The Vermont Atlas of Life iNaturalist project just blew past 10,000 observations today. For those who haven’t heard me babbling on about it, this is a “Citizen Science” project that allows people to record observations, with photos, of any form of natural life they see. Especially amazing and futuristic is the ability to use a smartphone to make observations on the spot and have the photo, time, date, and GPS location all automatically recorded for later upload. Once on the website, crowdsourced IDs are often available.
I had no idea what this was. Turns out, it was a golden ground beetle.
“Citizen Science” is in quotes above because the term usually calls to mind amateurs. While many are using the project, including some very knowledgeable ones, the project is also being used by some of Vermont’s best ecologists and field biologists – both adding observations and offering identification for others. Future collaborations with additional agencies and groups are likely forthcoming as well.
But why the appeal? Why am I so obsessed? After some thought I think I have realized why.
I’ve been working in conservation my whole life. A big part of conservation is trying to save native ecosystems from destruction. This part of conservation is soul-draining. In nearly all cases, at least recently, conservation is a constant retreat… carving out little parcels that we hole will weather the effects of humans as they are surrounded by suburban sprawl. There are many losses, and have been since conservation started. Just look to John Muir and Hetch Hetchy, to Ed Abbey and Glen Canyon. A loss is final, and is absolute. Some day nature will reclaim everything, but not until long after everyone we know has died.
Yet I do have hope. I believe humans will survive this period (though I haven’t always felt that way) and will look back. They will look back not just with disgust, but with compassion. After all, is it that odd for a species to act on an instinct to hoard and build? At times our tools get the better of us, and destruction is infinitely easier than creation. But about the second part… we will someday look to forgiveness. To our children, to other organisms on Earth, maybe even to organisms elsewhere.
I’ve recently start reading the science fiction book 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson . In this book, people hollow out the insides of asteroids, add light and nutrients, and build ecosystems. It could be that some day we are able to do such a thing, if we make it that far. But, if we have ruined and mixed up all of our ecosystems by then, what hope do we have? More likely, we will struggle to even survive the next century, and will desperately need to recreate what has been lost. What then? It’s not enough that people fought to save some species and habitats. We need to know what was lost. To bear witness.
For much of my life I have worked in natural community mapping. It is an act I love – defining and mapping the patterns of the natural world. This will surely be a part of our future understanding. But all too often our knowledge is restrained. We don’t get enough time in the field, or are there the wrong time of year. We don’t have good enough air photos. Natural community maps were initially mapped on paper, and no one ever had time to use surveying tools. Later GPS was used but with crude accuracy. Only very recently with very high resolution aerial photos has exact mapping (if anything is exact in ecology) even been possible.
Then I found iNaturalist. Instead of a half hour of field time plus a half hour of data entry each observation takes only a minute. Others can independently verify observations. My friends can help. Sixth grade classes can help. Other botanists much more skilled than I am ARE helping. True you can’t directly map natural communities yet… but you can map any species. The database is incredible – better than any other I have used. The community is even better. What to see where white pine grows in Vermont? Have at it! Of course, areas with no dots don’t mean it isn’t there, but you can already see a pattern – it thrives in the Champlain Valley and is rare at higher elevations. Pull up the map of a place and see what people have found. Some day we will pull up a picture of a wal-mart on Google and see under it little images of trout lily and spring beauty. It won’t bring the forest back, and it won’t bring back the way it smells after a rain, the patterns the snow makes when the sun shines through the trees in spring, the buzz of increasingly rare native bees. But damnit, someone WILL know that twhat is now a wal-mart was once a bobbing field of spring wildflowers. Someone will care.
There will now always be a record of these trilliums blooming, no matter what happens to the plants.
We are building a monument to the world as it is now, the invasive plants that may or may not displace native ecosystems, the dandelions and coyotes that have colonized Los Angeles, the last snippets of a spineflower being diminished by climate change. We are doing it because we care. And, I hope, we are doing it because in at least some small way we want forgiveness. Maybe even in a small way vengeance. We were here. We saw what you did. We can’t stop you, but there will be a record for the ages of your deeds. Let the next generation decide, and the ones after that.
Give it a try. It’s easy. And it may make a big difference someday. If not, well at least you identified a plant with your smartphone instead of checking Facebook in the woods.
The title of this post, by the way, comes from the Mountain Goats song Magpie
“And when the cherry’s ripe with blossoms
be ready and be brave
and remember what we had here
when there was something left to save”
The song is not about about conservation, but domestic violence. The Sunset Tree is an amazing album, but please take this trigger warning before checking it out – it has detailed and heart wrenching descriptions of domestic violence experienced by the songwriter.
I don’t think our treatment of ecosystems, or really anything else, is anywhere near the horrificness of abuse of a loved one. I can’t imagine anything more horrifying that our species does. That being said, it gives me pause to think that in at least some way, the way we treat nature is reflective of violence against other humans. We’ve got a long way to go as a species, before we start hollowing out those asteroids.