On science, natural history, and writing
Summer has come to the Chicago region. We haven’t hit the solstice, but the unfurling oak canopy, the yellow jewelweed cotyledons, the carpets of bedraggled false mermaid, the aural transition to the songs of indigo buntings, pewees, and red-eyed vireos on my morning walks all signal the end of spring. As the forest’s inhabitants elbow their way into June each year, my attention turns to their points of conflict, collaboration, and shared history. Neighbouring plants sip at the same drop of water. Hazel thickets lining the edges of adjacent openings exchange pollen and hungry chickadees. Tree species whose most recent common ancestor may date to 350 million years before the present swap nutrients by way of fungal hyphae underground.
As a naturalist and biodiversity scientist, I spend much of my time with plants. I watch the same small sections of forest on my daily walks through a season and then a year. I come back the next year and do it again. I gradually infer the shape, dimensions, and attributes of the network connecting organisms across time and space, but I cannot see it directly. The world is too large to see all at once. So I have cultivated habits of constricting my field of view, seeing one thing at a time. I study a goldenrod gall I have cut open, and my field of view narrows to the matrix of tissue around the picture-wing fly burrow, then the tunnel from the burrow to the edge of the gall, the larvae’s preparation for emergence next summer. I line acorns up in my hand, count their scales and compare their shapes, look for weevil holes and scratches left by squirrels. I bring a moss to my eye and find it crawling with mites. I lie on my stomach to look beneath the plants at a mouse’s level and align my head with our dog’s to see the forest from her angle.
These Joseph Cornell tricks — Cornell the author and educator, not the visual artist — are habits I started developing as a naturalist almost thirty years ago. Here’s a classic from Cornell’s Sharing Nature with Children: walk a friend around with their eyes closed, your hands on their shoulders. Be careful not to walk them into a branch or hole. Earn their trust, so they keep their eyes clamped shut. Lead them to something you’d like them to see, an oak apple gall or a long view through the woods. Tug gently on their ears: only then are they allowed to open their eyes. They absorb one view and one view only. Then, stop tugging, and their eyes snap shut again. They are a camera, you are the photographer. You have given your friend the gift of an isolated instant.
I lie on my stomach… and align my head with our dog’s to see the forest from her angle.
Networks connecting individual organisms are the naturalist’s stock-in-trade. Some observations are nodes: an acorn or a weevil. Some are the traces of vectors connecting the nodes: the hole through which a weevil left the acorn. I once watched a tall, straight old red oak fall after a wind storm. It cracked like a gun firing, then it dropped like a dancer to the forest floor, back arched, and hit the ground with a thud that I could feel in my legs and chest from perhaps 100 feet away. I was struck at how deeply the canopy branches had lodged in the soil after the tree shattered, especially considering the still-undisturbed leaves inches from where the tree had landed. I wanted to record the moment in my mind, the splintered tree as an individual shaped by history. Yet as I am writing this, my thoughts tack between the tree as an individual node and the lines of connection radiating from it: acorns bouncing off in all directions, mosses and lichens dispersed on impact, oak wilt and Armillaria rot that weakened the tree so that it could fall over in a windstorm. These ripples through the forest I did not see directly, but they crowd around my impressions of the falling oak. What I was left with was the tree both as an individual and as a point of intersection for histories etched into the forest.
The stories I tell myself about the forest are dense with cause and effect, individuals leaving braided trails through history and space. These stories belie the fact that when I am actually walking, I see one field of view at a time, each bounded by a frame that obscures the world outside and resolves the view within. The field of view clips the plane into a rectangle and the line into a segment. Its margins render the seemingly infinite world finite.
Writing is a conscious decision to filter and then aggregate individual observations into a composite. It mediates between fields of view. If the hand lens and the camera are frames, clipping off the world’s ragged margins and presenting me with one thing at a time, my field notebook is the filter. It lets the observations that do not interest me fall from my attention for the time being, often to get lost for years, sometimes to show up unexpectedly in a conversation or lecture or contextualized when I recall them in another walk. The few moments that for one reason or another I consider worth writing down are captured. Sometimes they represent a pattern I am trying to understand. Sometimes they capture subjects out of place. I list organisms and their behaviors. “45 minutes past sunrise and all quiet: then nuthatches, pewees, phoebe in the distance.” “A hummock of Atrichum altecristatum dried and knotted up, echinate with sporophyte filaments.” “Some of the capsules of Viola pubescens still closed.”
After a week or month of walks, I work the notes over as I would a stack of plant specimens, assembling them into sentences. I aggregate the sentences into paragraphs. As I write, my memory sharpens. The view I had at the moment resolves, and I notice details I hadn’t seen at the time. The paragraphs sketch connections between moments or individuals. I check off the lines in my notebook when I have fit them into place. I fill in gaps between the individual observations until I have a round portrait of a set of walks.
Writing organizes the chaos and allows me to progress from one observation to the next. The field notes, the sentences, the paragraphs and the short pieces of writing give form to understanding. I depend on them to show me whether I am seeing clearly. If a sentence is misshapen, I know that my thoughts are fuzzy or incomplete. I work the writing over until it makes sense. After I flesh out my observations and memories, reconcile them with my notes and photographs, I stand back to see if the result stands on its own. If it does, there’s a chance I’ve written a useful model of the portions of the world I’ve walked through. It may be rough, it may need some details added or burrs buffed off, but I can trust it. I have some place to lodge my perceptions.
As I write, my memory sharpens.
The forests we walk through are composites of moments tied together by shared history and ongoing interactions. These narratives drawing together instants and individuals sit at the forefront of my thoughts. I am out to understand the histories of plant migration, competition, births and deaths that brought together the dozen or so species living in a patch of prairie the size of an album cover or the mosses, fungi, lichens, vascular plants, mice and millipedes inhabiting a fallen log. These histories exist in the real world. But I cannot see them until I start reasoning. When I walk through the forest, I see individuals directly, but the lines connecting them are blurry. They resolve through writing.
I have been a naturalist and educator for most of my life, but I am also a plant biodiversity scientist. I spend the majority of my working hours analysing data, writing grants and papers, and administering projects. The second largest fraction, and I’m sorry to say a much smaller one, I spend working on specimens or collecting plants in the field. But whether I am at the computer, in the herbarium, or in the forest, I think of my work in science as a practice of placing frames around small parts of the world, then using these as points of entry to uncharted ground.
The frames I lay down as a scientist are aimed at understanding how plant species evolve and how their histories shape the world. The story I tell myself about how I do science goes something like this: I articulate alternative hunches or hypotheses about how the world works. I translate these hypotheses into statistical models. Then, I gather and analyse data to characterize the shape and complexity of the models I’ve constructed. Each model confers a different probability on the same set of data and thus supports a unique suite of claims about how the individual observations operate together in the real world. Some models are about populations exchanging genes over the landscape as they assemble into forests. Some are about trees lumbering down from the arctic millions of years ago to set up shop in the Chicago region. Some are about the how the tree of life affects decomposition in streams or our efforts to restore prairies. Models illuminate aspects of the world that I cannot see directly.
This is a useful account of science and one that is broadly accepted. I like it, because it reminds me that science is reductive by design, not just as an unfortunate accident. How would I be able to see anything if it weren’t? Models illuminate the processes that connect individuals, integrate the fields of view that represent each moment of data collecting, by simplifying or treating as unimportant, for the time being, the rest of reality. I put a small frame around one set of questions and bring in only the data that bear on them directly. The frame narrows from the sprawling history of northern temperate forests to the genomes of a few placeholder species. From there, it narrows to a computationally tractable set of analyses on a subset of the genome. I trade wholistic understanding of the forest for insight into the histories of plants, events of 45 million years ago. Is this a good exchange? I am not always sure, but it is deliberate.
Is this a good exchange? I am not always sure…
This story, however, is a caricature. I know something about the world before I begin, so I lay out a frame that is irregular in shape, excluding some of the chaos. Every question I ask is suggested by an experience I’ve had directly or indirectly, through reading or conversation or imagination. I sweep the woods and specimens in our herbarium, puzzle over analyses my colleagues and I have done, leapfrog from one paper to the next. Then, I study the questions that I can formulate in terms of models for which I have or can assemble data. I may worry over the other questions that erupt on walks and in conversations, but until I can address them with data, they stay on the back burner.
I gain through this process glimpses of the structure of the tree of life, of patterns of gene flow between species, of shared histories that none of us is old enough or big enough to see directly. As I overlay genomes and blur out everything beyond their margins, I create a scaffold for understanding history. On its bones and joints I place fossil observations, gene flow estimates, morphological traits that have their own evolutionary histories, the habitats and adaptations of extant and extinct species.
The resulting graph of the tree of life, as simplified as it is, is vast and complicated, so I traverse it and become familiar with its nodes and branches the same way that I do as a naturalist: I write. Some of my writing as a scientist entails refining methods of analysing data, tailored to my questions. Some of it is written in the language of computer code, articulating, in terms that a computer can interpret, what I need to do with my data to conform it to the questions I want to ask, then to interrogate it, then to fit statistical models to it, then to represent analyses visually in a way that I can understand. Much of the rest of my writing is in the dialect of academic science, which is rigidly structured and built for utility. It is designed to ensure that the work can be efficiently parsed.
As scientists, we often speak as though this last kind of writing were a way of telling what we’ve done and found and how we interpret our results. This makes it sound as though the work were completed and fully digested before we laid it out on paper. But I usually don’t know what I want to say until I say it; I don’t even know precisely what I think. I suspect from conversations that many of my colleagues feel similarly. Terry Penner, one of my undergraduate professors, said that before he started to work on a problem, he would lecture on it, over and over. “Lecture on it until you understand it.” Then, once you are clear on what the problem is, you can begin to solve it. When we write, we are not merely recounting thoughts we already had: we are forming thoughts.
Every field of view blurs what is outside the frame in exchange for sharper resolution within. I am generally not acting as a scientist with broad questions when I am in the woods. I paw at the leaf litter in search of seedlings and fungal mycelia trailing between rotting branches. I track a mouse or a woodpecker or a millipede winding through a rotting log. Is this science? I don’t know. Maybe those are the moments right before the science. In any case, the habits and knowledge I have cultivated as a scientist bring the distant to bear on these observations. I find an acorn beneath a jack-in-the-pulpit, the latter disintegrating at the end of the year, where there had been a carpet of false mermaid six months earlier. In the same moment, I see lineages from western North America and east Asia, forests of the late Eocene arctic converging on this square foot of forest, in soils shaken out and built up over thousands of years. Systematics, paleontology, community ecology, comparative biology, physiological ecology cast the light of deep time on the point where I stand.
Every organism, organ, cell, and fallen log is a node in the reticulum of pathways through the forest. Every plant is a point of entry. Some routes are more convenient than others, depending on where your interests lie. Enter by way of the evolutionary history of trees, and you will come across footpaths through biogeographic and landscape history. Come in with the fungi, and you will run into decomposition and nutrient cycling. Raft in on a storm-swollen stream as it overspills its banks, and you will bump up against the margins of the forest where it grades into savanna or is sheared off at the edge of town or a park. No matter where you begin, you will eventually traverse the entire landscape, if you only walk for long enough.
Like all scientists, I relish a well written methods section. This is the portion of a paper in which the researchers, Virgil-like, guide us over the ragged slopes of their sampling and field collecting, measurements, laboratory work, and statistical analyses. It tells us what the researchers were up to and, to a certain extent, why they thought their methods were the right ones to use. If I were going to write a methods section to my life as a naturalist and scientist, it might read like this: I put boundaries around a small section of the world. I study it until I have saturated my patience and interest. I then try to describe it carefully. I make and record observations to illuminate the dark areas I’m interested in. I use statistics where I think they’ll help. I start writing up my results, and I see if my account is sturdy and well formed. If it is internally inconsistent or can’t stand on its own, I have more looking or analysis or writing to do. Often, it’s part of a bigger story that others have worked on, and I don’t know their work well enough, so I need to read more. I get stuck and leave a heap of paragraphs by the wayside, only to come back a few years later and find that they might be serviceable pointers to a different path altogether. I keep turning and looking, analysing and writing and comparing stories. Once in a while I look backwards and think that I am making progress.
I track a mouse or a woodpecker or a millipede winding through a rotting log. Is this science?
And often I look over the things I have done, and it occurs to me that the world does not need me or my methods section. Unaccountably, this does not upset me. The world doesn’t really need any of us. The moraines will erode away whether there are humans here or not, and there will be glaciers again across North America and Europe. Perhaps one day there will dogs the size of station wagons. The sightless cave animals and archaea of ocean-bottom vents will proliferate and live their lives as though humans weren’t here.
But we need the world. I don’t mean that we need it because we are part of it, in the way that leaves need their trees. We do need it in that way, but we also need it because without it, we wouldn’t know who or what we are. Our methods sections, our words, are one of the ways in which we make ourselves at home in the world.
When I am working on a specimen, looking through the microscope, I invariably zoom in for the momentary thrill of coming in lower and closer than humanly possible. As I turn the magnifier and narrow the field of view, I drop deeper into a well of nested universes. Perhaps it’s possible to hit the bottom, find the world is finite after all, but in practical terms there seems to be no end in sight. No matter which direction I look, whether I am at the scope or in the field or at my desk, everything turns out to be a whole composed of parts and itself part of a whole. I keep practicing science and walking the woods with a notebook and camera in hand for the sense of content that returns each time I realize this fact: that I am one of the forest’s inhabitants as well, elbowing my way into June alongside the oaks.
This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.
Image credits (from top)
1. Alma Heikkilä, these processes include plasticity, mutualistic symbiosis, and extinction, 2020. Plaster, polyester, pigments, plant-based inks, acrylic polymer, and others. Photo details by Eivind Lauritzen, photo installation by Vegard Kleven
2. Alma Heikkilä, these processes include plasticity, mutualistic symbiosis, and extinction, 2020. Plaster, polyester, pigments, plant-based inks, acrylic polymer, and others. Photo details by Eivind Lauritzen, photo installation by Vegard Kleven
3. Hedvig Winge, Porcelain Piece, 2020. Porcelain clay, textile, rope, nails, hoists, hooks, tread, string. Photo by Vegard Kleven
4. Guðjón Ketilsson, Poem I-II, 2019. Painted tree branches. Photo by Vegard Kleven
5. Kasper Kjeldgaard, Casts of Time – Lost in Translations, 2020. Bronze, ashwood, beeswax. Photo by Eivind Lauritzen
6. Alma Heikkilä, these processes include plasticity, mutualistic symbiosis, and extinction, 2020. Plaster, polyester, pigments, plant-based inks, acrylic polymer, and others. Photo details by Eivind Lauritzen, photo installation by Vegard Kleven
All images from Earth, Wind, Fire, Water at Galleri F 15, Norway ( June 16 – October 4, 2020) via Art Viewer