Last September, we were all beginning our first full semesters of online school. Lab reports, essays, and even exams would be completed from our couches, kitchen tables, and bedrooms. We would tread the same path from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen and back again. If the weather was nice, perhaps we would venture to our porches, adding an exciting twenty feet to the day. But shortly thereafter, it was back to our posts on the laptop.
This September, we read while nestled in mountain passes and wrote as we sat on round logs perfectly placed along rushing creeks. My notebook holds reflections of the natural and cultural variety we observe every day. My laptop is hundreds of miles away. How are we faring in this new classroom? I’d say that the change was vital, both for my education and my well-being. It was definitely an adjustment at first, but like all disturbances, the change was necessary for new growth.
Growth has not only been observed internally during the last few weeks as we became accustomed to making camp and having class in various meadows. During our time in the Scapegoat Wilderness, we saw several ecosystems in various stages of their lives: from recently burned montane forest to autumn alpine communities. The one thing they all had in common was their dependence on disturbances for growth. Fire is especially important to these places. Without it, forests thicken and fuel accumulates, creating conditions for far more intense and disastrous burns. Periodic, low intensity burns promote forest health. Some plants even depend on it: for example, lodgepole pine trees are serotinous; their cones only burst and spread seeds during fires. After a burn, there are different tiers of succession. Dragon’s head is followed by hollyhocks and fireweed, which are followed by lodgepole pines and aspens. Each plant is well suited to the landscape they find and does something to prepare the environment for the next successor. They all enable each other’s success.
Western science, which I focused on at my university in Lexington, KY, would have us study disturbance and succession from as “unbiased” a perspective as possible. If I were to set up an experiment, I would strive to remove my own character from the methodology. There are clear advantages to this approach: replicability and elimination of confounding variables, to name a few. However, in truth, ecosystems have no limit on confounding factors, and humanity is one of them. Traditional ecological knowledge recommends embracing the entirety of the system and all of its factors, humans included. As Heisenberg suggests of particles, perhaps we also change ecological systems through observation. But contrary to Western science, it can be just as beneficial to accept our active part in the natural world and use it as a source of knowledge.
As a group, we have just begun our foray into these ecosystems and the different ways of knowing them. A change occurred when we began this course, and we are in the stage of primary succession, just beginning to scratch the surface of place-based studies of wilderness, agriculture, and the people who live within these landscapes. For my part, I am happy to walk amongst the fireweed for now, and I look forward to seeing the spruces and firs begin to sprout.
Anna Fatta is a student at the University of Kentucky, where she studies biochemistry. She recently enjoyed working for the US Geological Survey and in her spare time likes to rock climb and travel.