Thursday, February 18, 2010


How much more can you see when you know what you’re looking at or looking for? How much more do you appreciate a special, unique natural area by knowing its natural history? Or does it make a difference?

When I go to an annual meeting and first step into the meeting room, I see a sea of faces. But then once I start picking out people I know, I feel more connected. Sometimes I even look for people I know to get caught up with them from last year. If there’s new people, maybe I’ll introduce myself. Similarly, when you know at least some of the plants of a place, you feel more connected to that place. Visiting a place over the whole season, you look for plants you maybe haven’t seen since that time last year. It’s nice to see them again (I generally don’t try to start a conversation with the plants, at least if I think anyone might be looking). Newcomers stand out when you know what you’ve seen before.

I teach a class in plant ID. The first 5 weeks of lab, the students learn 100 of our local plant species out in the field by sight. The rest of the term is about learning the traits of 80 or so plant families. After they know some of the plants, they see them in their travels out into the woods and fields. Of course those plants were there all along, but the students had not noticed them because they didn’t know them. They just saw a bunch of plants. They can see them now that they know to look. Knowing how to identify plants also helps them see plants they don’t know. (My ambition is that they then would get to know them. Occasionally I hear back from previous students that actually do so.)

You can tell from some of the posts on this discussion that knowing the natural history of a spot helps enhances enjoyment of it for some people. My guess is that if you’re reading this discussion, you probably know some of the natural history of your places. If so, I’d be interested in knowing how you got to know that and how knowing that helps you enjoy your place more. But I’d also like to hear from any of you who don’t necessarily know the natural history details about your place but still enjoy it just fine. In other words, to what degree is knowledge of natural history a prerequisite for enjoying a place?


  1. Somewhere in our collective psyche we obtain satisfaction from knowledge. That aside, many of us gain pleasure from the footloose feeling of uncertainty. Rather this can apply to natural history and our feelings towards a place and its plants might be another matter. I agree that the people reading this are bias but in a different nature than you imply. Those of us interested in natural history and place and space and all the rest of it have one very important underlying factor in common; an investigative mindset. That is, we know that our knowledge of a place, no matter how in depth, is never complete. So the feeling of eternal inquiry that the forward moving horizon of knowledge creates is a strange combination of the footloose uncertain and the satisfied knowing feelings I desrcibed above. Without that pair, the team of known and unknown, our sense of a place grows stale. It is either entirely too unfamiliar or the same old thing. It is somehow in our nature to want the best of both those worlds.

  2. I need to get outside every day, especially outside of my small rural city,but don't have a scientific background and don't think I need it to experience the energy of nature. However, I do think that knowing more about the place, the plants, the natural history tends to increase my appreciation of any of the natural areas I visit. How could it not? That's one reason I helped to start a nature walk series where I live in northern Muskegon County. We have 5 guided nature walks in the area, from June to October. This will be our 4th year. They are tremendously popular -- at our last walk of 09 we had 60 participants! Now we have to have two guides on each walk. People absolutely love the walks.

  3. The fact that we benefit more from our experiences in general, not just in our natural environment, by knowing the names of what we encounter goes beyond pleasure or a hobbyist pursuit. Nomenclature is a necessity for us to communicate the importance of everything we cherish, fear, and even need for survival.

    My experiences abroad in Asia has taught me the importance of naming things. Before I knew Chinese, I would go out to the night markets to try some new things to eat. I wouldn't know the name and couldn't remember the name so I lacked the ability to talk about what I ate. People would ask me, "what did you have to eat?" or "what would you recommend?" Without the proper vocabulary, I couldn't answer. What could be said: "I would avoid this food I ate, but I couldn't tell you what it was"?

    Now that I know some Chinese, can communicate, and have the ability to investigate what I'm eating, I can tell you what I ate, how good it was, and how to order it. Not only that, but my memory relies upon verbal expressions to retain this culinary information in my LTM to, to make comparisons to other things I've experienced, and to evaluate its importance. The same can be said for experiences in temples, on hikes, and even with interactions with unnamed persons versus named persons.

    The point is, being able to verbalize experiences does exactly what Greg said - it enhances experiences. But the necessity of having to label objects may even have defined our learning trajectory of human languages. For communal living, we need communication. Communication to warn others of dangers, such as poisonous plants versus edible plants. And to share information that enhances our quality of life or even enables survival. So, we tend to name things important to us.

    If this is true, the travesty is that we DON'T know the names of the flora and fauna of our own natural environments. We may know 6 different words for "computer," but we can't identify the tree in our front yard. To me, this means our natural environment is not deemed important by the average person. Yes, superficially people may recognize the environment's importance, but if they can't name it, how can they be willing to enjoy it, respect it, and ultimately protect it..?

    I believe our ignorance goes beyond an inability to enjoy what's around us, but creates a communicative disconnect disabling us from bonding with our natural surroundings.

    Of course I may be over-stating language's role in how we attach importance to objects and experiences. Does anyone else have an opinion about this?