This week in the Columbia Paper: "Milling It Local"
reflects on micro-milling of grain, past, present and future in FEP's
next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper, October 21st,
Lab Coat and Artist's Smock: Background & Exploration
Most of this column is more conceptual (or should I say 'wishy-washy'?) than factual. Yet it alludes to some 'on-the-ground' observations that are worth referencing.
There are very few references to the effects of 'parkification' under
that name. It is, ecologically speaking, the process of taking a forest
half the way (or three quarters of the way) to a lawn. There is
substantially more information on lawns. Many lawns tend to be composed
of near monocultures of non-native plants, an ecological issue that
Claudia explored in her essay on native plant gardening.
Other ecologists and sociologists have delved into the history and
meaning of lawns, a few on-line sources that discuss some of this
include "Where the Lawn Mower Stops" and a blog posting from the nearyby TeaTown Reserve.
Our work and that of others suggests that the heavily manicured ponds
that are a common component in much landscaping in our area may be
relatively impoverished ecologically: the trimmed and cleared
shorelines provide little chance for wetland plants and animals to
prosper, while the common stocking with both weed-eating and predatory
fish (e.g., grass carp and largemouth bass) makes the pond itself poor
habitat for many native aquatic organisms.
images above are two posters that we put together to emphasize the
ecological differences between "well" manicured ponds and more natural
ponds. Click on the image to view larger version.
More about our work on ponds, including a copy of our report which references the work of others, can be found on our ponds web page.
Biodiversity valuation (that is, the attachment of monetary value to
biodiversity) can get rather elaborate as indicated by this 153-page manual, but perhaps more clearly explained in this Power Point slideshow
assembled by the American Museum of Natural History. I certainly don't
mean to imply that biodiversity is without monetary value, nor that
such valuation might not sometimes be useful. (For example, we are
currently trying to study the agricultural production value of wild
insects around local farms.) I do question whether it should be the
ultimate criterion for judging biodiversity's value.
Finally, the value of direct nature experience in building a personal
interest in the fate of the natural world (not to mention a healthier
psyche) is a topic of growing study. Most work has focussed on why
children need nature and less on why nature needs children, so to
speak. A summary of current research and news related to this theme is
available on the Children and Nature Network.
9/16 column: "Lab Coat and Artist's Smock"
by Conrad Vispo.
– she’s a nimble word, a word of various personas: the stuff of
political demonstrations and studious observations; the companion of
politicians, naturalists, poets and hermits; sometimes science,
sometimes art. The other ‘-ologies’ lack her nuance – odontology,
geology, ethnology, for example. These are words that rarely appear on
placards, in position statements, or accompanied by exclamation marks.
Ecology’s varying allegiances are both her weakness and her charm.
Ecology and aesthetics, for instance, occasionally hold hands in public
- a mutually supportive friendship, and yet one that leads some to
mistake aesthetics for ecology. As we reshape the land, part of what
guides us are our concepts of beauty. Sometimes those concepts embrace
nature’s health as part of their definition; sometimes, intentionally
or not, they don’t. We are not always aware of the distinction. We
might create ‘green space’ around our house not realizing what life our
short-cut lawn is excluding; we might cut away the forest understory to
create a parkland, not realizing that such open woods are strange and
hence uninviting habitat for most native plants and animals; we might
dig up a ‘mud hole’ and create a clear, firm-banked pond, not realizing
that many organisms were at home in the wetland that we replaced but
not in the newcomer. Nature doesn’t keep a tidy home. The fact that one
may react to that statement as a criticism of nature illustrates the
point: we often try to make the landscape fit our preconceptions of
Science (or what might be described as deriving probable patterns from
sharable observations) can help us realize our assumptions and
preconceptions. It can help us clarify the ecological costs of our
actions. For example, by looking at some 90 ponds around our County, we
found that the ponds with scruffier, damper margins, without fish, and
with some aquatic vegetation tended to be home to more native
creatures. If the goal of your pond was to have a place to fish or
perhaps swim, then maybe you didn’t really expect to be benefitting
nature; but if you thought you might be enriching the natural landscape
through constructing your pond, then you should be keenly aware that if
a pond replaces a natural wetland, then it might well impoverish the
landscape rather than diversify it. Science can help us understand the
ecological price that sometimes accompanies allegiance to beauty, art
But there are things that science cannot do and that are only within
art’s power. (For our purposes, we’ll define art as communication or,
at least, reflection through the touchstone of shared moralities or
aesthetics.) Science, per se,
does not have morals. That lack of morals is not a weakness, it’s a
fact of life: our morals don’t come from our eyes, they come from
someplace else. And yet, we sometimes try to use science (including the
science of economics) to prove certain moral conclusions. Take the
value of ecological health and nature conservation. Conservation of
biodiversity is sometimes touted as being important because of
undiscovered medicines that may lurk in the biochemistry of some wild
organism or because of the services that nature may provide to humans
(for example, pollination or oxygen production). These benefits are
then often converted to cash values meant to justify conservation.
These calculations can be useful within limited, practical contexts.
However, conservation’s benefits should not be confused with its raison d’ętre.
Perhaps the ultimate reason that conservation is important is because
non-human organisms have an inherent moral right to exist simply
because they do exist. Or, in aesthetic terms, their very existence is
their supreme justifying beauty. Long-term conservation will happen
when we decide as a society, as a moral collective, that it is right.
Science can help us understand the need for or consequences of that
decision, but it can’t make it for us.
formal Science – as an amassed body of descriptions that serve to
explain our world – rarely inspires us. A six year old is not entranced
by a caterpillar because somebody has explained to him or her the
working of the spiracles and neural ganglia or because somebody pointed
how rare that caterpillar was. Nope. The child just liked it, saw a
beauty in it, ‘got’ its art. Read the biographies of leading biologists
and conservationists, and they don’t speak of first falling in love
with electronphotomicrographs of ants or biochemical formulae or
population tables. They fell in love with the art of life, science then
became a way of knowing that art more deeply.
In living with our landscape, within the bounds of its ecology, we need
both the science and the art. We need to wear both lab coat and
artist’s smock. This can be uncomfortable, but we ourselves are an
ecology, an amalgam of interacting livelihoods; we are politicians,
naturalists, poets and hermits. A human and humane outlook on the land
thus encompasses not only a reasoned understanding of ecology’s
patterns and processes so that we can cohabitate with her but also a
heart-felt naiveté that is open for her often subtle but inviting wink.