News from Benj and Sara

The Natural Histories Project

Posted 4 October 2011 by in Announcements, Multimedia, Photography

In June the Natural History Initiative held a fourth and final synthesis workshop at North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Throughout this year we documented the first three of these workshops (focused on natural history and society, education and research), recording conversations between pairs of participants and combining them with intimate portraits. The results are featured as a series of broadsides and an interactive website.

After the last workshop we added more than 30 new conversations to the website, bringing the grand total up to 99. But that’s not all that’s new. Originally called From Decline to Rebirth, the project has a brand-new name: The Natural Histories Project. And there is now a short video to introduce it.

With all of this new stuff, the Natural History Network decided it was time for a website that would help the organization to maximize the impact of the workshops and this project. So we worked with our good friend and frequent collaborator Darin Reid to build them one.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a naturalist,” says the Network’s vice-president Josh Tewksbury, “perhaps the most exciting time to be a naturalist that has ever existed on this planet.” We hope you will watch our new video to find out why, join the Network and (most importantly) get out to practice your own natural histories!

Natural Histories Project at ESA

Posted 15 August 2011 by in Press

The Ecological Society of America recently held its 96th annual meeting in Austin, TX. Our friends from the Natural History Network presented a symposium there, and they brought along our broadsides from the Natural Histories Project. Read what attendee Hayley Gillespie has to say about the “beautiful portraits and inspiring (but often haunting) words” on her blog, biocreativity:

“What I love about this project is that it is both a true celebration of natural history  – which is inspiring in itself – but it is also something that can speak to very diverse audiences. It shows the faces of natural history – young and old, male and female, diverse backgrounds. It shows that anyone can be a natural historian, and that everyone can find a reason to care about this field, whether or not it is part of their profession.”

Read Hayley’s full post.

New conversations on From Decline to Rebirth

Posted 4 May 2011 by in Announcements, Multimedia, Photography

At the end of March, the Natural History Initiative held its second and third workshops, focused on the themes of education and research. We documented the first of these workshops, which explored the topic of natural history and society, back in January – creating a series of broadsides and the interactive website, Well, we’ve just added more than 40 new conversations about the future of natural history. Here are quotes from a few of my favorites:

“When I think of a rebirth of natural history, I’m thinking of a whole bunch more people doing it. You can always have more people doing it. I also think of people recognizing, and making the connection between, all of the branches of science and art and realizing that natural history is the root of that. I’m not trying to say we need to recognize natural history as the big umbrella, but it’s the little root tendrils of all of this, and if we get disconnected from the roots we’re going to lose something really important. If we keep connected to the roots, all those branches can keep growing and grow really strongly. When I’m thinking of a rebirth, that’s where I want to go.”
listen »

“He told me, rather shyly and certainly without braggadocio at all, how two years before the earthquake he had his high school students build from scratch – a seismograph.  And they learned to maintain their seismograph, and read it properly, and understand earthquake physics, and geology, and history, and learn first responding, how to respond to an earthquake and how to do first aid. He taught them all that, and when the earthquake came…” listen »

“Well, I have to admit that I felt a little bit alienated when people were equating natural history so much with the outdoors. . . I would argue that my connection with plankton is just as strong as somebody else’s connection with a forest. And that happened in the lab.” listen »

“Anemones have odd cellular structures so that they don’t suffer from aging. I’ve watched one anemone out there; it’s sort of become a pet. My first trip to this island in 1968, there it was, the same size in the same place. And last year, there it was, same size, same place. People probably wish they could be anemone-like.” listen »

Visit to hear the rest of these conversations, and many more. We’ll have additional new content after the fourth and final synthesis workshop in June.

ABOVE: Workshop participants sit beneath broadsides that showcase portraits and quotes from the previous day’s conversations.

Just launched: From Decline to Rebirth

Posted 27 February 2011 by in Announcements, Multimedia

The practice of natural history – focused attention to the non-human world – is in decline. But it’s definitely not dead, and the profile of modern day naturalists has been a recurrent and important topic for us over the years. Last month we began a six-month assignment to chronicle the future of natural history and we’re excited to launch phase one of the project today at

The Natural History Network, with support from the National Science Foundation, is producing a series of four workshops in 2011 dedicated to re-imagining natural history. They’re convening groups of thought leaders to explore natural history and society, education and research over four working meetings in Arizona and Washington.

We were asked by the Network to document these meetings so that the discussions could be brought to a larger audience. However, watching conference video is about as exciting as watching bristlecone pines grow. The challenge was to find a way to capture the ideas, people and conversations in a way that was interactive, exciting and could bring new people into the discussion.

Our solution has four parts:

We set up a recording booth where participants could sit down in pairs to ask questions, share ideas and tell stories to each other. Modeled after StoryCorps, these “interviews” were largely self-directed, and followed the participants’ interest and topics. Sara only facilitated when necessary to keep things on track.

After each conversation was complete, we’d make a black and white portrait of each individual as well as the pair. By using a simple background and portable studio lighting, we’ll be able to keep the series cohesive throughout the workshops.

At night, we’d parse the audio for short quotes that captured some of the big ideas from each conversation. Thanks to support from Canon USA, we were able to print 13 x 19 broadsides from each conversation and hang them in the common room by the next morning. Though it made for some long days, the instant feedback became a way of charting the discussion as it happened, valuing the contributions of participants, and making our work more transparent. Plans are in the works to exhibit these prints at a number of venues in the coming year (there will be over a hundred of them by June).

Finally, we’ve just launched From Decline to Rebirth, a multimedia website that we designed to present the audio excerpts and portraits from these conversations. Built by our friend and frequent collaborator Darin Reid using a custom PHP framework, the site allows visitors to explore the content using a freeform, non-linear interface. You can browse conversations by theme, person or workshop and even search for specific words in the transcript. We’ve also built in social networking tools to comment on and share specific content. Find it at

The website currently features over 25 portraits and excerpts gathered from the Natural History and Society meeting. In March we’ll be collecting material from the Education and Research workshops, and in June we’ll do the same at the Synthesis meeting. There will be over 120 naturalists included by the end. Stay tuned as we launch new content in the coming months!

For more behind the scenes, see our Fieldnotes from Sasabe post.

Fieldnotes from Sasabe

Posted 27 February 2011 by in Photography

The first of the four natural history workshops we are documenting for our Decline to Rebirth project (see this post) was held outside the little town of Sasabe on the Arizona-Mexico border. So close to the border, in fact, that you could see the rusty metal fence marching east from the rancho. And though we spent most of our time inside and engrossed in our work, the rancho was a beautiful, and brightly painted space full of rustic southwestern charm and fantastic food. Apparently Sundance had shot their summer catalog there the week before. Without doubt, it was a beautiful location in late January.

However it was difficult to ignore the impact of the border. A dozen miles from the line, we were stopped at a Border Patrol checkpoint, where our rental Kia packed to the ceiling with large black bags was apparently not suspicious. Border Patrol trucks comprised about two-thirds of the traffic on the road, and when we went birding outside the rancho our binoculars would often find other lenses looking back at us. It was impossible to ignore the cultural artifacts that littered the high Sonoran Desert. Walking in any direction from the ranch revealed water bottles, gloves and children’s shoes. The modern migration and predator-prey relationship that goes on here is dramatic and disturbing. We left feeling that spending a week along that wall is an experience more Americans should have.

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