Thursday, October 8, 2009

Change is good

Once upon a time, this blog location was the collective effort of the Natural History Network, a loose coalition of scientists, educators, and writers in the U.S. who are trying to revitalize the practice of natural history. After a time, however, it was clear that the "collective effort" was not consistent enough to make this a resource of which the Network could be proud. The intention was good; we wanted to promote open conversation about "all things natural history," not just among official members (whatever that might mean) of the Network but among anyone in cyberspace who happened to come across a posting of interest to them.

And that intention remains noble. It's just that we could never really develop the collective momentum to make the blog resemble a true collective effort. Postings became less frequent, dust began to accumulate, the hinges got a little rusty ... You get the picture.

So we decided to terminate the blog.

But I just can't let it go. Seriously, I love this blog. I love the opportunity it provides to wax philosophical about birds, students, rivers, sunsets, seasons, history, conservation, and all the things I just don't yet understand. I just didn't love the idea of pretending it was an organizational effort if, in fact, it wasn't. So the blog "Natural History Network" is now no more. The Network still exists, and it is trying mightily to achieve its mission and grow beyond its original incarnation as a "loose coalition" into a cohesive voice with targeted initiatives and goals. But its blog is no more. What it has evolved into is my blog, "This View of Nature." Same purpose, same format, same everything, except that, for better or worse, the narrative here is only mine.

Rock on.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Carolina parakeet, RIP

On this day in 1918, the last Carolina parakeet died in the Cincinatti Zoo. Gone. Extinct. Not just extirpated, but obliterated. Once numerous throughout the eastern half of the U.S., they steadily declined throughout the 19th century due to overhunting and land clearing. Essentially, the narrative of the last days of the Carolina parakeet is the same as that for the more widely known passenger pigeon. And our collective shame at causing it should be just as great.

Image from Wikipedia

How many more species will go extinct, recorded or not, before we make a better peace with the rest of life on Earth?

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Happy Birthday, Wallace Stegner

Today is the birthday of one of my favorite authors, Wallace Stegner. Born in 1909, Stegner helped create a genre of literary fiction that, while not strictly grounded in natural history, placed its characters in real landscapes that became important parts of the story. From the West (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) to the East (Crossing to Safety), Stegner used landscapes from his own life's experience almost as additional characters in his stories. In a very real sense, he was a true practitioner of natural history through is detailed practice of observation.

Wallace Stegner passed away in 1993. His absence is still felt today.

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Engaging fully with where you live

As usual, I am behind on my reading, so it was just this past week that I cracked open the Autumn (2008) issue of Living Bird, the truly excellent magazine produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Two articles leaped out at me from the issue, in part because they both relate to topics I care deeply about, and in part because I think they intersect with each other in a way that perhaps neither author fully appreciated.

First, in "Straight--No Chaser," Mel White brilliantly advanced the argument that if birders still feel that it is affordable to travel to distant locations simply in search of a rare sighting, then gasoline doesn't cost nearly enough. As he says in the tagline to the article's title, "It's time to reconsider traveling just to add a checkmark to a list."

"I remember one January when a Fork-tailed Flycatcher appeared in central Arkansas, attracting a mini-convention of birders the next morning (I was in attendance) hoping to see this stray from the tropics. Lots of $1.19 gasoline got burned that day, nearly everybody saw the bird--and it meant nothing, except that everyone's state and United States lists (and many world lists) advanced a notch. It wasn't a precursor to range expansion, it wasn't an endangered species, it wasn't part of a significant migration trend. It was just a mentally or physiologically defective individual that flew a long way in the wrong direction. When a severe cold front passed through a couple of days later, it no doubt met its Darwinian fate and became, as somebody said, 'possum food.'"

Amen to that. When the world is confronted with the kind of climate crisis we now face, and when the vast majority of the people in the world are confronting daily challenges in meeting their most basic needs, chasing birds simply for the purpose of expanding one's list at the expense of environmental protection is the height of self-centered arrogance.

I wrote about this briefly in a post last November, when I acknowledged that I no longer maintain lists for birds outside of my county. Think globally, but bird locally. It's the grown-up thing to do, people.

Of course, I leave myself open to the criticism that by even listing in my county I am pumping CO2 needlessly into the atmosphere, to which I can only say mea culpa. But nothing is simply "good" or "bad." I'm willing to compare my county-only carbon footprint to anyone else's state- or nation-wide footprint any day. A time may come when none of us will go anywhere for any reason unless it's under our own power, at which point I will change my goal to a list of birds seen anywhere I can ride my bike to. But we all have to start somewhere, or at least we all SHOULD start somewhere. Leaving behind the selfishness of natural history jet-setting for no good reason is a good place to start.

White's piece was followed by Jack Conner's In the Field column, called "The Accidental Phenologists," in which he counselled natural historians to pay attention to the actual timing of events, and hence seasons, where we live. We might come to notice that we don't experience the four traditional seasons but rather something more like two ... or twelve ... or fifty-two. For years now I have berated my students for not paying closer attention to the actual rhythms of the natural world, rhythms that change tempo and melody through the year and can only be discerned through careful, purposeful attention to what is real (a close approximation of how Tom Fleischner encourages us to view the practice of natural history).

Several years ago, I began experimenting with different ways of subdividing the year based on my field observations. To be honest, I've yet to come up with a single scheme that I think is clearly superior to all the others. Some of my schemes focus on what the birds are doing (e.g., The Week the Phoebe's start singing), some on the trees (e.g., Leaf Out), some on the weather (e.g., When the Ice Breaks), and some on ad hoc combinations of all three. But for me, finding the superior scheme has not been the point. My goal has been to focus on nature's patterns; paying attention to what is going on where I live ... even down to the most minute details that wouldn't merit notice in a field journal under most circumstances ... is its own reward.

And here's where the two articles intersect. Think globally, but bird (or whatever) locally. It is only by foregoing the chase for the rarities and oddities that you can truly get to know a place. Intimacy can only come from familiarity, which can only come from attention to detail and full engagement with where you live. If you can't even describe the TRUE nature of the seasons where you live, then it's time to scale back your territory and open your eyes.

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place

Fred Taylor and John Tallmadge have a new article in the Journal of Natural History Education on Teaching Natural History and the Spirit of Place. Using the field-based graduate seminar they teach as a case study, they explore the opportunities and rewards of teaching course to non-specialists that combines a literary and scientific perspective on what it means to understand and inhabit a place.

From their abstract ...

This paper describes the design and conduct of an interdisciplinary doctoral seminar on the spirit of place offered in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota to adult learners of the Union Institute Graduate School. Natural and human history were addressed through readings and class discussions combined with observations and excursions by canoe, simulating the experiences of early explorer-naturalists. Exercises in narrative and descriptive writing as well as reading the landscape and splitting the spruce roots used for bark canoe repair provided visceral appreciation of the unseen dimensions of the ecosystem and the literary achievements of the poets and writers discussed. This type of course can be easily tailored to fit different venues or clientele. Such approaches are timely as we intensify the search for a sustainable world.

Check it out.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

You are here

The Global Environmental Monitoring unit of the European Commission has hust published a nifty, if somewhat despressing, map of the travel time to major cities, which they use as a surrogate measure of "accessibility." Even without seeing the map you can probably guess what the U.S. looks like: mostly bright yellow, which symbolizes travel times of one hour or less.

While accessibility itself is not necessarily a problem, the ways in which we achieve accessibility in this current era are. Road networks, in particular, are a disaster for the natural world, causing problems for wild nature in ways ranging from chemical contamination, spread of exotic species, habitat fragmentation, habitat loss, and outright mortality from contruction and roadkill.

Hopefully, the future will bring modes of transportation that don't jeopardize the natural world or destroy the presence of wild nature. Hey, it's a new political era in the U.S.; I can dream, can't I?

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Myth 4: My story is only worth telling if I describe everything I do in my entire class.

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Wrong. The more you try to describe with your story, the more complex it becomes and the harder it is for someone to learn from it. I realize that effective teachers usually plan classes as complete and distinct constructions, where exercises and field trips connect logically one to the other to support overarching themes and standards. Yet this does not mean that the component parts of the class are not useful or important on their own. Other teachers could easily incorporate a single new exercise into their own class construction to support their own educational goals.

I experience this regularly in my own school. I am blessed with colleagues who teach classes on other taxa and with other conceptual emphases than I do, yet who share my interest in natural history. We commonly talk with each other about what we do with the students in lecture, field, and lab, and more often than not, we each find aspects of what the others do that we want to incorporate into our own class. This does not change the taxa we focus on or the concepts we emphasize, but it provides for steady improvement in the quality and effectiveness of our instruction, whether it is something as simple as how to keep a field notebook or as complex as how to introduce students to a statistical technique for interpreting behavioral observations in the field.

The truth is that you make more of a contribution, not less, if you focus your story on one simple thing: an exercise, an activity, a discussion, a technique, a field trip. Here the dictum “Minor est magis” (Less is more) is relevant: tell a detailed story about one thing. The fact that you have many such stories to tell simply means that you can write several different articles; it does not mean that you need to find a way to compress all your stories into one.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Myth 3: I should only write my story if I am sure that what I do is unique and significant

[This post is the continuation of a thread begun on 12/15]

Myth 3: I should only write my story if I am sure that what I do is unique and significant.

Wrong. I suspect this myth is ingrained in us from the body of publications that we are used to reading in the course of our research on new findings in education and natural history. Although we may accept that a core principle of the scientific method is that results must be repeatable – and hence saying something that has already been said is a key part of science – we typically do not see publication of such results. This has unfortunately led us to believe the same is true of for all publications, or even that it is desirable for all publications.

But this is not the case. For a renaissance in natural history to occur, we need to foster an explosion in the prevalence of natural history education in classrooms and community nature centers everywhere. Publications in this journal are not simply about novel ideas. They are about your practices: what did you try, what worked, what failed, what would you do differently? And there is value to reporting on activities that others have reported on … or even reporting on activities about which you have no idea whether or not they are novel. If someone reads about your practices and says, “Well, will you look at that. That’s the same exercise I heard about elsewhere,” then they are more likely to remember it and be empowered to try it. The truth is that your story is worth telling simply because it is your story, regardless of how unique it is.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Goals for the year

One of the things I've learned about myself over the long years is that I have to have goals. The vague notion, which I develop around this time every year, that I need to do "more" of something or get "better" at something never quite seems to transform into real action. To get from notion to reality I need to set real targets for myself.

I was finally able to articulate this after talking with my partner the other day during our numerous trips up a mountain in a ski lift. "We should ski more this winter," she says. "I agree," I reply. "Let's ski more."

Yeah, ok. Let's ski more, bird more, climb more mountains, finally learn those wetland trees, and look for beetles in some different places. (Not to mention lose a few pounds and knock some time off my 5K.)

But, as I said, I need goals if it's really going to happen. Maybe that's a manifestation of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. But whatever it is, I realize now that I need to set specific targets if I'm really going to take it seriously. So I spent the rest of yesterday thinking about my goals for the year.

See 160 species of birds in my county. Check.
Climb 10 summits in the Green Mountains that I haven't climbed before. Check.
Read 5 natural history accounts that I haven't read before. Check.

And finally, complete my book on ecoregional-scale conservation planning. Double check.

I'll let you know how it goes.

So ... what about you? Got goals?

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Quote of the day

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.

Isaac Asimov

Well said, Isaac. This is equally true if you substitute the word "nature" for "society." Not all change is good, mind you, but our relationship with nature went seriously off the rails once humanity got it into its head that we could prevent change and enforce a kind of ecological stablity.

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