The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 11
16 September 2010

emmons adirondacks
Illustration from an 1842 New York State publication on the geology of the Adirondacks. The geological expedition took along artists and this engraving, entitled in part "the structure and appearance of the Lorain shales", shows that more was afoot than just the description of geology. This volume, which combined science and art, was one of the opening Adirondack travelogues and helped lead to the eventual founding of the Adirondack Park. This is not quite 'Hudson River School', but it's getting there.

KYPP Nugget: Thoughts on Science and Art

This week in the Columbia Paper: "Milling It Local"
Anna reflects on micro-milling of grain, past, present and future in FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper, October 21st, 2010.

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.

The 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.
Ecology – 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 propriety.

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 or fashion.

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.

Finally, 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.