Thursday, June 28, 2012

Post #18 What do you see when you look at the forest?

Over their working lives, each naturalist adopts and hones a unique way of understanding a landscape.  I've met naturalists that are instinctively aware of a landscape's surface and ground water: where its flowing from, where its flowing to, the sediments its carrying and where it is likely to deposit them.  To these naturalists, ancient landforms made by water (like deltas, kames or outwash plains) are the building blocks of the landscape; the initial eye-grabbers upon which all other landscape features fit into.  

Other naturalists think in terms of edible and medicinal plants.  When they walk through the forest they first see the roots, buds, leaves, and inner bark of these useful plants which, to them, are the landscape's building blocks, upon which all other ecological information relates to. 

I am unlike these naturalist; I don't automatically see underground water and I can't instinctively assess the medicinal value of a hillside.  I do, however, have my own way of understanding a landscape instinctively repeats as I go from region to region, place to place.  My way was not taught to me or deliberately developed; it just sort of came about.  Here's my way:  I consider how a place's 3-dimensional space is shaped and filled.  An ecologist would call this an ecosystem's 'structure'.  I instinctively wonder, "Is the forest dense or is it spacious?", "Are there holes is the forest's canopy?",  "What is the topography like?", "Are there lots of plants growing on the forest floor that make it difficult to navigate and maneuver through?"  As I ask myself these questions and process their answers, I construct a 3-D mental image in my head to help keep track of all the information.

A place's 'structure' is how its contents are spatially arranged.  An example of an uncommon forest structure, the Ossipee Pine Barrens of New Hampsire.  Here, there is a dense mat of lowbush blueberry on the ground and a stand of even age pitch pine trees.  

Why do I focus on a place's structure?  Why is a place's structure tell me me?  A place's structure tells me: 
  • what animals might live there
  • what plants might live there
  • how wind might move through it 
  • how sunlight intercepts it
  • where water might be found (which goes on to tell me lots of other things...)
  • about past land use
  • about past disturbances, etc.
Yes, all of these little details are foretold to me by a place's structure– how it is laid out, filled up and arranged.  Instinctively focusing on structure is my way of initially understanding a place.  You can call it my 'framework', and you can think of it as my brain's auto-pilot or mental scaffolding.  It's the way that I naturally experience my world.

Although it is my framework (and therefor I am a bit biased toward it) I must admit that both the naturalist who thinks of water and the naturalist who thinks of edible plants use their frameworks to deeply understand their natural environment as well.  Really, there is nothing special about my framework, except that it is mine.  As long as a framework works, it's as good as the next.  The best naturalists slide easily from framework to framework as they construct a comprehensive understanding of a place.   

So now I ask YOU a question.  How do YOU make sense of your surroundings?  What is your framework?  What do you see first?  What makes the most sense to you?  What are the building blocks of your backyard?  How do you arrange the pieces of your landscape?  How do you arrange your thoughts?  How do you arrange your thoughts about your landscape?  Is your framework built around sound, light, angles, bugs, birds, dirt, hills, topography, stone walls, air?  Surely, there is no right or wrong way to understand a landscape–there are only different ways.

The way you think about your environment is kind of like mental scaffolding.  Mental scaffolding holds and secures your concepts, assumptions, unknowns, fears and past experiences into an understanding.  

What if I don't consider myself a naturalist?  Do I still use a framework to understand nature? 
Of course you do.  Everyone uses a framework to understand nature.  The gardener, the painter, the casual hiker, the admirer of sunsets and the dog walker all use a framework to understand their natural environment.  Frameworks are a natural part of thinking.

Why is it important to identify your framework?
Most of my readers are interested in being stewards of their backyards, watersheds and towns.  The first step toward stewardship is knowing your natural environment.  What organisms do you share your backyard with?  What are the animals that have to cross the street in order to breed?  Which plants are affected most by the white tail deer?  Tuning into your surroundings is key.  As you tune in, your framework is dictating which pieces of your natural environment you understand and how you understand them.  By identifying your framework (in other words, understanding how you understand nature) your study of nature will be expanded, deepened, illuminated, enlightened and simply, made better.  Your framework is working to shape your world 24/7 weather you acknowledge it or not, so you might as well identify it and use it to your advantage.

What now? 
Go step outside and, as your thoughts start to process the natural world, pay attention to them.  Write these thoughts down and organize them into a concept map.  Talk about your thoughts with different people.  Continue to pay attention to your thoughts, your framework will reveal itself.


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