To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Year 2: Part 5: Post 3: Educated Guessers

So, the new classes have started. I'm taking Creating Campus, Healing Workshops, World Myth and Ritual, and Moving Rituals. The latter two are both taught by Kit. They'll both give me anthropology credits, though I understand they both have more of a religious than a scientific focus. Healing Workshops is actually a series of separate workshops Joy teaches. It's possible to sign up for just one or two of them, but I signed up for all three. It's just simpler that way.

Creating Campus is, of course, Charlie's class. Everyone who has him as craft master in landscaping has to take it, because it covers the scientific basis for the way the campus is landscaped. Charlie is my craft master, too, though my craft is trailwork, not landscaping, but of course I'm learning landscaping from him, too, so I wouldn't be surprised if that gets added in somehow. I suspect this class is required for me, too, but that's not why I'm taking it. I signed up because the class looked interesting. Graduation and its requirements seem a million miles away at the moment.

Anyway, the class has met twice now. There's a lot of reading that goes with it, but fortunately, we don't have to turn in anything except one semester-long project. Each week we have to read up on a particular ecological principle, and then Charlie spends class time explaining how that concept applies to the campus design.

I thought all this sounded fascinating, but fairly straightforward, when I signed up. I was wrong.

Charlie started the course, as most professors around here start most of their courses, with an introductory lecture on the course's general topic. He explained the concept of wildlife-friendly landscaping--that by creating an artificial landscape that functionally mimics a natural one, you could replace at least some of the habitat lost to development. He sees it as a way of taking care of the land on behalf of all of its residents, not just its human ones.

He talked about basic principles, like providing food, water, and shelter for a variety of species, thinking in terms of systems and communities, and how naturalistic landscape designs offer psychological and developmental benefits for humans, as well as the obvious benefits foe wildlife.

Then he asked if anyone had any questions.

None of us spoke for a few seconds. I don't think most of us had any questions, but something about Charlie's manner also suggested that he wasn't just asking us if we'd understood his lecture. There'd been a trick, somewhere, and he wanted to know if we'd caught him at it. There was a particular right question he was looking for, and I hadn't a clue what it was.

Brad got it. He's one of the few in the class who has a campus job other than groundskeeping--he's on the security team, and wants to become a police officer. I suppose he's good at spotting tricks, and he's not intimidated by Charlie, which most of the rest of us are--I don't mean I'm afraid of Charlie, of course, but when you know giving the right answer would impress a person and you don't know what the right answer is it can be very hard to speak.

"How do you know all this stuff works?" Brad asked. "Do you know it works? It sounds..too neat."

"DingDingDingDing!" shouted Charlie, pointing. "You got it! I don't know that it works. I'm guessing."

This was sort of a bombshell--he's teaching us something that might not work?

"Why not?" I asked.

"How would you find out?" he asked me.

"I'd look it up. I'd ask somebody," I said, but as soon as I said it I knew what he was going to reply.

"I tried that. No one knows*. So how else would you try finding out? Anyone?"

A couple of us made suggestions, some more scientific than others, some more detailed than others. Basically they all boiled down to comparing the wildlife in areas with naturalistic vs. traditional landscaping. Charlie nodded in thoughtful acknowledgement and then, without a word, began drawing pictures on the white board.

He drew a long row of houses and yards. Some of the yards were big and some were small, some had trees and some did not, some had bird-baths, bird-houses, bird feeders...some had cats (labeled with word balloons that said "meow!"). They were all different.

"Which half are naturalistic?" he asked.

We all mumbled and fidgeted awkwardly. We couldn't divide the pictures into halves.

"Yeah, neither can wildlife," explained Charlie. "The problem is that 'naturalistic' is a human concept. To study the difference ecologically, you'd have to find ecological categories that approximate the human binary, naturalistic vs. traditional landscaping. Human ideas don't always map well onto ecological reality. If anyone of you can figure it out, I will personally make sure you get into one of the best graduate programs in ecology in the country. More probably, 'does naturalistic landscaping work' is the wrong question. The right questions would involve specific techniques, specific circumstances, and very particular objectives. Do butterfly gardens increase local populations of butterflies? Do free-ranging cats create population sinks for small birds? Those kinds of questions can be answered. And in the meantime, we take the information we have, and we make our best guesses."

And here he stopped and looked at us a moment before speaking again in a very different tone of voice.

"I'm not teaching you certainty," he said. "I'm teaching you how to guess."

[Next Post: Monday, August  25]

* This post is set in 2001, when there had been very little research done into landscaping for wildlife. In the thirteen years since, that has changed--and we now know some techniques do work. But there is still a lot of guesswork involved in this kind of landscaping, and the conceptual problems Charlie addresses are still very real.

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