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.


David Lukas said...

Very nice piece Steve, and timely. There is definitely a paradigm shift in the birding community along these lines because I've noticed that bird conferences now have talks about birding locally. I also like the idea about studying local phenology. I wonder if there's a way to help people start thinking along these lines?


Tom Fleischner said...

Steve, Great, provocative piece. Balancing the local and the exotic, the near and the distant, has always been an interesting challenge. I've tended to be an advocate for the more local, yet this year I'm traveling more widely than ever before (two trips to Alaska, two trips to the Pacific Northwest, trips to South America and Antarctica), so I'm currently very guilty of carbonic sins. Yet, there's obviously value in exploring the world--just as travel and interaction with other cultures opens our eyes, helping us see our own culture in a new light, so can exploration of foreign species and communities help us see our backyard in new ways. So much depends on what we do with the exotic experience. If it is truly just an acquisitive jaunt--a new check on a list--then I see little to commend it. But if we take the experience, reflect on it deeply, and see our own home in new ways, then it's really worthwhile.
Your comments on paying attention to local phenology couldn't be truer. It might be fun to have classes, Audubon societies, etc. play with different schemes of naming the local seasons, as a way of communicating some of the nuance in local landscapes.

Steve Trombulak said...

David: Thanks. That's a good idea. Any thoughts on what this might look like? I could see posting a list on the web site called something like "Ten Things You Can Do to Promote Natural History in the Age of Global Warming" or something like that, but how can we help promote this further. Perhaps I should write to Mel White and see if he has thoughts about it that NHN could help sponsor.

Steve Trombulak said...

Tom: I agree. And White agrees as well. As you, he notes the need to consider WHY the travel is occurring and what the overall benefit is to the person.

I like the idea of trying to actively promote the whole "local phenology" scheme. I wonder if NHN should sponsor a "contest" of some kind to get people to submit their phenologies. We could post them on our web site, and highlight the "calendar of the month."

David Lukas said...

Steve, one problem is that Eric Utne already put a lot of energy into building a network of phenology enthusiasts starting with his marvelous Cosmic DoGood's Urban Almanacs. It was a lovely effort but I don't think he found a receptive "national" audience. This is such a local enterprise that it's hard to nationalize it in any way. It can only succeed when a community has within itself a critical mass of folks who notice, and care, about the passages of the natural world. To this end, I think one notable idea might be to showcase remarkable local efforts. In other words, to pull together a portfolio of models of beautifully rendered almanac calendars done by local artists, or of obscure pieces sent to local newsletters, etc. Over the years I've seen some marvelous handcrafted displays of phenological attentiveness, though they are always very small in scope and meant only for a few friends and neighbors. Onward!