messy maps

“What do you think of the messiness of being human?” This inquiry came across my computer screen the other day. Part of my reply was, “the messiness is the topography. The contour lines that distinguish my map from yours”. It was a written reply and I have not heard back. I am not sure how it landed. Perhaps defining messiness would have been a good first step.

The primary theme of my research is how human induced disturbance (clear-cutting forests) affects animal communities (yes, ants are animals). In essence, I study nature’s messiness. Messiness is the result of disturbance. And messiness leaves a quantifiable (maybe qualifiable) mark. When it comes to ant communities, we are not entirely sure what that mark looks like and if it is consistent across species. What I have realized though, is that nature and humans have very different ways of dealing with messiness. To begin with, we define it. Then all too often we define ourselves by its presence in our lives.

Nature, on the other hand, manages to include messiness as a part of soul, artwork and landscape. As observers, we appreciate the results of subduction, avalanches, fires, and floods. Disturbances. Messiness. Nature makes no attempt to cover anything up or hide what might be perceived as a negative trait. It just sits there, having pulled back the curtain on a magnificent, perhaps slightly absurd, show. Not asking for your applause. And it thrives in the face of whatever happens.

For example, there are a number of plants species that will not start to germinate without first being subject to some sort of disturbance. The seeds of the Victoria ash (Eucalyptus regnans) have a hard, woody coating that requires fire in order to begin the process of germination (development and growth). The seeds of the Flanders poppy (Papaver rhoeas) requires soil be turned over in order to break free of diapause (prolonged period of no growth). In Belgium, during World War I, Flanders poppies grew between the trench lines of the French and the Germans; a result of artillery fire and constant upheaval. So dense were the fields at times that the flower is now used to symbolize the memorial and remembrance of dead soldiers.

And it strikes me that there is a good lesson in here. Aside from the obvious war sucks, I would argue that messiness (again, disturbance has to happen first) can function as a powerful catalyst for growth. We needn’t hide from it or hide its presence. Nor do we need to proselytize. But the messiness, like a unique set of numbers or genetic code, can set us apart, make us individual. It can also bring us together to appreciate the cartography of a common landscape. The fun is in aligning the maps.


the acoustics of science

A big part of nature’s majesty lies in its sounds. The soft trickle of water, rolling thunder, the smooth hoot of an owl. There are no filters here, no editors. Everyone gets to integrate the pleasure. My experience with scientific journals and academic papers, and often academics themselves, is not the same.

I believe science can be a universal language.When spoken properly, and with an accent absent of hierarchy, anyone can understand it. I was reminded of this potential last week while talking with Dr. Claudio Gratton from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  Our half hour conversation focused primarily on me introducing him to my research in Australia. Dr. Gratton adroitly linked my focus with a few of his recent studies. This connection lead our conversation in directions less scientifically rigid. Specifically, we started talking about how best to emphasize the value of conservation efforts to those who are often most affected; those people who make a living on and of the land; those who are not scientists. And it was here that I was engulfed in the power of the natural audio experience I have been lucky enough to hear.

Birds, insects, marine vertebrates…well most every animal except humans, throw communication to who ever may be listening. It is how I know I am REALLY in Australia (the birds in the morning), it is the framework for the memory of a night of camping in which I heard coyotes and owls dueling for acoustic space, and it is the portal though which we know we are not alone. And it was on this particular day, talking to a research biologist at the height of his career, with both of us concerned about those outside of our immediate audience, that my belief in science and ecology, further solidified. So here is the challenge; over the course of the next week, speak to someone outside of your normal audience. Tell them about what you do and what your passions are. Embrace your challenge of learning a new language. And celebrate the expansion of your community.