Becoming a naturalist means expanding awareness by learning through a complementary process of observation and research how to ask questions and what questions to ask. Unlike the molecular biologist, for example, the naturalist primarily engages what is perceivable with the senses we come with. She endeavors to perceive relationships, how those relationships have changed over time, and what evidence around her tells that story. The naturalist’s product is a story and her primary tool is questions. The service of those stories is to provide context, the substrate for the moral, ethical, economical, and other decisions that we make.
The very last, and often regrettable, step for the naturalist is to assert conclusions in any other form than story. The reason I think is that the naturalist spends time observing and asking about processes and relationships. But conclusions are most often treated like static objects to be used like a hammer rather than as points in another process that is subject to its relations and to change and can be consulted like a mentor.
The naturalist’s mind welcomes and knows well the manifold set of causes underlying any event, that all are valid, that none are singularly responsible, that we never have the complete picture, and that the causes are always changing form, just as sunlight becomes a leaf becomes a snail becomes escargot becomes human. At the same time, the naturalist knows there are patterns and principles that are shared by every event, that these patterns provide the frame for the story, and ultimately that these patterns may also be subject to change.
My protagonist is Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). We see her often, but rarely ask about what she is doing. This lady above is Momma Grey Squirrel and she presently has two kittens who were born last summer. Shortly after they were born Momma moved her kittens, grasping their bellies in her mouth, carrying them from across our street, through our garden, out our back gate, and over the neighbor’s house to the nest where they now live. In the picture above Momma is stripping wet cardboard and bundling it in her mouth. After getting a full mouthful Momma heads for her nest. I can see from the tattered cardboard that she has done this before.
Momma is maintaining her nest. She may have more kittens soon and the kittens I have watched grow will soon start their own careers in the big city of Seattle. This could be the end of the story, but I have a question: How does Momma know how to use cardboard?
Absent cardboard, she uses materials she has an ancient relationship with, like bark. Momma will strip the fibrous inner bark from dead branches and use this soft material for the inside of her nest. Yet somehow she treats cardboard like an old friend. Momma tells me though, that it is, “not bark that I perceive and need, but the quality of bark. Carboard will do fine.” The story of Momma’s evolution would seem not to be between her and bark, but between her and those things in her environment that have the right qualities for lining a nest.
Okay, end of story. But I have another question: How do you perceive the quality of bark and know how to use a material that is not bark if you or your ancestors never encountered it before?
Momma says, “When I see, smell, taste, feel, or hear, I do not see bark, but those qualities that afford the lining of my nest.” Of course. How else would you get by when things change or adapt when new circumstances present themselves? I find it easy to see the same behavior in myself — no screwdriver, use a knife, it has the same flat end and a handle to apply torque. Perception and behavior, it seems, is specific to an organism and to the functions afforded by the quality of the things encountered in their world. I see the principle we share in common with Momma squirrel. But I have to say, when I see wet cardboard, I do not line my nest with it.
Okay, I have one more question: So what?
Well, here is one “so what” that affects all of us. Most municipalities, government departments, even schools and scientists look at plants as either native (harmonizing) or exotic (chaotic/invasive/potentially invasive). Exotics, they say, are organisms that arrived by modern vectors like planes, trains, and automobiles. However, the paleobiological record tells us that ecosystems, regions, and the whole biosphere change and species get around regardless of humans. Moreover, observation tells us that exotic species almost only override existing assemblages of ecological relationships where there has been a major disturbance, much the way an open wound becomes infected, but also in the same way that a healing salve may be applied.
The picture to the right shows japanese knotweed, a notorious “invasive species,” which has been fed on by beavers at Bob Heirman Wildlife Preserve. Beavers often feed on aquatic plant, such as the rhizomes of cattail (Typha sp.) and are doing the same with this exotic. We know that the Bob Heirman area was, at one point, disturbed and degraded by the presence of a gravel mine and then by agricultural and livestock uses.
A huge industry links government, chemical companies, and seasonal labor (who monetarily depend on this work) through injecting knotweed with herbicides each year in a projects of mass chemical extermination. Yet not a single municipality asks the question, what is the function of knotweed? What quality does it perceive in this environment that affords the knotweed a niche for life? What effect does herbicide have on the beaver who perceives the knotweed the same way he perceives cattail? What functions is the knotweed affording the land where it is growing? Is it affording more functions than plants there before? Were the plants there before the knotweed struggling to serve the functions they used to? What creatures have found the knotweed to afford them vital behaviors?
If you ask Momma Squirrel, she lives in your backyard, she will tell you some of the questions to ask. Ecosystems are in constant flux, she tells us. Our ecological relationships are not so tightly co-evolved that we cannot adapt to novel patterns in our environments. Our relationships are pattern specific, not species specific. Although, some species may be so specialized to a certain pattern that there is little or nothing that can replace that relationship, ecosystems, overall, are more resilient than that and more tolerant of change. As a whole, our ecosystems have something to tell us about how to respond to change compassionately and empirically, if we just ask a few more questions.