This is the second cross-post between Terrain.org and the University of Arizona Institute of the Environment’s Proximities. The first was a conversation between Simmons B. Buntin and Megan Kimble.
Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. In both his science and policy work, Sagarin connects basic observations of nature to issues of broad societal interest, including conservation biology, protecting public trust resources, and making responses to terrorism and other security threats more adaptable. Dr. Sagarin is a recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship and has recently published two books, Learning from the Octopus (Basic Books, 2012) and Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World (Island Press, 2012), which show how nature observation—when extended across large scales and enhanced with both new technologies and greater deference to traditional knowledge sources—is revealing profound new insights about our dynamic social and ecological world. He was a Geological Society of America Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative (and later U.S. Secretary of Labor) Hilda Solis. He has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, Stanford University, University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Arizona. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Conservation Biology, Ecological Monographs, Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Foreign Policy, Homeland Security Affairs, and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the editor, with Terence Taylor, of the volume Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (2008, University of California Press).
Eric Magrane is poet-in-residence at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a Carson Fellow, and a research assistant at University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, where he works on art, science, and environment and writes Proximities. He is currently pursing a Ph.D. in Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, developing a method of poetic geography that blends critical-creative practice with human geography and environmental research. He has been an artist in residence in three U.S. national parks and is the creator and curator of A Poetic Inventory of Saguaro National Park, which gathered 80 writers to craft pieces based on species in the Park for the 2011 National Park Service and National Geographic Society BioBlitz. He is also the founding editor of Spiral Orb, an experiment in permaculture poetics.
What follows is a partial transcript of the wide-ranging conversation, as well as video clips from their discussion:
Eric Magrane: Rafe, you write and speak about observation, most pointedly in your book Observation and Ecology, with Aníbal Pauchard. I’d like to discuss the way that observation interacts as a hinge between science—and particularly environmental science—as a way of seeing and understanding the world, and art as a way of seeing.
Rafe Sagarin: Absolutely. Observation is at the core of so many things we do, especially art and science. It’s almost so much at the core of science that it’s forgotten how important it is. The primacy that observation has to everything that we know—we’ve almost gotten too clever by half and think we could skip that deep observational step. Of course, all artists implicitly understand that they need to be really good observers of the world first, before they can start translating those observations to something they can appreciate. Sometimes in science we drill down way too far too fast before we understand observationally the whole context of what we’re looking at.
Eric Magrane: It seems like there are intersections between where one starts, as well—whether one begins with a hypothesis or a question that will guide the way that you look at things. Or sometimes in artistic ways of engaging with the world, it doesn’t always begin from a specific question or a discrete category that one is already organizing the world in, right? It seems like the way that you speak about observation addresses this stepping back and being attentive to what is actually happening in the world rather than going in already saying—within this space, within this marine ecosystem, for example—I know exactly how I organize this world already. It upsets the way that we make knowledge and has openings for new ways of understanding the ordering of the world and trying different arrangements.
Rafe Sagarin: Exactly. There’s been a lot of shifting of this in science. The early naturalist-explorers were wide-open observers. Darwin didn’t go to the Galapagos with a hypothesis in mind about evolution. He observed and observed for years, even when he got back, and eventually came out with this hypothesis and looked back at the data to see how it fit. What happened especially in the second half of the 20th century is that science got really more and more pressure, to this day, to define itself by being able to ask a hypothesis and then test that hypothesis. In the way we’ve made that process more efficient, it’s almost like you need to know—in order to get funded for your science—exactly what your hypothesis is going to be beforehand. Otherwise, you’re accused of going on a fishing expedition when in reality you’re never going to come up with a good hypothesis until you’ve done a lot of observing as broadly as possible before you even think about what’s the most appropriate question here.
Eric Magrane: How do you know which scales to observe? There are connections here to citizen science or engaging the public in bringing in multiple frames of observation and observers looking at different objects.
Rafe Sagarin: There’s really no one right way to determine what scale you start at. I think it’s really determined by what it is you’re interested in. But you do need to have the cognizance that there are multiple scales out there, so that you’re not blinding yourself. So for example if you’re just looking at satellite data of something, you may be missing some important processes that are going on right down at the ground. And if you’re just looking at one local site, you might be missing how that connects to the whole picture. The beauty of being an observer in today’s world is that you can move across scales. Technologically speaking we’re able to observe like never before—observe the entire earth—but also we can do so in terms of our networked world we live in. Even if you’re not the person who can do the observations at the very local scale, you can connect with people—through citizen science programs for example or through networks of scientists—who are observing at different places. We have kind of an unprecedented opportunity and ability to observe at all kinds of scales. But that doesn’t suggest there is one scale you should necessarily start on.
Eric Magrane: One of these hinges between art and science, and what art or poetics may bring to ways of imagining science is in how it offers a way to engage with place. For example, in ecopoetics, and the conception of ecopoetics as a site, there’s a bit of a freedom or a different sort of attention that can happen through this poetic frame rather than an analytical hypothesis-driven frame. There’s a freedom to migrate across different places. For example, a poet can juxtapose the great Pacific garbage patch and a hotel room in San Francisco. Or, as poet Marcella Durand writes in her essay “The Ecology of Poetry”:
Association, juxtaposition, and metaphor are tools that the poet can use to address larger systems. The poet can legitimately juxtapose kelp beds with junkyards, or to get more intricate, she or he can reflect on the water reservoir system for a large city by utilizing the linguistic structure of repetitive water-associated words in a poem.
By putting things together and making these odd combinations that don’t necessarily work in a logical scientific way of knowing the world, we might speak to something of the mesh of materiality that we’re working with now.
Rafe Sagarin: I think that feeling that scientists can’t jump across boundaries, in the way that you describe that poetry does, has really been imposed upon us by the institution of science. With the rise of molecular biology in the mid-20th century, the idea is that we have cut science and complex systems down into smaller and smaller parts. But if you look at the early scientists, naturalists, and ecologists, people like Ed Ricketts, they were first of all incredibly inspired in their work by poets like Robinson Jeffers, who was very impactful on Ricketts. Ricketts was a marine ecologist, but also a marine ecologist who wanted to connect what he looked at to questions about warfare and conflict and overcoming conflict—and in fact breaking through conflict, which was an idea that he took directly from Jeffers’ poem “Roan Stallion.” Early on, scientists didn’t see these boundaries. Then we had a period where everything was divided up, and now we’re realizing that in order to understand complex systems we really have to move freely across these boundaries again. So poetry has always in fact from its start guided science in a way, and there are many, many examples of that. Now, we can take a lesson from that kind of moving across boundaries and apply it to the kinds of things scientists want to do. It’s only really an institutional illusion that science has to be constructed within very narrow constraints and along a kind of linearized pathway. That’s not at all an actually organic part of what science is or could be.
Eric Magrane: I think of the geographer Alexander von Humboldt, who was a mix of naturalist, explorer, and scientist and really brought a sense of aesthetics to science. At the same time, the disciplinary boundaries that have been built over the last couple hundred years have led to some interesting and very important things as well. One of the things that we have to be careful about when thinking about migrating across different fields of knowledge or different boundaries is that at the same time we talk about being able to do this interdisciplinary work, we need to acknowledge that there are these disciplines for a reason that have built all of these specific processes that engage with specific questions. It’s important to follow a nuanced engagement with that interdisciplinary—or across boundaries—space.
Rafe Sagarin: Even within the kind of bounded science that we’ve gotten used to, it’s inevitable that thoughts of aesthetics get pulled into it. People talk about a beautiful proof or an elegant experiment that may be happening within a narrowly focused science or mathematics. It’s inevitable that people want to bring in these aesthetic values to what they’re doing. I think that it’s a natural force there.
Eric Magrane: To get back to observation and scientists being at their root observers, that work has to come from close observation of the world, artists also talk about that. To come from a place where one observes that space and is really attentive to what’s actually there. At that—I hesitate to say level—but space of observation, there’s really not a difference between science and art and the way of seeing. Maybe it becomes a difference at a certain point when we decide what we are going to do with what is observed. At that point our choices shift it into this different knowledge frame of how we make meaning of what is out in the world outside of the observer.
Rafe Sagarin: Absolutely. I think about all processes in life—in a person’s life, in biology itself—as recursive. They build off their past states. And there’s this seed to any recursive process, whether it’s a mathematical spiral or a spiral on a nautilus shell. For an observer of the world, whether they become an artist or a scientist, that seed is that observational skill. And when I talk to my favorite scientists and naturalists, they all have that early seed in childhood—and I think of my own experiences of really just getting out into nature as much as I could when I was a kid. They did have that combined element in this nascent form that you spoke to—to me it was about art and it was about playing and it was about scientifically looking at things, experimenting with the hermit crabs I’d find in the tide pools and things like that. All of it wrapped up into one at that point, and then as my experiences expanded and went in different directions, they continued to touch on all of these things. When I go out into tidepools now, it’s also still about science and art and play and enjoyment and sharing it with other people. But I may have had more a focus in one area in any given time. This kind of spiraling process allows you to touch on the full scope of things. It’s actually an expansive process. I find myself coming back to the same areas I started at as a little kid but with this expanded knowledge base or expanded viewpoint. I actually see it as starting with a core that includes all those elements and expands outward from that, even though we may perceive it as becoming narrower.
Eric Magrane: I think play is key in that idea of expanding outward—which in some contexts would be described as looking toward the macro—and then looking inward toward the micro, especially when you use the image of the spiral, it’s kind of the same thing. What’s out there might be very close to what’s in here versus somewhere in between. For example, I recently co-curated an exhibit called Curating the Cosmos in conjunction with the Association of American Geographers conference in Los Angeles and we brought a number of different artists together, including Paul Mircoha from Tumamoc, who did a series of images for the exhibit that included real close images of lichen on the rocks from Tumamoc with images of space mixed into them. Having these connected aesthetics of the out-there of space with the in-here close up of lichen—and that movement of being able to focus closely and open up this wide field of vision at the same time—is something beautiful. I also wonder if it may help us to re-imagine the way that we exist as a species here on the earth among other species.
Header photo by Simmons B. Buntin.