A New Language for Ecology
To accurately convey the interdependence among all the agents in an ecological system, we may need to break free of standard scientific discourse.
Our grammar might teach us to divide the world into active subjects and passive objects, but in a co-evolutionary relationship every subject is also an object, every object a subject.
—Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire
It’s hard to imagine a more pervasive idea in modern science than interdependence, a key concept for understanding all kinds of systems—especially living ones, such as an ecosystem. Diverse entities interact in multiple, simultaneous ways: Think of all critters in a biome doing their own unique things, to each and all. It’s somewhat analogous to wild, sustained, multivoiced sounds of many differently tuned orchestras performing and influencing each other at once. In music that’s called “polystylism.” But in attempting to define how things work in an ecosystem, scientific language tends to focus on a single entity and follow it through a sequence, losing the essence of interdependence along the way.
Professional scientists writing for juried journals and generalist science writers follow a rather traditional script, which contributes to the problem. A typical university guide to writing for science lays out principles of good writing: Be clear, simple, impartial, logically structured, accurate, and objective. In addition, it may warn against some of the writing habits of scientists that can make written articles labored and tedious: Avoid passive voice, past tense, and overly long sentences. A key principle is to shun personal expression: Writers should take themselves and their reactions out of the report entirely.
This sort of language falls silent in describing ecological process. If an important mission of contemporary science is to educate the general public about the notion that all things are connected, then perhaps a new language can help. Evoking a sense of multifaceted reality, capturing its mysteries, and giving a sample of how it works, particularly looped back on interconnected observers themselves, may begin to suggest the need to pay attention with a different sort of focus. Furthermore, describing things with a new ecological language may reveal to scientists processes and interactions that escape ordinary notice. New concepts generate new perceptions, and new forms of expression can enable us to discover new realities.
Nowhere is the possibility of a new language of interconnection more beautifully employed than in the literature—both scientific and poetic—of birds. Consider the description of the flight of an albatross by A. J. Ward-Smith, who, in his 1984 textbook Biophysical Aerodynamics and the Natural Environment, attempts to analyze the interactions between flying creatures and the air in which they move. To stay aloft over wide stretches of the Antarctic Ocean without tiring or resting, the albatross employs a form of soaring that does not depend on rising thermal currents—a unique kind of flight that Ward-Smith calls “dynamic soaring.” The bird loops back elliptically upwind and is slowed to the point of stall, then glides downwind and is speeded up and must avoid hitting the water as it slows. But after diagrams and elaborate mathematical proofs, the author admits in a short concluding paragraph that he has not told the whole story:
Although it was convenient to discuss the mathematical analysis as though the surface of the sea was level, in practice the shearing action of the winds causes an appreciable swell. Under these conditions the albatross uses slope soaring techniques close to the waves to augment its more general use of dynamic soaring.
In other words, the albatross does a bit more than dynamic soaring; the bird also picks up some extra kinetic energy from “slope soaring” the wind swells that reshape the ocean’s level surface. It’s no stretch for us to claim the albatross metaphorically surfs and soars both the prevailing wind and air pushed by the water swells. Here we introduce something like poetic language to the analysis of science. A science-inspired poet might go further and blend the words into a portmanteau word, such as “soarfs.” Science itself will do this: consider smog, (smoke and fog), cyborg (cybernetic organism), or positron (positive electron). Why shouldn’t a “scipoe” be able to coin “soarf”?
Might we go further to inspect whether the albatross’s actions influence the shape and strength of the wind/water swell itself, however slightly? That would be a fresh and more comprehensive perception of the interactions of this small discrete system, prompted by a new conception and novel vocabulary.
In another popular textbook, The Life of Birds, ornithologist Joel Carl Welty struggles mightily—and successfully, I believe—to make us see the action of flapping flight anew:
The popular notion that wing-flapping is a sort of swimmer’s breast stroke pushing downward to support the bird in the air and pushing backward to propel it forward, is not true. When a small bird takes off, the wing moves downward and forward on the downstroke. Since the trailing edge of the wing is less rigid than the leading edge, it bends upward under air pressure and forms the entire wing into a propeller that pulls the bird forward through the air.
While striving for clarity, Welty misses the most important point that the bird does not “swim” in air, as he writes, but both lifts itself and is lifted by the resultant increased air pressure under its wing. He makes the bird the sole actor, but the bird-disturbed air also plays a crucial part. The bird down-slices and swishes air by and over its bowed wing to increase lift through the dihedral effect. The bird, we can say—with another attempt at a kind of condensed poetical expression—“lofts itself” by lightening the air above it, or it “up-lightens” itself, rising through the less-pressured air above it, while the push-back air below “up-shoves” it forward. We can barely make language capture the reciprocal process, the interactions of bird, wing shape, and air. But the curious neologisms and semicomic puns could excite further scrutiny of simple bird flight.
Perhaps the most extravagant description of bird flight is poet Gerard Manly Hopkins’s evocation of the falcon’s stoop in “The Windhover” (right).
As the falcon stoops, its plunge reveals to Hopkins, the mystic monk participant/observer, the energy of Christ in capturing souls and elevates the poet-seer to transcendent raptures. It seems the very antipathy to scientific inquiry, except that Hopkins wants to portray the falcon’s actual dive realistically and symbolically at the same time. All words, phrases, and statements as well as rhymes, stresses, and stanza forms carry complex charged meanings. All of it reveals the metaphysical in the natural, the sacred in the actual—but most important, for our purposes, the interactions among bird and environment.
Right at the outset, Hopkins defines the falcon/air system as interactive by using the English word for kestrel in the title: “the windhover,” both the wind going over it, and itself a “wind hover-er.” The falcon is “dapple dawn drawn,” with both sky and bird markings drawn out by effects of sunrise, when it often hunts. The air it “rides” is at once “steady” and “rolling” and hence provides lift for its hovering, with the bird also like the air, at once steady and rolling.
The falcon flies on the seeming “rein” of the wind, held and holding itself there by the invisible tether of temporarily resolved aerodynamic forces. Its wing, like the air, is “wimpling,” or rolling like a moving stream of water. The falcon “rung” on this wind stream, that is, circled with it, perhaps announcing itself with this characteristic motion as if it were inscribing a bell in air. Then it dives, and with a shift of metaphor, glides on air as a skater sweeps an arc on ice, but the falcon still hurls itself at air, rebuffing the wind coming at it and the wind it generates in its dive. Wind and bird are nearly one, with naturalistic accuracy and mystic overtones blended together.