Sunday, December 8, 2013

the Fred Calendar for 2014

One thing that very few people have witnessed is how charming my husband Fred Schueler looks when he's writing field notes. He's part of the landscape. From a few moments to several minutes, he's nearly as motionless as a rock or a tree. Fred is embedded in a scene as he's working to describe it. The light reflects from his vest, his hat, his hands, his beard, in the same way as it from everything around him - and everything around him is vulnerable to being noted by his pen, and soon entered into
the database.

This electronic marvel, the Fragile Inheritance Database, is only 115 megabytes in size but when Fred's near his computer or laptop, he can answer in moments any question I ask him about what we saw when we were here or there at any point over a span of thirty years. He answers other people's questions as well, sometimes with great chunks of data, all accessed instantly (though sometimes it takes him a few days to wrench it into the requested format).

The idea of the database is that of a pointillist painting - individual records of species and phenomena that combine to present a picture of a whole scene. This means we can easily export records to official monitoring schemes and researchers from a landscape "painted" to test hypotheses and anticipate ecological change.

As I chose photos for the calendar and edited the database record pertaining to each photo, I wondered how many people will find these pictures of Fred in the field in any way as endearing as I do.

This calendar is available from

The last page, January 2015, is not a photo, but Fred's essay on the philosophy and necessity of natural history observations - recording, keeping, and using them:

Scientific Songlines in the Scientific Deamtime

Listening to Wade Davis, in his 2009 Massey Lectures, describing the world view of the aboriginal peoples of Australia, and how they "accepted life as it was, a cosmological whole, the unchanging creation of the first dawn when the primordial ancestors through their thoughts, dreams and journeys sang the world into being..." and how "the paths taken by the Ancestors have never been forgotten. They are the Songlines, precise itineraries followed even today as the people travel across the template of the physical world..." I thought "Hey, that's Science." There's always a sympathy between scientists and aboriginal thinkers, a certain common "does not compute" with regard to the antics and denials of commercial society. A common looking-through of particular events to see bigger patterns which are nonetheless rooted in the real particular events.

On the train to Moosonee, in May, 2002, swaying north across the spartan but breath-taking Spruce-Heath-&-Sphagnum beauty of the muskeg, scanning the trackside trees for witches brooms that would indicate the presence of Dwarf Mistletoe, Arceuthobium pusillum, it had come to me that: the naturalist's job is to love the whole world - with the corollary that we demonstrate that love by telling the truest and most detailed possible stories about the world.

That means exploration: because the first thing you learn about any group of organisms is that not enough is known about distribution and abundance and there aren't enough specimens or data to answer the interesting questions. Given the lack of attention paid to so many aspects of natural history, everyplace is effectively unknown. Environmental change and advances in knowledge and interest constantly require re-exploration of every territory, and there are ever-increasing levels of spatial detail and environmental and biotic correlation at which every territory can be profitably explored. Henry David Thoreau 'traveled a good deal in Concord,' providing an unparalleled public record of its biota and making fundamental advances in ecology simply by constantly re-exploring his ancestral ground.

There are numerous criteria for situations where exploration can have the most effect. We want to look where 1) ignorance is greatest, 2) future change is expected, 3) re-visits can convert initial exploration into monitoring, 4) monitoring is already underway, 5) few species are known and extra effort is needed to show they really are depauperate, and 6) weather conditions make it easy to survey particular taxa.

Scientific results often "don't make sense" until the theory behind them is understood, so they can be hard to explain to those who haven't studied the theories, though they're "common sense" to those who have. In Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Bruno Latour shows how the interweaving of observer, equipment, and phenomena combine with social and political circumstances to mould these new stories, which are then chanted back into the dreamtime of the past, a place that both exists and is still being formed. Thus, the scientific observers are are not merely attached to the world, they are essential to its existence. The world as we know it exists, even as it is being created, breathed into being by stories that have survived ever-sterner tests. 

Real ecological monitoring is forming a hypothesis about how a population is responding to its environment, and then gathering data - singing the song - that bears on this hypothesis, while following what others are doing, and adjusting your methods to your findings, and those of others. Almost any conspicuous organism or process that you see everyday isn't being studied where you're seeing it. Anytime you consistently record something interesting, if you don't become the authority on this, you'll sooner or later find someone who's studying it, and can use your data.

Here are a few simple steps: 1) find something interesting, 2) find out who's studying it and what methods they're using, 3) decide what hypothesis you're testing, 4) make observations that are precisely locatable on a map, 5) record these in archivally stable written form or widely disseminated electronic media, 6) and keep on going for years, until your hypothesis is supported, or you've come to a better understanding of your subject.

Frederick W. Schueler, 5 December 2013 
Fragile Inheritance is a soon-to-be-incorporated not-for-profit organization dedicated to natural history observations - recording, preserving, and making them accessible natual history observations.


What do you think of this painting, and what do you know about the subject that I have painted?