squaring the circle

On the occasion of the first Radical Relevances multidisciplinary conference at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, in spring 2018, I wrote an essay on my 2017 research project in the Arctic, which I undertook with my long-time collaborator, mathematician Dr. Luke Wolcott. Here is the version that is anticipated to be published in the Radical Relevances conference proceedings.

essay:

In June 2017, along with my long-time mathematician collaborator Dr. Luke Wolcott, I was an artist-in-residence at Ars Bioarctica, a program hosted at a biological station in the far north of Finland, near the tri-border-point of Finland, Sweden, and Norway. This station hosts interdisciplinary artists month to month, along with a regular rotation of biologists, zoologists, entomologists, climatologists, and other researchers who do fieldwork in the landscape. To get there, we traveled to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland's northernmost province, Lapland, at the Arctic Circle, and then took a bus seven hours farther north. There, under the project title Seeing Things, Luke and I adopted an interdisciplinary approach to counting lemmings in their habitat, largely above the treeline, with the input of local zoologist and foremost lemming expert in Finland, Dr. Heikki Henttonen. We undertook our project during the summer solstice, operating under Arctic conditions of twenty-four-hour daylight. Taking a phenomenological perspective, Luke and I examined and recorded our own experiences of looking at, waiting for, and counting the lemmings as part of the scientific apparatus of information collection. (This project was informed by our previous collaboration in India in 2015, An Exercise to Assess Altitude in the Himalayas Using Phenomena.)

The phrase “seeing things” has a figurative meaning in English: it refers to hallucination, to seeing things that aren’t really there. Subjective impression is misrecognized as objective representation, such that the inside of the observer becomes the outside being observed. The point of departure for our research was the role that human observation plays in science, particularly the way that the subjective act of counting – in all its inherent imperfection and error – forms the empirical basis for “objective” knowledge and data collection. Scientific observation still relies heavily on the naked eye, the primary human lens for looking at landscape, wildlife, the Other – and our project was designed to pose questions to that looking. What is the significance of human witness to the state of ecology in marginal landscapes? What are its limitations, and what are the stakes of not seeing, or of simply losing count? What stands to be lost? What stands to be gained through the embodied knowledge of counting in an age when we rely on abstract quantifications to maintain a sense of truth and ecological orientation? And what if the scientific gaze, turned outward, ends up merely recording itself? What if it is, in a phrase, seeing things?

For this Arctic project, Luke and I chose lemmings as our subject for several reasons. They were already under study by scientists in Kilpisjärvi, such as Dr. Henttonen. They were the right size for unaided naked-eye counting from the ground. And, on a semiotic level, they are culturally synonymous with uncontrolled population growth, mostly thanks to their misleading depiction in the infamous Disney nature film White Wilderness, where herds of lemmings are portrayed committing supposed suicide by jumping off a Norwegian cliff. Since the release of that film, the lemming has also become a totem animal for blind populism and the kind of automatic acceptance of received wisdom that can leave intellectual and cultural structures unexamined.

Our project goal was to take a firsthand eyewitness count of lemmings in a controlled area. We would employ a typical method used by zoologists, while collecting additional data about our own subjective experiences during the observation periods. Dr. Henttonen himself focuses on rodents and their attendant parasites. There are many methods for counting animals, depending on their size, habits, and environment. Dr. Henttonen and his fellow researchers generally use snap-traps in order to count lemmings and other rodents in the area, with special permission from the government to employ this lethal sampling method. The traps kill the rodents they capture, and the bodies provide valuable specimens and blood samples that help scientists track the spread of parasites across regions that may pose a threat to humans. The traps themselves are placed at regular intervals throughout the landscape, and are replaced and checked at the sames spots at regular intervals of time. We chose to do a “live count” using the sample-survey method, which involves marking off randomly selected areas throughout the subject's habitat. These areas can take the form of stationary plots or transect paths to be walked. In either case, it is key that they are observed at multiple, regular time intervals in order to provide a meaningful spread of samples. The more samples are taken, the more robust the spread of data.

Another example of an approach to population sampling seems almost whimsical and came from a friend of Luke's who worked as a field biologist in Washington State in the US. Her task a few years back was to assess the population of a certain species of butterfly in a specific region by taking and counting samples out in the landscape. Her method was to walk out to a single pre-selected spot in a meadow for several weeks in a row at the same time every day. When she arrived at that spot, she would take out her butterfly net and recreate the same exact gesture each time, swooping the net in front of herself in an arc from right to left. Afterwards, she would count the butterflies she caught with that one gesture and make a note, even if that number was zero. After the sampling period was complete, the accumulation of that data provided an approximate population count for the butterfly species in that region. When we were asking this friend questions about how to count wildlife and we told her more about our own project concept, she said, “Yeah, it's fascinating the way that human error is involved. I have friends who count marbled murrelets, which are birds that only fly around dusk. My friends hike through steep, wet terrain and then lie on their backs and just count anything that crosses their vision. They might count one, or two, in a summer. But imagine if they miss it because they're bored, or tired, or looking away to get a snack. The difference between zero and one is huge... it's presence versus absence.”

We arrived in Kilpisjärvi ready to dig into counting a booming lemming population, but almost immediately after arriving, the nature of our project quickly shifted. Dr. Henttonen soon informed us that the region’s lemmings were experiencing a population crash phase of their life cycle, which is a natural – if not predictable – phenomenon. Our reflex was to question the value of continuing with our project at all, in light of this new information. But Dr. Henttonen explained to us very matter-of-factly that, even when zoological field researchers know there will likely be no lemmings to count during a given season, they still must go through the ritual of setting and checking their traps without fail in order for their data to be rigorous – in order for their zero count to be meaningful in the larger body of data taken over years. After all, to support a predicted population count of zero, absence is still a concrete phenomenon and still must be observed and recorded.

So we hiked out of and above the area of biological station, and on the high barren slopes of Saana Fell we roped off five 25-square-meter quadrats on the ground as case areas. Then, for five nights surrounding the summer solstice (June 21st), between the hours of 22:00 and 02:00, we each took one two-hour shift observing these case areas, one case area per night; each quadrat was observed for a total of four continuous hours. The post from where we made the observations was a blanket on which we sat upright, facing the night's assigned quadrat, while sometimes we were wrapped in a sleeping bag or tent-fly to protect against cold and precipitation. We had four protocols: 1) We would each conduct our respective two-hour observation periods alone and in silence; 2) we would each observe from the same post and not move from that position for the full two-hour interval; 3) we would each keep our eyes focused only within the square and not let our eyes wander outside of it during the observation period; and 4) we would each take notes in a shared field notebook on our basic, mostly unanalyzed observations, such as the weather, our coordinates, our disposition, and activity within the square.

Going into our observation periods, knowing that there would be little chance of spotting any lemmings, the challenge became how to keep our minds focused on the case areas despite the lack of activity inside them, so that our observations and counts would still be meaningful.

The following is the first of the ten reports collected during the period:

Report #1, as of 00:00, 20 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 22:00, 19 June 2017
End time: 00:00, 20 June 2017
Name: Elizabeth McTernan
Bearing: 71 degrees
Weather conditions: Mostly sunny, light breeze, mild
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 35.00 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 59.73 seconds E
Disposition: Fairly good mood, alert
Observations: Very small movement of vegetation; my phone received an sms to inform me I'm in Norway; long shadows cast by very short things; passing clouds modulating light over surface of case area; trying not to be distracted by bird moving around outside the case area; momentarily mistook a rock I hadn't noticed before for a possible vole or shrew – given that these rodents are similar in size to lemmings, this could mean my expectation is not to see a lemming; sun more obscured by clouds now; breeze changed direction and is chillier.
Lemming count: 0

Because of the Arctic north and the summer solstice, we were working under conditions of constant daylight, even in the middle of the “night.” This exposed clock time for what it is, an industrial construct, and it was an aid to nocturnal observation. Our house was 6km away from the village, we had no car, and we had no particular social engagement with the village, only going to the grocery store once every four days or so. So we had to consciously consider why we should be awake or asleep at a particular time, why we should stick to an artificial circadian rhythm when we were living outside the village’s economic rhythm. It would often be cloudy all day, and then the sun would come out after midnight. Do you then make yourself go to sleep, or do you stay up to enjoy the sunshine? One Sami reindeer herder I met, named Oula, showed me his beautiful “slow watch,” which marks out the whole day in 24 increments, so that you can only really approximate time to the half-hour or hour. He said it was the perfect watch for him, because he was on reindeer time anyway. Reindeer don’t schedule meetings. During the summer, he and the reindeer typically walk for about three hours, then sleep for about three hours, then walk for three hours, then sleep for three hours, on a loop. It seems to be the natural cycle the that reindeer fall into when there is no night. It is an imprecise, elastic time, a time that cannot be mechanically counted.

Report #2, as of 02:05, 20 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 00:05, 20 June 2017
End time: 02:05, 20 June 2017
Name: Luke Wolcott
Bearing: 71 degrees
Weather conditions: Midnight sun, 20% cloud cover, steady breeze from NE
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 35.00 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 59.73 seconds E
Disposition: Bundled up
Observations: No lemmings or other animals; at one point, maybe 20 minutes in, I thought I saw a little white bug fly from one bush to another; the sun was direct for the first hour, then went behind a mountain; the wind switched direction from NE to stopped to S to stopped to NE to stopped to NE again at the end.
Lemming count: 0

Conducting our project during the Arctic summer solstice was essential to our concept, because it provided a “nightless” tableau for study, like a backlit computer screen. During this endless day, our roped-off observation squares were like screens scattered all around, broadcasting rough earth. The resulting frames for observation spoke to the “square horizons” of smartphones, televisions, and computer monitors – other spaces of 24-hour light – while also calling up the most ubiquitous art format of all: the rectangle of painting and drawing. Here, we realized we had come to the Arctic Circle with hopes to square it, to straighten out both the chaos of the lemmings’ habitat and the unfathomability of this hyper-object called the Arctic, through a strictly ordered and rectilinear frame of observation.

Looked at another way, this square in the landscape was an anti-screen, for instead of absorbing attention it repelled it: nothing was actually happening in these quadrats, after all. All of the enticing action seemed to be taking place outside the frame of the official observation area, so hour by hour I had to fight to keep my eyes from being diverted: I was constantly distracted by tumbling clouds, flitting birds, and, on one occasion, an oncoming wall of rain. In a word, I had to screen out all other content. Normally, when indoors and absorbed by a computer screen, one’s sense of the surrounding environment fades away: one becomes abstracted by the passive intake of data, and the room, the chair, even one’s body all tend to disappear. Here, the opposite happened: faced with a quadrat void of interesting data, I was constantly tempted to turn to my surroundings instead for stimulation. This had the effect of making my surroundings themselves feel like the real screen – that bright, backlit, midsummer Arctic.

Every empty square that we put in the landscape was a square with the potential for something more: not necessarily the black square of modernism, of Malevich, but the blank square. A site for projection. The emptiness of each quadrat was not absence as death, but absence as the potential for a presence: for something else (an other, an alternative, an unpredicted future) to come rushing in to fill the void. These squares in the landscape did not retreat from the light, but were laid bare by an unending day. The perpetually lit square framed everything that was physically, detectibly there, as well as everything that wasn’t there: all of the thoughts, visions, mirages, desires, anxieties that the observer placed inside it.

Report #3, as of 00:00, 21 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 22:00, 20 June 2017
End time: 00:00, 21 June 2017
Name: Luke Wolcott
Bearing: 304 degrees
Weather conditions: Sun with sprinkling, clouds overhead and to N, medium wind from N
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 11.22 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 04.38 seconds E
Disposition: Comfortable, looking into sun
Observations: No lemmings or other animals; several blades of grass blowing in wind constantly; rain for 10–15 minutes, around 23:30, light; spent about 3 minutes total moving sleeping bag and tarp for warmth and rain/wind cover – was not observing square at this time.
Lemming count: 0

* * * * *

Report #4, as of 02:04, 21 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 00:04, 21 June 2017
End time: 02:04, 21 June 2017
Name: Elizabeth McTernan
Bearing: 304 degrees
Weather conditions: Cold with low dark clouds, a bit blustery from the north
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 36.43 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 55.92 seconds E
Disposition: A little anxious about being rained on, but starting to relax
Observations: Very little movement of grasses within the square; lots of dynamic activity in the periphery, making it hard to focus; it rained for a while, and I adjusted the tent fly around myself to stay dry while still focusing on the case area; wind picked up, colder now; a large fly crossed the area left to right.
Lemming count: 0

Ultimately, these uneventful periods also provided a welcome reprieve from the American news-cycle that had been constantly filling my computer screen back home, a battery of reports streaming in about the violent disassembly of environmental bodies and climate-justice policies by the current administration. As I sat silent during my observation periods, the Talking Heads chorus “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” wormed its way into my head. Up above the Arctic Circle, this is what a square was like in summer 2017: It was strained and textured and imperfect, and it was couched in a context of changing climate and warming land. Our seated observations involved watching whatever happened in the square, at whatever timescale. So, in fact, we were observing climate change unfold in slow motion, for there was melting permafrost just meters below the surface. And by sitting there, we were also putting heat into the earth, which accelerated that melting. Our observations inevitably altered the observed. Meanwhile, the absence of the lemmings could not help feeling like another observer effect: however “natural” the explanation for their scarcity that summer—they were undergoing a population crash phase, after all—it still felt as if Luke and I were personally responsible, as if we had frightened them off by posting ourselves in that field, like scarecrows. This evoked somber thoughts of environmental apocalypse, the role humanity has in determining the fate of common and endangered species alike. In our collective action or inaction, we are ultimately deciding species’ presence or absence. Thoughts like these made it clear to me that counting, generally, and counting wildlife, specifically, is an investigation into the question of presence or absence. An field researcher goes forth into the landscape in the hope that their own arbitrary presence will meet another species’ chance presence. Meanwhile, the desire to see can trick the eye, such that we see things and are seeing things.

Report #5, as of 00:00, 22 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 22:00, 21 June 2017
End time: 00:00, 22 June 2017
Name: Elizabeth McTernan
Bearing: 272 degrees
Weather conditions:
Cold and blustery with spitting rain, a little ice/sleet, and gray skies
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 11.22 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 04.38 seconds E
Disposition: A bit lethargic, but the cold is making me alert
Observations: Taller grass in this case area, so more movement in the wind; reindeer passed through the square left to right without affecting the borderlines (total number of reindeer uncertain, as many as ten, while definitely four passed through the case area); a bumble bee swerved into the case area, lower left-hand corner; roughly forty minutes after the first time, a bumble bee flew to the same spot – I wonder if it’s the same bee and I just didn’t see it fly out, or if it’s a second bee.
Lemming count: 0

Martha Kenney, one of Donna Haraway’s students, refers in her writings to “wild facts,” facts that won’t hold still, facts that inhabit fables, the fables that we both find and put into our observed world: universal numbers, statistics, affirmation, negation, presence, absence. Each critter that I thought I saw—each critter that my desire to see made me see—out in the wild that summer was one such “wild fact.”

Report #6, as of 02:06, 22 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 00:06, 22 June 2017
End time: 02:06, 22 June 2017
Name: Luke Wolcott
Bearing: 272 degrees
Weather conditions: Full clouds but higher than earlier in the day, somewhat colored; steady 5–10 mph wind from N
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 11.22 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 04.38 seconds E
Disposition: Prepared but cold
Observations: 00:40, two male reindeer with 1-meter-tall antlers passed through square – entered center of left side, exited 2 meters from back right post at back side, headed roughly north, moved steadily without stopping (except to step carefully over rope); they entered sequentially, with first one leaving before second one entered, so they were counted sequentially with no chance of error (roughly eight others grazed and walked outside the square); 00:58, one small black bird flew over square, headed roughly south, very fast, cruising with wind at back, 3 meters off the ground.
Lemming count: 0

These wild facts came to us through our eyes, our bodies. With that, Luke and I established a relationship between the seemingly mundane act of counting and its more haptic, less definable dimension. Before traveling to the Arctic, we had did preliminary reading on the human physiological conditions of counting – that is, what’s inherent and what’s learned about counting. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff and psychologist Rafael Núñez, the properties of arithmetic include “precision, consistency, and stability across time and communities.” Arithmetic maintains a certain level of universality and is fundamental to building bodies of knowledge. Yet it is also of the body, highly contingent on the human mind and easily disrupted by experiences of distraction, boredom, or simple misunderstanding. Moreover, the ability to count itself is part learned, part inherited. For instance, consider the phenomenon of “subitizing,” the ability to “see” a number of items simultaneously, spontaneously, without linear counting. Most of us do this on a daily basis: for instance, by being able to see two or three pennies at a time, without having to consciously count them. The ability to subitize is observed consistently in infants as well – notably, before they even have the capacity for language or for the conceptualization of quantities. Studies show that, generally speaking, we subitize when presented with collections of one to three objects, but count sequentially when presented with four objects or more. Of course there are savants who have been known to be able to subitize large quantities of objects, but this is above and beyond average human capacity. Recall the fifth field entry. When one bumblebee was in the quadrat, I would have counted it below the threshold of sequentialism: it was a subitizable bumblebee. But when the four reindeer crossed through the quadrat, I left the regime of subitizing behind and counted them consciously, one by one. Luke and I talked about this afterwards and wondered, if the four reindeer had spontaneously appeared in the quadrat, instead of walking across it one at a time (I was exclusively focusing on the interior of the case area, after all), would I have still counted them linearly, or would four reindeer have been an accessible number for me to subitize, gleaning the quantity all in one moment?

“Subitizing” (derived from the Latin adjective subitus, meaning “sudden”) is pre-reflective, pre-conscious, happening prior to our awareness of it. It is a skill that we possess even before we have a sense of self and other. Contrasted to this “sudden,” instantaneous, pre-conscious counting, our two-hour episodes of looking at our square case areas in Kilpisjärvi were just long enough to test the outer edges of our awareness, of paying attention, of continuous beholding. Our exercise involved pushing boundaries of human sense as a scientific tool of observation. In this sense, the haptic dimension of our study also called up connections between counting and meditation.

Historically, the arithmetical concept of subitizing has been translated into the tradition of Buddhist meditation as subitism. The term “subitism” points to a sudden enlightenment, the idea that insight is attained all at once. The opposite of this approach to enlightenment is called “gradualism,” according to which enlightenment can be achieved only step by step, through an arduous practice. In subitism, the rational practice of math has been appropriated to describe non-rational modes of knowing, spiritual rather than empirical knowledge. Perhaps that is also what Luke and I were looking for up on Saana: an epiphany or understanding about how we and nature both come together and foil each other – the meaning of it all. By performing our own simulacrum of the scientific method, conducting field research at the five nightly sites in the Arctic tundra, numbering a precise total of 20 hours of unbroken visual observation, we embodied a link between Western science and Buddhist meditation: Seeing is knowing. Or is it?

Report #7, as of 00:00, 23 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 22:00, 22 June 2017
End time: 00:00, 23 June 2017
Name: Luke Wolcott
Bearing: 191 degrees
Weather conditions: Cloud cover complete; 5–10 mph wind, cold, from NW; warmer than last night
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 33.21 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 21.87 seconds E
Disposition: Out of the wind, which is nice
Observations: 23:03, small brown bird flew over back right corner of square, 1 meter above bushes there, perched on tree outside square behind it, then flew S after about 10 seconds; 23:14, bird flew from center back to center left, about 2 meters off of ground – brown with red-brown and white body; no other movement, except some blades of grass blowing in the wind constantly.
Lemming count: 0

* * * * *

Report #8, as of 02:02, 23 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 00:02, 23 June 2017
End time: 02:02, 23 June 2017
Name: Elizabeth McTernan
Bearing: 191 degrees
Weather conditions: Gray and cold, but calm with no signs of rain clouds
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 33.21 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 21.87 seconds E
Disposition: Relieved it's not windy, ready to see something
Observations: Area is blocked from the wind, so there's very little movement of the vegetation; no wildlife entered the square during the session, but some nearby birds were singing – I couldn't say the species.
Lemming count: 0

* * * * *

Report #9, as of 00:00, 24 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 22:00, 23 June 2017
End time: 00:00, 24 June 2017
Name: Elizabeth McTernan
Bearing: 31 degrees
Weather conditions: Sunny and breezy, relatively mild
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 37.20 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 58.28 seconds E
Disposition: In good spirits, happy that it's warm today
Observations: The vegetation in the case area is particularly low, so minimal movement caused by breeze; surface lighting is consistent without clouds; about an hour in, the sun dipped behind a cloud, eliminating the shadows in the case area and flattening the appearance substantially; after about a half hour of flatness, the sun and shadows are back.
Lemming count: 0

By the end of the observation period, we had observed zero lemmings; our total population count was zero. With his trapping method, Dr. Henttonen counted zero as well, but he dutifully pointed out that there had to be at least one male and one female, though likely more, since it was certain the population would bounce back within their population cycle in the following year or two. Dr. Henttonen left the biological station before our residency ended. As a parting gift – perhaps as consolation, or as a joke, or as a gesture of research camaraderie – he left a dead lemming for us in our freezer, one he had captured the year before that he somehow wanted us to enjoy for ourselves in the absence of live lemmings.

On the other hand, we did see discrete numbers of reindeer, bumblebees, rainstorms, and bushes rustling in the breeze. We saw the slow processes of anthropogenic climate change, the melting of liters of permafrost beneath our feet, and we saw countable numbers of floaters hover before our eyes when we got bored. We had gone to the Arctic to see lemmings and to see ourselves seeing lemmings, to see the quantities of subitizing and the epiphanies of subitism, to see what science sees and to see what science can’t see: to see, in the poet Wallace Stevens’ phrase, nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. We saw some of these things and more, for above all, we saw that we were seeing things.

Report #10, as of 02:04, 24 June 2017
Saana Fell, above the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station
Kilpisjärvi, Finland

Start time: 00:04, 24 June 2017
End time: 02:04, 24 June 2017
Name: Luke Wolcott
Bearing: 31 degrees
Weather conditions: Midnight sun significantly above horizon (bearing 326?); very light breeze from N; 25% cloud cover, uniform, high, and colored
Position: 69 degrees 03 minutes 37.20 seconds N
20 degrees 47 minutes 58.28 seconds E
Disposition: Seated comfortably and warm, refreshed
Observations: I didn't see any movement in the square at all.
Lemming count: 0

TOTAL LEMMING COUNT FOR THE PERIOD OF 19–24 JUNE 2018: 0