Notes from the Field: What’s Normal?

Last year, when I was talking to a more experienced biologist about my work, I commented on how the year had be a weird one, an unusually mild one, with my plants behaving in expected but not completely predictable ways. He laughed and said, “Every year is a weird year.”

He’s right. Every year has something that sets it apart. Years returning week after week, month after month, to the same location make its breath apart. The soft, steady cycle shows itself in the movement of the grasses and the smell of the ocean. The large movements are predictable and comforting in their yearly appearance – the flowering of the lupins and the lifting of morning fog under the heat of the afternoon sun – but the smaller ones can become unpredictable.

Humans are made to observe, to track, and to learn. When I was an undergraduate, I took several psychology classes, propelled by my interest in the complexity of the human mind.  One class talked about the way we process human faces, the way we can recognize our orientation of eyes, nose, and mouth, even in inanimate objects. I learned how experts learn to recognize the tools of their trade in an analogous manner, like their interests take on almost human form. So the same way we learn faces, the same way mechanics memorize the inner workings of a variety of cars, so do naturalists and field biologists memorize the cycles of their site.

I went out to my site last week. The grasses had started to collapse, revealing the plants and rocks and markers that their upright forms had covered a few months earlier. I had learned to be on guard for the grasses – their height hid the plants I’d found so easily earlier in the year. Their rise and fall followed a predictable pattern and I knew when to expect them to arrive and I knew when I expect them to leave. I know I am almost done for the year when the grasses bow their heavy, seed-laden heads. They resemble nodding old men toeing the line between sleep and senescence.

This week, I found a dead seagull among a patch of grasses and thistles and gnarled bushes. Maybe it was the collapse of the grass that allowed me to find these bones, but it was the second week in a row I had found a bird, feathers harshly delicate against the sinewy strength of soon dead grass. In all my visits before then, I had stumbled across deer but no birds, and I wondered if these birds were an anomaly or a return to normal.

Changes to an ecosystem are measured in reference to a certain observation or set of observations. We observe and observe and create our normal and are wary of deviations from that normal. But the point of reference can move. Our baselines can shift, and our baselines do shift to such an extent that we’ve classified shifting baselines as key idea in conservation and restoration.

I have my own baselines, my own points of reference for the behavior of my plants and the breath of my field site. When these shift, I recognize that perhaps something has really changed, or perhaps I was wrong in my points of reference. The realization is unsettling and exhilarating – there is SO much to learn and there is so much to LEARN.

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