Sunday, November 11, 2018

A Short Story: Mercy

For several years friends have been urging me to write a novel during the month of November as part of the NaNoWriMo movement, but I rarely have the time or motivation. Instead, today I have taken ten minutes to sketch out a picture of a short story, remembering that good stories have begun with less than this.

A Short Story: Mercy 

When we left the Earth we thought we had escaped. We were the wealthiest people on the planet, and we had access to the best technology in history. People were willing to do whatever we wanted because we paid well.

We planned a thousand-year trip, a one-way flight to another home. We made arrangements for terraforming ships to arrive a little more than a century before we would, and we took the slow route so that the world would have time to get started before we got there. We knew it would be hard, that after a long sleep we’d wake up to colonize uninhabited territory. We knew there was real risk, but we also knew that the risk on earth was growing with the population. We wanted a new life for ourselves and for our children. We were young, and healthy, and strong.

What we did not count on was the way technology would change. We thought we were leaving a dying world, and we were. As we left the planet the trail of smoke from our burning fuel was our last goodbye, our last contribution to an increasingly unbreathable atmosphere. We meant no harm, but we had to burn some fuel to escape gravity.

Who knew that when we left, the world we left behind would undergo such changes? The population collapse that we expected took place, and we were lucky to escape before it did. That much we foresaw. But we did not think anyone would survive long after we left. When the population decreased, the air and the water started to clean themselves up, at least a little, and the people who made it through that first year of suffering came out of it stronger and more committed to never letting in happen again. They moved more slowly and more carefully than we did. They focused their energies on cleaning up the mess we left behind. And they were pretty good at it, but not good enough. Some of what they did allowed them to survive another few decades, but they saw that the damage was done and the planet was not a place they could stay for long. So they came up with a new plan, to help not just a few people but the whole surviving population of earth to head to the only known survivable exoplanet, one that had been discovered by our investments, and that was already on its way towards being terraformed. They headed for the same planet we had already claimed for our own.

And they arranged to get here first.

I’m writing this while my husband is on the radio, talking with the military patrol that was waiting for us. They say we cannot come down to the surface, and I am trying to hold back my tears. We worked so hard for this, we bought this, we sacrificed everything we had for this, and now they are refusing us entry. They knew we were coming, and they have been waiting for us.

How can they do this to us? We’re the same people, the same species! Humans are nowhere else in the universe. There is no other home for us. The place we all left is uninhabitable, but now they are telling us that we must turn away. I don’t know what this will mean. Do they want us to go back? We cannot; nothing is there waiting for us. Have they found a new place for us to go? My husband has shushed me. The military officer is saying they do not know of other planets. Why are we not allowed here? Why can we not land on the other side of the planet? I know, I’m sorry. I’ll keep it down.

We are traitors, they say. We left them in their time of need, and we left destruction in our wake. They don’t trust us, and they will not let us land. Hasn’t enough time gone by? Can’t we bury the hatchet? Why won’t they forgive us? What are we going to do?

They say they will refuel us. This is their idea of kindness. We are being given enough fuel and supplies to return to Earth. Another millennium of sleep, and perhaps the Earth we left will welcome us home, they say, but we are not welcome here.

My husband is angry. He says that when our ship is refueled he plans to crash it into their city below. They say that they will stop us. They have boarded our ship and sedated my husband. They are about to sedate me, but they are letting me write this last sentence so that when we get back to Earth we will remember their mercy.

Copyright November 10, 2018 David L. O'Hara

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

How I Write - A Quick Reply To A Young Writer

This morning I came to the office to find an email from a student at another college. They were writing to ask advice for a young writer. In my own college years writing often felt like a challenge to overcome, especially when I was writing simply to satisfy a course requirement. After I graduated, I discovered that writing helped me to think and to communicate more clearly. For the last few decades, I've written more and more, and in general I find it to be a pleasant activity. I lost my ability to write for a little while after I was injured three years ago, and the process of re-learning it has been good for my mind and my spirit alike.

The email I received was polite and kind, and I thought it worth my time to write a short reply even though I had other urgent tasks to get to. I never want to let the truly important abdicate to the merely urgent; tasks that clamor are not always the best tasks, and those opportunities that speak softly are not always the least valuable.  Here's the email I received, and my reply. I've edited the email I received to protect the author's privacy and to highlight their question and some of my main points in boldface. I've edited my reply slightly as well, since I've got a few minutes to do so.

If you've got good advice for my correspondent, feel free to offer your advice in the comments below. (I'll delete advertisements, though.)

Dr. O'Hara, 

I'm emailing you on a rather odd premise. I am a second-year student [in] college, and an avid follower of yours on Twitter. Over the course of about six months I have admired your work from afar. I would like to say your passion not only for your students, but your work, is nothing less than inspiring. That being said -- without taking up too much of your time -- I would like to ask for your advice. I know that you have written and contributed to many books. I have started one of my own, and would like to know how you go about the process of writing? I know it is a rather vague question, but I am just getting to about seven thousand words and fifty plus seems daunting. Do you have any advice? 

Again, I am sure you are a very busy man and if this isn't something you have time to entertain I wholeheartedly understand.
Thank you for your time!

Dear Friend,

Thanks for your thoughtful question. I'm not sure I've got a one-size-fits-all process, but I'm happy to share what I've learned and what I do. I've only got time for a short reply this morning, so apologies in advance for the brevity of this note. I have some students coming by in a few minutes and I like to try to be present for those who are right in front of me as much as possible. I suppose it's sort of a spiritual practice for me, that "being present." The alternative (for me, anyway) is to spend too much of my time not being present, which usually takes the form of stress and anxiety about that which is geographically or chronologically distant. Anyway, while my students aren't here, I'm regarding this email from you as your "presence" in my office, so let's talk about writing...

...which I suppose we've already begun doing. For me, one of the most helpful things has been making sure not to regard writing as an optional exercise. (It's too easy for me to let the urgent crowd out the important.) Writing matters to me because it helps me to think and it helps me to be in conversation with others. If I don't give it at least a little of my time - on a regular basis, that is - then my ability to write begins to atrophy. Disciplines that matter - the ones that are most connected to our best loves - should be treated like respiration; they need to be regular and constant. If writing is a matter of loving your neighbor for you, then write regularly, just like you breathe regularly.

Of course, the metaphor breaks down, because we breathe involuntarily and always, whereas we only write occasionally. But it's at least a partly useful metaphor. Because I want to be ready to write, I keep a paper notebook in my pocket all the time, remembering the words from one of the Narnia stories (Prince Caspian, maybe?) Hmm. Let's see. Yes, here it is:

“Have you pen and ink, Master Doctor?” “A scholar is never without them, your Majesty,” answered Doctor Cornelius. -- C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, ch. 13 

Yes, it was Prince Caspian. And here's one of my other tricks: I write after each book I read. With each book, I take time to jot down a few words and a few lines that really mattered to me in that book. Then, when I want quick access to those words, I've got them all in a single file on my computer, and I can search for the word "ink" or "scholar" and up comes this quote. My file of quotations from books is now 130 pages long. (Don't despair - I've been adding to it for 20 years!) It's a tremendous resource for writing, and it helps me to remember what I read and where I read it.

Two more quick things, since I've got to go:

 1) My graduate school faculty told me that writing a 300-page dissertation seemed like a lot, but if I thought of it as a page a day for a year, it would seem much smaller, and much easier. They were right.

 2) I find it helpful to write more than one thing at a time. I'll work on one thing for a while - maybe only a few minutes a day - and then I find my mind is tired of writing and thinking about that subject. So I will turn to another task, and I often find I have new energy. Oddly, I wrote my first book while I was also writing my dissertation. I'd write the doctoral thesis during the day, and then, at night, I'd write the book as a way of distracting my mind and relaxing. Now I find that if I'm working on only one thing I feel great stress. Will I finish it? What if I mess it up? These questions haunt me. But when I have many writing projects ongoing, I don't mind it very much if I run into a wall of writer's block on one of them. True story: I have written several books that I will likely never publish, and I have half-written hundreds of articles and books that I may never publish. But each one is still on my computer, and I often return to those half-written pieces to scavenge a few footnotes or paragraphs or choice words. The unfinished tasks aren't on the scrap heap; they're unpolished gems in my store-room just waiting to be set in a new piece of jewelry. I'm not ashamed of them even though I don't wear them in public; they're treasures even though most people will never see them.

I hope this helps. Keep at it! Writing has been a great source of food for my mind and a great nourishment to my convivial conversations as well. I hope you find it to be of similar benefit.

All good things,


P.S. Here are a few other things I've written about writing, and teaching writing, and the role of nature in teaching me how to write. 

Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Professor's Environmental Humanities Summer

Dear Students,

Do you know how your professors spend their summers? In a few days I will shift from my summer work to the work you're more familiar with: my work in the classroom. As you and I prepare to make that shift, I thought you might appreciate a glimpse at what I've been up to this summer. 

When I was a student I knew very little about my professors' lives outside of the classroom. They were people I saw for a few hours a week, and whom I rarely saw outside of lecture halls. Every now and then I'd see one in a grocery store or walking down the street, and it was a bit of a surprise to see them living ordinary lives. On the one hand, I think it's good thing to give my students space apart from professors. It is helpful to have some boundaries, after all. On the other hand, the way we live our lives can be part of our teaching. This is one of the advantages of study-travel courses, and it's why I invite you to come to my office for tea and not just for formal advising. I hope you will see helpful lessons (hopefully good ones!) in the way we professors choose to spend our time, and that those spontaneous and organic conversations will offer more food for thought than I have time to offer in formal lessons.

Other than the science professors who spend a lot of time doing lab research, you might think we professors are simply on vacation in the summer.  In part, you're right: we have three main responsibilities as Augie professors: teaching, scholarship, and service. And most of us are on a nine- or ten-month contract; we've chosen a life that pays us less in money than we might make in other jobs, and in return, we have significantly more flexibility with our time.  That's a nice tradeoff for most of us, and it's one of the delights of being part of an academy.While most of us do use some of that time for rest after working hard for an academic year, we also use the summer to catch up on our scholarship, to learn more, to find new resources that will help us to serve our community, and to prepare to be better teachers.

Since I teach a wide range of courses (in philosophy, classics, religion, environmental humanities, Ecology, study abroad, and more) my summer is usually spent in study. This summer was no exception. This isn't a complete list of what I did, but it'll give you the big picture anyway:

One of the lycaenids I photographed in my garden this summer. Actually a very small butterfly, but some small things can give you a big picture nonetheless, if you know what to look for.


After grading exams and Commencement, I started a week of meetings. The big picture: wrapping up the school year, and getting ready for the next. Meetings may not sound appealing, but we tend to get a lot done that makes the rest of the school year possible. This is also often a time when I get to meet with alumni, community leaders, and people who need my help with various projects. File this under "service," I suppose.


The first week: I taught a weeklong graduate class in philosophy for our Sports Administration and Leadership Master's program. This was an intensive 40-hour seminar on Plato's Republic and Augustine's Confessions. We discussed a number of things, like the roles of a leader; the difficulties of knowing anything with confidence and of making decisions when one doesn't know with certainty; and the important place of sports and playfulness in the ethical development of individuals and communities.

The second week: As soon as that class ended I hopped on a plane for Sweden, so I could participate in the EAT Forum in Stockholm. This was a remarkable experience, unlike any academic conference I've attended. EAT is a non-profit based in Oslo that aims to make science-based changes in the world's food systems. The EAT Forum is a place to meet and network with a number of influential, thoughtful people from diverse backgrounds, with the aim of making sure everyone on the planet has access to safe, sustainable, healthy food. They aim high, and I found the experience to be very helpful for me as a teacher and practicioner of sustainability; as someone who researches salmonid fish (salmon, trout, and charr, especially); and as someone who aims to improve our policies concerning those fish and their habitats. Three highlights of this Forum: (1) I met people I wouldn't likely meet anywhere else, mostly working on fishing policy; (2) The presentations were well-crafted, all of them aiming to teach briefly and to introduce a positive possible solution to a well-defined problem; (3) Chance conversations with people like Shafinaz Hossain, a woman from Bangladesh whose Business professor gave her an assignment: go home and look for a problem no one has solved, and regard it as an opportunity to start a business that helps people. What a great assignment! And what an impressive solution she came up with! (Well done, Shafinaz! I'm glad to have met you!)

The third week: Shortly after getting home from Sweden I was on a plane again, this time to Chicago, where I spent a week with 25 scholars - mostly religion professors - and with Dr. Eboo Patel and Dr. Laurie Patton. Dr. Patel is founder of the IFYC, and  Dr. Patton is a scholar of religion and President of Middlebury College. This was a seminar put on by the Council of Independent Colleges.  If all I did this summer was the EAT Forum or this week in Chicago studying Interfaith Understanding, it would have been a summer well spent. I learned a lot (ask me about it!) but here are some highlights: (1) Again, I met people I wouldn't have met otherwise, and that in itself is valuable; (2) rather than teaching how religions can debate one another, this seminar helped me think about how we can help our communities bridge differences without diminishing the importance of faith traditions and theology. To put it in the terms of my own tradition, it helped me to think about how to love my neighbor as myself. That's a vast oversimplification, so look for more from me about this in coming months. I'm really grateful for this opportunity to be a student learning how to help other students.

The fourth week: I had a little downtime at home, but not much. More meetings, and preparation for a long trip in July. I packed up my little Subaru with books and camping gear and started driving west.

The first week of July I spent studying Alaska Native Law at the University of Montana Law School in Missoula.  No, I'm not an attorney, and I probably won't become one. But when I can, I audit law courses on environmental law in order to be a better teacher, scholar, and pre-law advisor.  A few quick facts to help you see the complexity of the matter: there are 229 different tribes in Alaska; Alaska is the largest state in the United States, but one of the smallest by population; and the history of how the federal government has dealt with Alaska Natives is quite different from the way that history developed in the contiguous 48 states. Want to know more? Take my classes! Once this class ended, I was back in the Subaru, headed south.

The next two weeks were spent in Boulder City, Nevada, a city that was built as a home for the workers on the Hoover Dam.  I was there on a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute on the Hoover Dam. We spent two weeks working in archives, touring the interior of the dam, visiting sites of importance around the dam and in the Lake Mead and Valley of Fire parks; hearing lectures by experts from around the country; and reading and discussing historic documents and scholarly works about the dam, water, the desert, Native American history, geology and geography, and much more. As with just about everything else I've mentioned so far, it's hard to summarize all this without doing a great injustice to the value of this Summer Institute. Instead, here are a few more highlights: (1) As before, the people. Dr. Anthony Arrigo and Dr. Michael Green, who led the Institute, and the 24 other scholars from around the country who attended with me are some of the best parts of the institute. (2) Not much can beat direct experience for learning. As Aristotle said, 
 “Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.” Aristotle, De Generatione et Corruptione, 316a5-10 (Basic Works, McKeon, trans.)
Let me assure you that when you're studying the history of the dam and it's 115F outside, you have a better understanding of how the workers who built that dam (often in heat up to 140F!) suffered. (3) I spent a lot of my time researching the environmental history of the place, focusing - as is my wont - on fish and insects.

The fourth week was a little more relaxed: my wife flew to Nevada from a meeting she had in California, and we drove home together, visiting some National Parks (my first visit to the Grand Canyon!) and some favorite places in New Mexico, where I did my first Master's degree at St John's College. We didn't take too much time on the road, since I had the privilege of helping to officiate at the wedding of two beloved alums in the Augustana Chapel of Reconciliation. This is one of the joys of teaching: we get to watch our alums live and grow, and sometimes we get to participate in that growth in delightful ways.


I'll spare you the week-by-week of August, and instead I'll tell you some of the other things that have made my summer rich. 
Family: I probably spent too much time away from home this summer, mostly as a result of having an abundance of good opportunities that only come around occasionally. It has been good to spend August at home with my wife and sons. 

Reading: For most of the summer, I've read about a book a day.  If you wonder at that, then you should ask me how I do it. I'd be glad to teach you. Or have a look at this Twitter thread, where I give a quick overview.

Observing: If you follow me on social media, you know I like to look at the small things in nature. I learn from experience, and it is my hope that when we post simple images on Twitter and Instagram we are producing a searchable phenology database. Anyway, feel free to see some of what I have seen this summer here.

Tending my garden: This is both figurative and literal. Two months away from a garden allows a lot of weeds to grow, so my literal garden has needed work.  There is great value in working with one's hands, especially if one's main job is theoretical and based in an office. I like growing some of my own food. As preparation for the coming year, I've also been catching up on home maintenance that I've had to put off during the past school year; and I've been making time to reacquaint myself with natural areas around Sioux Falls where I intend to do some more environmental studies teaching and research this fall. 

Getting ready: I've been meaning to write this blog post for a month, but much of the month has been spent preparing syllabi, working on new projects, finishing up old ones, doing scholarly writing, and many other small things.

Sustainability: the last thing I'll mention is that I've taken on a new role at Augustana, that of Director of Sustainability. I've only been at this for a few weeks, so I''m still figuring out what this will mean for the coming year, but the short version is that I am looking forward to developing some new academic programs in Environmental Studies and Sustainability, and to making the whole campus culture and our practices more sustainable. What does that mean? Short version: I want our descendants to be glad we lived as we did, and I want us to be glad, too. This is another version of "love your neighbor as yourself." Want to know more about this? Let's talk.

When you get back to campus, (or if you're new to Augustana) please feel free to come by for a cup of tea or a quick chat. I look forward to hearing about the new things in your life.

Wishing you all joy in the new academic year,

Dr. O'Hara

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine: Mutual Flourishing or Midas' Touch

My latest article on salmon and mining was just published in Ethics, Policy, & Environment. A proposed gold mine in Alaska offers a lot of financial wealth, but it also poses significant risk of environmental loss to the salmon population downstream, and to everything that depends on the salmon for food.

In this brief commentary I argue that we should prefer long-term mutual flourishing over the prospect of short-term financial gain for a few. The myth of King Midas offers an illustration of what is at risk: the gleam of gold can blind us to the importance of being good stewards of nature, and of being good neighbors and good ancestors:
"Not all mining is bad, but to choose a mine that offers gold in exchange for life and mutual flourishing is to display a clear symptom of Midas’ malady. In the ancient myth, King Midas wished for the power to turn all he touched into gold. Half a trillion dollars in ore under the tundra might make us forget what Midas suffered when his wish was granted: he gained great wealth at great cost. When he reached out for food, it turned to inedible gold in his hand. In the case of the Pebble Mine, the risk is not to the PLP, but to the people who are sustained by a four-thousand-year-old tradition of salmon harvesting, and to all the other birds, animals, and plants that depend upon the salmon."  
I'm reminded of a hand-painted sign I recently came across at a ranger station in El Zotz in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve.

It reads "When you pollute the last source of water, cut down the last tree, and kill the last animal, you'll realize that you can't eat money." 

It would be good to learn that lesson before it's too late for the salmon - and for everything that depends upon them.

You can read my article here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Contemplation, Conversation, Commentary

Education is not one thing. It is not mere memorization, for instance. And it isn’t just training in the use of tools or the impartation of skills, nor is it indoctrination.

To paraphrase Plutarch’s famous line about education, the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. A jar that is filled by someone else only contains what is put into it; it becomes a place of storage. It is a useful tool, but it does not increase what it holds. A fire, on the other hand, gives off heat and light, and that heat and light can kindle other fires and illuminate distant obscurities.

I think education should be like this, a process that pays continual returns if it is well tended.

Of course, unchecked fire can do great harm, and education without boundaries is like a fire with no hearth or stove.

Should Education Have Boundaries?  A Reflection On My Own Classrooms

But how can we put boundaries on education? One way, of course, is to limit education to memorization, tool-and-skill training, or indoctrination. But each of these amounts to filling a vessel. That is, it amounts to filling students’ minds with facts, opinions, or skills, without giving the students what they need to examine or improve what they are given, and to teach others what they have learned.

My aim as a teacher is to offer students liberal arts in such a way that they gain both practical skills and the means to improve those skills as the use and teach them. I say liberal arts because I do not wish my students to be the servants of others, but to be people who practice responsible liberty and who help others to do the same.

Of course, unchecked liberty can do great harm, and liberal education without boundaries is like a fire without a hearth. In one direction lies the restraint of being the mere vessel of others’ doctrines; in the other direction lie the perils of life beyond the bounds of ethics.

Fortunately, this is not a new problem, but a very old one. This means that there are some old and time-tested means of education that help us to find the mean between the extremes.

What I try to practice in my classes is something I see – in varying degrees – throughout the history of education. I will summarize it in three words: contemplation, conversation, and commentary.


By “contemplation” I mean the practice of examining what is already understood by the community of inquiry. What do we know? What are the tools we have at hand? What are the problems we wish to pursue together, and what solutions have been put forward so far? Learning these things is the first step, akin to learning the language when you move to a new country. It involves some memorization, and it involves learning the rules by which others conduct their lives and research. This is like learning the basics of a science, plus the methods used by scientists; or it is like learning the basics of poetry, plus the methods of reading and writing. Each discipline has its content and its tools, its history and its methods, its canonical texts and its rules and rituals for learning those texts. In my philosophy classes this means reading the assigned texts thoughtfully so that you come to class ready to ask good questions about them. In my language classes it means working through grammar and translation exercises, and memorization of vocabulary and inflections. In my environmental studies classes, this means learning basic taxonomy, ecology, geology, law, and policy, so you can discuss these things with others who know more than you do. In each discipline it will involve different things, but the general rule holds: if you want to join the community, you’ve got to learn these things first, just as you have to learn grammar before you can converse with others. And conversation is the next step.


By “conversation” I mean coming together with others to think about the rules and tools we have been given. This is more than speaking with friends; this involves serious grappling with issues in the company of our contemporaries. In my philosophy classes, this means asking good questions about what you’ve read the night before class. It means exposing your ignorance and asking others to help you to correct it. It means taking others seriously as people who might see what is hidden in our blind spots. In my environmental humanities classes, this means going into the field with your classmates in order to examine the world together. In my philosophy of religion classes, this means engaging in the hard work of talking about the divine in a way that takes others seriously. Their questions might just be the questions you need; their insights might serve you well. It would be unwise to decide in advance that others have nothing to teach you; in each discipline, you’ve got to take time to do research, whether in the lab, in the field, in convivial conversation and deliberation with others. And then, when you’ve done that well, you’re ready to offer commentary on what your new insight means for us all.


This is what I mean by “commentary,” then: the slow consideration of what consequences we might expect from what we have learned so far, and the offering of that consideration to others, so that they can contemplate and deliberate on them, and offer new commentary of their own.

Learning As A Cycle, And As A Shared Process

If you’ve done a good job with the first two steps, the third step leads you back to the first step. Good researchers who publish what they have learned contribute to the body of knowledge that others can use to kindle new fires that warm new homes and light new paths.

Another way of thinking about these three steps is that it concerns thinking about different times.  The first step is the consideration of the past; the second involves taking seriously the present time and our contemporaries as fellow learners; and the third step is mindful of the future.

You might also think of this as a process of thinking at different speeds, and from different perspectives. The first step is often quite slow at first, and it requires us to learn to see as others saw, even if their way is not our own. The second step might happen quite quickly, whether in a sudden insight in the laboratory or in a fast-paced debate. The third step often requires the very slow work of painstakingly careful thinking and clear writing.

Of course, these three steps are not discrete. Often, they overlap and intermingle. We might discover in debate or in the field that we have failed to learn something important. Or our contemplative work might send us back to reexamine our research, or even to start over with new tools and insights. But on the whole, I think these three facets of learning wind up being repeated over and over in each field, and by connecting us to other people in the past, present, and the future, they offer a sort of bounded liberty to our learning.

Slow Thinking, Quick Writing, and Slow Assessment: On The Importance Of Self-Discipline

Much of what I hear and read about education has to do with metrics intended to assess the value of certain kinds of practices. I see the merit in many of those metrics. Sometimes, though, it seems that the metrics become a quick substitute for other kinds of evaluation that are harder to put into numerical or measurable form. We don't like the slow process of contemplation, or of commentary. We do like it when others put things in simple forms that we can quickly compare.  There's value in that, but if we don't do our own contemplation and commentary, we abdicate a good deal of our involvement in our own learning, and we shift from being fires to vessels.

I am writing this piece fast, because I have a discipline of trying to write all my blog posts in less than fifteen minutes. (I do sometimes return to them to edit them for clarity or to add relevant information.) My aim here has been to write quickly about something I have thought about slowly. In other words, I've contemplated this for years, and today I'm writing a bit of quick commentary to contribute to our shared conversation. My quick writing is intended to be a moment of distillation of a cloud of contemplation. Too much time with my head in the clouds can obscure my vision; at some point I need those clouds to precipitate into more concrete thoughts. Writing helps me to do that.Your thoughtful replies and insights will hopefully help to kindle new fires.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Teaching Tropical Ecology in Belize and Guatemala

Two out of every three January terms my colleague Craig Spencer and I teach a course on tropical ecology in Central America.  Right now I'm in the midst of preparing for our next trip there.

Sunrise on the Barrier Reef in Belize

In this post I'll try to answer some of the questions that we are often asked about the course.  Probably the most common question is "What do you do in your course?" The second most common must be "How can I teach a course like that?"  I'll start with the first question:

What do you do in Guatemala and Belize?

The short answer to this question is a lot. I'll try to summarize.

Our approach to tropical ecology includes the standard elements you'd find in any ecology course: our students read a lot about the ecosystems and the prominent species of plants and animals they're likely to encounter.  We teach them what we know about the systems we think we understand, and we tell them about the big gaps in our knowledge that we're aware of - knowing full well that we likely have blind spots we aren't aware of.

In Guatemala this means learning about the ecology of a dense forest growing on a karst plateau, and a deep lake where the water does not circulate much.

In Belize we study the mangroves and the barrier reef.  The mangroves are like a porous filter between salt and fresh water, like a cell wall on a macro scale.  They serve as a buffer against hurricanes; they keep topsoil from eroding into the sea, and they are a rich and colorful nursery for thousands of species.

The Importance of Human Ecology

We want our students to learn much more than the plants, animals, soil, air, and water, though.  Perhaps more than anything, we want them to learn the human ecology of the places we visit.  Ecology is not merely an academic study; it is, at its heart, the study of both the world and of our place in it. We don't just look at macaws, jaguars, vines, and ceiba trees; we look at the way our lives - even our visit to these amazing places - affect and are affected by these plants and animals.  We don't stay in hotels; we rent rooms in local homes, and we eat meals with local people.  We hire local teachers to teach us Spanish and the Itzá language. We study the history of the Itzá people, and we visit ancient ruins.  We walk through the forest and camp overnight with local guides who can teach us what they know of that place. We spend time playing soccer with a local youth group, we talk with and listen to local teachers, nurses, physicians, forest rangers, ecologists, NGO volunteers, government officials, town elders, and children.  If the ecology of the place matters, surely it matters because these people whose ancestors have lived there for so long matter.


The church in San José, Petén, Guatemala

In fact, even if you think they don't matter to you, if you're reading this post in North America these people do matter to you. If their ecology suffers, they will be forced to move to look for new sources of income and food.  Simple-minded and disingenuous politicians will tell you this is a problem to be solved by erecting a wall on our border, but walls are a partial solution at best, and at worst, they are blinders that keep us from seeing the source of the problem; walls ignore the real illness and conceal the symptoms, as though willful ignorance were good medicine.  The real question - in my mind, anyway - is why anyone who lived on the shores of Lake Petén Itzá would ever want to leave.  The answer is that people leave beautiful homes when those homes cease to be liveable.  Which means the medicine that is needed is one that treats the illness itself, and not just the symptoms.  My students (I hope) return from our course no longer able to see Guatemalan immigrants to the United States as a mere abstraction.  Break bread in someone's home and you will see that they are human, too, with lives as particular and intricate and important and rooted as your own.  Only when we disturb those roots and strip away the soil must the lives be transplanted.

This is what I mean by human ecology.

One of my students examining and being examined by nature

Where do you go?

Our time in Guatemala is chiefly in central and northern Petén. Until recently, the landscape of northern Petén was dominated by dense forest, mostly old-growth lowland forests.  Surface water is mostly wetlands that vary considerably from one season to the next. There are several small-to-medium-sized rivers, and small streams, but I think a good deal of the water flows underground in karst formations; the Petén has thin soil over a wide karst plateau.  There is not much water flowing on the surface.  In the center of Petén there is one very deep lake, Lake Petén Itzá.  This is a gem in the forest. Flying over it on a sunny day you can see the shallows fade from pale green to rich emerald, and the depths along the north side of the lake plunge to amethyst and dark sapphire. The lake has no obvious inflow or outflow, except a few small streams flowing in from the south and west, and a little creek flowing out in the east.

My students leap into Lake Petén Itzá to cool off.

In Belize we spend most of our time on one of the barrier islands that have no permanent residents.  We use that island as a home base from which we can boat out to patch reefs, mangroves, turtle grass beds, deep channels, and the fore-reef.  We snorkel with our students in all these places, slowly gathering experiences of similar species in diverse environments, so that the students (and we) can see both the ecology of small places and the web of relations between those small places. In mangroves, for instance, we might see juvenile caribbean reef squid that are a few inches long.  When we see them on patch reefs, they might be five or six inches long, and in deep water they might reach eight inches. Each location gives us a glimpse of another stage of their life cycle.

My students watch the sunset in Belize

Why do you do this? Aren't you a Humanities professor?

Even if people don't often ask me this, it's obvious that quite a few people think it.  Yes, I'm a professor of philosophy and classics, and I teach religion courses, too.  But for my whole life I have been fascinated by life underwater. My most recent book was the result of eight years of researching the lives of brook trout in the Appalachian mountains, and much of my research now has to do with ocean and riparian environments in Alaska.  I don't do much of what would count as research in the natural sciences, but I do spend a lot of time observing nature. This is both because I find it beautiful, and because I think it's a bad idea to try to formulate ethical principles about things I haven't experienced or seen firsthand. Of course it's not impossible to write policies about things one hasn't done; one needn't commit larceny before writing a law prohibiting theft.  But experience teaches me things I might not learn in other ways, and that can keep me from trusting too much in my own opinions.  As Aristotle put it,
“Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of the admitted facts. Hence those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena grow more and more able to formulate, as the foundations of their theories, principles such as to admit of a wide and coherent development: while those whom devotion to abstract discussions has rendered unobservant of the facts are too ready to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.” Aristotle, De Generatione et corruptione, 316a5-10 (Basic Works, McKeon, trans.)
I want to "dwell in intimate association of nature and its phenomena," and being able to formulate better principles is a nice side effect of doing so.

How Can I Teach A Course Like This?  Can others participate in this trip?

The answer to the second of these questions is both yes and no.  When I'm in Guatemala and Belize, I'm teaching. Unfortunately, this means I don't have time to bring others along and act as their tour guide.

However, the people I work with in Guatemala - the Asociación Bio-Itzá - would be happy to have you come for a visit. They're in the small town of San Josè, Petèn, Guatemala, right on the north shores of the lake.   And this is the answer to the first question.  Want to teach such a course?  Get in touch with Bio-Itzá and they can help you set it up. 

You can get to San José by flying or driving to Flores, then going around the lake by bus or car to San José, about a twenty minute drive. 

Flores, Petén, Guatemala

In San José they have a traditional community medicinal garden. Just north of town  is the Bio-Itzá Reserve, where you can go for guided walking tours or overnight stays. It's rustic and gorgeous. (Visits to the Reserve must be arranged in advance through Bio-Itzá.)

When you stay in San José you can easily take a launch (a wooden motor boat) across the lake to Flores, the seat of Nojpetén or Tayasal, the last Maya kingdom that fell to the Spanish.

Flores is a pretty place as well, and I like to take my students to visit ARCAS to see their animal rehabilitation center. (There's a great documentary about that place that was on PBS this year called "Jungle Animal Hospital.")

Scarlet macaws being rehabilitated at ARCAS so they can be released back into the wild

If you stay in San José, you can also take a short trip (about a half hour by car) to Tikal, or to Yaxhá, both of which are amazingly well-preserved Maya ruins. A little further past Tikal is Uaxactún, where you can see more ruins, and you can also visit a community that is trying to practice sustainable forestry.

This region is not like the tourist areas of Western Guatemala; it's more like the rural frontier of Guatemala, a long-neglected place that is now at risk of being overrun by slash-and-burn forestry, cattle farms, and oil development. It makes me think of the Dakotas over the last century; the population is small and indigenous, and most people in power in Guatemala seem to consider the forest to be a wasteland that is better burned down than preserved. I do not share that view, and while I know that more tourism will bring development and other risks to both culture and forest, the risks are already there in other forms. I hope that ecotourism will offer some counterweight to the other kinds of development that don't seek to preserve the biological integrity or cultural history of this place.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Butterflies In My Stomach

This week I’ve been helping a student with a lepidoptera project.  The project is hers, and she's not in one of my classes, though she did take the Tropical Ecology class I teach in Central America this year.
Kentucky roadside butterfly banquet. Can you see the little one?

Here is the danger of becoming a professor of Environmental Humanities: people begin to assume that you care about nature, and that you are willing to share what you know.

Both of these things are true, by the way. (Many of my photos of wildlife and nature are here, on my Instagram account.  I do care, and I am delighted to share the little I know.)


Over the years, I have come to love insects. This has come about partly through my years studying trout, char, and salmon, and of the places they live.  I've spent a good portion of the last decade walking Appalachian waterways from Maine to Georgia.  Over that same time, I've walked hundreds of miles through the remaining forests of northern Guatemala and Nicaragua. As both a researcher and teacher I've walked through the mountains of the American West; and I've made similar excursions to the foothills of the Brooks Range, the Kenai Peninsula, and Lake Clark National Park in Alaska. 

The fish that I love depend upon the insects, so, like so many people who gaze at salmonids, I have come to know many riparian insects.  

Once you study the insects along the streams, you start to notice the other plants and animals that depend upon them, too.  In Kentucky I have come upon a steaming pile of bear scat that was full of half-digested cicadas.  I've started to notice the wings of insects, left behind by the birds that only eat the fleshy bodies of the bugs they catch.

Butterfly wing, left behind by birds. Guatemala.

From there, it's not a big leap to realize that if the fish and the birds and the plants need the insects, then so do I.  Butterflies and other insects feed the larger animals my species eats, and they pollinate the plants that feed us. All of us have the actions of butterflies in our stomachs. Can you see the lepidoptera in this next photo?  There are quite a few of them, resting on the bark of this tree in Petén.

Gray cracker butterflies, Petén, Guatemala.

Little six-legged creatures feed us all.  The small things matter.

And so do my students, even if they're not currently enrolled in one of my classes.  

So in the past week I’ve gathered a few hundred of my best butterfly photos to share with my student. This photo is one of the worst in photo quality, but it’s a great image nevertheless:

Butterflies on the ground in Kentucky, 2008.

I took this nine years ago in the mountains in Kentucky while working on my book on brook trout.  Three distinct species of butterflies are gathered here, sipping minerals from the ground.  My coauthor Matthew Dickerson and I came upon this arboreal banquet by chance.  

I wish I'd had a better camera with me. For now, the blurry image is enough to bring to mind that memory of hundreds of lepidoptera sipping and supping together on the forest floor, filling their bellies with the bare earth before flying off to pollinate flowers that, through a complex net of relationships, would someday fill my belly too.