Monday, June 14, 2010

Processing Nature

(by which I mean, the process of coming to understand nature in its neverending variety, not as in physical processing of nature a la seafood chowder.)

For me, the process of narrowing my view to explore insects and arachnids, my recent forray into the corners of the natural world that are more dim to me, is akin to what my process of natural education here in Texas has been in general. It is a process of narrowing, and then re-broadening of viewpoint. We start with a broad, but blurry view…we see a picture of the natural world in front of us, but we don’t see the trees for the forest. Something has to be obvious and directly engaging to really break our attention threshold. The sensitivity of our sight is limited. The 12 foot alligator on the path may draw the attention, but the empires of life on either side just blend into a verdant blur. I think as people progress toward a greater understanding of the natural world, at least in biological terms, the tendency is to narrow focus…to pick things out of the background, to assign names, etc. I will freely admit that for all my background, I’m probably still in this phase for all intents and purposes. In the end, while the novelty of exploration is a potent driver for getting out into the world and learning about what shares it with you, it tends to promote a false view…of nature as a diorama in which species stand out against the background, immobile and countable. The natural next step in that progression, and probably one that should be accented to a greater extent in naturalist education, is a re-broadening of focus. Once the wealth of identification information is built up (a vast but shallow pool of data) the focus needs to broaden out again, to see the big picture while also retaining the complexities of the individual species. In other words, to go from blurry picture to laser-like focus on elements in the picture, to the big picture again, but as a dynamic system rather than a static image. To see the patterns of interaction between the individual and the see the species not just as its name, but as a function of how it interacts with its environment. For example, I have learned to identify birds fairly well, but lack a deeper understanding of the role many species play, what they eat, what habitats they prefer, etc….the “depth” of knowledge that leads to a more comprehensive “big picture”. To me it’s very much the ongoing war between dry and staid scientific classification and the “lore” of informal naturalism. And I find the tension between the two very interesting, even as I work toward a greater synthesis.

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