Art and Science: This Alkaline African Lake Turns Animals into Stone

This Alkaline African Lake Turns Animals into Stone

A calcified flamingo, preserved by the highly basic  waters of Tanzania’s Lake Natron and photographed by Nick Brandt. © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

In 2011, when he was traveling to shoot photos for a new book on the  disappearing wildlife of East Africa, Across the Ravaged Land, photographer Nick Brandt came across a truly astounding place: A  natural lake that seemingly turns all sorts of animals into stone.

“When I saw those creatures for the first time alongside the lake, I was  completely blown away,” says Brandt. “The idea for me, instantly, was to take  portraits of them as if they were alive.”

A bat © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

The ghastly Lake  Natron, in northern Tanzania, is a salt lake—meaning that water flows in, but doesn’t flow out,  so it can only escape by evaporation. Over time, as water evaporates, it leaves  behind high concentrations of salt and other minerals, like at the Dead Sea and  Utah’s Great Salt Lake.

Unlike those other lakes, though, Lake Natron is extremely alkaline, due to high amounts of the chemical natron (a mix of sodium carbonate and baking soda) in  the water. The water’s pH has been measured as high as 10.5—nearly as high as ammonia. “It’s so high that it would strip the  ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds,” Brandt says.

A swallow © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

As you might expect, few creatures live in the harsh waters, which can reach  140 degrees Fahreinheit—they’re home to just a single fish species (Alcolapia latilabris), some algae and a colony of  flamingos that feeds on the algae and breeds on the shore.

Frequently, though, migrating birds crash into the lake’s surface. Brandt  theorizes that the highly-reflective, chemical dense waters act like a glass  door, fooling birds into thinking they’re flying through empty space (not long  ago, a helicopter pilot tragically fell victim to the same illusion, and his  crashed aircraft was rapidly corroded by the lake’s waters). During dry season,  Brandt discovered, when the water recedes, the birds’ desiccated,  chemically-preserved carcasses wash up along the coastline.

“It was amazing. I saw entire flocks of dead birds all washed ashore  together, lemming-like,” he says. “You’d literally get, say, a hundred finches  washed ashore in a 50-yard stretch.”

A songbird © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

Over the course of about three weeks, Brandt worked with locals to collect  some of the most finely-preserved specimens. “They thought I was absolutely  insane—some crazy white guy, coming along offering money for people to basically  go on a treasure hunt around the lake for dead birds,” he says. “When, one time,  someone showed up with an entire, well-preserved fish eagle, it was  extraordinary.”

Just coming into contact with the water was dangerous. “It’s so caustic, that  even if you’ve got the tiniest cut, it’s very painful,” he says. “Nobody would  ever swim in this—it’d be complete madness.”

A fish eagle © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

For the series of photos, titled “The Calcified” and featured in this month’s  issue of New ScientistBrandt posed the carcasses in  life-like positions. “But the bodies themselves  are exactly the way the birds were found,” he insists. “All I  did was position them on the branches, feeding them through their stiff  talons.”

A dove © Nick Brandt 2013, Courtesy of Hasted Kraeutler Gallery,  NY

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Nietzsche Meets The iPhone

Nietzsche meets the iPhone
By Justin Whitaker

The BBC has a story this week titled “Can filming one second every day change your life?“ (click for video) It makes for a useful meditation for the new year. The story features Cesar Kuriyama, who began filming one second of each day at the age of 30. What began as a one year project promises to be a life-long occupation. As he states in the video, “Trying to make the best movie possible is making me live the best life possible.”

This brought to mind one of my favorite philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who wrote in his last (and widely misunderstood) work, “The Will to Power” (1901) that you should “Live your life as a work of art.”

Life as Art

“Live your life as a work of art,” urged the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He did not have a story in mind but more an art like sculpture, in which one lives by creating a shape for oneself, “building character.” developing what we call style.’ The German philosopher Friedrich von Schelling saw the whole of life as God’s work of art. (We are in effect God’s apprentices.) Artists often describe their sense of mission in life as simply “to create.” but it is the activity itself that counts for then as much as the results of their efforts. The ideal of this view is appropriately to live beautifully or, if that is not possible, to live at least with style, “with class” we might say. From this view, life is to be evaluated as an artwork—as moving, inspiring, well designed, dramatic, or colorful, or as clumsy uninspired and uninspiring, or easily forgettable.

– via The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy by Solomon and Higgins.

Like an artist with her brush strokes, we should be conscious and intentional with every moment of our lives. Even if so much of our life becomes routine, we must know it as routine. And a routine, simply due to the number of hours we spend at it, should be perfectible.

Nietzsche’s work is often aphoristic and obscure, and in fact many (conservative/analytic) philosophers would hardly call his work “philosophy.” I think there is some truth in this and recommend that he is read through the interpretive lens of someone like the late Robert C Solomon. Solomon, who taught at the University of Texas-Austin, was the adviser for one of my own philosophy professors, David Sherman. Both understood the importance of historical grounding when teaching philosophy, which brings a sort of humility to the enterprise because it brings the philosopher’s words out of the clouds and back to the ground from which they, after all, came.

In this way we can see all philosophers as in an “all too human” progression which is merely historical and incremental and abandon any fantasies or false projections that one or another got it all right (the same goes for religion as well). All is a work in progress. Even Nietzsche, who might so strongly reject this understanding, is but a layer in our philosophical geology.

As Solomon writes elsewhere, Nietzsche isn’t really in such stark opposition to previous philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, but rather he is attempting to make their systems consistent (to himself and his day).

Generosity and kindness are marks of nobility (of strong Will to Power), the strong need rarely resort to cruelty. At times. Nietzsche goes so far as to say it is the duty of the strong to protect the week.

Nietzsche’s Will to Power Is thus far removed from the common imagery of military strength—the most powerful are not the politician and soldier, but the artist, the philosopher, and the aesthete. Will to Power Is ultimately control over one’s self; it is not license but restraint; not power to hurt or destroy but power to create.

– Solomon, From Rationalism to Existentialism: The Existentialists and Their Nineteenth-century Backgrounds

Reading that, Nietzsche doesn’t sound too far from the Buddha, either.

So, in so far as iphone can unleash our power to create, I think Nietzsche would be pleased.

And the Buddha?

The Buddhist too might ponder the karma of his devices, as Rohan Gunatillake did recently for wired magazine, UK (here):

“For too long has the narrative around digital and the mind been negative. Pop tech is constantly being accused of fragmenting our attention, ruining our concentration and at worst dehumanising us. This may well be true. But is it because all of that is intrinsic to technology, or because we’ve just not designed our technologies with the mind in mind?

The convergence of three trends … suggests we will benefit from a new wave of digital tools that not only reduce stress but lead to genuine insight, wisdom and compassion.”

Will devices actually begin to liberate us from the frustrations of greed, aversion, and delusion – frustrations that are to begin with so intimately tied up with the stuff in our lives?


But to be on the safe side, go easy on the Angry Birds.