Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

Richard Louv at DePaul Thursday 19th 6:30 pm!

A Five Minute Nature Daydream May Make You More Energetic and Playful!

It’s the middle of the afternoon, the morning’s coffee has long worn off, and the soporific effects of that lunchtime sandwich are kicking in.  Rather than gulping down that energy drink, perhaps a little nature daydreaming might help.  Today in my urban ecology class I investigated this possibility.

The study was designed primarily to initiate a conversation about the role of nature in human health and well being.  It comes as no surprise that active engagement in nature, running, walking, engaging in restoration work, gardening and so forth has measureable benefits for human health.  A little more surprising perhaps are findings that passive engagement with nature, living in prettily landscaped surroundings has positive effects on people and on their communities.  Bordering on mystifying though are the results of studies indicating that even views of nature, pictures of nature or nature glimpsed through a window delivers benefits to people.  This skein of research became big news with the publication of Roger Ulrich’s paper in Science demonstrating that patients with views of nature through a window recovered more rapidly from surgery, required fewer post-operative narcotics, and were less testy with their nurses.[1]

So, it was with a view to opening up a discussion on this range of effects that I conducted a little experiment.  There were 16 attendees – 14 undergraduates, 1 graduate students, and 1 post-doctoral researcher.  Students were assigned one of two pictures.  One is a view down an alley in Evanston – it has both a lot of vegetation but also has garbage bins etc.  The other is of a living room (harvested from the internet) which deliberate was chosen to look comfortable and with a television. 

I read the following prompt: “View the picture you have been assigned.  Imagine yourself in this place and what you would typically be doing in this setting.  With the image in mind contemplate this activity for 5 minutes.  Relax, close your eyes if you prefer.  When Heneghan calls time turn over the page and answer the questions.”

The questions were
On a scale of 1-5 (with 5 being the highest for each factor and 1 being lowest) rate your level of
1.         Overall energy levels (1  2  3  4  5)
2.         Feeling of aggression (1  2  3  4  5)
3.         Playfulness (1  2  3  4  5)
4.         Peacefulness (1  2  3  4  5)
5.         General satisfaction with life (1  2  3  4  5) 

Then students were asked to answer the following numerical puzzle
Mr. Brown has 8 black gloves and 8 brown gloves in his closet. He blindly picks up some gloves from the closet. What is the minimum number of gloves Mr. Brown will have to pick to be certain to find a pair of gloves of the same color?[2]

The results are summarized as follows:

I analyzed the results using a Mann-Whitney U test (run on SAS). There are probably more appropriate ways of analyzing this data but this approach did reveal some exciting trends.  By convention ecologists report effects as "statistically significant" when there is less than a 5% chance that they are in error in reporting that two study populations differ.  This is usually reported as p<0,05. By this metric none of the responses among students was significant.  That being said several difference in responses to daydreams based upon the two landscapes were very close to this cut off point.

For instance, self reported energy levels after contemplating the urban nature scene averaged 3.25 compare with 2.375 when the living room was viewed.  Calling the two populations of viewers different in their energy levels is probably “safe”.  The probability is about 5.8% that they differ by chance (p=0.058) – good enough to be interesting.   

Students arose from their micro-slumber with an average playfulness score of 3.375 when they viewed urban nature but a mere 2.375 after dreams of a living room.  The p-value associated with differences in playfulness scores was 0.065, enough to be also worth thinking about.

There were no other substantial differences in the response of viewers.  I did detect a greater restlessness of my living roomers during their 5 minutes of contemplation.  In contrast, the nature viewers were almost uniformly still and engaged in their meditation.  I guess I just thought that this was cool!  

The conversation was interesting after the test.  But, I will invite the students in the class to comment if they care to.

Now, I am no social scientists, and one thing I have learned from my social science colleagues in recent years is that survey design if a complex business.  On top of this there are many design limitations in the implementation of the study.  For instance, I clustered the hand outs in the room so that students would not look at their neighbors and have a scene other than their designated one to think about.  The replication is, of course, poor.  And frankly, I didn’t have any particular well articulated question in mind, or theoretical framework in which I was working.  I was basically tooling around.  To be very clear, this is not a publishable piece of work, being designed to swell a conversation.  All of this being said, I think we were all a little shocked by the results.

Oh, in case you are wondering half of the nature contemplatives solved the brain teaser whereas only a third of the indoor crew answered correctly.

[Update: I reran this experiment with 18 more students in May 2013 - same results, almost exactly.  The reported energy difference were even stronger.  The same methodological limitations should be stressed, but the results remain, to my thinking at least, intriguing!]

[1] RS Ulrich (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery Science Vol. 224 no. 4647 pp. 420-421
[2] Ans = 3 (but you knew that!)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

No Jordan and Morton Discussion Tomorrow

Because of some logistical snafus (Heneghan’s) we will not meet tomorrow nor for a few weeks.  

The Ecological Thought http://www.amazon.com/The-Ecological-Thought-Timothy-Morton/dp/0674064224/ref=tmm_pap_title_0 side by side…back to front etc.  

Rather that read small sections at a time I am urging us all the read both thoroughly in April and then we can convene every Thursday morning 11:30 am in McGowan S rm 204 in May.  I shall send us out a reading schedule soon.

Both books are now available in paperback...let Liam know if you care to join us when we reconvene in May. Price of admission is having read the books!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Tim Morton’s Marinade: An Interdisciplinary Recipe for The Ecological Thought

 “Quantity humiliates.68”p40 
"68. TI, 137, 274" p 143"
From Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought.
(TI, Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority)

In the introductory sequence to each episode of Clever Apes, a science segment on WBEZ, a Chicago-based NPR affiliate, a small explosion sounds its bang and a kid goes “Whoa!”  That’s the sound of science. 

But it may be more than that.  The frisson of a fantastic bang can reverberate as the disciplines collide and that sound alone might be reason enough, says Tim Morton author of The Ecological Thought, to tempt us to indulge in an interdisciplinarity exchange.  “The ecological thought”, Morton writes, “is intrinsically queer.  (Joining ecological thinking with thinking on gender and sexuality would make a fantastic bang, and this is reason alone to try it.)”

The ecological thought is that everything is connected, the living, the dead and the never-alive. Intertwined in this mesh are strange strangers, entities with whom (with which?) we are connected and yet cannot predict.  The more we learn about our mesh-mates the more crepuscular they seem.  There is more to say on this, in fact there will quite literally always more to say about this because there is no bottom to get to – it is a mesh.  I am re-reading The Ecological Thought with colleagues at DePaul’s University’s Institute for Nature and Culture and will write more specifically about the book in the coming weeks. 

For now, I want to comment on Tim’s work as an interdisciplinary model. Not to promote it as the model, but rather to ask what sort of interdisciplinarity it might represent, and moreover to show what this particular species of interdisciplinarity looks like.  I want to quantify it. 

Now, if there ever was a thought that’s going to transcend a discipline it will be the ecological thought, since the ecological thought contains the disciplines that might try to grapple with it.  In her taxonomy of interdisciplinarity (ID) Julie Thomson Klein reported that the defining characteristic of transciplinarity TD (let’s assume here that TD is a variant form of ID) is that it is transcending, transgressing, and transforming. [1] That the topic of Tim’s book is transcending cannot be in much doubt for the reason stated above.  As we are pushed to the brink in thinking the ecological thought we are “goad[ed]..to greater levels of consciousness, which means more stress, more disappointment, less gratification(though perhaps more satisfaction), and more bewilderment.”  (ET, 135.)  The ecological thought transgresses in that we can’t be the same having really thought it.  If Tim is correct we can’t be the same because the thought nags us with the realization that we were never what we thought we were.  We are part of a mesh.  We have transgressed (Latin, transgredī, to step across, OED) – we have leapt out of our own skin, which never was much of a boundary anyway.  The ecological thought will transform us – it already has.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Culture as a Natural Product - Exploratory Notes

Niles Eldredge, curator of invertebrate paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History, has maintained eclectic interests over the course of his career.  He is an expert in trilobites (extinct early arthropods), co-creator with Stephen Jay Gould of the punctuated equilibrium hypothesis (which challenged conventional thinking on the tempo of evolutionary change), a vocal opponent of creationism, an impassioned writer on contemporary environmental issues, especially on the issue of biodiversity loss, and is known for his collection of trumpets and cornets. 

Eldredge’s initial interests at Columbia University were in anthropology though during an ethnographic fieldtrip to Brazil in 1963 he found himself more interested in collecting fossils in a nearby reef than in life in the fishing village that the research team was visiting.[1]  He went on to receive his PhD in geology at Columbia, but nevertheless retained an interest in culture, especially on the question of connections between biological evolution – oftentimes restricted to explications of changes in the anatomical hard-parts of organisms – and the evolution of culture.  Humans are pronouncedly cultural organisms, an aspect of their constitution that confers upon them behavioral flexibility and capacity for rapid change that exceeds the speed of typical biological change.  From this perspective, can it be claimed this it is our capacity for culture that primarily determines our species evolving relationship with our environment?

That culture in large part determines our environmental prospects is a contention that Eldredge examines in his book Dominion.  To see the force of the argument one must take the long view.  The emergence of culture must be seen as an outcome of those same evolutionary processes that produced, let’s say, the compound eyes on a trilobite.  Eldredge says:
"We have reached our present precarious position as an outcome of an ecological evolutionary course on which our ancestors embarked at least 2.5 million years ago.  And our deep evolutionary history - hence our deep evolutionary future - is a story of shifting positions vis-à vis our approach to the natural world and its component ecosystems."[2] 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Three Trees to ID in Chicago Area - Spring 2012

This are from my walk this morning.  Putting together a rough and ready guide for my Urban Ecology class.  The guide should have 30 species by Friday.  Let me know if you want a copy.  All of these individual trees are old favorites.  The American Elm is from in front of a friend's old house.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Launching a quarter-long informal discussion of Bill Jordan and Tim Morton's Work at DePaul

As some of you know William Jordan III’s book The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature is out in paperback finally.  Coincidentally, so is Tim Morton’s The Ecological Thought (out tomorrow, 2nd April).  We are proposing a reading of both this quarter at DePaul.  In particular we will hone in on the overlaps between the two writers on the “shame” issue, “dark ecology”, and the perennial question of the “other.”  I have written a short introductory note on the overlaps here.

We will start with an orientation on Thursday 5th April at 11:30 in the McGowan conference room 1110 W Belden Av. and will collectively decide upon the reading schedule.

If you are planning on attending email Liam at lhenegha at gmail com

In and Of the City: The Cost of Urban Ecology’s Foundational Distinction

Urban ecology, the environmental sciences youngest and most rambunctious cousin, is in a position to influence the design of the cities of the future.  Its clout comes from its willingness to think big, to think about the ecology of entire cities as if they were just any other ecosystem.  Urban ecologists call this big picture view the “ecology of the city”.

From this disciplinary perspective, Chicago is just another savannah, one where admittedly the commonest species is the human animal.

However, by taking this bird’s eye view of cities, is urban ecology losing sight of the bird-on-the-ground?  I mean this quite literally.  Is urban ecology losing it roots in natural history?  Will the successful cultivation of relationships with decision makers, municipal authorities, city planners and other governmental powers-that-be, come at the expense of urban ecologists’ knowledge about birds, wildlife, beetles and the other creeping things inhabiting the city?

Are we (and I count myself in this troupe) urban ecologists, forgetting the world-fascination, the intense delight, that comes from direct encounters with nature in the city?  

Read on at 3quarksdaily

Soil Ecological Knowledge: Investigating Invasive Species and Restoration Management from the Bottom Up

Abstract for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County Symposium (April 19) 

Three years ago a team of soil ecologists, including me, coined the term soil ecological knowledge (SEK) to refer to ways in which insights from the our discipline might be incorporated into restoration management.  Formally SEK acknowledges interactions among the principal components of the soil system as well as feedback between the aboveground and belowground ecosystem processes.  For restoration to achieve its complex ends intentional and holistic integration of all aspects of the soil knowledge, physical, chemical and biological is necessary.  Some of the motivation for the development of SEK approaches to restoration emerged from work in the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.  We illustrate the approach with examples of managing in the face of invasion by exotic shrubs and earthworms.

Original SEK paper