02 October 2014


Hawkmoth. A snazzy, artsy new online science zine where research, lifestyle, and hip photo-journalism of life in the lab and in the field all intersect.

This is a place where we can discover the human behind the research; and the science behind the storyteller. In the words of its founder: "a place to share our stories, in and out of the laboratory. This is where we share our work; this is where we share ourselves."

This is a collection of essays and articles that represent a passion for the science that we do, and a reverence for the interests and the explorations that inform that passion.

Check us out at http://hawkmoth.us/ and HawkmothMag.

27 September 2014

21 September 2014

Sunflowers, fog and castles

After two weeks of sunshine punctuated by the odd dramatic night-time thunder storm, Poitiers surprised us with a (very welcome!) respite. I woke up to this view from my window today:

It felt a little eery, and a little magical, and perhaps the sort of day that invites hunkering down in some book-drenched coffee shop with a hot drink and a warm cozy view of the rain outside. But I had woken up with a plan, and nothing short of monsoon-level rain was going to change this. A little drizzle? No prob.

The plan: get out on that battered, second-hand bike-of-mine, and see some France. The bike, which I acquired in my second week here through a handy Craigslist-style site called Le Bon Coin, is clearly a salvage of some sort: but it rides well, and has that sexy dropped handle-bar shape of a racing bike. With a little fine-tuning (including restoring the functionality of the 18 out of 21 gears that don't work...), it will serve. 

The destination: Chauvigny, a medieval town tucked into the countryside about 13 mi (21 km) east of Poitiers; the perfect distance, and beautiful:

Heck. Yes. The ride was damp and exhilarating, and apart from the frustrations of having only three functioning gears, not so hilly as to make me give up and walk home. I locked up in the city center of Chauvigny, and struck out on foot to discover its winding alleys and its hilltop castle. Each street and alley was beautiful - so intrinsically French in their beautiful stone and stucco architecture, with wisps of television and conversation floating out of open windows as I walked past.

The heavy fog made buildings materialize out of nowhere as I climbed up along steep alleyways that wended circuitously toward the medieval quarter. I hadn't been expecting a castle, but I turned a corner and there one was: grandiose, regal even in its disrepair, suspended over the city like some sharp-eyed eagle on its perch.

Chauvigny's medieval quarter extends for what seems like ages, and the roads are (if possible) even more tangled than those of the "modern" Chauvigny down below. But beautiful buildings and cobbled streets and red tiled roofs wait at every twist and turn - the exploration (and the getting lost) was worth it.

When at last I tore myself away to return to Poitiers, I took a detour route and saw something incredible I had missed on my way to Chauvigny: miles upon miles of fields filled with the empty husks of sunflowers, sprawling out unendingly in each direction. It was eery and empty, and when I stopped to walk a short way into one of the fields, I felt like I was walking through some Miyazaki film next to spirits that I couldn't quite hear or touch or feel, but which I could just see all around me through the damp mist. Beautiful and strangely poignant with the fog all around us.

And so my bike has passed its first big test (I'll still be getting those gears fixed, however...), and I have meandered a bit further afield in my explorations of Poitiers and its surroundings. This first week of classes has been exhausting and challenging and exciting, and I suspect that it will just get more intense from here - these adventures out into the veins of the French paysage will become a lifeline.

13 September 2014

Les marchés

A bag of plums, a sprig of juicy warm grapes; some carrots; an onion; a head of lettuce. The fruit and veg that I am finding at the tranquil downtown markets is fresh and rich in flavor. I am in heaven.

The weekday and Saturday markets take place in the cobbled central square of Notre Dame, a quick 15-minute bike ride across the river from my dorm. The old (c. 11th-12th century) stone church that dominates the courtyard peers over a ream of colorful stalls that squeeze up against one another in a precarious assemblage of delicious everything.

It's hard to emphasize the beauty in Notre Dame square, compounded by the fresh excitement of all this beautiful fresh produce; I believe that I shall get used to doing my weekend shopping here mighty quick.

05 September 2014

Six hours of language class a day leaves the brain jumbled and worn, to say the least. Constructing neural pathways is hard work, after all! But I can feel forgotten French words pouring back in, and new ones accruing slowly in the language aisle of those mental storage vaults.

As the enormity of this huge new change begins to settle into a regularity of sorts, I can start to take the time to re-incorporate the little elements that filled out my life before now.

One of those elements: drawing. So today I made my way to Poitiers centre-ville by bus, where I got a brand spanking new blank sketchbook, planted myself down in front of one of many, many, MANY picturesque buildings, and got to work.

Drawing is something that I can lose myself completely inside of. I just put on an audio book or a podcast (or RFI's Journal en français facile, if I'm being a good student), and I'm in another world.

A few people tonight stopped to watch and to talk to me, and after a while I took my headphones out completely so that I could be social for french-learning purposes (invaluable: a small boy, with his father's encouragement, stopped to tell me qu'il était artiste aussi, and show me a drawing he had done at school earlier). But normally it's a time when I'm in my own world completely. With pen and paintbrush in hand again, I feel one step closer to normal here in Poitiers.


As a note, I am one of those hipster Instagram users, and that is where I post my ink & watercolor drawings. My username is holljmck; come visit!

30 August 2014

Transit; Finding Firm Ground; Fresh Fruit

Those first few days of scenery blurring by, new faces, new names, new bed. Trying to piece together a routine that involves sleep and some reasonable degree of food out of what you packed in your suitcase (hint: it's never enough, because clothes and computer won't help make dinner).

I spent two days wandering lost around the nearest supermarchet looking for food, and managed at least to get a few basics. But it wasn't till I found the fresh produce marchet in a cobbled downtown courtyard that I realized: after living for a year on the fresh delicious fruits and veggies of Santa Barbara's farmers markets, I've forgotten how to shop for food anywhere else.

The produce is cheap; certainly cheaper than Santa Barbara (though let's be honest, that's hardly a challenge). A few euros for a full bag of fresh fruit, bread, eggs, cheese. And the familiarity of it, the universality of stalls heaped high with produce, is intoxicatingly easy. I feel at home.

A handful of plums, a wedge of cheese, a still-warm baguette. Nothing else needed.

The program takes off without pause for breath; I arrived Thursday, and on Friday was sitting a French exam. I tested B1, which makes me a threshold independent user according the European Framework of Reference for Languages.

I have no doubt that this semester will see me challenge that. I'm excited. I can't stop thinking in the constant stream of (threshold independent) French that I need to have constantly in mind if I want to be able to react to sudden new situations. It accompanies me to bed at night, wakes me up in the morning - the conjugations, the silent plurals, the genders, the buzz of new vocabulary.

C'est très fatigant.

The dorm is comfortable. A tiny little room, as wide as I am tall and twice as long, complete with desk, bed, closet and a crazy spacepod bathroom-shower-sink that redefines 'space-efficient'. Across the lawn from my classes, and on top of two bus stops that go direct to the city center (straight to that Saturday market!), it is cozy and it is connected.

And it is home! For the next six months, that is - until the next adventure.

27 July 2014

The Grad School Plan. Or something to that effect.

In one month (!!!) I will step on a plane, order up a delicious-at-altitude tomato juice, and settle into about 3 feature-length films' worth of flight haze before re-emerging into the welcoming arms of the academic world.

That is to say: I am starting my Masters in Applied Ecology at the University of Poitiers, France, in one month. ONE. MONTH. And I will be focusing on river ecosystems; bio-indicators; and how to educate communities on monitoring the quality of their local water sources.

The program is through Erasmus Mundus, an EU-based collaboration between European universities that facilitates study between multiple campuses. I will be studying at the University of Poitiers for one semester, and at the University of Coimbra (Portugal) for three semesters more. That’s the current plan. But there’s a lot of mobility, and a lot of room for switching it up. So I might just end up on another of the affiliated campuses for some of that time, very possibly the Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany. WHO KNOWS.

One thing is for sure: a month in there will be spent at the University of Quito, Ecuador, with field time in the Galapagos. So, you know. There’s that.

This program brings with it the normal academic challenges of essay-writing and deadlines and presentations, but it also presents linguistic challenges, and cultural ones; and I am fully aware that I will be diving in at the deep end. But I feel like that is exactly what is important right now. Considering how wide-spread current environmental challenges are, we need to be able to think globally and act locally; and intercultural fluency will be key.

So, stay tuned. Science, procrastination, homework, adventures, bike rides, and international river ecology to follow.

25 July 2014

Indigenous communities world wide connecting through the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, and the conviction that through the collection of data, communities can assert their rights for clean and healthy rivers.

How to change the world, starting with water rights

Everyone has the right to an undamaged ecosystem…. right?

This, along with the trippy idea that everyone has the right to clean drinking water, is the driving tenet of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. The YRITWC, a collaboration between almost 70 indigenous groups along Canada and Alaska’s Yukon River, conducts what it calls “healing journeys” along the Yukon River every year. These journeys connect tribes along the river and give them a voice in the battle to keep the Yukon River’s water drinkable (or, in many cases, to restore it to drinkability), and as the canoes arrive at each new community they hand out water testing supplies. These supplies will be used to take samples of the river at each site over the course of the next year. This - quantitative data on the river’s health - is their weapon of choice.

The data that is coming out of the Yukon River due to these yearly healing journeys is of extraordinarily good quality, to the point that the YRITWC have been given charge of the USGS’s water quality testing program. And the data is invaluable: it is providing a scientific basis for fighting back against pollution along the Yukon. It is giving voice to indigenous communities. It is reminding them: they have the LEGAL RIGHT to be able to drink from the Yukon River. A simple, obvious right, but one which has been (and is being) compromised.

What is amazing about the YRITWC’s program is that indigenous leaders worldwide are looking at it, and deciding that it is about damn time for something like that to exist on their river, too. Tribal leaders in regions as far-flung as Siberia, Peru, and South Sudan have invited Yukon leaders to meet with them and facilitate the set-up of similar programs on their rivers.

This. Is. Amazing.

I bring up this beautiful program, and the widespread appeal of the environmental and political work it is doing, because this is the reason I am going to graduate school. We are living in a world of rapidly dwindling resources, rapidly increasing quantities of pollution and waste, and rapidly decreasing space in which to put all the crap we generate. Communities, especially those that are small and disconnected, are often at the mercy of large companies, governments, cities and other entities that are able to pollute with impunity; because small groups lack the voice to speak up. The YRITWC and other groups like it are giving them that voice, and a sense of empowerment to go with it.

And, on top of that - they are preserving some beautiful ecosystems. Kudos to great deeds.
Cool links on the YRITWC:
Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council website 
Larson, John. “Giving a Microphone to the World’s Most Remote People.” PBS. An awesome video about the work of YRITWC director Jon Waterhouse, who started the initial healing journeys. 
Rosenfeld, Rob and Jon Waterhouse. “The Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council.” Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 27-28, 2007. Presentation. A presentation by Jon Waterhouse and previous YRITWC director Rob Rosenfeld on some of their ongoing projects.

15 March 2014

The other side of the ridge

13 March 2014

"I put on a placid professional exterior, while inside I was a full martini glass placed on a rubber ball."
David Mclean, “The Answer to the Riddle Is Me” -  This American Life #399: Contents Unknown.
It’s spring now in Santa Barbara. If I’m honest, there’s no discernible difference in temperature or number of people in bikinis or the prevalence of blue cloudless skies (these seem to be the year-round norm here); but daylight savings just kicked in, the days have been getting rapidly lengthier, and I’m making plans for next year. This seems to be more the essence of spring than anything else, the nurturing of new ideas that suddenly seem to flower and bloom all on their own.

The plans involve A) grad school, and B) the whole wide world. In other words, I’m packing up my traveler’s bag again and getting back out there. And studying, to boot.

A number of things have happened in the last few months that have prompted this lust for change. The most catalyzing, and certainly the most difficult, was the end of the relationship that brought me here; it was scary, because I had never felt like Santa Barbara was “my” town, and it was sad, because of the emotional upheaval and the loss inherent in a break-up. But it was also liberating. People whom I had considered housemates and coworkers rallied to support me as friends, and I realized that in my 6 months here I have woven myself a beautiful network. There’s something raw and touching in the way that people open themselves up to reveal their own hurts and histories when they see that you are grieving; and as I went through (go through) my process of recovering, people told me stories of their own break-ups, their coping techniques, the ways that they came back to life after.

That’s the kind of open, honest rawness that I’ve found again and again as I travel; people seem to be willing to open up to that degree with either close friends or complete strangers. And it’s re-awakened with intensity my desire to get out there again, to travel and live abroad and meet the kind of people who are doing that exact same thing.

My plans are under lock and key till I’m sure about them. At the moment I’m talking with professors, pursuing funding, and writing up a research outline. A few key words to describe the upcoming adventure: hydro-ecology, trilingual homework assignments, Galapagos, bio-indicators, Erasmus.

Santa Barbara from Franceschi Park, sunset

12 March 2014

My workspace wall brightens my day. I am working on pursuing grad school funding today.

05 February 2014

La Jaula de Oro. Beautiful. Devastating. A brutally and unapologetically honest portrayal of the industry of predation built around disenfranchised immigrants heading north to the border. Watch it.

29 January 2014

Sunset through a cypress forest in Golden Gate Park.

28 January 2014

The de Young had a lot of very beautiful art; we spent a long time in the Oceanic, African and Americas sections, and were really blown away by some of the pieces. But for some reason this simple concrete room at the base of the tower observation deck, with its hanging wicker shapes, really struck a chord with me. It smells oddly like my memories of buildings at Caltech: musty, concrete, well-worn; and the flowing, rounded patterns in such a sparse room, casting doubles and triples of themselves across the bare walls… there’s something very moving here.

California Academy of Sciences, with a laudable tropical dome inside (including birds!?? Not even Biosphere II got away with that!), an aquarium section that gives the Monterey Bay Aquarium a run for its money, and skylights popping out through a grassy, self-sustaining roof.

Dig it.

26 January 2014

Some great outcropping on the California coastline. Check out the rounded-out channels cut into the surrounding muddy floodplain deposits - these indicate the migration of channels over time, which brought with them higher energy flows, and therefore larger grain size - i.e., the large, rounded cobbles that contrast with the fine low-energy floodplain deposits.


18 January 2014

I returned to my university town of St Andrews last week with the expectation that it would be some emotional pilgrimage to my past, but it was not. It felt, in the most marvelous way possible, mundane and ordinary and to be expected, and nothing more or less than that.

We left a pre-dawn Edinburgh early:

We took the Fife Coastal Route, which wends its way, after arcing over the Forth Road Bridge, through the lovely fishing villages & towns that pepper the Fife coastline. We learned lots of important things from one another on this car ride that I somehow failed to learn for the four years I lived in Fife. For instance, Burntisland is pronounced “burnt island” NOT “burntiss land” — aPPARently.

To start off our journey into the past, we stopped off in Elie to relive that field trip we had that one time, which was so windy we had to flatten ourselves into the hillside below the rookery and scoot down on our bums so that we wouldn’t get blown forcibly onto the slippery half-submerged outcrops we were meant to be mapping down below. All the while taking notes in our field notebooks which were protected in plastic bags because, oh yeah, it was bucketing horizontal sheets of rain.

This was a slightly nicer day:

(PS that’s the rookery on the far outcrop. So many memories.)

Onwards, through Pittenweem, Anstruther (known by locals as Ainster, and home to the oh-so-great Anstruther Fish Bar), a brief stop in Crail to visit the café and relive that time that Jo tried to pour out her tea into a flower bed, but it was so windy that all the tea just got whipped straight back over the rest of us…. but, the café being closed, we just wandered down to the pier and visited the local pottery, and briefly got lost in a caravan park.

So we powered through Kingsbarns (home to the Byre Theatre’s costume warehouse), and as we passed the Fairmont on the golfy Trump-bluffs before St Andrews, we spied the cathedral peaking through, and we were BACK.

This is West Sands, looking south toward St Andrews:

So many walks taken on this beach. So many days spent out enjoying a rare day of sun, procrastinating on exams, facing blustery cold to scuff through layers of sand and snow in winter, watching endless sunset/rises, doing furtive mid-winter nude dips intended to boost winter toughness but resulting only in pneumonia….


We strolled through town, down cobbled streets and around the cathedral to out along the pier (though my camera gave up the good fight by that point), stealthified our way into our old department building courtesy of a still-functioning keycard, paid desperate tribute to the Byre Theatre (RIP), long-term and much-beloved place of employment:

The day concluded with fish’n’chips from some new chippy that’s moved in at the end of Market Street since we graduated (pffft); we ate them in the quad, sitting on the cold stone pavement next to the pillars, reading entries from a post-card project commemorating St Andrews University’s 600th anniversary, which it celebrated last year (again, after we graduated: therefore irrelevant). And then we called it a day and said goodbye to St Andrews and piled into the car, and we left our university town behind again and drove back to Edinburgh. Here’s hoping we make it back in another two and a half years to think on post-uni life from a vantage point that is even older & wiser (hah!).