Friday, September 30, 2011

The Ecology of Knowledge: Ecological Resilience and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

As students of science we have all, no doubt, absorbed the lessons from the history of our disciplines that changes in thinking tend not to be meted out incrementally. The Darwinian and Wallacean account of evolutionary change through natural selection did not merely supplement alternative, often supernatural, accounts of organic change through time. The idea was a revolutionary one – it turned the orthodoxies of the time on their heads and did so tumultuously and irrevocably (at least for those 40% or so of us who seem to accept evolutionary accounts). A revolution is rapid, and in the revolutionary moment one set of conceptual structures is replaced with another. After the revolution, the new structures may persist for a time – a period of “normal science” – even though, almost invariably, the data accumulated through the lens of new theories may not always be fully supportive of those newly ascendant theories. And as those cracks begin to show the Darwins and Wallaces of the world set to work and a whiff of revolution is in the air again

Familiar stuff all of this, I’m sure. Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher and historian of science, coined the term “paradigm” for those "universally recognized scientific achievements that, for a time, provide model problems and solutions for a community of researchers" and professors have employed that term tirelessly when words like “model” or “pattern” or “program” just seem too darned plain. In contrast with the “mop-up” work that is the business of “normal science” operating within a given scientific paradigm (and who wouldn’t get excited about mop-up jobs) Kuhn identified the manner in which rapid change in science is compressed into its major revolutionary events.

For now my interest is not merely in the ways in which Kuhnian analysis can be applied to ecology. Rather, I am curious about how Kuhn’s model of paradigms and revolutions not only assists in developing our explicit expectations of what revolutionary ecology makes possible, but also in how ecological thought can double back and influence the way in which we might think about the history of science in general. The revolution I have especially in mind, as I will elaborate below, is that associated with a resurgence of interest in ecological dynamics: ideas about the structure, function of ecological systems and the way these systems respond to disturbance. Ecologists are developing these conceptions at a level of generality that makes their models epistemologically relevant to phenomena as diverse as lakes, financial markets, and the history of science itself. So a paradigmatic shift relating to theories of change in ecology allows ecology to reflect on the nature of all paradigmatic shifts including its own ones. In this sense there is an ecology of knowledge, and ecologists therefore can benefit from collaboration with, and insight from, non-traditional partners in the humanities, in particular, with those that reflect on stability and change in systems not typically of interest to ecologists.  Kuhn is just one such anomalous partner.  In return, ecology may return the favor by exporting insights gleaned from the study of nature, making them available for the behavior of other complex systems. 


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

SEKsy Restoration: A Design for a Restoration Experiment employing Soil Ecological Knowledge to reduce Re-invasion by European Buckthorn

This work was undertaken with Lauren Umek who is the project manager and with the assistance of Tom Murphy from DePaul and a crew of dozens.

This recent restoration experiment directly addresses the hypothesis that successful prevention of the re-invasion of species like European buckthorn, Rhamnus cathartica, will be promoted by reducing soil nitrogen (N) levels.  High N in soils may be a legacy of long-term invasion by buckthorn, and other invaders, which have high N levels in their leaf litter.  As a consequence of reducing N as we attempt to do in this experiment, and perhaps this is counter-intuitive, the success of native plant diversity may be increased since the native community does not then have to complete with an aggressive invasive species.

In this experiment we chose those strategies for manipulating N availability in the upper soil horizons that managers might be expected to adopt if our experiment demonstrates desirable outcomes. These management techniques included mulching with buckthorn woodchips or with commercial mulch, a two-year corn-harvesting regime, and mowing and removal of a cover crop. Both of these strategies are expected to  reduce N levels in the soil and therefore reduce reinvasion rates.

Monday, September 26, 2011

George Perkins Marsh – Master of Footnotes

George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882), a polymath and polyglot, was born in Woodstock, Vermont and was a lawyer, congressman, and a US envoy to the Ottoman Empire and later to Italy, where he died.  One of the better known scholars of his times, Marsh’s scholarly interests are themselves interesting to examine.  He edited the first Icelandic grammar in English, and was familiar with the Old Norse language and literature.  Apparently he had knowledge of scholarly resources in as many as 20 languages!  Like many prodigious writers he has been claimed by many academic specialties as one of their own: geography, social science, ecology, conservation, folklorist etc.

In environmental circles he is best known for his 1864 book Man and Nature in which Marsh provided a forceful account of the impact of people on nature, especially their deleterious effects on forested lands. The book remains an influential reminder that the human use of nature imposes significant negative impacts on planetary resources and it anticipated by almost a century the broad contours of the environmental movements’ disquiet with human impacts on the environment.  This book along with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was the most influential environmental book of its times.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

10 things wrong: the bricks and mortar of critique

I am accumulating the books I think I am going to need (from my own library) for the 10 things wrong writing in the coming months in a set of large tubs and keeping them in the basement a few steps down from where I write these days.  On the left are literary sources, the center tub has environmental science/ecology titles, and the right is philosophy.  The philosophy tub has grown the most rapidly but the ecology pile, spilling over the edges, remains the biggest.

I have another pile right beside my desk which includes those volumes, including library books, that I am using at the moment.  Most of the work of this book is reviewing material that I am pretty familiar with, but rereading takes quite a bit of time.  Naturally, I am discovering that books that had long been favorites are less intriguing and useful to me now.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Decomposing Thought

Living things are born and die.  And living things rely for their living on the dying of other living things.  This is a central ecological thought – the decomposing thought.  A thought compelling enough to sustain an enduring research program: investigations of decomposition of dead organic matter (DOM) remain at the core of ecosystem ecology. These studies have promoted an understanding of the importance of the upper 5cm of soil – Earth’s tumultuous rind – where the roiling community of decomposers consume and transmute the apparent uselessness of dead flesh into the currency of ecosystems.  Input: DOM.  Process: decomposition by microbes regulated by the tiny champing of soil fauna – mites, springtails, and their divers kind. Output: energy for decomposers and the mineralization of the organic into nutrients available to the living. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

A fragment on José Martí: indirect reflections on action

In the hierarchy of José Martí’s values, action comes first.  In his notebook he writes: “Before assembling a collection of my poems I would like to assemble a collection of my actions.”[1]  Movement is a favorite term for him; “movement” he claims “is contagious”[2] If much of the action of his life is occupied with revolutionary agitation, political organization, and in the end, armed struggle to achieve a democratic Cuba, little of this action is directly reflected in his verse.  In fact, Roberto González Echevarría notes the near absence of politics and love in his poetry[3].  This is an odd claim, however.  Stanzas drawn randomly for any Martí volume are in fact fully flavored with love and politics and violence. “Yesterday, at the art show,/I saw her, and yesterday/My heart from me flew/After that woman to follow.”[4]  Though the section then takes a darker turn [“On the grim earth for the weary/Grow neither violet nor thorn”] it is clear nevertheless that Martí, the somewhat notorious lover, is writing as himself, not in the name of someone else.  The poems have a visionary tone; the stanza that follows on the one just quoted is the one in which he predicts his death. (“Don’t in darkness let me lie/With traitors to come undone:/I am good and as the good die/I will die face to the sun.”[5])  Marti is a man of movement, and in his verse the movement is crystallized, and in that crystal the action is reflected upon.

[1]  Allen, Esther, ed. Jose Marti: Selected Writings. New York: Penguin, 2002, Notebook 5 73
[2] Ibid., Notebook 5 73
[3]  Ibid.,  pxxiv
[4]  Marti, Vesos Sencillos Translated by Manuel A Tellechea [1997] XXI, 71
[5] Ibid.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reversing the Flow - a New Way of thinking about Restoration Management

Since this term "reversing the flow" is catching on in our research group I thought it might be useful for me to post the first time I used this term.  It was in a 2008 white paper written as part of the process leading to our successful Coupled-Natural-Human-Systems proposal (we now call this project RESTORE - Rethinking Ecological and Social Theories of Restoration Ecology).

The Central Metaphor
In 1900 the flow of the Chicago River was reversed in one of the most dramatic engineering projects in the region’s history.  The project was a solution to a problem that otherwise compromised the human and ecological health of Chicago (Lake Michigan was unsustainably both a source of water and ultimately a sink for waste).  A little more than a century later, we should attempt to solve another significant challenge: how can we enhance the management of protected terrestrial ecological systems - areas that are typically swamped by influences from the vaster unmanaged metropolitan lands that surround them - in a way that simultaneously enriches both the human and ecological health of the region?  We need to investigate if ecological systems designed and managed with resilience in mind (arguably the current best management practices for restoration do not produce resilience results, and quickly revert to a ‘degraded’ condition) can exert a stronger influence on the landscape on a larger scale (which includes these large unmanaged areas) than is currently the case.  In this way we can arguably “reverse the flow” of restoration influence or more precisely modify the fluxes, of influence between managed and unmanaged preserved systems. 

10 Things Wrong with Environmental Thinking: half a book

I have been entertained by Tim Morton's posts on the endgame for his book Realist Magic.  So inspired by these posts, I compiled into a single document all that I have written so far on "10 Things Wrong", my work in progress (WIP), and the namesake for this blog.  I have been writing this book as a suite of vignettes, paying very little attention so far to the way these all connect up.  However, I have a pretty comprehensive outline, and though the connector pieces will be less interesting to write the task should be relatively painless.

So the grand total so far is 40,000 words, a 200 page double spaced draft.  Though it feels like progress - the heft alone is a delight! - nonetheless, I know I am less than half way there.

All of this has been written since June - and demonstrates the unexpected advantages of open-heart surgery.  If it were not for my enfeebled condition, I would not have sat at home day after day for a few of months writing and editing.  I had forgotten - not sure how it was possible to forget this - that it is very difficult to fit in work on a project like this when other professorial duties prevail.  Since I am having an exciting quarter - great students, working on a new proposal, and trying to get a manuscript on our restoration experiment completed, launching the Institute for Nature and Culture's new blog - I cannot complain.  I am concerned though that I will loose the urgency to get this completed and I would love to have the entire first draft completed by next summer. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

As plain as the nose on your face

I learned through a mutual acquaintance that O’Cinnéide, that great embryologist, had died, so I attended his funeral mass at St. Vincent DePaul’s in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.  He had recently turned sixty, and had died according to the note I got from O’Neill “in distressing circumstances.”  O’Neill added that he would appreciate advice on a matter of O’Cinnéide’s legacy.  Along with a few of the regular morning mass-goers and some heavily aromatic homeless men sleeping in the pews at the back of the church, there were no more than a handful of us there that remembered him.  These were mainly his former university colleagues.  O’Cinnéide took an early retirement after which he severed contact with most of us.  After condolences had been offered to his wife, a handsome, doleful and seemingly capable woman who had, in fact, seen little of him in his last months as he had been under the constant care of his doctors, a few of us retreated to the Local Option a block away on Webster Avenue.  It was a crisp April morning, certainly not so warm that a person would have overcome his resentment at harsh treatment from another miserable Chicago winter; certainly not so warm that one had yet forgotten, as a Chicagoan typically does during the summer months, one’s resolve to flee.  We settled into the back of the bar, ordered our pints and toasted the dead man.  “A great Irish genius”, one of us said.  And the rest of us mumbled into our pints, “Aye; that he was.”  Read on here

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Ghost story teaser....

O’Cinnéide’s descent at the end was rapid and it dominated the last few years of his life.  This apparition had, after all, been the observation of a lifetime, one that he now imagined he had foolishly overlooked.  He had captured an event, as improbable and perhaps as significance as the Higgs boson, using that most primitive and complex of apparatuses: the human eye.  Not a direct view, but a sidelong glance, an eye modified like a microscope with phase contrast.  He was now determined to investigate with the vigor the situation demanded.  He retired and went to Florida; not to rest but to replicate.  Florida ranch houses became his cyclotron.  

I'll link this up to the piece on 3quarksdaily tomorrow, if you care to read it.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Writing fiction: turns out it's hard to do

Generally when I write for 3quarks I prefer to wait until the week or so before the column is due to get started.  I enjoy writing these pieces, but I don't want it to dig too much into my other writing commitments.  And though these columns are not masterpieces (thought I confess to having a soft spot for my post on my surgery experience (here), and for the first of my bodily fluids pieces (here)) nevertheless I typically get them finished, and they are generally not horrifyingly bad.

This month though I made the poor decision to try to write a piece of fiction - a ghost story of all things.  Now, I have written plenty of fiction over the years but never with a view to publication, online or anywhere else.  Like most Irishmen I have a half written novel manuscript on my hard drive, But I had forgotten just how difficult it is to write a satisfying story.  It seems that in writing fiction it is difficult to rehabilitate the writing once it has gone offtrack.  In writing a scientific manuscript, or an essay, or even a poem, I am typically able to redirect the ship once if it goes off course.  But a story when it decides to head for the shallow waters of mediocrity is determined, apparently, to wreck itself on the shoals.  Why is this, I wonder?

So I have an outline, a few hundred words of text, and about a day to get this sucker finished.  It's beginning to look awkward.  So do I exhume an older writing and get it ready for posting on Monday or do I knuckle down and see if by dint of the sweat of my brow and a dollop of writerly will get this fictional baby into some sort of shape, and post whatever emerges? Anyway here's a couple of lines of the story so far.  It's in the voice of a tediously loquacious Irishman living in Chicago (I suppose that would be me...):

“Our friend is now out of pain, and his was a pain of great immensity – ultimate, substantial pain – immense precisely because it was so seemingly trifling a thing.  A man might recover from being flattened by a truck only to take a nibble from a toadstool and perish in an instant.  The notebooks [the story is constructed from reading lab notebooks!], and there are hundreds of them, go back to his early adulthood, and as I gathered from reading them, so does the origin of his most peculiar problem, a problem so seemingly insignificant, that his death seems not only to come out of the shadows but the shadows might be said to have been the lethal instrument.” 

Anyway, I suppose I should be writing a story.

Sneek a Peek at DeepMap Lincoln Park

A Small Sample of the Lincoln Park Tree Map

We are still in the early days of preparing our tree map of Chicago's Lincoln Park  DePaul undergraduates Core Cote, Jake Hartle, and Erin Weber worked on this over the last couple of years.  We have most of the trees in the park mapped, species identified, sized, and the condition evaluated. 

On this map (prepared by DePaul Geography major Alex Ulp) we display just a little taste of a large data set (this shows a fraction of the total tree population mapped). Ultimately, and hopefully before too long, we will complete the map.  I'll be recruiting more students to work on this in Spring.

I'll keep you posted.

A nice little Chicago Tribune piece on our work can be found here.  DePaul covered the story here.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

It’s Mumford Time! Environmental Icarine Writers and the verification of spectacular claims

The case of the monastic clock and the invention of capitalism.

Fashioning an intellectual life is like unraveling a wooly sweater in reverse where instead of picking at a loose thread or two and witnessing the garment come asunder, one starts with sentence strands from a few books and knits these together to create from that growing ball of scholarly yarn, a suite of preoccupations and opinions that make up one’s worldview.  There was a short period of time when I was in college when I checked this process and was determined not to read and instead get my information exclusively from oral sources and directly from experience.  But the world was mute to me and my own thoughts were insufficiently intriguing so I broke down and became a voracious reader once again.  There are still direct connections between the books I read in youth and those that are still important to me now – books that led to others in the domino-heap of a reading lifetime.

Several of the strands that set me off along my scholarly way I picked up in volumes at a small local library near my home in Templeogue on the Dublin south side which I visited sometimes daily a teenager.  The work of Louis Mumford (1895 –1990) was one such significant discovery.  Mumford was one of those writers whose prose, it seems to me, works like Icarus falling back from the skies, their flight through air is so daring, the thrill of what they are attempting is so seductive, and yet the glint of the sun so brilliantly frames them that it is hard to tell if their wings are intact or not – is this, one wonders, flight or falling?  One rarely knows.  This display is quite unlike the writer who gains the high ground by laborious clambering from foothold to foothold – charting a slow methodical course up the rock-face, and whom we can, if we care to, follow behind and with whom, ultimately, we can share the vista from atop the peak.  The former Icarine writers eschew scholarly apparatuses, relying, as they do, upon the spectacle of the sky; the latter writers are replete with footnoted nooks and bibliographic crannies.  Icarine writers are especially delightful to the youth, and when I discovered Mumford I knew I had found a writer who would mark me.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Diverse Atheistic Menagerie: Some of these White Guys have Beards

Now, I’m as much of an atheist as the next guy.  And I am skeptical for all the right reasons: a religious lad who went to university, read a lot of Darwin, and was troubled by its implications for belief in an external Deity who supervised the creation of living things and who stands in ultimate judgment of us all.  I amicably parted company with Catholicism at age 18 or so and more than a quarter of a century later I have not reconciled with my religious conviction.  There is more to say about my auto-religio-graphy, and when I can find an interesting way of reviewing it I will write some more on the matter. 

I should be a good candidate for enthusiastic support of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchins, Dennett, Harris and company) and though many of these writers delight me, I am nonetheless suspicious of them.  There is plenty to discuss here, and again this is something I’d like to revisit in the coming weeks, but the thing that’s on my mind right now is the chauvinism of the recommended reading published on Richard Dawkins website.  See here.  Oh there’s some real diversity there: some of these white men have beards, some unfashionably have long hair, a bald man or two graces the list.  But for the most part, the overwhelming part, they are white and male.

Now I certainly get the point that a diversity of styles of writing are represented – novelists, philosophers, linguists, evolutionary biologists and so forth.  And I also recognize that some of these perspectives have historically been male-dominated.  However, for Dawkins neither to have been influenced by, nor to recommend, writing by women and people of color (with very little exception) seems to be, shall we say… unfortunate.  What can possibly go wrong as this new priesthood whittles the old priesthood away?

In the old days we were told that we had a male only priesthood because Jesus had exclusively chosen male disciples and who after all could (or back in the day, dare) possibly assail that logic?  After all, didn't Jesus love the Mammy and He gave women a very special role in his Church?  No doubt Father Richard has his good reasons for choosing his prophets and acolytes in a manner reflected in these recommendations.  I am not sure what those reasons are, nor how to justify them.  Do you? 

For the time being I offer this prayer, paraphrasing St Augustine: Dear Lord, make me a New Atheist, but not yet.