Reading, Walking, Wishing
June in New England is a long stretch of long-lit days. When I was a PhD student, my Junes were the peak of my field season and I spent the long days logging miles up and down Cadillac, Sargent, and Pemetic mountains. For four years, my Junes were hiking ridges, recording data, wearing holes in the toes of my trailrunners. Now, I’m revising the papers that were written on the heels of those leg muscles and it’s weird to be indoors in June, sitting at a computer, without the tight hamstrings or blackfly bites. After a long slog through a cold spring, this June I’ve returned to reading, picking up #365papers again in earnest after slacking off on the literature for a few months.
Last week, I read Liam Heneghan’s essay “Have Ecologists Lost Their Senses? Walking and Reflection as Ecological Method” in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. I was indoors, at my desk, with the AC whirring, reading about walking. I felt like a fish out of water, or more aptly a field ecologist out of nature. In the essay, Henegham makes the distinction between ecologists and naturalists, comparing word counts in the anthologies The Essential Naturalist: Timeless Readings in Natural History (2011) and Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries (2012).
“Although the two disciplines ‘observe’ and ‘see’ things in equal measure, natural historians nonetheless report engaging all of their senses in the pursuit of observations of nature to a greater degree. Natural historians report touching, feeling, hearing, and smelling the things of the world to an extent that scientific ecologists do not. Indeed, ecologists, if this small sample is representative, have abandoned smelling in its entirety. Moreover, natural historians ‘walk’, ‘roam’, ‘climb’, ‘sniff’, and ‘listen’ to a degree their ecological colleagues do not.”
I am a roaming, climbing, sniffing ecologist. But I bristled at the thought that ecologists as a whole should be compelled to walk to prove some kind of connection to the true core of the discipline. Heneghan does not outrightly demand that all ecologists walk, roam, and climb — his main argument seems to be the gentle conjecture “ecologists may have overlooked the fact that scrutinizing nature can benefit from an engagement of all the senses” — but he doesn’t leave much space within the discipline for non-field ecologists. Perhaps Heneghan’s essay title is misleading and he isn’t worried about all ecologists losing their senses, just the outdoor ones.
The field-based, nose-to-the-ground, perambulatory science that Heneghan and I practice is clearly not universal to ecology — and it shouldn’t be! We need modelers and theorists and lab scientists! But I fell for this essay hard. I am the target audience. When I started as a master’s student at the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning program, my Botany 311 class, the Fall Field Practicum series of weekly full-day field trips, listed 7 goals on the syllabus. Goal #7: “Visit bakeries and enjoy spending the day outdoors.” In Heneghan’s analysis of word counts in the Ecology vs. Natural History texts, “Breakfast” receives 0.72 mentions per page in The Essential Naturalist; it does not appear at all in Foundations in Ecology*. Just digging out my Fall Field Practicum syllabus conjured up memories of cider donuts and eskers, travel mugs of maple-syrup-sweetened coffee and ombrotrophic bogs. My UVM experience was steeped in the kind of sensory details that Heneghan would appreciate and savor.
‘Walking and Reflection as Ecological Method’ reminded me of a similar paper I’d read in another (sadly non-bakery-centered) UVM class: Craig Loehle’s 1990 ‘A guide to increased creativity in research — inspiration or perspiration?’ Loehle also identifies the benefits of walking as a part of the scientific process when he encourages students to “get bored” as a work habit. This is recommended alongside running, procrastinating, and surfing — allegories for carving out time to think deeply and engage in non-productive, non-routine activities. These pursuits, Loehle promises, will facilitate creative problem solving.
When I went back to re-read Loehle this week, I was surprised to find the advice “Don’t read the literature” under his list of methods for releasing creativity. I am, traditionally, a big fan of reading the literature. I’m a reader: when I was asked to review a Tansley Insight manuscript for The New Phytologist, my first move was to download and read the 2015 editorial “Introducing Tansley Insights – short and timely, focussed reviews within the plant sciences.” I won’t admit how many other Tansley Insights I downloaded after. A lot, okay? Maybe all of them. But Loehle’s “Don’t read the literature” is not a blanket statement; he clarifies that the first step as a scientist begins mulling over a new idea should not be to run to Web of Science (or whatever researchers used to find papers back in the dark ages of 1990), but to work through it a bit on your own.
“[Reading the literature] channels your thoughts too much into well-worn grooves. Second, a germ of an idea can easily seem insignificant in comparison to finished studies. Third, the sheer volume of material to read may intimidate you to abandoning any work in a new area.”
I agree with Loehle on all three points, but I’d add that the habit of reading broadly in the literature — taking recommendations from twitter**, searching outside of the Table of Contents of your subdiscipline’s favorite journal, checking out how your pet methodology is applied in another country or ecosystem, or seeking out papers with your field site as a keyword by researchers who are not in your field — is a kind of antidote to the well-worn grooves. This month I read papers from Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, Alpine Botany, Bioscience, Conservation Biology, Current Biology, Ecology, Ecosphere, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, Integrative and Comparative Biology, Journal of Applied Ecology, Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences, Nature Geoscience, New Phytologist, Ocean & Coastal Management, Palynology, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and Trends in Ecology & Evolution. I am a broadly trained field ecologist — thanks UVM! — but as my career has progressed I’ve naturally found myself engaged in narrower research pursuits, and reading broadly keeps me centered, provides context for the tedium of slicing a 4.09 m core of lake sediment into half centimeter subsamples, and makes my work feel connected to society, policy, and big-picture conservation. I’ll likely never publish in Ocean & Coastal Management, but reading “‘Back off, man, I’m a scientist!’ When marine conservation science meets policy”*** resonated with my own experiences writing public comments and meeting with congressional staffers. In a way, reading broadly is a kind of indoor-walking for restless ecologists who are prone to wandering.
Loehle and Heneghan’s essays are endlessly quotable for natural history students. But while they strive to expand how scientists engage in the world — Shake off your routine! Get outside! Smell! — they present an ironically narrow picture of role models. The patron saints of creative, roaming researchers, name-checked by both Loehle and Heneghan, are Darwin and MacAthur. I feel very strongly that if your argument around what’s needed in the “culture of ecology” can be reduced to “be more like this white man who had the privilege to travel freely and comfortably in the outdoors” you are fundamentally wrong. In Heneghan’s case, in 2018, there’s no excuse for whitewashing field ecology. Priya Shukla’s amazing piece in Bay Nature Magazine beautifully lays out the importance of representation in contemporary ecology, and the urgent need to uncover and share the ways in which wild landscapes are not empty areas that blankly awaited manifest destiny and reflect only Anglo-European stories. She writes “We need an act of revisionist natural history to color in the environmental and conservation movements. We should remind every hiker, biker, birder, citizen scientist, and field researcher that innumerable diverse people have shaped our natural spaces.” In a series of profiles of diverse voices in outdoor recreation, James Edward Mills writes in Outside, “Organizations like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, and Out There Adventures have begun stripping away the presumption of a white, male, heterosexual experience. Even more importantly, by unapologetically presenting their unique points of view, they’ve shined a light on a rich heritage of adventure and environmental stewardship that has been there for generations.” This diversity exists in field ecology and natural history writing too, and it is not hard to find. Sure, Darwin and MacArthur were great at walking and writing about walking with wonderful sensory detail — but have you read J. Drew Lanham’s essay ‘Birding While Black’ or his book The Home Place? Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass? Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood****? Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl —in which the titular “girl” (Jahren) spends long stretches outside of the lab writing lyrically about working in the outdoors?
Heneghan begins his essay in a bog, but his call to arms (hiking boots?) is not simply an #OptOutside manifesto. He follows his walking naturalists — his long list of old white men: Irish botanist Robert Lloyd Praeger, Henry David Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Robert McArthur, and E. O. Wilson — indoors to their writing desks. At the end of the piece, Heneghan is in the archives, reading Praeger’s papers and reflecting on his prodigious writing. “A day’s walk can furnish long hours back at the desk.” Heneghan muses, “Thus for every insight into nature, there is a hidden process by which that insight was achieved; every active life contains a hidden core of repose.” So this is my indoor June, my hidden core of repose. My trailrunners lie neglected, but the writing & reading continues, as I adventure through the memories and field notes and spreadsheets on the heels of the illustrious white men, and the many, many equally bold, sure-footed, and thoughtful unnamed white women and people of color who have trod this path before me.
Heneghan, L., 2018. Have Ecologists Lost Their Senses? Walking and Reflection as Ecological Method. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 1–4. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2018.04.016
Loehle, Craig. 1990. “A guide to increased creativity in research: inspiration or perspiration?.” Bioscience 40.2: 123-129.
*I have a confession to make here. I read most of Foundations in Ecology while I was a PhD student. I had not even heard of The Essential Naturalist until I read this paper. So maybe I’m not such a great naturalist after all? …Or maybe I’m an amazing naturalist, always outside tromping around, and I don’t have time to read natural history anthologies because I’m too busy smelling nature?
**I found Heneghan’s essay by way of @ChelskiLittle’s prolific #365papers tweets. Thanks Chelsea!
***I found this paper by way of @Drew_Lab’s #365papers tweets. Thanks Josh!
****I cannot say enough about Milkweed Editions. This independent, nonprofit literary powerhouse in Minneapolis publishes incredible environmental writing. My husband gifted me a Milkweed book subscription years ago and it’s my absolute favorite piece of mail every month. Maybe 30% of my love for LacCore & the science they do there is a side effect of the fact that every time I visit LacCore, I get to take a side trip to Milkweed.