I started volunteering with my local arboretum over 2 years ago after wanting to take a more active role in my understanding of our home. I won't reminisce about this since I've done that at length in my first Human Nature blog post, but this volunteering was also my first foray into environmental stewardship. That is to say, the kind of volunteering I was doing (and still do) revolved around learning about plants and animals so I can actively participate in caring for the environment. This involves work like seed collection, seed propagation, monitoring, and aggressive species removal.
In my case, I have an intrinsic motivation to understand the environment around me. I like knowing about plants and animals that I see because it makes me feel more like a part of this world rather than an observer. Knowing what something is, when it's active, and what it can be used for is a fun skill to have and work on. While my immediate friends and family aren't as interested in the topic as me, it does occasionally provide some insight or a fun fact for them to take with them.
Though, arguably, knowing what something is used for isn't actively helpful to me in modern life. I will not likely need to know medicinal or crafting properties of plants to make it through my life because I can depend on a society of people where someone else is using that knowledge to make things for me. What is helpful, however, is looking past the individual value of something and knowing how it interacts with other plants and animals in its local environment. These properties of life are still important, in my opinion, for everyone to have some knowledge of. If we see that an environment degrades so much that an entire species is suddenly gone, knowing how that species fit into the system lets us know what will be impacted next and how that could impact the larger system. When enough of these larger systems ripple into each other, they eventually hit humanity, so having a base knowledge of this interconnectedness keeps us, at a minimum, aware of when things are going to change and why.
It's here that I find value in my environmental stewardship. I build an appreciation for the complex connectivity of everything on Earth. I'll never know it all, but by actively working to maintain and restore natural areas, I get to learn about my local community. Not just the human one, but the one of all living and non-living things.
Let's dive in.
Earth Day 2021 was celebrated across the world this past Thursday, bringing people from all backgrounds together in an effort to further humanity's efforts of caring and advocating for our home. After doing research on the origins of Earth Day and other days like it last year, I learned that every Earth Day has a theme. These can be all sorts of things ranging from "Green Cities" rallying behind greenifying urban areas to "Protect Our Species" raising awareness for the rising level of extinctions that are happening around the globe. These themes help convey a unifying message spanning our actions around caring for the planet and can help people get behind a cause.
This unifying nature of the theme is a particularly human thing. Since the founding of Earth Day, it's been pretty clear that the goal of the day is to raise awareness on environmental issues and encourage others to care about our home. Yet every year we have a new theme focusing on some aspect of this broad goal. There is something inherently attractive to people being able to rally behind specific causes, which is why this kind of messaging is potent for us humans. Finding the right words to encourage participation in something is uniquely human.
Given the Earth Day theme is a way to rally people behind environmental causes, I want to take a look at them to see if they succeed in conveying their underlying goal. With that on the table, this year's theme is "Restore Our Earth."
Let's dive in!
We had a particularly cold blast in February this year which made it too cold to get outdoors to volunteer at the arboretum. In its place, we had a Zoom session with volunteers who found the time to talk with each other. One of our stewards (essentially a leader for us volunteers) ended up sharing some research that he had been doing lately digging up old survey records from over a century past around the arboretum grounds.
It was pretty neat seeing some of the odd measurements that were used by the surveyors. And, yes, I did say odd and not old. While they are kind of both, I feel that odd best describes them. The meticulous nature I pictured of these groups of people working together to lay measuring chains across this country before western expansion of the United States happened was an odd one indeed. It made me want to learn more about these measurements, why they were being made, and how that influenced the shape of the country today. After all, the United States is a surprisingly consistent grid system east to west and this measuring seemed like it could be why.
I ended up doing a little research of my own and wanted to share a bit about what I'd found, so let's dive in!
It's safe to say that humans are a powerful force on the Earth. We've stretched our influence far and wide, both in our own social structures and the physical ones we've built atop the natural world. It can be difficult to remember that we're a part of this massive planetary balancing act of systems since we seemingly bend them to our will, but it would be ill-conceived to think of that influence as control.
Beyond that influence, I was reminded this month of a bias humanity has. We tend to like the concept of an "untouched" nature. Not untouched by anything though, but humans in particular. Going even further, we're biased toward an appreciation of nature not touched by the people who brought modern civilization. It's easiest to think of these people as the European colonizers. If they or their descendants haven't touched it, it's considered untouched by humans.
Along with this bias comes another more dangerous one however. When we categorize nature by its proximity to humans, deciding that nature adjacent to humanity is lesser nature, we have a tendency to take less care of it. We opt to care more about "true nature" far from home. We can think that's the nature worth saving, worth protecting. Yet, by ignoring our neighboring ecosystems, we have a slow but steady impact on nature far away.
Let's explore this together.
Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a garden. What do you see?
Are you surrounded by towering trees, light peering through the canopy as shadows of leaves dance at your feet? Are you under a solitary sycamore, grasses swaying in the breeze as clouds race overhead? Perhaps you are upon a porch overlooking a vast collection of flowers on a light rainy day.
Are you sitting, head level with your surroundings? Maybe you're standing to see as far as you possibly can. Or perhaps you're lying on your back, viewing the world from the perspective of the plants themselves.
But most importantly, how do you feel?
Humans have quite a history with gardens and how they can act as a connection to the world around them. How a garden makes one feel is an integral part of why people take the time to work and maintain these spaces. While reading, I found that even though humanity's collective approach to gardening does change with time and culture, there is an underlying theme to our desire to garden.
Let's take a little journey together and rediscover the garden.
It's been a year since starting Prismatic Planet and posting my first Human Nature blog. When I wrote that, I mentioned that I wanted to use this site to learn more about the planet and share that knowledge with you. I also mentioned that in addition to researching and writing for this website, I was also an active environmental volunteer. That's still the case today, and I realize I haven't talked much about it here. Which is kind of odd since one of the best ways I engage with something I want to learn more about is to actively do that thing. I imagine such is the case for a good number of people out there.
So, I want to take this one-year anniversary of Human Nature to do just that. I want to share with you what I, a human looking to help and learn, have benefited from by volunteering for the environment. Since volunteering is not limited to work for the planet, my points here won't be specific to environmental volunteer work, though I may cite my experiences. Here's hoping by the end of this, you'll feel empowered to get out there and help, both for a cause you believe in and for your own personal growth.
Let's dive in!
Humans are a complex thing. We are among the few species on the planet capable of thinking outside ourselves, but are notoriously bad at realizing we never do this correctly. That isn't to say humans aren't doing their best to understand others, but we tend to attempt this phenomenon by inserting ourselves into the other's place. In theory, this allows us to consider how the other person is thinking and feeling. In reality, we're only gaining an understanding of our own reactions to what that person is going through. We're, simply put, not that other person.
Humans have also tried this tactic when confronted with complex topics. As a species, despite our locations across the world, humans have created constructs to better understand this planet. More often than not, we try to bridge that understanding by turning those complexities into people, personifying the mysterious or ambivalent. Among those complexities are things like water, war, fertility, and, you guessed it, the Earth itself! Let's dive in!
When we're in school, we learn about a fair number of things. Things that are preparing us for the world we live in today. Or at least that's what the goal is supposed to be. We learn about math, science, language (region-specific), history (less obviously region-specific), and arts. These classes help us interface with the abstractions we've built on the world as we know it. Instead of discovering mathematic principle, we learn foundations built over time. Instead of analyzing the Earth and our universe, we learn how others before us did just that so we can, in time, build on that knowledge.
We also spend a bit of time learning how to interface with the constructs we've built around the world. In addition to verbal and written literacy, we have classes for technical and digitally social literacy. As we move the needle further down the path of humanity's growth, this will continue to change the things we learn about.
As this happens, we should be aware that some things humanity abstracts are simply things that make other constructs we've built easier to understand. The internet was once a complex environment that only governments and college students had ready access to, and the devices we used to interface with that environment were considered too complex to be of much use to the typical human. But humans move fast, and as that thought was quickly outdated, we develop skills and abstractions to make this truly complex idea of a digitally connected planet available, quite literally, in the palm of your hand.
However, when the abstractions we build are around our planet, we need to be aware of that. Of the many things humans have built, some of those conveniences, in the form of abstractions, come with a few costs. One of those costs is a very real drain on our planet. Another is harder to see, but is felt over time: a lack of literacy. The cost here is knowledge. This is where environmental education can help.
When we think about science, we tend to go straight to imagining doctorate-level people in long white lab coats. Maybe throw a pair of glasses on for good measure. In reality, even those professional scientists don't necessarily fit that bill. Further, not all science is performed by professionals. That's right, there is nothing standing between you and science other than finding time, motivation, and attention to detail. Let's take a look at how us citizens of the planet can participate in science!
While researching our page on wetlands, we learned a bit more about what goes into managing complex ecosystems. Turns out, more than scientists are involved in helping the environment, and more than the volunteers and citizen scientists who help out with the work we normally think about. One of those roles that surprised us (but really makes a ton of sense) given their cross section of work between human facility and natural function.
That role is the landscape architect.
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.