Thursday, August 23, 2007

And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost

There was a time when parents, aunts, grandfathers, and the occasional sage taught the little ones the names, habits, uses, and character of every discernable living thing. We learned with wide eyes that coyote is unpredictable, a trickster; that the river horse will kill without hesitation when defending her calf; and how much hemlock can safely be given as a sedative. Then, we turned around and handed this knowledge with personal amendment to the next generation. We were nodes in a massively parallel, massively redundant living database.
After a few generations of moving into towns and cities, and a couple of generations of just being too busy, we’ve fractured the system. We no longer recognize that it is a bad sign that Flavoparmelia caperata no longer paints many trees. We are blind to the fact that the Bay once ran clear, because of all of its oysters, and because of stands of chestnuts a hundred miles away. We have done no wrong but have simply lost this understanding.
We have become so ignorant of these things, that we often dismiss them as primitive, trivial, useless. But this intimate knowledge of living things and natural systems is valuable. Many species can serve as the proverbial canary in the coalmine, their ill-health alerting us to potentially serious problems. Others can offer insight into how people live and work. What COO wouldn’t want her company to reuse waste products as effectively as a healthy desert ecosystem? Japanese companies have used process analogies, including natural analogies, to improve manufacturing and R&D efforts for years.
While there’s no substitute for experiencing wildlife firsthand, whether that’s living out of a pack for a few days in a national park, or exploring one’s own neighborhood, there are other ways to start relearning this old knowledge. Field guides* offer answers to the basic “What is that called?” and “How does it live?” questions. Check one out from your local library. The National Museum of Natural History also offers a great website (including a very hip GIS-based tool) that covers many of these questions for North American mammals.
This is the world we live in. Learn it.

*E.R. Dunhill is partial to Peterson’s field guides for biological groupings (Fishes, Mammals, &c.) and Audubon’s field guides for geographical groupings (Field Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States, &c.)


Pat Jenkins said...

i now know what the discussions around the dinner table at the dunhill house were, the river horse. boring!! i am kidding. you make a good point, but i don't know if knowledge of our circumstances or whom we share the planet with will cause others to somehow gain a concious.

Sue said...

ERD, thoughtful as always. It is hard, when one lives amidst asphalt and transplanted species of suburbia (as I did as a child) to develop the connection with the natural world. Even when one lives in a rural area such as I do now, if one spends all one's summer barricaded in air conditioned homes and cars, the connection also grows dim.

I agree with you on the Peterson's and the Audobon guides -- does Peterson's do one on insects (especially spiders)? I've never seen one. I've got reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals (as well as flowers and trees) pretty well covered, but would love to know more about bugs (even if they do repulse me a bit).

E. R. Dunhill said...

I do prattle. As it happens, growing up, the dinner table conversations tended to be quite a lot on ethical behavior (from mom), and bioinformatics (from dad). Somehow, thankfully, I managed to dodge the bullet on the latter.
I’m not sure that I believe that cultivating a connection with nature will inspire a conscience- I’m not sure that I don’t believe that, either. What I do assert is that understanding natural systems will help people to understand their own way of life better. I also believe that such knowledge will promote the value of community.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Your observation about being cooped-up in homes and cars reminds me of something Pirsig wrote, about traveling by car framing the world and reducing it to television. We miss a great deal by sequestering ourselves in this way.
As for fields guides to insects, arachnids, &c., I’ll let you know if I ever find one that I find really useful. Audubon has a good one on butterflies (and other lepidopterans), as does Peterson, but I don’t know of a good one that deals with a really broad sampling of insects.
As much as I’m generally a detail-person and a lover of reference, my favorite guides remain Audubon’s regional guides. If you’re not familiar with them, they deal with a good bit of everything: birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fishes, aquatic invertebrates, insects and other arthopods, flowers, nonflowering plants, trees, lichens, fungi, and even a little bit on the night sky. I find that my regional guide, plus a guide to edible and medicinal plants, and one on mushrooms cover everything I need. In fact, the regional guide is usually enough on its own.