In the ancient world, augury described the act of discerning the future from the behavior of birds: their feathers, their entrails, their patterns of flight. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder devotes an entire chapter to the biology of birds, providing a detailed description of each kind—size, wingspan, habits of predation—and, when applicable, its divinatory import. Roosters, for instance, “have a knowledge of the stars” and “give or withhold the most favorable omens.” As if their celestial prowess were not impressive enough, Pliny attests to their political might: “Cocks hold very great power over the government of the world,” he notes, on account of “their entrails and innards, as acceptable to the gods as the most costly victims.”But the practice of augury went beyond the merely aviary. Pliny notes the divinatory import of bees, beasts, lightning, and teeth; more broadly still, the skill of augury required one to read omens from all sorts of natural signs: water, weather, flora, fauna, fire, smoke, vapor, and stone. A priest skilled in augury could determine whether such signs were propitious or inauspicious, portentous or banal. Depending on his assessment, wars were waged, lives sacrificed or spared, fortunes lost or gained.
In my own work as a scholar of literary and natural history, I have begun to think seriously about augury. In our current age of environmental fragility, augury has the potential to help us reframe conversations about imperiled ecologies. If we can think of the term more generally, it can serve as a useful heuristic. Augury in this more expansive sense becomes less a practice of prediction than a method of deriving meaning from natural signs—a way to access nonhuman modes of autopoetic expression, communication, and agency. Looking at the flight patterns of birds in a contemporary context, for example, might not tell us how the future will unfold, but it will provide a wealth of information about the weather, the wind, the birds, and what it means for such beings to traverse the earth and sky of our shared habitat.
I have been writing about augury as an artistic strategy or a historic curiosity for many years. As a participant in the Finnish Bioart Society’s Field_Notes Laboratory, however, I was privileged to have the time to engage with augury as a daily practice.
In Kilpisjärvi, a biological research station in northern Finland, I was a part of a research focus group called “Augury: Machines which look at birds,” hosted by Martin Howse. Before we met in Finland, Martin sent us a reader of several hundred pages, a collection of writing and art and scientific practice related to divination, broadly conceived. As with all the groups that made up Field_Notes, once we arrived in Kilpisjärvi we spent most of our time outdoors, conducting aesthetic experiments. While our colleagues in the “Surfing the Semiosphere” group studied the patterns and actions of lichen, rocks, and plant life, and while those in the “Humus.sapiens” group collected and considered the texture and function of soil, and while the “Reciprocal Sensing” group explored and expanded the limits of human sensation, and while the “Second Order” group studied us all as we went about our tasks, we in the “Augury” group practiced divination.
Our first experiment occurred on our first day together and involved geomancy, in which we counted items of significance in the meadows of Saana. These included berries (4), reindeer droppings (30), mountain peaks (7), and spots of lichen (235). We were delighted to learn, after consulting our reader, that these were propitious signs. The next day, we hiked through Malla, a strictly enforced nature reserve. It is an arctic forest filled with lakes, fells, and rough, rocky peaks. Moss and lichen carpet the stones; pools of water collect with almost symmetric precision. Reindeer roam freely. In Malla we attempted hydromancy (divination through water) as a part of our fifteen-kilometer hike through the fells. The third day we experimented with a variety of other techniques: attending to the presence of flora, fauna, weather, clouds, sound, soil, scent, light, shadows, dreams, and the electromagnetic emanations of the aurora borealis.
By the third day, I was wholly overwhelmed. The other members in my group were skilled artists. They were comfortable sampling sounds from rivers, rocks, and plants. They were adept at coaxing natural elements into artistic compositions. In their hands, pinecones, leaves, mushrooms and deer-fleece transformed into stunning photographic portraits of the landscape. Melted wax transformed into astonishing, pearlescent sculptures when cast into icy lake water. The slow flow of the northern lights refracted into pink nebula, captured by a camera lens the size of a matchbox.
I like to think of myself as an ecologically minded person attuned to her surroundings. Yet the torrent of natural signs that flooded through me in Kilpisjärvi threatened to destroy this self-perception. I am used to analyzing representations of things that have already been shaped, molded, edited, or curated—words, images, colors, and sound. I learned in Finland that I am far less adept at confronting raw material. The natural world offers a such a diversity of information that it often exceeds the ability of the human mind to comprehend it. There is a broad spectrum of nonhuman signaling that our senses are too limited to capture. Natural data, in other words, is overwhelming in its abundance, and it can be difficult to attend to its specificity because of this.
“divination.py” addresses this problem. A computer script composed in a lyric mode, written in the Python programming language, “divination.py” functions to help narrow one’s focus and attune one’s self to the surrounding ecosystem. It is a playful attempt to repurpose augury for the Age of Information. By inviting the supplicant to participate, it acts at once as hex and haruspex, i.e., as spell and spell-caster. It directs the supplicant and channels her focus according to floral, faunal, mineral registries. At the end of each session, it produces a succinct set of instructions that varies for each user.
Inspired by my participation in Field_Notes, “divination.py” is regionally specific, although I am exploring the possibility of expanding the program so that it is attuned to the geocoordinates of each user. Feel free to tinker with the code, which is housed on the accompanying website (divination-dot-py.org), along with a set of instructions for running it from the command line. Feedback and comments are warmly welcome.
Lisa Swanstrom is the author of Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2016), and an Associate Professor of English at the University of Utah. Her research and teaching interests include science fiction, natural history, media theory, and the digital humanities.