Landscape in Life and Science

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My current landscape – the Oldman River valley, in southern Alberta.

The course in the university calendar was titled Geography 415: Landscapes of the Heart. We snickered, incredulous that such a thing could be credited for a university degree. As undergrads – particularly ones who hadn’t learned a thing about geography until university – we didn’t fully understand the legacy of a geography education. As BSc students, we felt more aligned with earth scientists than social scientists, completely unaware of the breadth of perspective that geography would instill in us. To us, a human geographer was mistakenly considered a mere pseudo-scientist, measuring things no one could see. Writing papers on esoteric topics that had no connection to the ‘real world’.

David Perlmutter would agree with my undergrad self. In a recent Chronicle article, he suggested that tenure-track job applicants should ‘Embrace (their) inner North Dakotan‘ and take any position relevant to their specialty, regardless of location. In a follow-up column, Alexandra Lord disputed that idea, arguing that – for a range of reasons – some people just aren’t suited to certain places. No matter how much they try to embrace that inner {Minnesotan, Albertan, Ontarian, Californian, etc.}. [Interesting side note: Perlmutter wrote one of the most vociferous comments against Lord’s article. Doth he protest too much…?]

These days I have a much better sense of – and respect for – the content of that long-ago Geography course, and am more likely to side with Lord than Perlmutter. The intricate connection between humans and their environment is a critical factor in both our long term life trajectory and the rhythms of the everyday. Not only is this connection important in developing a feeling of home and belonging, but I believe a strong sense of place is also critical to environmental science research. (Although that may just be the geographer in me speaking.)

In ‘The Nature Principle‘, Richard Louv suggests that humans have a primordial pull towards savannah-like landscapes, with a mix of open meadow & treed areas, and a range of elevations. Others argue that the landscape in which you’re raised is imprinted on your mind like a GPS waypoint, one to which you’ll always return. But regardless of what landscapes you’re innately drawn to, Scott Russell Sanders’ ‘Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World‘ explains how, in our current culture, ‘home’ and ‘place’ are almost anathema, potential signs of weakness and certainly not a recipe for success. Instead people are expected to take Perlmutter’s advice and follow their career wherever it leads, like a friend of mine whose software-related job has him living in a different country for several months of each year.

While connecting with the landscape you call home isn’t championed in our society, it has many advantages that are often overlooked. On a personal level, finding a landscape to which you’re attached helps develop long-term friendships with people who are similarly connected to that place. Grassroots organizations like watershed councils and stream restoration groups wouldn’t exist if the people involved didn’t have a shared passion for their local landscape & environment, and its long-term health and functioning. Engagement with the landscape can also provide a combination of both mental stillness and stimulation. Neil Young insists that his home on a 1000 acre property in California, deep in a redwood forest, had everything to do with his continuing musical creativity. Also, the more connected you are to a local landscape, the more likely it is that you’ll become more aware of seasonal cycles, like food sowing and harvesting times, stages of plant flowering, or the times of year that certain animals can be seen. This kind of connection is instrumental in understanding our impact on the environment, and how it can be minimized, by eating local seasonal foods, planting native vegetation, etc. (Although there are arguments against the sustainability of the 100 mile diet, there’s no denying it strengthens our connection to the landscape).

Ultimately, a strong connection to the landscape can provide a necessary context for studies of environmental science/physical geography. During my PhD degree, I worked on an Arctic glacier on Ellesmere Island. I spent 2-3 months each summer camped on or near the glacier to collect data. However, my time there wasn’t only about the data I collected, but the daily observations I made – both consciously and subconsciously. I watched the development of waterfalls off cliffs in the proglacial zone, monitored the growth and collapse of a large supraglacial ice ‘bubble’ over a two-week period, and listened to the rumbling and creaking of the glacier below my feet, like a subway train entering the station. When I analyzed my quantitative data, these qualitative observations provided context for the measurements I’d collected on water level and EC/Temp, stream discharge, surface ablation, and daily weather conditions.

In contrast, a graduate student I met during my undergrad degree was working with tree ring chronologies from across the North American West. He used data from a central database, and had never even seen 95% of the sampling sites. While his results were good in the context of the data and information he had, it’s possible that specific knowledge of the environment and landscape at each sampling site may have improved his research. Some component of seasonal growth rates at each site may have resulted from local environmental conditions rather than regional climatic processes. While much of the local effect may have been filtered out of each dataset by focusing on commonalities across chronologies, an examination of those local conditions could have confirmed that this was indeed the case.

I think of Don Gayton, who was a rangeland agrologist in Saskatchewan and the Kootenays before moving to the desert of British Columbia’s southern Interior Plateau. His strong ties to each of these landscapes has led to a successful career in science writing, in which he links his research with his connection to place to explore regional ecology and the intricacies of the human-environment connection. Without the landscape connection, his research ideas and writing would be far less rich – and relevant to his ‘home landscape’.

Can we improve our science by becoming more grounded in place? By connecting with a landscape while studying it, rather than parachuting in and out for a few days across a span of months or years? By staying ‘in place’ to observe with all our senses – even if not consciously – we may have a better grasp on what’s occurring in the quantitative data.

Does landscape have any effect on your daily life or long term life choices? Are you attracted to a certain kind of landscape? Do you even notice that attraction, or are you more likely to deal with what you get and leave it at that? How does your connection to landscape figure into your research – if at all?

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One thought on “Landscape in Life and Science

  1. This blog reminds me of a village in Chile located close to a volcano, a mudflow from wich had carried rocks the size of a house to the place where the village is now. The mud flow was only 80 years ago and the government was not willing to give the villagers title to the land as they thought another mud flood would kill many villagers. Not giving title to the land was considered as an incentive to move. However, the people were so rooted that they stayed put. They developed sophisticated evacuation procedures and emergency plans to deal with such disasters and managed to convince the authorities that they should get title. They even were given a permanent observatory on the mountain that will warn of impending danger days to weeks in advance.Jan

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