Category Archives: Natural history

Risk landscapes


which looks at the risk of spotted owl extinction in landscapes of various patterns, including evaluation of mathematical landscape models used for that purpose:

Leads me to the notion of “risk landscape”  —
To what extent can understanding the physical landscapes of the owl forest, and the mathematically modeled landscapes developed to approximate them, be useful in seeing other risk situations as metaphorical landscapes, e.g. medical treatment decisions or political strategy decisions. If so, then terms like “paths” through these metaphorical landscapes could apply, and factors could be added to the model equivalent to climate in physical landscapes, the adaptability characteristics of the traveler through the landscape, etc.

diagram of an adaptive landscapeEcologists have used “fitness landscapes” to visualize how natural selection brings populations to optimal points. (See also, e.g.,  Chris Colby 1996.) I wonder how much further the landscape metaphor can be expanded to other uses.

But also perhaps flip this around:
Taking it another step, is it (or to what extent is it) that what we perceive as physical landscape is our human way of modeling incoming information or data. In other words, could it be that the physical landscape, as we know it, is a model that we create to make useful sense of the incomplete, diverse, complex information that comes into us, and that we combine with what’s inside of us already? The physical landscape, the physical world, as we understand it, is in that sense a human construction. Worth remembering that all models are simplifications, usually created to be useful for specific purposes.

What is the reality beyond the model? Is there a way of accessing that, other than through other models? Religious answers beyond modeling include faith, and practice.

Graphic display of complex information: A challenge for both the strategic advocacy and natural history projects

For his Vanderbilt Law School class on advocacy strategies, Roger Conner is having his students work on an event timeline describing the history of Tennessee’s state level health care reform effort, TennCare. It’s complicated. Following Kingdon, Roger segregates events into policy, political and problem streams. The problem stream has many numbers in various categories: how many people enrolled, annual costs, and the like. In the system Roger and I are developing to help advocates understand the situations they’re in, such a complicated story becomes the basis for further analysis using Elinor Ostrom, et al.’s IAD framework, which is complex in itself. For most people, it takes quite a bit of study of explanatory text to understand the basic IAD framework graphic:

Basic Components of the IAD Framework

Activists working in the real world need to apply these concepts and relationships, and more, quickly and effectively. That means it must appear clear and straightforward to them. Figuring out how to teach this system and to provide the tools to use it is a big task for us.

Turns out that common elements in both our strategic advocacy project and my work in the Wrangell-St. Elias natural history project are timelines like this, that tell a complex history with multiple, interacting event streams. And in each, there’s the need to zoom in on details of shorter intervals within a long timespan. Conveying this information is a central challenge for my work overall, and I think for teaching and writing in both areas. This shared attribute of the advocacy and natural history projects is one indication of their similarity, too. The goal is clarity of vision in complex circumstances. Achieving that has moral, aesthetic and political and personal consequences.

Tufte Beautiful Evidence

Yaakov Garb and I talk about the “Van Andel” factor of any piece of written work. Tjeerd H. van Andel’s New Views on an Old Planet has long set the standard for us in clarity of presentation, both text and simple graphics. More recently, I’m appreciating Edward Tufte‘s masterful teachings on using layout and graphics to convey complex data. Yesterday, I enjoyed his Beautiful Evidence, which models great visual design as well as describing it. National Geographic’s large-format graphic displays, which it folds into its magazine, are another outstanding model.

I think it’ll be worth considerable effort to apply these models to explaining our strategic advocacy framework and to presenting the geological-ecological evolution of the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains. For the Wrangells, I see working on getting the essence into a single large-format sheet, à la National Geographic. Perhaps the same could be the goal for the strategic advocacy framework. Whether or not the required combination of density and clarity of ideas is achievable in this form, its pursuit could help gain clarity of vision, which can also be pursued in other ways.

Insights from geology on incomplete information, uncertainty, and problem solving

Came across the following in the new issue of the Geological Society of America journal for members. A basic notion is that frequently a set of facts we know, or can know, are open to multiple interpretations, any or all of which might be true. When we come at a situation from multiple perspectives, each with its own set of facts, these taken together may set constraints that specify one true interpretation. The GSA article describes how that’s frequently the case in geology, And it goes further regarding uncertainty and incomplete knowledge in general. Seems that the following applies not only to geology and science, but should be included in the book and educational curriculum Roger Conner and I are writing on strategic policy advocacy:

Saltus, Richard W., and Richard J. Blakely. “Unique geologic insights from ‘non-unique’ gravity and magnetic interpretation.” GSA Today 21, no. 12 (December 2011): 4-10.

… Many of the greatest scientific challenges of today span the traditional subdivisions of science. Climate change research, for example, spans Earth, atmospheric,  and biological sciences and requires the combination of results from physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering, sociology, and economics. A key component to successful integrated science is the effective communication and mutual understanding of uncertainties arising in all of the component studies that feed into the ultimate integrated solution. But, it is also important to realize that the ultimate significance of a given result is not necessarily related to the relative certainty of that result. A partial solution or constraint to a fundamental problem may have greater significance than an exact solution to a trivial problem. And an effective integrated solution may encompass a wide range of uncertainties in the component results. To paraphrase Aristotle: The whole (integrated interpretation) is greater than the sum of its parts (methods and assumptions). And, we might add, the individual parts do not necessarily contribute equally to the sum. …

Emma Marris’s new contribution to understanding wildness & wilderness, with a critique of the notion that landscapes can (or should) be returned to a baseline date or condition

Emma Marris’s new book Rambunctious Garden is some of the best stuff I’ve seen on today’s wildness/wilderness issues. She critiques the notion of a “baseline” ideal for a landscape, e.g. pre-Euroamerican for Yellowstone or 1938 for Kennecott, Alaska. Her work is limited to nature & ecosystems, rather than human history as in McCarthy-Kennecott, but I think the same ideas apply and could be extended to fit.

Her writing explains just where the National Park Service is coming from re both its natural area and historic site management founded on the baseline ideal, and shreds it.

From what I’ve read so far (only part way through the book), I think she is overconfident about the potential for well planned management to provide solutions and is insufficiently unaware of its downsides. Similar to the way complexities and ambiguities render the baseline ideal landscape undefinable and unattainable, complexities and uncertainties limit the role of environmental management (a term which my mentor Grant McConnell used to spit out with disdain).

Further steps developing from Marris’s work so far could include expanding it to the social/cultural and putting her critique of the baseline ideal together with a critique of planned management. The two critiques make a good pair. Would be very interesting to do that and see what develops from it.

Marris, Emma. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. 1st ed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA, 2011.
audio interview with Emma Marris at

Consequences of choice of symbols: Framing and describing is more than an analytic tool

Framing and describing is more than an analytic tool. The words and concepts used are symbols that carry meanings, often multiple and easily unconscious, that have consequences and affect action. Writing the natural history of the Wrangell Mountains thus can have significant outcomes, beyond helping create a pleasant understanding of local geology and ecology for readers, and the choice of how to write it is significant: the selection of framing, concepts and terms and how they are presented, in what language, and visually as well, because the Wrangells are both a thing in itself and, at the same time, representative of something more. The same, of course, can be said about framing and description of any social or public issue. They are all political.

from Parks, S. D. “Leadership, Spirituality, and the College as a Mentoring Environment.” Journal of College and Character 10, no. 2 (2008), 5:

In Christian tradition, for instance, a dove is often used as a symbol for Spirit. In the Celtic experience of Christianity, however, a wild goose is often used as a symbol of Spirit. The symbols are similar, but they take us to different places. For example, a group of people was asked to think of the presence of Spirit as a dove, and then to consider how they should respond to a situation of injustice in inner-city housing. Their response tended to move in the direction of prayer and patience. Then they were asked to consider the same situation, thinking of Spirit as a wild goose. Their response then tended to move in the direction of mass protest at city hall!

Conze on perennial and sciential philosophies

The crux here is bringing the perennial and the sciential together, so they are both seen and experienced, though the distinctions are not blurred. Seems like the dichotomy is similar to (identical with?) the distinction between the ultimate and historical dimensions that Thich Nhat Hahn (Thây) refers to frequently. So Thây’s work would be a place to go to explore how the two fit together, and how to work with that connection and opposition. I am finding the question of the relationship between the perennial and sciential in both my activism (effective public leadership) and natural history projects. On the activism side, it’s expressed as the relationship between engagement with public issues to achieve specific policy goals, versus the potentially personally and socially transformative consequences of alternative methods of practice in this arena, in terms of our connections with the cosmos and beyond, with our mortality, and the ethical. On the natural history side, it’s the relationship between the geometric and quantitative scientific revolution, with its outfall, and nature as manifestation or representation of the ultimate. (See Rosenberg, previous post & his “The Revolution in Geology from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment.”) How to engage with both: a central question in my novel Alaska Dragon, so the question is basic, and the roots go deep.

from Conze, E. 1963. Buddhist Philosophy and Its European Parallels. Philosophy East and West 13, no. 1: 9–23, p. 14:
As  philosophies,  both   the  “perennial”   and  the “sciential”    systems  possess  some   degree   of intellectuality, and  up  to a point  they  both  use reasoning.  But considered  in their purity, as ideal types, they differ in that the first is  motivated by man’s spiritual needs, and aims at his salvation from the world  and its ways, whereas  the second  is motivated  by his utilitarian  needs, aims  at  his conquest  of  the  world, and  is  therefore  greatly concerned  with  the  natural  and  social  sciences. Between  the  two  extremes  there  are,  of  course, numerous  intermediary  stages.  They depend  to some extent  on the quality   of  the  spirituality behind them, which  is very high, say, in Buddhism, slightly lower in Plato and Aristotle, and still  quite marked in  such  men  as  Spinoza,  Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Goethe,  Hegel,  and  Bergson.   The  general  trend, however, has  been  a continuous  loss  of  spiritual substance   between   1450  and  1960,  based  on  an increasing  forgetfulness  of age-old  traditions, an increasing  unawareness of spiritual  practices, and an increasing indifference  to the spiritual life  by the classes which dominate society.

from Betty, L. S. 1971. The Buddhist-Humean Parallels: Postmortem. Philosophy East and West 21, no. 3: 237–253.

I agree with Professor Conze, along with practically all other students of Buddhism, that Buddhism, for the most part regardless of schools, provides “essentially a doctrine of salvation, and that all its philosophical statements are subordinate to its soteriological purpose.”

re Rosenberg on modern geoscience and spiritual enlightment – Do the paths converge?

Painting by Tung Chi'i-ch'ang
Painting by Tung Chi’i-ch’ang
Escalante country, Colorado Plateau USA
Escalante country, Colorado Plateau
Beach bluff, Port Townsend, Washington
Beach bluff, Port Townsend, Washington
Krumholtz spruce on Porphyry Mountain, Wrangell Mountains, Alaska
Krumholtz spruce on Porphyry Mountain, Wrangell Mountains, Alaska


By the 17th Century, the century of Steno, the artistic depiction of rocks as natural objects had clearly begun to diverge from purely aesthetic illustration in Europe. Geometric perspective facilitated the illustration of form and appearance of rocks and projected a line of art towards the development of modern geosciences. No such separation took place in China, where illustration was a path towards spiritual enlightenment, even as it emulated the processes of nature along the way. The purpose here is to present a few of the milestones of illustration along both the Western and Eastern paths. Continue reading re Rosenberg on modern geoscience and spiritual enlightment – Do the paths converge?