Exploring Your Own Backyard

(William Gurstelle is Boing Boing's current guest blogger. His new book Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously is on sale everywhere. Follow him on Twitter: @wmgurst)

In Stephen Talbott's interesting book, Devices of the Soul, he makes a case that there's too much technology in our lives. One observation in particular struck me: people spend less time observing and experiencing the natural world directly. So much is intermediated by other, electronic stuff. Says Talbott:

"The Net can only teach a boy about trees, but he won't understand them. The information from the net or a book is fragmented and decontextualized. It will never carry the same force as first hand experiences."
Yup, I agree. So, I decided to spend some time exploring my own back yard. Is there really anything new and exciting back there? You bet.

Recently I was given a new type of handheld digital and optical microscope. The new generation of digital microscopes are wonderful little devices for taking a very, very close look at stuff in the house and garden. I hooked it up to my netbook computer and ran around the neighborhood annoying ants and beetles.

I spent the whole afternoon looking at stuff and taking pictures. Skin cells, fabrics, seeds, and of course, bugs, were just part of the wild menagerie of things I examined. Corny, maybe, I found it way cool, and I'm no little kid.

While I was observing an ant from my garden, I noticed it seemed have an even smaller insect crawling over its thorax. So I zoomed in for a closer look. Yeow - I guess even ants have their problems!

I posted it to YouTube and then used YouTube's simple editing tools to add titles, highlights, and a soundtrack. The whole video probably took less than hour to record, edit, and post.

boing boing ant.jpg
Click here to see the movie I made of the ant, or watch it in the embedded viewer above.

I made the video using a Celestron 44306 Handheld Digital Microscope. Incredibly, the street price is under $100. Better than any toy, this new, cheap world of digital microscopy is an example of bridging Talbott's gap between the old and the new ways of observing the world .

I'm going out to my backyard and now and see what else is going on.


  1. I was lucky enough to grow up in Lincoln, MA which is about 70% conservation land. It was- and still is- hugely fun to go out into the woods and explore, and I appreciate this post as it’s reminding me that I need to go out and do that.

    There is, of course, a bit of irony in writing online about the wonders of non-digital life, ESPECIALLY when that online post involves sending the readers over to youtube, where they can spend even MORE time online…and then selling us on a DIGITAL product that will inevitably lead to more online time spent tracking the item down and buying it!

    I know the OP had his heart in the right place, of course, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful because I’m not. It’s just funny and more than a little ironic, that’s all.

  2. This past Sunday I spent a wonderful five hours in our beautiful little back yard admiring a rich diversity or flora and fauna that we have, much of which surrounds a little koi pond. Sadly, we don’t know what some of it is as it came with the house. Still, a beautiful view and a beautiful day to spend outside – playing with (old) technology. You see, I set up a battery operated low-power Morse code-only transceiver and worked a CW contest, contacting about a dozen US states and three European countries using only five watts of RF power output around 14 Mhz. Spectacular.

  3. I, too, appreciated the irony here of exploring the outdoors with a digital tool. But it’s awesome! I definitely need to spend more time in my yard. It seems more like an obligation than a resource some times.

  4. Cat and I spent Sunday on a ten-hour, 300 mile drive, all back hiways, to visit a high mountain, pine forest lake. Because that’s what we do.

    Oh, but that digital microscope! I have always been fascinated by the micro world. The other day I found a cockroach and a daddy long-legs, drown together in a bowl of water. I presume that in the melee of a life-and-death struggle, a line broke and hunter and hunted fell together to a watery death. Insect life is awesome / horrific.

  5. Own backyard? How about own two neighboring two cities where one mayor wants the other’s stuff, like say student brain power to run the city systems for _no_ money? I mean, why not? There’s just a 50-foot bridge over a river separating the two. Jeez, if we’ve can get one potential student to advise us for free, then why can’t we get more? What about the ants? And if the ants have any other enemies, like maybe other citizens find them valuable too, ((with me?)) we can all get together and just take them. Fun, eh? Scary picture. Forget about it if you don’t care.

  6. “There is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about with ‘scopes. Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

  7. things our digital world can do to enhance experiences like this:
    * identify the species of insects you are showing in the video (http://www.entomology.cornell.edu/CUIC/)
    * gps could be used to log the location you encountered the specimens
    * a series of this gps data (hopefully contributed by many people) can be used to map the habitat of the species
    * as a people we gain a better understanding of the world we live in and the life we share it with
    * over time we can observe shifts in habitat which could indicate impact from adjustable factors

    digital and physical life should not be mutually exclusive. what was once merely curiosity can very easily become an important contribution to field science though our digital tools.

  8. Just a note — if you (and your kids) want to play around with a cheaper alternative, there’s “Jakk’s Bionic Eye” — a similar scope that plugs into your TV. It only does NTSC (via RCA cables — no USB), but it’s cheaper. Amazon lists for $40, but a friend found 2 at the salvation army for $5/ea. And I agree — it’s definitely fun

  9. I’m curious about the scope. When you link it to your computer does the memory card show up as a mass storage device or is there some more complicated mechanism to retrieve the images?

  10. It’s somewhat depressing to me that this discussion would be misframed as “net vs. nature,” or some such.

    You can spend all of your time online surfing porn. You can spend all of your time in your back yard staring at clouds. Neither one is particularly helpful to you.

    The question of net or nature is irrelevant, if you have curiosity and a systematic approach to investigation and learning.

  11. “So nat’ralists observe, a flea
    Hath smaller fleas that on him prey,
    And these have smaller fleas that bite ’em,
    And so proceed ad infinitum.”
    -Jonathan Swift

  12. am i the only one who finds it ironic that Talbot discusses too much technology and then WMGURST runs out there with a microscope and laptop? tho’, much better than staring at the internet indoors, i don’t think you quite got the gist of what Talbot was saying, lol.

    i also don’t think BSHOCK gets it either if he is seriously comparing watching ‘net porn and watching clouds outdoors as being equal in worthwhile activities…

  13. Thanks for putting all this on the internet, it’s cold and I don’t want to go outside

  14. the two biggest pieces of technology that intermediate our children’s interactions with the natural world are CARS and TELEVISION.

    all those other newfangled gadgets are problematic maybe, but start with the basics. drive less, bicycle more. turn off the tv. go outside.

  15. I gave my nephew one of these. He is 12, and it is his prized possession, and the only “toy” he always puts away in the box.

  16. How excellent is that, MDH! I’ve bought $50, $60 games that the boys drop on the floor, cover with laundry, and walk on. It sounds like you knocked that one out of the park, M. Can I be your nephew too?

  17. If I had aptitude, equipment, or the necessary patience, I’d make a movie showing the metamorphosis of jade green chrysalis etched in gold, slowly stained glass wings appearing through a thinning shell, shaking off the transparent cocoon skin, monarch wings like flags hung out to dry, curling tongue unfurling toward its first sip of nectar….

    Thank god for the nature documentarians of the world! It takes the pressure off knowing someone has already captured these moments on film and I can just sit back and take it in as it happens…

  18. I don’t see the irony in using a digital tool here. This isn’t about what we use to experience reality, it’s about whether we look at it first- or second-hand.

  19. I did a photography exercise once for a month that was about exploring your back yard. I had read once that a great way to improve your eye as a photographer is to go out into your backyard every single day for a month and take at least one photo. This forces you to look for new things, look for new angles, and find new ways to photograph the same old things. I found all kinda of neat things living in the ground, as well as many other things; bugs, shells, etc.. I posted all my project photos to a project photoblog. (the blog was/is http://backyardblog.blogspot.com/) I enjoyed it. We’ll be moving again and when I get a new backyard I may do the project again.

  20. Is anyone else imagining Solenski, in ‘Honey I Shrunk The Kids’, in a harness hanging from the rotating laundry hanger with a magnifier, so he wouldn’t step on his kids? That’s me tomorrow.

  21. That’s really neat Flickrpug! I enjoyed looking at your photos. It helps to keep things interesting when you have alligators in your back yard. :)

  22. I love this – I’ve been growing plenty of things this year, spending more time in the gardenm and the creatures I’ve seen!

    Yesterday evening – in a London backyard – I caught (in a beer trap) a slug that elongated itself to a scary 14 cm! It nearly had me arm off!

    6 types of bee, 4 types of wasp / hornet etc … it’s amazing out there

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