A sense of place

(this is reposted from our Desert Ecology field course blog at desertecology.wordpress.com)

You have to make a basic decision on every road trip: spend a little time in lots of places, or spend more time in fewer places. Like any good democracy, our travelling village has reached a compromise on this trip. We’re spending 4 nights each in two of our destinations: Catalina Mountains State Park near Tucson, and Joshua Tree National Park. The nice thing about this is that it really lets us gain a sense of place.

Two key ingredients make you a good ecologist, a good naturalist. First, it’s important to understand the underlying principles that run through the science. They’re the thread that ties everything together. That’s the stuff we learn in classrooms. Out here in the sun and dust and wind and stars we’re getting the other key piece of the picture. A “sense of place” is something you only gain by sitting on a rock for a while watching life interact with wind and sand, watching cactus wrens bring grubs and tiny lizards back to their nestlings, seeing the scorpions glow in the night under our black lights, learning the smell and sounds of the place.

Spending a few hours at a place lets us make a list. Make a comparison. See differences and similarities. That’s important, but it’s not the whole picture. Here at Joshua Tree, and a few days ago at Catalina, we had the luxury of time and familiarity. We could wander at our own pace. And in that wandering, we started seeing changes in time, not just changes in space.

Something bigger has happened too. We started making connections out to other places, other times.

Some of us have done ecology in the arctic – a very different world on the surface of it, but also very similar in that life is laid out in simple patterns in front of our eyes. There’s a scramble of activity in a brief season of plenty to stock up for the rest of the lean year.

Some of the students spent a semester studying in Africa last year. Halfway around the world, in another time, they saw how other plants, other animals, other people, deal with too much heat and not enough water. It’s been fascinating and exciting to see these connections to another place coming up in conversations as we wander through the southwestern US.

This is one of the great strengths of learning in the field. Of touching the rock and smelling the plants and tracking the lizards. Of wandering and wondering. This is the best way there is to forge links to the other places we’ve seen, and to the other times we’ve been out in the big world.

A sense of place, Joshua Tree

A sense of place, Joshua Tree (photo: T.A. Wheeler)


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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