Observation and Ecology A Back to the Future Story

A transformation in how we see the world…

Observation and Ecology


The new book from Aníbal Pauchard and Rafe Sagarin is about the remarkable changes going on in science right now–a transformation that is taking us back to the old, deeply observational ways of understanding complexity, with the aid of incredible new technologies and much greater respect for all kinds of observers of the world.  The wisdom of fishermen, the stunning and troubling views of Earth provided by satellite, and amazing new discoveries of life are all parts of an exciting, holistic view of complex systems that is emerging in the life sciences.

Observation and Ecology is available in fine bookstores across the country (and of course from amazon.com and powells.com and on islandpress.org).  Both the hardcover and paperback versions are beautifully produced, compact, and easily accessible for scientists, students and keen observers of the natural worldBut for you technophiles (and the book is about merging our own observational senses with new technologies, so don’t be shy), a Kindle version is now available!

We’ll provide updates here on the book, on exciting new scientific observations, and other stuff that makes us grateful to be observational scientists and teachers…

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Powerful Observations of a Backyard Ecology

I wanted to share the work of Arizona State University School of Sustainability graduate student Edgar Cardenas.  Edgar’s work, a photographic exploration of the changes of his scraggly back yard over the course of time, reminds us that anywhere is a good place to practice the art of observation. Check the links below for more on this great work:

Visual Work: http:///littledramas/Cursor_and_one_hundred_little_dramas._—_edgar_cardenas_photography
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On Observation – a journey up the California Coast

It’s been years, but I finally published my account of a wonderful observational field expedition I took with 13 students from Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment up the California coast.  Here’s a few excerpts…

“Observation is not just the task of looking at stuff. It is also the concept and process that paleobiologist Geerat Vermeij calls “the role of sensation—of observation with the brain in gear,” and it has been a little irritant in the mantle of my mind since I first started serious scientific observation of the California coast a few decades ago. I’ve come to see science as a shifting, evolving thing. It doesn’t really shift around the astounding new discoveries that make headlines, as we often are led to believe. Instead, like all evolutions, it shifts holistically in system-wide modifications of simple, ancient processes. Those simple and ancient processes are driven by observation—how we observe and how we use the products of our observation—and observation has become more powerful than at any previous point in scientific history.”

“On a scientific level, dealing with negative observations is problematic. Maybe we happened to snorkel on a day the rockfish were mating on the other side of the island. The best way to sharpen the outline of that negative space is to get more basic observations—dive around the island, dive throughout the year, learn when and where the fish mate, set up well-enforced reserves, and see if the fish come back. On a personal level, it can be disheartening to always observe the negative space. It takes some of the unbridled joy out of floating in a kelp forest or hiking up a canyon. However, it does give a sense of direction for a conservation pathway, which always starts with that missing element or altered state, winds its way through trophic webs, habitats, climate, and history all the way back down to one important driver of change: people.”


“…fire brought out the best moments of our trip, as well. On cold coastal nights after long drives and long days of activities, we had excellent fires. They raised our primordial subconscious memories, and we became a clan. On the last night of the trip, we gathered by the fire one more time and we shared our best moments with each other. Some were simple things unique to our small group, such as making pasta dinner in a windswept shack on a coastal bluff. Some were grand things that have been commonly felt with reverence and awe by millions of people across generations, such as a quiet sunset walk in Muir Woods. Some were very personal memories that we were grateful to be invited to share. Some moments took place in specific places, and when we heard of them we all remembered how that place looked and smelled and sounded. Afterward, we sat by the fire quietly and listened to the waves crashing on the rocks and watched the flickering embers rising to meet the flickering stars, and I thought how everyone’s favorite moment had become my favorite moment, too. So in that moment I was finally taken to that place that existed only on paper when we started the trip, a place mapped out in prose by Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck on one of their own leisurely journeys of travel and research:

‘And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.’



From: On Observation, published in the Fall 2014 Boom: A Journal of California:


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Learning What Feels Green

Originally posted (with colorful sense-filling pictures!) by Rafe on Island Press Field Notes Blog:   http://ipfieldnotes.org/learning-what-feels-green/


There’s a great interview of anthropologist David Howes in the 14 September 2103 NewScientist (subscription access) about the role of synesthesia in marketing products.  Synestesia—the sense of mixing senses (experiencing color as a flavor, for example) is often portrayed as a special sense that all of us dabble in, but a select odd few (the Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov, for example) experience in its fullness.

I happen to be a marine ecologist whose second love is marketing and advertising, so I love the combination of multi-sensory perception and figuring out what sells people on stuff.  I also think that we can learn from what sells Coke and Tiffany rings for how to spread scientific stories and “sell” conservation.

Howes suggests that some examples of synesthetic advertising just came about through intuitive tinkering, like Skittles candy’s “Taste the Rainbow” slogan, or Canadian national radio’s, “Hear the Big Picture.”  But the key to really understanding how synesthesia works in advertising, according to Howes, is good old fashioned ethnography—observing people in their natural environment—to see how they cross-associate sensations.  Tellingly, he notes that you won’t get this understanding from a quick focus group or marketing survey.  These kinds of controlled studies—akin to the laboratory experiments that Anibal and I call into question in Observation and Ecology—simply can’t capture the complexity of how we mix up our sensory experiences in the real world.

We are pretty early in this science, so there are bound to be pitfalls, especially if you don’t understand different cultural sensitivities.  Howes notes that while Westerners view the color white as associated with soft sweet smells, in China, white is associated with foul odors.  Another kind of cultural sensitivity came into play in a failed attempt at synesthetic marketing that Howes discusses.  In this case, the producers of the “Got Milk” advertisements piped in the smell of cookies to San Francisco bus depots to try to exploit consumers’ childhood association between cookies and milk.  San Francisco consumers responded angrily to the campaign, suggesting it was cruel to the homeless people who tended to congregate at bus depots.

I think there are some interesting links to synesthesia in becoming a field ecologist, where you have to mix sensory experiences with other cerebral ways of compiling data and information.  One way this comes about is learning Latin names for species if you don’t have a background in Latin.  It seems like in some cases, the process of learning these odd names as an adult stimulates a kind o synesthesia.  I think of the word Hopkinsia as a lovely soft pink thing, only because when I learned the name of the gorgeous pink nudibranch that plies the intertidal waters of Monterey Bay, it was known as Hopkinsia rosacea–the Hopkins’ Rose.  The word Pugettia, I associate with a creepy tactile assault, because while counting intertidal invertebrates in wee hours while plying my fingers through bushes of algae my fingers are inevitably grasped by the kelp crabs Pugettia richii or Pugettia producta, spindly things that resemble enormous ticks, at which point they are instinctively flung across the intertidal, and dutifully marked as present in my field notes.

I’ll say this, if we are ever going to sell Pugettia as a target for conservation (don’t worry, the little buggers aren’t endangered yet) they’re going to have to get a name that feels better.

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The Quotes that Got Away

One of the problems of writing a book is that it eventually gets done, and almost immediately after it’s done, you start to discover a bunch of facts, stories, and quotes that would have been just perfect for the book, but it’s too late to stick them back in the text.  Here are a few of Anibal’s and my favorite quotes that, upon reflection, we would have loved to have included in Observation and Ecology:


In a fabulous chapter in a volume called Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches (University of Alambams Press 1997), James C. Kelley cites this fun quote from Francis Bacon:


“Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas.  The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.  But the bee takes the middle course, it gathers its matter from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms it and digests it by a power of its own.”

I don’t know what else to say about that quote, except no wonder this guy was Knighted.

Steinbeck and Ricketts included an earlier Bacon (Roger) along with the distinguished company of St. Augustine and Jesus and Darwin and Einstein, when they wrote in Sea of Cortez (in another quote I would have like to have included in our book): “Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again,”

Another great piece of wisdom comes from John Steinbeck himself in his Foreword to Ed Ricketts’ Between Pacific Tides:

“There is no possible way of evaluating this situation a priori, each separate occasion being unique due to the multitudinous and interrelated factors involved, and the situation properly ought to be examined as a whole, as indeed must inevitably done by the field man”

Steinbeck is talking here about understanding the relationships among tidepool organisms and their environment—the radically ecological worldview of Between Pacific Tides—but of course he’s also talking about a method of understanding all complex systems. I wish that every NSF panel that had rejected my proposals (and there have been many!) would have read that quote before concluding that my proposed work was “just a fishing expedition” or “lacked a theoretical framework”.

Finally, Anibal is particularly fond of this quote from Kuhn:

“The historian of science may be tempted to claim that when paradigms change, the world itself changes with them. Led by a new paradigm, scientists adopt new instruments and look in new places. even more important, during revolutions, scientists see new and different things when looking with familiar instruments in places they have looked before. It is rather as if the professional community had been suddenly transported to another planet where familiar objects are seen in a different light and are joined by unfamiliar ones as well.”

I think this quote is fabulous because it both identifies some of the source of wide-eyed wonder that Anibal and I felt when writing Observation and Ecology but it also urges us to examine that wonder and recognize that many many people have had similar ideas to ours well before we thought of them.  Sometimes a “revolution” or “evolution” is just a concentration in time of ideas that had been generated before but hadn’t quite reached that tipping point.

The truth is, almost every day I come across some idea or observation or piece of wisdom that I wish we had included in the book, but we couldn’t include everything, so we’ll just keep adding to this forum as an addendum to what’s already set in type.

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Giving and Taking: Images and Nature


Once again I’m promoting science writer Michelle Nijhuis, this time for a little piece in The New Yorker on the history of the daguerreotype, an early type of photographic technique.  What I like about the piece is it makes me imagine what it might have been like at that dawn of a new technology, to think about the possibilities of what could happen by merging observation, art, and technology.  It’s hard to say this early technology was primitive—the resolution on well preserved daguerreotypes is astonishing.  According to the sources in the article who have used modern technologies, such as electron microscopy, to examine them, they also have a real three dimensional structure, a result of the chemical process that created them.  They are also all fading and deteriorating, which brings up an important question Michelle grapples with in the piece.  Theoretically, stored in argon filled chambers, we might be able to extend the life of these early relics for many years, but then no one would get to see them.

It immediately brings to mind a fundamental question of conservation that Michelle and many others have likewise wrestled with—if we can save places by completely cutting them off from human impact, are they still worthwhile to save? Set aside for a moment the far wild places towards the poles where we can still realistically and without much inconvenience cut off direct human contact and just focus on places we are likely to set foot upon unless some stricture tells us otherwise. Many naturalists and conservationists would say undoubtedly yes—their value in so many ways accrues from them just being there, even if they are like a daguerreotype in a vault.  But there could be a compelling, maybe even more realistic argument for using places even as we use them up.  We have gained enormously in understanding political, economic, and environmental history by peering, destructively, at those old photographic plates.  I think we also gain by the small acts of destruction involved in taking a group of kids to tramp around a tidepool and bury their fingers into—and yank them back with horror and wonder—the tentacles of an anemone.  Coring trees and netting butterflies and dumping two dozen snails into formalin and storing the results in a natural history museum drawer that may not be opened for 30 years have provided unmatchable windows into climate change, human impacts on populations, and evolution itself. This isn’t to condone extracting any amount of enjoyment we can squeeze from nature—I’m a big fan of not shoveling out another copper mine from Arizona’s sky island mountains, even if it means we’ll all be paying a few more dollars for an iPhone—but understanding and appreciating and becoming an advocate for nature comes at a price.  It’s just ironic that the price is extracted from nature itself.

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Great Review in Biological Conservation

We are grateful for another insightful and positive review of Observation and Ecology.  Quentin Groom of the National Botanic Garden of Belgium gives a nice overview of the book and makes a strong case for observational approaches, noting that:

If you are already a multidisciplinary or observation-based ecologist,
this book will legitimize your work. If not, it should give you
some reasons to expand your outlook and encourage you to accept
observation-based research as ‘‘real’’ science.

I liked that this review also revealed how the reader felt while reading the book.  We had wanted to write a book that got people excited about where we are at in science, and at least for Quentin Groom, we succeeded:

Accustomed as I am to reading manuals, reports and scientific
publications, it was a pleasure to read about science in a style that
is both informative and inspiring. This book succinctly, and with
great enthusiasm, makes the case for observational research in

Thank you, Quentin!


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Great sale on the ebook version now:

Island Press, is celebrating the summer with a one-time-only sale discounting more than 500 e-books to $4.99 or less at www.islandpress.org (with code SALE), Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo stores.  This is a tremendous opportunity to get copies of the latest research on important environmental topics.

I hope you take advantage of this one-time-only offer. Please feel free to share the sale with your own networks.


Follow the link below for details:


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