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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Thanks for a Great Review of Observation and Ecology

Anibal and I were really excited about this latest review of our book in Basic and Applied Ecology by Christoph Kueffer.  I loved that he used the word “manifesto” in the first sentence, as I always called the book “our little green manifesto”.

Christoph notes that by putting this fairly concrete concept of “observation” at the core of the book, rather than a more theoretical concept like “holism” or “complexity” it makes the book more accessible to multiple audiences, especially students, which is what we were going for.

His main critique–guilty as charged–is that we don’t delve deeply, or even give much of a nod to theory.  Rather than a “love-hate” realtionship with theory, I personally have a kind of “hate-try to avoid” relationship with it, and it’s burned me plenty.  I just got yet another NSF rejection–this one from NSF Anthropology (Anthropologists love their theory!)–and the main criticism was, “there’s no overarching theory.”  On the other hand, I do have many arguments with my wife, an anthropologist (she loves her theory), and she inevitably gets me to acknowledge the importance of theory to help make sense of a complex world, in some cases.

I think Kueffer put it really well in the review of our book, “Only based on observations, would we by now believe in climate change? I doubt it.”  So, I’ll acknowledge theory has a key place, but I’ll also warn you – if the prospect of venturing forth to make discoveries in the world without a nice thick theory to prop you is unacceptable, you might not like our “little green manifesto”.

Just remember, though, Ricketts and Steinbeck in the Sea of Cortez, and Darwin before them, built theories after their observations, or as the former two said of the latter, “out of long, long consideration of the parts, he emerged with a sense of the whole”.





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The More We Observe, the More Problems, and Solutions, We Find

Here’s an article by Stephanie Ogburn for E&E about a recent essay in Nature Climate Change on mesophotic coral reefs.  The main thrust of the essay is that these deeper water reefs may act as some kind of rescue source for increasingly imperiled shallow water reefs.  My comments to Stephanie reflect a tangent on this topic, which is that new, cheaper, and more open access technologies allow us to know where these reefs exist, and this will both put them at greater risk, but can also help conservation efforts.  One thing that wasn’t well discussed in the original article by the authors was the need for a highly inclusive process for determining a conservation strategy.  When everyone can find these reefs, everyone needs to be involved in their conservation.



Scientists issue call to preserve deep ocean coral reefs

Stephanie Paige Ogburn, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When most people think of coral reefs, they think of sunlit shallow shelves, teeming with sea creatures and iridescent tropical fish that almost anyone with a snorkel and a swimsuit can see.

But much deeper in the ocean, 100 feet down and below, exists another type of coral reef. These deepwater reefs, many of which are unmapped and unexplored, need protection, several marine scientists wrote in a commentary published yesterday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Such reefs are often called mesophotic, which translates to middle light, because they are located deeper in the layer of the ocean that still receives sunlight.

“You’ve got an entire ecosystem that is largely unprotected in the mesophotic coral reefs around the world,” said John Guinotte, a marine biogeographer with the Marine Conservation Institute and a co-author on the commentary.

Mesophotic reefs are important because they can provide a crucial refuge for many species that are shallow reef dwellers. Shallow reef habitats are in decline in part due to factors like coral bleaching, which happens when the oceans get too warm for the corals, and ocean acidification, which is caused by the oceans taking up excess carbon dioxide released by humans into the atmosphere.

Deeper reefs, because they are in cooler waters, are less susceptible to bleaching events. They are also less vulnerable to damage from violent storms, Guinotte said.

Shallow reefs are also increasingly beset by local pressures like coastal development, overfishing and pollution; a World Resources Institute survey concluded that more than 60 percent of the world’s reefs face immediate threats.

The Great Barrier Reef’s World Heritage status is now under review due to a variety of risks it faces, including development of major coal ports on the Australian coast (ClimateWire, April 30).

An overlooked resource

For a long time, scientists overlooked the deeper-water reefs, from 100 to 500 feet deep, because they are difficult to explore, Guinotte said.

“The reason they’ve largely been ignored in the science community is that scientists aren’t able to scuba dive on them because they are deeper than 30 meters,” he said.

But technological advances like the availability of relatively inexpensive remotely operated vehicles have opened up these reefs to science, and some of the research shows they are connected in important ways to the shallower reef systems.

Work in Western Australia, for example, has shown that when shallow reefs experience bleaching, some of the coral larvae that recolonize the damaged shallow reef come up from the deep reefs.

Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment who was familiar with the paper, said a key issue in the paper was that the authors highlighted deeper reefs’ ability to act as an ecological refuge for shallower coral reefs.

Unmapped refuges need protection

“What is new is thinking of [mesophotic corals] as an adaptational strategy, not just to climate change risk but to the whole suite of threats that corals are facing now,” Sagarin said.

The paper’s authors call for an increased effort to map mesophotic reefs, as many of them have not even been cataloged.

One way to cheaply do this is to use a predictive habitat model to determine where deeper reefs are likely to be, said Guinotte of the Marine Conservation Institute, and then later verify areas the model predicts as highly suitable for such reefs.

Countries could potentially protect such deeper reefs by expanding their existing marine protected areas, as Israel did in the Red Sea after mesophotic reefs were discovered there.

The fact that deeper reefs are now easier to access due to cheaper technology also means they can be found more easily by fishermen and others who want to use them as a resource, Sagarin said.

This just highlights the need to initiate collaborative conservation efforts, he added.

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