May 22, 2016

Why I do "slow walks," or why amateur naturalism is good for you and us: An essay

Nature Field Guides

Studying the outdoors is not just for environmental scientists and outdoors nerds. Outdoor study during what I call slow walks affords urban and rural people, including busy professionals, the opportunity to develop key cognitive skills and useful knowledge. The exercises of the naturalist come with distinct benefits for those who choose to join in. In other words, everyone could and should become a naturalist to some degree.

This is an essay on my slow walks, why I take them, and why I think they can an important part of anyone's life. Even the most urban person can find value in the outdoors, and spaces are often just a few blocks away. It's kind of a long essay, but it's helped me work out some of the issues I've been thinking about related to balancing my interest of the outdoors with my non-natural career interests. Writing this up has helped me realized a few reasons why I like to observe the outdoors and what I tend to learn from my experiences. I don’t want to think my outdoors and technology lives are mutually exclusive. Instead, I think they can inform each other in interesting ways, but only if I take some time to draw some insights from observations I make doing both my outdoors activities and technical work as an educator.

Doing slow walks

Over the years of living in Chicago, I have spent a lot of time in the city's parks. I never really questioned why, but always felt like I belonged. For one, it was a free activity amid a city that can cost a lot to go out often. However, it was more than that. I felt better after I went, and always felt that I was drawing on inspiration I gained from my time in the outdoors. As a kid who grew up camping in the mountains of Oregon, I was drawn to the city's green spaces and spent a lot of time watching and learning about the parks' wild residents. I would often linger during these trips, observing the park's trails closely. Over the last year, I have come to call these trips slow walks, or trips that have no real destination and their sole purpose is simply to observe and learn. My only goal is to clear my mind, take as much as I can in, and try to see underlying connections between the things I see.

Nature Field Guides
Some of my natural history library, both vintage and new

A single trip to a green space will reveal a lot about an area, it's true. You can learn the terrain and identify the primary plant and wildlife residents pretty fast. "Collecting" parks is a great activity as it gives many great stories for me to tell others. However, there are some parks and places that hold special significance for me, and I find myself going them more than anywhere else.

A single trip to a place will only allow for a small percentage of that area to be observed. For instance, during a recent trip to Shenandoah National Park, there were just too many trails, too many mountain peaks, and too many ecosystems in the various alpine levels to really know an area. It would take a lifetime (or likely several hundred lifetimes) to really understand how things work. To really know an area, you must become an expert through experience. You must observe it in many different conditions, times, and seasons. Certain animals only emerge to the public sporadically, and only if the habitat is favorable. In fact, from just my few years of watching outdoors, a single trip will allow interested observers only a few interactions within an ecosystem, even in a place as small as a park. Frequent visits to a specific area with the purpose of just watching can help teach the underlying 90% of the green space that a single trip prevents you from seeing.

And the best place you can observe and become an expert is your own backyard. You and your neighbors stand to know it better than any biologist who comes to visit. It's yours, you're tied to the place. Although I don't have a backyard as a condo resident, I do have a rather large park across the street by the name of Lincoln Park. Its complex web of wildlife and flora keep me in wonder every time I visit. I always find myself asking questions each time I visit the park and feeling like I don't know anything, even though I've been to the park a hundred times.

I'm certainly not the first to think about a deeper study of one's backyard. In a recent book called The Forest Unseen, David George Haskell looks at the often ignored and passed-by aspects of a forest dear to him. I only stumbled on the book randomly during a night of internet browsing, but the abstract of the book caught me immediately. I found that Haskell had been asking similar questions about deeper explorations of places we assume to know very well. And he's a biologist! In short, Haskell spent a year in a 1x1 meter square of a forest, visiting repeatedly to better understand how it works. I haven't finished the book yet, but what he finds astonishes him and challenges his basic knowledge about how his forest truly works. From my interpretation, the book is not only a story about his findings, but also a call to readers to really open the hood and understand the dynamic processes that occur within the things they take the most granted. My "backyard" park is a prime example - I only see 10% of what goes on there with frequent visits at best. It could take a lifetime to really see more, and that's ok.

Slow walking is a peaceful activity for me, as I try to clear my mind for that (usually 1-2 hour) time of any work-related stuff. Some might say that I am wasting my time that could be spent on work, or that it is just a hobby and nothing more. However, I think there are many unique benefits to better understanding nature that extends past the domain of scientific understanding. Having grown up with the Boy Scouts' emphasis on outdoor learning, I strongly believe that nature holds a lot of lessons for everyday life. These same lessons are obscured when we enter busy modern life as we have simplified many things and allowed our brains to relax. As a result, we fail to see bigger pictures and think outside the box because we haven't been honing our ability to perceive how systems work. Nature can teach us to be better thinkers in everything we do. Slow walking is more of a mental exercise and meditation for me than it is doing science.

When I do my slow walks, I typically have a camera, or at least my phone. I walk slowly on the path, scanning the ground to the trees on each side of me. I'm typically looking for movement of any kind that isn't leaves blowing in the wind. I also look for things that are out of the ordinary from my previous trips, such as some new mushrooms growing next to a log I'm familiar with or a new set of wildflowers that have started to show their vivid colors. I listen for moving brush and check for color differences in the flora on the trails. When I spot something interesting (which is usually for me something different or some wildlife), I stop and take a moment to try to make a snap judgment on what it is. If it's a new or rare bird, I try to get my camera.

I will usually spend some time watching wildlife or photographing interesting plants, trying to observe the behavior and see what else is "connected" to that plant or animal. Although I'm interested in the wildlife itself and am always trying to get that adorable photo of a duckling or squirrel, I am probably more interested in seeing if the creature acts in new ways, or if a plant is growing in a way that I find myself saying to myself is different than I've seen before. In short, my slow walks are lots of taking things in, trying to use all my senses, and trying to clear my head of thoughts about the outside world so I can spend all my cognitive effort on processing and perceiving.

A big portion of these observations should be spent in documentation as well, but I've been slacking on that end. In many cases, I've found that I really work out my thoughts and "gain knowledge" as I reflect on something and write it up. In other words, I know it when I write it. One thing I'm learning as a Ph.D. student is that writing isn't just for the reader - it's just as much for the writer to work out their thoughts and arguments. I want to get started on documenting my slow walks better and making arguments for how and why things are connected. Now that I got it started, I hope to use this blog for that purpose. I don't want to just record all the new things I see, but I want to generate insights from the patterns of interaction that I see in my city's natural areas. Writing up my claims gives me a space to think out how the system works and hypothesize causality within my backyard park. You know, the sciency-type stuff that an expert of one's backyard should do to better understand how and why things work. Professionals like botanists and environmental scientists spend every day doing this, but amateur naturalists stand to benefit a lot from engaging in this process as well.

One thing I do know I do regularly, though, is collect information and study about places I visit. When I see people who work at Lincoln Park, I'm always asking questions. I read articles and blogs on the web about the park, and follow the park district and conservancy groups that work to maintain healthy ecosystems in the park. There's still so much to be learned in this park, and the knowledge doesn't have to be generated by just scientists. I think it was Teddy Roosevelt who once said that anyone who calls a place home should become experts of their own backyards. It just so happens that Lincoln Park is mine.

I'm always asking questions and observing. I continually try to learn about places I visit. However, I want to get better with my closest-to-home green spaces, as they're the next best thing I have to a backyard. With this blog, I hope to start documenting more and reflecting on past observations of my slow walks, as well as sharing the fun stories of my travels to new places. There are many lessons to be learned from the patch of green across the street from me, even with all the urban noise and lights. Animals and plants still live here, we just have to know how to look.

What I get out of a slow walk (or, alternatively, being an amateur naturalist is cool)

I find my slow walks informative. I learn so much about the natural world every time I go outside. As someone who resides in the urban concrete jungle, our world has been simplified. Life is get merely defined by schedules and four wall rooms. Life becomes simple, but it becomes very difficult to think outside of those four walls. Interrelated aspects of life become irrelevant, traded in for simple causality. Green spaces restore some of the original complexity of life. There are no "simple" answers in nature, in that there are simple causes and effects.

However, nature has systems settled down in a way that is far more efficient than our urban designs. To a looker who spends time in the outdoors, the diverse interactions in green spaces reveal a beautiful simplicity among the complexity. This is why it is a fun mental challenge to see past the simple relationships in green spaces to see what connections underlie the wild flora and fauna. Although most things are interrelated and interact to some degree in green spaces, the system seems to work really well. These green spaces can reveal a lot about living as we live our stressful lives. Every time I take a moment and just quietly observe, I discover more about how the world works from the example of just the small parks I visit. If anything, it's a continual lesson in that there are rarely simple answers. For a natural area to thrive, an entire ecosystem is necessary, which includes it's complex relationships. Urban parks are often the only green spaces many people have. These parks are amazing natural laboratories in which thousands of processes occur daily. It just takes some effort of perception and observation to make sense of what is going on.

Parks seem simple, but they are probably the most complex places in a city. On the surface, knowing how squirrels interact with plants may not seem helpful or interesting. Don't think this way. You need to think deeper and identify the underlying processes at play. Given enough observations and interactions, you can start to distill lessons and concepts about green spaces that may carry over to other aspects of life. These are lessons that can rarely be observed from city or human life, as frankly we aren't as complex as an entire ecosystem of animals and plants who behave in different ways.

Observing, hypothesis generation in nature, and pondering the random effects of forces in these natural areas are exercises that are also just fun to do. If you're ever bored, just try to chart out the relationships between the wildlife and plants in your backyard. It's really hard. For me, the parks of Chicago are my backyard. No matter where your backyard, these exercises are gratifying. You can also always impress your friends by sharing your observations and hypotheses :)

I find my slow walks inspirational. With continual observation, I see new things on each trip and learn more about how the wildlife, plants, land, and humans interact. The interactions are what are fascinating to me - how things are connected. I find these connections inspirational for my

The years of interactions from hundreds of living creatures in a natural area allows for the system to settle. These natural designs can be really inspirational for human-based design. It shows what happens when hundreds (or thousands) of actors interact in a system. I've been arguing for years that we need to start thinking in terms of systems in the design of technology and social institutions. As a technologist who is also a student of nature, I find myself distilling many lessons from my walks.

Slow walks are perspective-giving. Living in an urban area is a testament to human control and design. A walk through green spaces affords opportunities to reflect on our place in the world and how we should interact with the wild. As I visit green spaces, I realize that I am the visitor. Continued human impact on both natural and designed will increasingly be an issue in future years. Understanding natural systems in relation and comparison to human urban life can reveal powerful lessons on how to move forward.

Finally, my walks are therapeutic. There are many studies emerging about the healing properties of green spaces. I'm a technologist who can too easily get over-mediated (and prescribe the same for those I work with) by our digital lives. Life in the city is fast, stressful, and sometimes constricting. Although I love the city and tech-mediated perhaps more than most, I have also found myself committed to balancing my technolife with a return to basics.

Nature gives my mind some calm and I find myself able to think better with some fresh air and trees. Alternatively, I find myself able to clear my mind if I need to quiet it down. They are excellent meditative spaces in a world where our minds are bombarded by life's problems, media, and continual stimulation from digital devices.

South Pond
Lincoln Park in Chicago gives a wonderful sense of natural life amid the big skyscrapers

I read an interesting article recently in National Geographic about how our bodies are positively wired to be in natural spaces. We are happier when we are outside. Researchers now hypothesize that our eyes will be terrible by 2050 because our bodies are used to being in complex, three-dimensional environments with many stimuli. Being stuck inside can actually hurt our bodies. Moving education to the outdoors can create great opportunities for learning - just ask the Boy Scouts! There are multiple studies like these above that are published every month that echo the same sentiment. In other words, we belong outside way more than we have been living.

We are creatures built for nature, so it's no wonder that we find ourselves energized when we go outside. Seeing the same problem a hundred years ago, Muir prescribed the same for people in urban centers (even before all the science on the healing effects of nature). Although he was talking about the deep wilderness, natural areas in cities apply just the same:

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” - John Muir

Everyone can be a naturalist

These are just a few reasons why I take slow walks. The word naturalist has largely fallen out of use, but it should make a comeback for people to identify with the activities associated with slow walking. I'd love to identify as a naturalist, but unfortunately, work of its type is reserved for those who do science professionally. I'm a scientist, but my area of study is technological and educational systems. However, I think nature can inspire insights in any domain, including the most nature-antithesis subjects like technology.

Amateur naturalism is something everyone can enjoy. Although I have argued that the knowledge that is gained can be self-serving in the form of helping people be better thinkers, we also gain knowledge about the how ecosystems work and are influenced by human activity. Vinson Brown wrote a guidebook on being an amateur naturalist in 1948, but the whole concept of naturalism as a hobby and not a career seems to have fallen into solely the domain of young children and professionals. It's exciting to see, though, that "regulars" who aren't embedded in the scientific work can find meaningful outlets for their efforts. A brief web search shows that even in Chicago, volunteer observation programs are taking off to study what's happening in parks. The Lincoln Park Conservancy encourages people to help monitor butterflies, count frogs, and photograph bees in their biodiversity program. The Lincoln Park Zoo enlists regular people in their Chicago Wildlife Watch program to help look at photos from "camera traps" in the parks to see if any animals tripped off the motion sensors and allow scientists to better understand how animals interact with park areas. And, most impressively, the Audubon Society hosts the largest and longest-running citizen science effort in their annual bird census during the Christmas Bird Count, which has produced impressive results and real data that can be used in scientific study. The examples above all show the power of the age of crowdsourcing, as the number of ways that we can learn about our homes together have increased dramatically.

In addition to the personal benefits one gains from slow walks in the park, a secondary benefit is the knowledge we all gain about the countless micro-ecosystems in everyone's backyards. Since each ecosystem is likely unique, we can learn a lot about what's happening in the natural world. We should work to make it common for everyone to know their backyard. Being a naturalist makes for a great (and cheap) hobby, but more so it is a useful set of activities that can help train perceptive capabilities that can be applied to any career. It can make you a more rounded person who better understands the complexities of life. In other words, it makes you a better thinker.

My observation and documentation of natural phenomena are not just an exercise in esoteric knowledge reserved for botanists or environmental scientists. Slow walking, as I have come to define it, gives me knowledge about the working world and how processes play out in a complex system. This is valuable knowledge for anyone in any career. I would certainly argue that anyone with systems knowledge as inspired by nature will be able to solve problems and generate creative ideas in ways that will help achieve goals.

So, seeking an identity for my naturalist interests, I leave you my latest mantra. Nature: it's not just for the scientists. Everyone should be a naturalist, and that's not just a nerdy thing to do. I'm a technologist and do not come close to formally studying nature for a living. However, I believe I can be a better person and do better work by going outside. Nature has a lot of insight to offer in terms of how things organize, work together, and influence each other. These kinds of insights are useful in any profession.

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