Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Formal Learning and Experience


Henry David Thoreau was fond of just wandering into the forest and letting Nature teach him things, that is, by pure experience. He considered this much more important than formal learning, from books and classrooms. But if he relied only on experience, without formal learning, he would get nothing out of his romps in the woods other than a vague feeling of happiness and relaxation. It was because he had formal education that he was able to make sense out of the many things that he experienced in the woods. As I walk through the woods, I encounter many people who get nothing more from their hike than a feeling of relaxation, which is in itself a good thing, but I think I enjoy my ramble in the woods more than they do theirs.

Actually, they aren’t rambles. I always stay on the trail like a good citizen. John Burroughs would stay on the trail and use the bridge, while Thoreau, or John Muir, would pick their way through the woods and jump over the creek.

We need both formal education and continually renewed experience. Here are two examples:

  • In my field botany class, I taught students how to recognize poison ivy, in particular the three leaflets and the stalk on the middle leaflet. This is what all the poison ivy figures in the books have. But, especially in late summer, the plants can get a little raggedy. When I was hiking one day, I saw a poison ivy plant. (It was actually a small bush rather than a vine.) It had one leaf remaining, and one of the three leaflets had fallen off. But because I have looked closely at so many poison ivy plants, I recognized it instantly. No written key, not even the astonishingly accurate algorithms of iNaturalist, would have identified this two-leaflet poison ivy leaf. But I recognized the leaflet as I might have recognized the face of a friend, as Thoreau would have said.
  • On the same hike, I saw a Virginia creeper vine. All the books say, as I said in class, that the leaves have five leaflets. But this one—the whole vine, which was small and a little pale, obviously not well nourished—had leaves with three leaflets. That is, each leaf had developed three leaflets; it was not a case of five leaflets of which two had been shed. But I recognized it instantly.


These are the sorts of plants I would not include on lab practicals. Had I included the three-leafleted creeper, a student would have said, But you told us there were five.

Formal learning told me how to recognize a typical poison ivy or Virginia creeper; experience, over the course of years, taught me how to recognize the diversity of individual creepers and poison ivies.

One habit that Thoreau had more than almost anyone else, and which we must all cultivate to be wise and happy, is close observation; and, in addition, asking questions about what we see. My former students may forget most of what they learned from me in class, but if they keep looking at the things in nature, they will continually renew their knowledge of things such as poison ivy and Virginia creeper.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Get Out the Monkey Wrenches?

I spent three years teaching at a Christian college near New York City. I wish I could get that time back, but it is gone forever. (Then I went off and taught another three years at a different Christian college. I finally learned my lesson and went secular for the rest of my career.) The college in New York claimed to be Christian but it was at least at that time just a front for the Republican Party. While I was there, it was quietly Republican. Years after I left, it projected an image of extreme right-wing doctrine.

While on the biology faculty at the small college near New York, I taught environmentalism. I did this partly because it was the only honest thing to do, especially among people who supposedly believed that God created the Earth and everything that is in it. Also, I was not the only faculty member doing so. Of us four biologists, none of us taught that God wanted humans to grab whatever they desire from the natural world and leave it bleeding, battered, and gasping as it awaited the Second Coming.

But most of the students at that college were not at all receptive to environmentalism. I think it was because they had never been allowed to think about it as they grew up. Imagine my surprise when, one day, I was in the computer lab writing something (few faculty had office computers), when the student assistant was telling the Learning Resources director all about this wonderful group he had just found out about, and which he admired greatly: Greenpeace. He admired their strong defense of the Earth and their willingness to take decisive, some might say extreme, actions. If Greenpeace is right about human abuse of God’s Earth, then mildness is not an appropriate response. Despite the repressive fundamentalism of that college, the students occasionally thought for themselves.

Another group besides Greenpeace that takes actions that some consider extreme is Earth First!

What I used to think about extremist environmental actions was that they were doomed to failure. The civil authorities would just sweep the protestors away and everything would go back to business as usual. Indeed, it was possible that their antics would turn people otherwise receptive to environmental views against the entire movement.

And this is exactly what Dave Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First!, used to believe, as he describes in his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. He worked with and for conservation organizations that took what they considered a more practical approach to environmental issues. Groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and many others would meet with leaders of government and industry and try to convince them that sound environmental policy was profitable for everyone. This seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Only it didn’t work out that way very often. Foreman describes his experiences with the extreme right wing Sagebrush Rebellion ranchers who wanted to take federal grazing land away from the taxpayers and keep it for themselves. The Sagebrush people created violent confrontations, and they considered mainstream environmental organizations to be their enemies.

The conciliatory approach wasn’t working very well. If you are part of a conciliatory environmentalist group, the right-wing extremists hate you as much as if you were a radical. So, for all the difference it makes, you might as well be part of a radical environmentalist group. They will hate you, but they would hate you no matter what. And this is still the case today.

This is why Foreman and others started Earth First! Back when he worked with mainstream organizations, he “was told to be rational, not emotional…I would lose credibility if I let my emotions show…But, damn it, I am an animal. A living being of flesh and blood, storm and fury. The oceans of the Earth course through my veins, the winds of the sky fill my lungs…I am alive! I am not…a cog in the industrial world…When a chainsaw slices into the heartwood of a two-thousand-year-old Coast Redwood, it’s slicing into my guts…” He and a few others decided, let the rage flow.

It seemed hopeless that anyone would pay attention to them. But when they staged a protest on Glen Canyon Dam, not destructive but very, very visible, they got in trouble but also got worldwide attention. Today, Earth First! associate organizations are found in many countries: Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic (which did not even exist when Earth First! was founded), France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, New Zealand, the Philippines, Poland, Slovakia (which also did not yet exist), Spain, the UK, as well as the US.

One of the inspirations of the group was Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. This was a fictional organization that carried out pranks against corporations and governments. The name comes from “throwing a monkey wrench into the works,” a wrench useful in manual labor but which, when thrown into the workings of a machine, can cause the whole mechanism to lock up. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of damage results. Foreman writes on page 23, “A monkey wrench thrown into the gears of the machine may not stop it. But it might delay it, make it cost more. And if feels good to put it there.”

Yes, I have to keep my emotions in their proper place when I do scientific research. But I am not just a scientist. I am also a passionate lover of the Earth. My role is not to stage protests, but to write, mostly books, but also blog essays like this one. I have retired from the academic world and feel too tired to participate in monkey wrench protests. But I am glad Earth First! is still at work, a counterbalance to the greenwashing [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenwashing] of corporations that just pretend to be environmentally sound.

I suppose it is appropriate that I post this essay on midterm election day. In this election, environmental issues are mostly ignored.