounts were bestsellers, and he and the DTR staff published hundreds of articles for both scientists and the general public.” Published in not just specialist media but National Geographic and The New York Times, their illustrations captured the color and movement of the natural realm with a detail and vividness that photography couldn’t.

“Ranging from depictions of single specimens to complex narrative images that show where and how animals lived,” these images are available in geographically and chronologically organized collections at the WCS’ online archive. As many as possible are credited to their artists — Isabel Cooper, Toshio Asaeda, George Alan Swanson, Frances Waite Gibson, and others — which ensures that this wealth of nature illustrations will do its part to not just renew interest in Beebe’s life and work but generate interest in those who entered into this adventurous collaboration with him. But then, Beebe himself articulated best what we can learn from appreciating these works of scientific art: “All about us, nature puts on the most thrilling adventure stories ever created, but we have to use our eyes.”

Enter the WCS archive here.

Related Content:

Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

The Meticulous, Elegant Illustrations of the Nature Observed in England’s Countryside

Ernst Haeckel’s Sublime Drawings of Flora and Fauna: The Beautiful Scientific Drawings That Influenced Europe’s Art Nouveau Movement (1889)

Behold an Interactive Online Edition of Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants (1868)

A Beautiful 1897 Illustrated Book Shows How Flowers Become Art Nouveau Designs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A Starling Murmuration Magically Makes the Shape of a Bird

“After months of chasing these birds around Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath [a lake in Ireland], James Crombie and I captured a unique display, writes Colin Hogg on YouTube. He’s referring to the video above, which–for one ever-brief moment–captures a murmuration of starlings forming the shape of a giant bird. It’s a pretty meta concept.

Crombie also captured the moment with a photograph that graced the cover of The Irish Times. View it here. The newspaper provides some interesting backstory on the video and photograph here.

Find more murmuration moments in the Relateds below.

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via Twisted Sifter

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