So much life. So small a space.

One cubic foot is a feature in the National Geographic Magazine. David Liittschwager’s pictures capture all the creatures, big and small, that walked, crawled, squirmed, leaped, hopped, ran, burrowed, or flew into plots of space exactly one cubic foot (roughly .3 cubic meter) in size.

Liitschwager: One cubic foot
David Liitschwager, National Geographic Magazine

The pictures are composites of photos taken of each creature. They’re at once beautiful, intriguing, and if you’re willing, worth in-depth studying. Hopefully school children around the world will be introduced to these pictures and perhaps the technique behind them.

Liittschwager used a metal frame to select the patch of ground or space. He set it in six different locales: Central Park (New York, USA), Moorea (French Polynesia), Table Mountain (South Africa), Monteverde (Costa Rica), Duck River (Tennessee, USA). Then he photographed and identified any living thing that was in or entered the space. He had help: an assistant to take shifts watching the space, and a team of biologists to identify the species.

I remember what it was like to do something like this without experts around. It was in Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming, USA), and a great teacher sent the students of our field trip, myself included, out to the flats of the Lamar Valley (sometimes called America’s Serengeti because of the great herds of bison and elk that winter there). We were armed with a backpack of field-guides, a length of rope long enough to mark out a square one meter on a side, and some kids had a camera. We chose our plots carefully (there was a lot of animal dung around) and tried to get as interesting a mix of plants in the space as possible. From the tactical point of view, that might have been a mistake. The more plants (and creatures), the more we had to identify. None of us were trained biologists, of course. In fact, we were just eleven-year old kids, thumbing through pages and pages of guide books for flowers, grasses, mushrooms, insects…on a hot summer’s day. We soon got to comparing notebooks, as a shortcut (to false identities, as it sometimes turned out). It was frustrating. There were so many living things, most of which we had never seen (but probably stepped on a hundred times). Two hours later, the teacher called us in. We picked up our gear, and headed for lunch; lunchmeat sandwiches and lemonade wolfed down on top of a windswept hill. The teacher looked over our notes, and mostly smiled. He wasn’t a biologist either, but he knew Yellowstone well. Many of us wished we did too, and never forgot how much life could be found in so little space.

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