Getting to know things

via science, tech, and tradition

This month has been full of outdoor enrichment. I feel so creatively and intellectually stimulated by all of the lush vegetation around me right now, I can hardly contain my enthusiasm - so I won’t! I’ll share a little here with you. A few weeks ago I downloaded the Seek app to my iPhone. It was developed by iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, and it uses image recognition technology to identify and suggest species matches. Then last week I got the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which has a sound identification feature. It converts waveform recordings into spectrograms and matches the patterns with those of known bird calls. I have been saying for years that I wished there were a “Shazam” for birds and a pair of digital goggles that could identify all of the plant and animal species that you look at. Science and tech have made my nature nerd dreams come true and now every excursion yields a wealth of information. 

This is not to say that I didn’t find it enriching to go out into nature before, without any gadgetry, just enjoying the nameless life around me and appreciating it all the same. Not knowing what a flower is called makes it no less beautiful; not recognizing the singer makes birdsong no less sweet. Last fall, I took a Wilderness Ethics class where we were assigned a book by Laura and Guy Waterman in which they advocate for the preservation of a sense of wildness within the wilderness. Being outdoor purists, they were rather anti-cell phones, so it’s likely they would not have enjoyed hiking with me, stopping as I do every few hundred feet, pointing my camera phone at each mushroom, fern, or lichen that piques my curiosity. I tend to agree that it is important to routinely “unplug,” and as I grow more familiar with the local flora, I do leave the phone behind at times, quizzing myself as I walk along the trail, each leaf, a flashcard. 

I also started reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer this month. It has moved me in a lot of ways (that I won’t expound on here, just take my word for it and read it…) but pertinent to this newsletter, it’s gotten me thinking about the tradition of furthering and passing on knowledge. Humanity’s development as a species has been an awesome and messy journey. I don’t see the advancement of our collective body of knowledge as a steady, upward trajectory. World-changing discoveries have routinely faced ignorant rejection, and technologies once believed to be modern miracles are later found to have devastating consequences. Ancient wisdom passed along through generations upon generations of indigenous peoples around the world is all too often interrupted, ignored, or lost when various colonizers and conquerors impose their own culture upon them. What we remember, forget, discover, dismiss, invent, revise, and rediscover is always in flux.

All of this to say, I do not come from a long line of people who lived in close communion with the same land as their ancestors. My family has moved many times and been reshaped in several iterations. I have often felt like a stranger in the various ecosystems I’ve inhabited, and I haven’t spent enough time in any one place to become intimate with its workings. Without an elder to make the introductions, it takes some legwork to come to know the other lifeforms, to understand their role in the web and their relationships to us. This is why I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to field guides, and why I so enjoy these ID apps. This is why I write this newsletter, why I am motivated to share what I’m learning with you. Thank you for engaging with it. If you have some natural wisdom to share with me, I’m all ears. 

Further Reading:

Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer from Milkweed Editions

Traditional Knowledge of Penobscot Indian Nation Influence on Wildlife Projects, by Zintkala Eiring for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Indigenous knowledge networks in the face of global change, by Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, Miguel A. Fortuna, and Jordi Bascompte for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2019

How did humans begin to classify and name all of life on Earth? by Kay Vandette, for