Tag Archives: ecology

“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

This book came to me highly recommended by people whose judgment I regard with some skepticism. Why? Because I wonder if they take either science or nature seriously. There are lots of “wow” moments in science and in nature, but if you go that far (“wow, it’s so amazing!”) and then stop… what have you accomplished?

Maybe my scientific training has made me a snob. But I think nature is worthy of serious study, and I value science. I’m the kind of geek who is really happy that someone declared 2019 the “International Year of the Periodic Table”. I LOVE the periodic table! And I’ve studied it carefully. For six years, the time it took to earn two degrees in Chemistry. Sometimes there’s just no shortcut.

So I’m skeptical about quickie workshops in which people groove on nature for an hour at a time.

Robin Kimmerer has more than “paid her dues” scientifically, with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in botany and a PhD in plant ecology. She works outside the conventional scientific framework by teaching college courses in subjects like Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Creative Writing. She is a member of the Potawatami Nation, an Algonquian-speaking Eastern Woodlands indigenous tribe. She has studied her Algonquian heritage as carefully as she studied botany. Her passion is the integration of the two, scientific and traditional knowledge. Braiding Sweetgrass is a collection of essays about this endeavor.

This is a BIG book, generous in concept and broad in subject areas. I reacted differently to different subjects.

I LOVED the chapter entitled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”! Kimmerer undertook to learn the Potawatomi language at a time when only NINE fluent speakers of the language were still alive.

“Our language, millennia in the making…The words that praised creation, told the old stories, lulled my ancestors to sleep, rests today in the tongues of nine very mortal men and women.”

So she has tried to learn it. Not a single word came to her through her family. She found the language difficult because, instead of dividing nouns into masculine, feminine and neuter (he, she, it), nouns are categorized as animate (person) or inanimate (thing). Personhood is attributed to many more objects than in English – almost everything “natural”, including water, fire, stone. “Inanimate” refers mostly to created objects – coat, car.

Additionally (and unlike English), Potawatami is a verb dominated language. Kimmerer found it wildly difficult.

“The simple phrases I’m learning are perfect for my dog. Sit! Eat!…But since she scarcely responds to these commands in English, I’m reluctant to train her to be bilingual. An admiring student once asked me if I spoke my native language. I was tempted to say, ‘Oh yes, Yes, we speak Potawatomi at home’ – me, the dog, and the Post-it notes.”

Anyone interested in languages should read this chapter!

A problem I have with Kimmerer’s approach to the natural world is that it seems to me that she attributes consciousness and intent to creatures and even ecosystems much more frequently than I do. I “love” nature, but I’m not so sure nature “loves” me back. Sometimes I don’t see relationship where Kimmerer does. I don’t think that parasites and hosts “intend” to do something for each other.

Another chapter I especially enjoyed was “The Three Sisters”, about agriculture based on growing corn, beans and squash together. Now I understand about the squash – it is a source of vitamins.

The last parts of the book discuss solutions to the current environmental dilemmas, including climate change. The emphasis is on restoration ecology. Kimmerer is less specific when she discusses the social aspects of our situation, but I am grateful that she shares her vision of hope.

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“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” by Kenneth D. Frank

Yes, this is the same Ken Frank I wrote about on December 6.

Ken Frank is a hugely talented and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He refers to his field of study as “the history of natural history”. Having lived in Center City, Philadelphia for 40 years, in retirement (from his career as a physician) he writes about the LIFE in the neighborhood he knows so well.

“If this book has a unifying theme, it is the many ways people have shaped communities of plants and animals that inhabit downtown, the ways these communities have defied human control and survived in spite of, or because of dense urban development…. The ecology of Center City has been dynamic and resilient – qualities I expect will endure.”

Ken Frank notices everything! Who ever heard of the bridge spider? It’s attracted to artificial light, and Frank identifies Walnut Street as a favored habitat. They build beautiful and intricate webs.

Frank documents the “pee line” on trees, where the presence or absence of dog pee determines the identity and color of lichens.

There’s a whole chapter on fireflies, and a page on morning glories. Frank claims to have found 26 species of plants growing on the paved “islands” in the middle of South Broad Street.

The photographs in this book are delightful.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” makes a great coffee table book, but it is extensively indexed and documented, hence useful to scientists and teachers in their work.

Ken Frank plans to post this masterpiece on line. What a great find it will be for curious future investigators! The publisher is Fitler Square Press.

“Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon” by John Hemming

“Naturalists in Paradise”

https://nearctictraveller.wordpress.com/2015/08/

This highly enjoyable book was reviewed by another blogger (see link above), so I will limit my comments to the last chapter, where Hemming discusses the lives of the three explorers after their Amazon travels. In particular, he describes their books and other publications, some of which would be worth tracking down. The three scientists made amazing contributions to the advance of science. They also erred. “The greatest error made by…these observers…was to equate luxuriant tropical vegetation with rich soil.” Interesting! Many decades passed before the flaws in this logic were understood.

Hemming summarizes some of the work that the three explorers did outside the field of natural history. Most important were the observations they made pertaining to indigenous and isolated groups of people.

The three explorers knew and corresponded with most of the other great scientists of their time, including Charles Darwin.

Hemming, by the way, adds a few observations from his own contemporary travels in the countries visited. I appreciated this, though it would have interfered if he hadn’t been so restrained. I’m sure he has tales to tell!

This quotation from Richard Spruce clarifies the motivation of these scientists and expresses their passionate relationship to the natural world.

I look on plants as sentient beings, which live and enjoy their lives – which beautify the earth during life and after death may adorn my herbarium…(Even if they have no medicinal or commercial value to man) they are infinitely useful where God has placed them… They are at the least useful to and beautiful in themselves – surely the primary motive for every individual existence.

Emphasis added. Scientists are sometimes accused of cold detachment. This makes is clear that they may, in fact, pursue their work out of love.

Ecological Science at the Frontier: Celebrating ESA’s Centennial (in Baltimore)

ESA = Ecological Society of America.

This was not MY conference, actually. I entered using a name badge marked “guest”. Fifteen years ago, that would have said “spouse”. Thirty years ago, “wife”. My husband is an ecologist and chair elect of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Ecological Society of America. I tagged along to the organization’s 100th NATIONAL meeting in Baltimore last week.

I’m good at “tagging along”. I can always find something interesting to do. But I didn’t need this skill to enjoy the ESA meeting! It was exciting. I think the attendance was over 3000, larger than most professional meetings I attend. The demographic was young and the level of enthusiasm very high. I’ve long known that ecologists have fun. After all, they do much of their work out of doors and in the company of fellow enthusiasts. Often they travel. And ecologists are purposeful. The study and understanding of an organism or ecosystem often leads to the desire to protect it, a complex challenge in this age of climate change and sea level rise.

I am also pleased to report that the City of Baltimore, troubled though it has been over the past months, has got its act together. (I did NOT consider withdrawing my participation because of the recent riots.) The area around the convention center was, predictably, heavily policed. My ventures into other areas, “sketchy” but not rock bottom, were brief and uneventful. And the Baltimore Inner Harbor area is great! Full of people and activity. I couldn’t see anything that made it different from the rest of urban, tourist oriented America. The free public “circulator” buses are better than the public transit in Philadelphia or Boston, and the Light Rail, which goes farther from the city center, is quick and convenient.

And, to top it off, the Ecological Society of America really knows how to throw a party! I’ve sat through my share of convention banquets, listening to dull speeches and eating rubber chicken. ESA’s “Birthday Bash” consisted of an excursion to a local microbrewery, where the parking lot was lined with food trucks (ethnic, spicy…) and the beer flowed freely. Add a good country rock band and it was a perfect summer evening. A great time was had by all.

I plan to attend a national meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in October. Hope it is equally good! Stay tuned

“Looking for Longleaf – the Fall and Rise of an American Forest” by Lawrence S. Earley

(The University of North Carolina Press, 2004, 272 pages plus notes, bibliography and index. Extensive illustrations.)

This is a “must read” book! It’s a highly enjoyable combination of ecological science and regional history.

The longleaf pine forest of the Southeastern US was an astonishing natural resource. It was never truly “primeval”, being influenced by human activity since the original Americans arrived from Asia. But it was vast and rich in ways we can scarcely imagine.

Longleaf pine is “managed” no matter what is done to it. The range of outcomes (from commercial timbering to bird habitat enhancement) is broad and the time scales (from a few years to over a century) are impressive.

To my surprise, I’m currently following the progress of TWO forest management plans.

One covers the campus where I work, specifying practices for perhaps half of the 1600 acre property. It has two purposes. One is to get the campus out from under a misguided state policy that requires one-to-one replacement of every tree that gets cut for construction or other development (like parking lots). The other purpose to keep the forest healthy and enhance biodiversity. A healthy forest can hardly be taken for granted in New Jersey, battered as we have been by storms and insect infestations. (Remember the gypsy moth?) We also suffer from invasion by non-native plant species. So our woods need careful management. So far, one “prescribed burn” has been conducted and some selective cutting is in progress. This is a wonderful accomplishment! Finally we are done with decades of neglect. Leaving a forest alone is NOT the best way to care for it.

The other forest management plan in my life was developed about five years ago, to protect land in North Carolina owned by my husband’s family. Some timber has been harvested under this plan, and other steps may follow. Will this include reintroduction of longleaf pine? I don’t know, but I’m glad that preservation is being combined with management on this rural property, with its beavers, bears, rice field and aged trees.

The only forest on MY side of the family, a seven acre sliver of New England hillside, was sold about fifteen years ago. It was important to my childhood. I miss it. A peak at GoggleEarth recently showed me that it remains undeveloped. Surprising!

I recommend Looking for Longleaf to anyone interested in the fate of nature in our rapidly changing world.