Hemlock Hospice opens to the public on October 7, 2017 at noon, and will be up for more than a year (through November 18, 2018). We have a website, a schedule of events for the opening reception, and are putting the finishing touches on the last of more than a dozen sculptural pieces emplaced thoughtfully throughout a new interpretive trail within the Prospect Hill Tract at the Harvard Forest. A substantial outreach effort is leading to press coverage, interviews, seminar invitations, etc., especially in the art world. Scientists, though, generally are a bit more muted in their response or apparent interest. Why might that be?
In pursuit of an answer, I explore here the importance of empathy in field research.
empathy, n. “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”
Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, June 2017. Accessed 10 September 2017
This week The unBalanced ecoLOGist features its first guest blog. Written by Ahmed Siddig and edited only lightly for posting, it re-caps themes of the short-course on the science of biodiversity that Ahmed and I taught in Khartoum, Sudan, earlier this month and sketches a proposal for establishing a long-term ecological research (LTER) program in Sudan.
After nine weeks and nine provinces, I left China on October 15. I spent the following week in Japan – a short vacation in Tokyo and at a ryokan in Hakone – before returning to the US on October 21. Just in time to vote early in my home state of Massachusetts (I was the first in my small town to vote on the first day of early voting in Massachusetts, October 24), before heading on to South America for the last two months of my sabbatical.
I’ve been in China for over seven weeks now, and as a people-watcher and photographer, nothing has caught my eye more than the panoply of three-wheeled vehicles meandering the roads. When I was a college student in the late 1970s studying Chinese, there were virtually no cars in China; just shy of 40 years later, BMWs outnumber bicycles in many Chinese cities, and the two-wheelers once pushed by peds on pedals are now mostly electrified. But through it all, the trikes remain, anachronistic work-horses that fill the gaps between bikes and BYDs, Vespas and Teslas.
I spent a few hours this afternoon—my last in Beijing before I move on to Kunming tomorrow morning—walking the streets and alleys, photographing three-wheelers, and reflecting on stasis and evolution in transportation systems.
Perhaps the most inescapable aspect of being in China is the feeling one gets from being in a sea of over 1.3 billion people in a country the size of the United States (which has less than 1/3 of that number). It always feels like every last one of them is in the street at the same time I’m trying to cross it. Yet for all the traffic in its innumerable forms—cars, tricycles, pedal-powered and electric bicycles, donkey-drawn carts, and feet—going every which way at the same time, there are few accidents. The vehicles and pedestrians move at slow speeds and just seem to flow organically around one another in a Brownian dance.
But even more noticeable to a Western (i.e., US, European) eye than the crowds is the cultural tendency in China for people to do things in groups, often really large ones. The most noticeable are the groups exercising together on the streets and in the parks, but tour groups, school groups (all in identical t-shirts), and large family groups are everywhere and personal space—so important in many Western cultures—feels painfully absent.
And as a visitor here, albeit one who was invited to various institutions and is being supported by the Chinese government, this feeling is accentuated by the seemingly constant companionship (or in my more churlish moods, “handling”) of friends and colleagues who appear to manage effortlessly to fill virtually every waking hour of my days here with seminars, field trips, discussions, and meals—all activities that keep me en-grouped.
So while I’ve been in China, not only have I had to work hard find and make time for myself when I’m not otherwise sleeping, but I have also found myself looking for instances and examples of how people here carve out even small amounts of personal space. Continue reading →
I’m taking a day off from writing about my scientific and culinary adventures in China, and turning my attention to science and art. I spend a lot of time thinking about the relationship between science and art, but not in the way that it is mostly written and talked about, which is art drawing influence from science and technology, and reinterpreting it for different audiences. Rather, I’m particularly interested in how science and scientists – which in my case means ecology and ecologists – have been and continue to be influenced by art and the humanities in general. I’ve even written a couple of papers on the subject, which you can read elsewhere on this site.
But right now, I’m working with Carri LeRoy, a faculty member at the Evergreen State College in Washington State, to organize an “ignite” session for next summer’s Ecological Society of America meetings, to be held in Portland, Oregon. If you’re interested in this topic, and want to give a talk/presentation/exhibition or join the discussion, then…
A number of years ago, Alfred Runte wrote an insightful article on the rationale for the creation of the United States’ (US) National Park System (“The National Park idea: origins and paradox of the American experience,” published in the Journal of Forest History 21, 64-75; April 1977) He argued that in the 19th century, the US was still insecure about its identity as a nation. We felt that we didn’t have the cultural history, cathedrals, and other iconic buildings that Europe did, but we had awesome landscapes that Europe couldn’t match. This fixation on monumentality was enshrined in the enabling legislation for the National Parks (the 1916 Organic Act), has carried forward in management strategies and policies that emphasize retaining the parks in their “original condition”, and persists in such language as “National Monuments”.
After a final night in the city of Ya’an, Sichuan Province, we headed north back into Shaanxi Province, following the Bao Jiang (Bao River) towards Baoji. We were on a small, older road, but it is being replaced by the new Baohan Expressway. This superhighway will run 200 or so kilometers (at least 12o miles), and will have been built, start to finish, in about 3 years. According to Chen Dong, building a highway like this is considered an “easy” project: it follows an existing route (in this case, right up a riverbed; the existing road is built above the river on an old terrace), uses established precast concrete technology, and takes advantage of China’s immense and hungry labor force.
But I think that it marks the end of the road for the Qinling panda. The sign at left, overlooking a reservoir (photo below; ironically established as a national wetland reserve – once the lake behind the dam silts in, it should be a very nice wetland!), reads: 熊猫故里 (xióng māo gù lĭ), literally the “hometown” of the panda, but idiomatically meaning “pandas once lived here [in this their native home], but they don’t anymore.”
After two weeks in downtown Xi’an, I, along with Professor Chen Yi-ping, graduate student Chen Dong, and an indefatigable driver Liu, set out on the morning of 29 August for a 6-day road trip through the Qinling Mountains of southern Shaanxi Province, northern Sichuan Province, and Gensu Province. The goal of this excursion is to introduce me to the two subspecies of panda (the Qinling and the Sichuan), their remaining habitat, and the challenges associated with conserving this iconic endangered species.
And of course, I am hoping to actually see a giant panda!
Global climate change, widespread extinctions, and pervasive pollution are just a few of the many symptoms of the global environmental changes produced by human activities. There is a growing consensus that human societies have emerged as a “great force of nature” that is shifting Earth into a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene. Why? Biology alone cannot explain this.
Erle goes on to explore a new evolutionary theory, which he terms sociocultural niche consruction, and its link to the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, to explain the origins of the capacity of Homo sapiens to transform the Earth (see also Mesoudi 2016). In my commentary, Are humans really different and does it matter if they’re not, I reflect on whether Erle’s new evolutionary theory and the ongoing global anthropogenic transformation of the biosphere can fit comfortably within our standard theories and models of ecological and evolutionary dynamics or whether the patterns and processes of sociocultural niche construction in the “Anthropocene” necessitate new ways of thinking about and practicing evolutionary ecology.
Although Erle and I have some differences on the need for a new evolutionary theory, we agree on the fundamentals.