The Birdsong Project Features 220 Musicians, Actors, Artists & Writers Paying Tribute to Birds: Watch Performances by Yo-Yo Ma, Elvis Costello and Beck

Birds are the original musicians. This, at least, is a premise of the Audubon Society’s Birdsong Project, “a movement inspiring bird conservation through art.” There could thus be no more natural art form in which to celebrate our fine feathered (and in many cases, now endangered) friends than music, which the Birdsong Project has commissioned for its first release, and in no small quantity. They’ve so far put out the first two volumes of For the Birds, which in its totality will involve “more than 220 music artists, actors, literary figures, and visual artists, all coming together to celebrate the joy birds bring to our lives” — and remind us of “the environmental threats we all face.”

Those contributors include Yo-Yo Ma, Elvis Costello, and Beck, whose work on For the Birds you can hear in the videos in this post. And in the case of Yo-Yo Ma, who performs a piece called “In the Gale” (by composer Anna Clyne), you can see him play not in a concert hall but out in the midst of genuine nature.


This underscores what’s heard brightly and clearly on the recording: that Ma and Clyne were just two of many collaborators on the track, the others being what sound like a forest full of birds. Other artists take different approaches: Beck’s “Archangel” is a lush studio soundscape, and Costello combines his own “The Birds Will Still Be Singing” with “And Your Bird Can Sing,” the most appropriate Beatles cover imaginable (apart from “Blackbird,” at least).

Organized by Randall Poster, by day a music supervisor for filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese, For the Birds also features music from, Jarvis Cocker, The Flaming Lips, Kaoru Watanabe, Stephin Merritt, and Seu Jorge. And those are just the contributors known primarily for their music: others involved in the project include Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, and Jonathan Franzen. You can now stream the first two volumes on most major services, and pre-order the full 20-LP box set that will contain the material musical and literary from all five volumes, the last of which is scheduled to come out this September. Give it a listen, and afterward you’ll perhaps find yourself that much more able to appreciate the avian symphony conducted all around us.

via Aeon

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Listen to Earth.fm, a Free Archive of Natural Soundscapes That Can Re-Connect You with Nature & Improve Your Wellbeing

“Just listen. Silence is the poetics of space. What it means to be in a place…. Silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything.” – acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton

The study of acoustic ecology doesn’t get much mainstream attention. But if you’ve been a reader of Open Culture, you’ve likely come across a post about preserving natural sounds by streaming recordings of the world’s many environments. These projects all, in one way or another, contribute to goals articulated by Canadian composer and writer R. Murray Schafer, the “self-declared father” of acoustic ecology, which involves the study, conservation, and appreciation of environmental sound.

As Neil Clarke notes at Earth.fm, Schaffer’s complex discipline can seem difficult to grasp, as it “straddles ‘acoustics, architecture, linguistics, music, psychology, sociology and urban planning.'” Maybe all we need to know to appreciate the goals of Earth.fm — another excellent entry in a growing list of natural-sound streaming sites – comes through in Clarke’s description of Schaffer’s World Soundscape Project (WSP):

It was hoped that, eventually, the WSP would be able to create a balance “between the human community and its sonic environment.” To this end, listening and “ear-cleaning” practices, including “soundwalks” – a walking meditation where a high sonic awareness is maintained – were designed to increase individuals’ consciousness of the sounds around them. By prompting engagement with the realities of contemporary soundscapes, listeners were intended to gain awareness of their part in these soundscapes’ creation, and therefore appreciate their responsibility towards them.

Schaffer began recording soundscapes (a word he coined) in Vancouver in the early 70s. Since then, his work has inspired and complemented that of other field recordists/acoustic theorists/sound archivists like Bernie Krauss and Gordon Hempton. Although the early acoustic ecologists could not have foreseen streaming media, it has without a doubt become for many of us a dominant vehicle for sound in our daily lives, including sounds of the natural world.


Without an appreciation for the sounds of natural silence (which we know, since John Cage, does not mean absolute quiet), our understanding of rainforests, deserts, and oceans as living, breathing realities can become dulled, just as much as we lose touch with the green spaces outside our windows. Reconnecting through sound has the dual effect of calming our inner states and attuning us more closely to the outer world as it is, without the distractions of recorded music and video laid overtop.

Billing itself as “like Spotify, but for natural soundscapes,” Earth.fm, offers not a rival streaming service, but an alternative in which users can make their own playlists, The Verge explains, “zipping from Brazil to Egypt in a matter of minutes.” New sounds are added every three days. “You can listen to bird species in Malaysia or India or forest sounds in Ghana. The sounds are gathered from numerous contributors who have experience recording the natural world in places including Brazil, Spain, Norway, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.”

We can intuit Earth.fm‘s mission not only as therapeutic and preservationist but also as an ethical attempt to approach the crisis streaming media has introduced in the arts. Human-made sounds (or “anthropophy”) are just as much a part of our environment as those made by frogs, rivers, and antelope. Our constant, often mindless streaming, however — made possible by infinite digital repositories and cheap (for now) energy — can be seen as a form of noise pollution, and a significant contributor to energy overconsumption.

The ethics of streaming must account for the impact on the beings (in this case, us) who make these sounds. Big Tech commodification of music requires a “vast conversation,” argues an essay on the Earth.fm site, that includes “the format’s impact on those at the heart of this whole undertaking: those who create music.” By implication, Earth.fm and other sites that stream acoustic recordings of natural sounds (like those in the links below), offer an ethical alternative to music streaming — one that reconnects us, Elizabeth Waddington writes on the site, to “the music of a changing world.” Learn more about Earth.fm’s activities here.

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

Why 99% Of Smithsonian’s Specimens Are Hidden In High-Security

Museums are the memory of our culture and they’re the memory of our planet. – Dr. Kirk Johnson, Director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

For many of us natural history museums are emblematic of school field trips, or rainy day outings with (or as) children.

There’s always something to be gleaned from the reconstructed dinosaur skeletons, dazzling minerals, and 100-year-old specimens on display.

The educational prospects are even greater for research scientists.

The above entry in Business Insider’s Big Business series takes us behind the scenes of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, a federally-funded institution where more than 99% of its vast collection is housed in the basement, on upper floors and employees-only wings of exhibition floors, or at an offsite facility in neighboring Maryland.


The latter is poised to provide safe space for more of these treasures as climate change-related flooding poses an increasingly dire threat. The museum’s National Mall location, which draws more than 6 million visitors annually, is now virtually at sea level, and Congress is moving at a pace formerly known as glacial to approve the expensive but necessary structural improvements that would safeguard these precious collections.

The museum currently boasts some 147 million specimens, and is continually adding more, by means of field collections, donations, and purchases made with endowments, though as a non-profit institution, it’s rarely able to outbid deep-pocketed private collectors at auctions of hot-ticket items like large dinosaur bones.

The Division of Birds’ daily mail brings samples of “snarge” – whatever’s left over when a bird makes impact with an aircraft.

Upon arrival at the Smithsonian, whatever its size or market value, every item is subjected to a process of inspection known as “accessioning”.

After that, it is meticulously cleaned.

Beetles in an offsite Osteo Prep Lab get to work on residual organic materials like skin and tissue.

Human experts use a handheld air scrape tool to incrementally separate fossils from the rocky matrix in which they were discovered

The goal is permanent storage state.

Geological specimens are classified according to Dana’s System of Mineralogy and stored in drawers. High-value items are assigned to the Blue Room or the Gem Vault.

Bones that are looking to spend the better part of eternity on a shelf are fitted for custom fiberglass and plastic cradles to protect against pests, moisture, and gravity-related stress fractures.

The Department of Entomology dries and pins incoming insects, arachnids, and myriapods, and stores them in hydraulic carriages.

Mammals, reptiles, fish and birds are stuffed or pickled in alcohol.

Many items in the museum’s collection date back to the early 20th century.

These days, staff strive to preserve as much as they can, using every tool and scientific advancement at their disposal. As ornithologist and feather identification specialist Carla Dove, states, “It’s our responsibility to do as much as we can with the specimen if we’re going to take it from the wild for research.”

These careful preparations ensure that the world’s largest natural history collection can continue to serve as a living library for thousands of visiting scientists…climate change permitting.

Access to the Museum of Natural History’s collections and databases result in the publication of hundreds of research papers and the identification of hundreds of new species every year.

In addition to providing valuable intelligence for research initiatives on such topics as disease transmission, volcanic activity, and of course, the effects of bird strikes on airplanes, museum staff is working toward a goal of preserving each item with a digital scan – 9 million and counting…

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch a New Animation of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, with Music by Yo-Yo Ma

…I would like not to underestimate the value of the world view which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past.

– Richard Feynman

In 1955, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman gave a talk on the value of science to members of the National Academy of Sciences at at Caltech University.

In the wake of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, his involvement with the Manhattan Project had been cause for serious depression and soul searching.

He concluded that the pursuit of scientific knowledge remained valuable to society, even though such knowledge comes without operating instructions, and thus can be put to evil purposes.


In the Caltech speech, he cited the life improving technological and medical breakthroughs that are the result of scientific explorations, as well as the scientific field’s allegiance to the concept that we must be free to dissent, question, and discuss:

If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination.

(This strikes a profound chord in 2022, remembering how some extremely vocal politicians and citizens took changing public health mandates as evidence of conspiracy, rather than an ever-deepening scientific understanding of how an unfamiliar virus was operating.)

Any child with an interest in STEM will be gratified to learn that Feynman also found much to admire in “the fun …which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about (science), and which others get from working in it.

Throughout his speech, he refrained from technical jargon, using language that those whose passions skew more toward the arts can understand to invoke the experience of scientific discovery.

His meditations concerning the interconnectedness between every molecule “stupidly minding its own business” and everything else in the known universe, including himself, a human standing beside the sea, trying to make sense of it all, is of a piece with Shakespeare and Walt Whitman.

Untitled Ode to the Wonder of Life

by Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rushing waves

mountains of molecules

each stupidly minding its own business

trillions apart

yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages before any eyes could see

year after year

thunderously pounding the shore as now.

For whom, for what?

On a dead planet

with no life to entertain.

Never at rest

tortured by energy

wasted prodigiously by the sun

poured into space.

A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea

all molecules repeat

the patterns of one another

till complex new ones are formed.

They make others like themselves

and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity

living things

masses of atoms

DNA, protein

dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle

onto dry land

here it is

standing: atoms with consciousness;

matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,

wonders at wondering: I

a universe of atoms

an atom in the universe

The Marginalian’s (formerly Brain Pickings) Maria Popova seizes on this interlude for the final installment of her video series, The Universe in Verse, above, collaborating with animator Kelli Anderson on a “perspective-broadening, mind-deepening” visual interpretation of Feynman’s excerpted remarks.

Flowing under and around Feynman’s narration is an original composition by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose renown in the field of music is on par with Feynman’s in physics, and who notes in the introduction to The Quotable Feynman:

While he paid close attention to problems we face and generate, he also knew that humans are a subset of nature, and nature held for him the greatest fascination – for the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man, and nature guards her secrets jealously.

Read Feynman’s complete speech to the National Academy of Sciences at at Caltech University here.

Watch all nine chapters of The Universe in Verse here.

via The Marginalian

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Awesome Human Choreography That Reproduces the Murmurations of Starling Flocks

A number of choreographers have taken inspiration from the movement of birds.

Sadek Waff, creator of thrillingly precise “murmurations” such as the one above, is also inspired by street dance — particularly the popping hip hop moves known as Tutting and ToyMan.

The nature lover and founder of the dance troupe Géométrie Variable uses both to excellent effect, channeling a starling flock’s hive mind with human dancers, whose lower halves remain firmly rooted. It’s all about the hands and arms, punctuated with the occasional neck flex.

As he observes on his Instagram profile:

There is magic everywhere, the key is knowing how to look and listen in silence. Like a cloud of birds forming waves in the sky, each individual has their own identity but also has an irreplaceable place in the whole.

To achieve these kaleidoscopic murmurations, Waff’s dancers drill for hours, counting aloud in unison, refining their gestures to the point where the individual is subsumed by the group.

The use of mirrors can heighten the illusion:

The reflection brings a symmetrical dimension, like a calm body of water contemplating the spectacle from another point of view, adding an additional dimension, an extension of the image.

The larger the group, the more dazzling the effect, though a video featuring a smaller than usual group of dancers — 20 in total — is helpful for isolating the components Waff brings to bear in his avian-inspired work.

We’re particularly enthralled by the murmuration Waff created for the 2020 Paralympic Games’ closing ceremony in Tokyo, using both professionals and amateurs in matching black COVID-precaution masks to embody the event’s themes of “harmonious cacophony” and “moving forward.” (Notice that the front row of dancers are wheelchair users.)

See more of Sadek Waff’s murmurations on his YouTube channel and on Instagram.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Albertus Seba’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities: Discover One of the Most Prized Natural History Books of All Time (1734-1765)

In the eighteenth century, a European could know the world in great detail without ever leaving his homeland. Or he could, at least, if he got into the right industry. So it was with Albertus Seba, a Dutch pharmacist who opened up shop in Amsterdam just as the eighteenth century began. Given the city’s prominence as a hub of international trade, which in those days was mostly conducted over water, Seba could acquire from the crew members of arriving ships all manner of plant and animal specimens from distant lands. In this manner he amassed a veritable private museum of the natural world.

The “cabinets of curiosities” Seba put together — as collectors of wonders did in those days — ranked among the largest on the continent. But when he died in 1736, his magnificent collection did not survive him. He’d already sold much of it twenty years earlier to Peter the Great, who used it as the basis for Russia’s first museum, the Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg.


What remained had to be auctioned off in order to fund one of Seba’s own projects: the Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri accurata descriptio, or “Accurate description of the very rich thesaurus of the principal and rarest natural objects,” pages of which you can view at the Public Domain Review and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This four-volume set of books constituted an attempt to catalog the variety of living things on Earth, a formidable endeavor that Seba was nevertheless well-placed to undertake, rendering each one in engravings made lifelike by their depth of color and detail. The lavish production of the Thesaurus (more recently replicated in the condensed form of Taschen’s Cabinet of Natural Curiosities) presented a host of challenges both physical and economic. But there was also the intellectual problem of how, exactly, to organize all its textual and visual information. As originally published, it groups its specimens by physical similarities, in a manner vaguely similar to the much more influential system published by Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus in 1735.

Linnaeus, as it happens, twice visited Seba to examine the latter’s famous collection. It surely had an influence on his thinking on how to name everything in the biological realm: not just the likes of trees, owls, snakes, and jellyfish, but also the “paraxoda,” creatures whose existence was suspected but not confirmed. These included not only the hydra and the phoenix, but also the rhinoceros and the pelican.

Eighteenth-century Europeans possessed much more information about the world than did their ancestors, but facts were still more than occasionally intermixed with fantasy. Given the strangeness of what had recently been documented, no one dared put limits on the strangeness of what hadn’t.

Note: A number of the vibrant images on this page come from the Taschen edition.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include 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.

Carl Sagan Warns Congress about Climate Change (1985)

Without climate change, we couldn’t inhabit the Earth as we do today. The greenhouse effect, by which gases in a planet’s atmosphere increase the heat of that planet’s surface, “makes life on Earth possible.” So says Carl Sagan in the video above. He adds that without it, the temperature would be about 30 degrees centigrade cooler: “That’s well below the freezing point of water everywhere on the planet. The oceans would be solid.” A little of the climate change induced by the greenhouse effect, then, is a good thing, but “here we are pouring enormous quantities of CO2 and these other gases into the atmosphere every year, with hardly any concern about its long-term and global consequences.”

It’s fair to say that the level of concern has increased since Sagan spoke these words in 1985, when “climate change” wasn’t yet a household term. But even then, his audience was Congress, and his fifteen-minute address, preserved by C-SPAN, remains a succinct and persuasive case for more research into the phenomenon as well as strategies and action to mitigate it.


What audience would expect less from Sagan, who just five years earlier had hosted the hit PBS television series Cosmos, based on his book of the same name. Its broadcast made contagious his enthusiasm for scientific inquiry in general and the nature of the planets in particular. Who could forget, for example, his introduction to the “thoroughly nasty place” that is Venus, research into whose atmosphere Sagan had conducted in the early 1960s?

Venus is “the nearest planet — a planet of about the same mass, radius, density, as the Earth,” Sagan tells Congress, but it has a “surface temperature about 470 degrees centigrade, 900 Fahrenheit.” The reason? “A massive greenhouse effect in which carbon dioxide plays the major role.” As for our planet, estimates then held that, without changes in the rates of fossil fuel-burning and “infrared-absorbing” gases released into the atmosphere, there will be “a several-centigrade-degree temperature increase” on average “by the middle to the end of the next century.” Given the potential effects of such a rise, “if we don’t do the right thing now, there are very serious problems that our children and grandchildren will have to face.” It’s impossible to know how many listeners these words convinced at the time, though they certainly seem to have stuck with a young senator in the room by the name of Al Gore.

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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.

A Fascinating 3D Animation Shows the Depths of the Ocean

Deep sea exploration and the science of oceanography began 150 years ago when British survey ship HMS Challenger set off from Portsmouth with 181 miles of rope. The Royal Society tasked the expedition, among other things, with “investigat[ing] the physical conditions of the deep sea… in regard to depth, temperature circulation, specific gravity and penetration of light.” It was the first such voyage of its kind.

To accomplish its objectives, Challenger swapped all but two of its guns for specialized equipment, including — as assistant ship’s steward Joseph Matkin described in a letter home — “thousands of small air tight bottles and little boxes about the size of Valentine boxes packed in Iron Tanks for keeping specimens in, insects, butterflies, mosses, plants, etc… a photographic room on the main deck, also a dissecting room for carving up Bears, Whales, etc.”


Findings from the four-year voyage totaled almost thirty-thousand pages when published in a report. But the Challenger’s most famous legacy may be its discovery of the Mariana Trench. The ship recorded a sounding of 4,475 fathoms (26,850 ft.) in a southern part of the trench subsequently called Challenger Deep, and now known as the deepest part of the ocean and the “lowest point on Earth.” The most recent soundings using advanced sonar have measured its depth at somewhere between 35,768 to 36,037 feet, or almost 7 miles (11 kilometers).

Challenger Deep is so deep that if Everest were submerged into its depths, the mountain’s peak would still be roughly a mile and a half underwater. In 1960, a manned crew of two descended into the trench. Dozens of remote operated vehicles (ROVs) have explored its depths since, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 that another human made the 2.5 hour descent, when Avatar and The Abyss director James Cameron financed his own expedition. Then in 2019, explorer Victor Vescoso made the journey, setting the Guinness world record for deepest manned submarine dive when he reached the Eastern Pool, a depression within Challenger Deep. Just last year, he bested the record with his mission specialist John Rost, exploring the Eastern Pool for over four hours.

Last year’s descent brings the total number of people to visit Challenger Deep to five. How can the rest of us wrap our heads around a point so deep beneath us it can swallow up Mount Everest? The beautifully detailed, 3D animation at the top of the post does a great job of conveying the relative depths of oceans, seas, and major lakes, showing undersea tunnels and shipwrecks along the way, with manmade objects like the Eiffel Tower (which marks, within a few meters, the deepest scuba dive) and Burj Khalifa placed at intervals for scale.

By the time the animation — created by MetaBallStudios’ Alvaro Gracia Montoya– submerges us fully (with booming, echoing musical accompaniment) in the Mariana Trench, we may feel that we have had a little taste of the awe that lies at the deepest ocean depths.

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

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