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Vision Quest 2016: Challenging the Patriarchy

Friday, May 27th, 2016: 2016 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Regions, Road Trips, Science, Society.

Senna holding one of the video cams that Ally and Haneen used to study pollinators in the creosote understory

The Chicken and the Egg

Driving the highway east across the desert in late afternoon, I looked south across the basin, watching the old cinder cones far in the distance. When I had a view between them into the Pass, I pulled over to try the field glasses. Sure enough, I saw a glint of sunlight on glass and chrome, ten miles away, at the campsite behind one of the low hills. I hadn’t been able to reach John after getting his email a couple of weeks ago, so I’d been taking a risk that their plans might’ve changed and I’d be spending the night alone, after shopping and driving hours to make this rendezvous.

With all the rain damage to the roads, it was an hour later when I pulled into camp behind the volcanic hill above the Pass. The first people I met were hunters who’d volunteered to help find and count bighorn sheep with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, or “Fish & Game”. I drove further into the clearing at the center of the circle of pickup trucks, and asked who was in charge. An attractive young woman approached, saying “You must be John’s friend! He hasn’t showed up yet, but we’re expecting him any minute now.”

I parked my truck in an open spot across the circle, got out and took a look around camp. At first, all I could see was attractive young women with long, tanned legs, wearing skin-tight short shorts that looked like underwear. I’d attended many other sheep surveys with Fish & Game, and they’d all involved a bunch of rugged outdoorsmen overdressed in khaki, so this was quite a surprise. John later explained that the girls were biologists working with Fish & Game under a program he’d set up, and that they’d been doing all his sheep work for a while. Paige, the one I’d met at first, was the leader of this trip. The few women I’d met before in this role had been stereotypically plain. Later on my trip, another male scientist would complain that attractive young women are getting all the good jobs in biology now.

I laid out my tarp and unrolled my pad and bedroll. John drove up shortly and parked in the remaining spot next to me. The sun was setting, and Paige called everyone together to plan the next day’s work. As we stood in a circle, about a dozen of us, she passed out photocopied maps with the planned routes into the northernmost canyon system of the range. I could see immediately that they were beyond what I would be able to do, at least at the speed I expected John, and these younger people, to maintain. I didn’t want to slow them down, and I didn’t want to push myself trying to keep up, and end up straining the muscles and joints I’d spent months trying to rebuild since surgery. I said that, and Paige quickly grabbed my map back and handed it to someone else.

As I expected, John spoke up first, choosing the most difficult route for himself.

After the planning session, the group broke up. No hanging out around a campfire or lantern, getting to know each other, as we’d done on past Fish & Game outings. John returned to his truck and laid out his own bedroll, then brought a folding chair over to sit with me. I asked him if he’d memorized his route. He laughed. “I helped plan those routes! I’ll go wherever I damn well please!”

I questioned him about the respiratory epidemic, and how it might be spread. One topic of current research is the movement of sheep between ranges, and that led us into a discussion of climate. John scoffed at concerns over human-caused climate change. “There’s no question that humans are causing climate change in the near term, but my perspective, studying sheep populations, is much longer! In my perspective, global warming is just a blip. We’re still in an interglacial – in a few thousand years, this desert will be forested again. Where will the sheep go then?”

John took this as an opportunity to emphasize the primacy of evolution as the explanatory theory of life in the universe, reiterating the population biologist’s dominant view that genes are at the root of everything, determining everything important. So I had to point out that genes and evolution only apply to the individual organism, and no organism can live in a vacuum, without the context and interactions of its ecosystem, so ecology is really the foundation science. “No, no!” John protested, but I forged ahead. “Evolution is just popular in our technology-crazed society because it’s reductive and instrumental – we can easily crunch genetic data and manipulate the genome – whereas ecosystems are far too complex and chaotic for us. Ecosystems are the context for evolution, not vice versa, but they resist our understanding and hence our exploitation, so we say that evolution is more important than ecology!”

“So it’s a chicken and egg problem, which came first?” said John, starting to get my point. “I still say you can’t have an ecosystem without organisms, and you can’t have organisms without evolution.”

“It makes sense that genes are fundamental to you, as a population biologist,” I said. “But what biology traditionally sidesteps is the importance of non-living things in the ecosystem. Non-living things like rocks and clouds – geologists speak of the living rock – can be said to evolve, but not by means of DNA and genes.”

“Well, it’s not completely true that biology ignores the abiotic – climate and substrate are figured into ecological cycles…”

Fear of the Noble Savage

Night had fallen, the air was cooling, and the mass of the old cinder cone loomed beside us. The stars were out over camp, but we could still see the trucks and the silhouettes of people moving about, and hear the occasional rustle of pots, pans and other domestic affairs.

Thinking back to climate change, I wanted to restore humans to the ecological picture, as participants rather than detached, godlike manipulators. John’s interests are eclectic like mine, and it had been a long time since we’d had a good talk. I wanted to share some of my recent findings with him. I suggested that we Westerners needed more holistic paradigms, and that we might have lessons to learn from other, more traditional societies.

“There you go, romanticizing the noble savage again,” John cut in.

My biologist friends really don’t like to hear anything positive said about traditional or indigenous cultures. At the first hint, they tend to cut me off before I can explain, reacting to a stereotype in their own minds instead of what I’m trying to say, and accusing me of the romantic fallacy of the “noble savage”, a cliche of European literature and philosophy during the 17th-19th centuries.

Recent archaeological studies in widely separated parts of the world have shown that many prehistoric societies were like us, engineering their habitats for their own benefit and causing significant damage to local ecosystems. Reading these reports in the popular literature, scientists who don’t study other cultures conflate all traditional societies with the destructive ones, painting everything they don’t know with same broad brush. Worst of all, biologists blame ancestral Native Americans for “overkill” leading to the Quaternary Extinction Event in North American, a mass die-off of megafauna, even though this hypothesis is disputed by specialists who study it. Finally, coming from academia, they’re predisposed to dismiss traditional people as backward, ignorant, and superstitious.

My heroes in biology have been independent thinkers like Lyn Margulis and Gary Paul Nabhan, but my friends tend to work at the grass-roots level without power or influence, laboring away at their super-specialized studies and taking the dominant paradigms of their fields for granted because they’re not in a position to challenge them. They’re often frustrated in their careers, defensive in the face of anti-science political conservatives and religious fundamentalists, and helpless to stop the destruction of natural habitats & species that they see firsthand in their work.

But unlike my other biologist friends, John has worked with archaeologists and knows something of the history & philosophy of science.

“Our cultural bias leads us to focus on large-scale, technologically advanced societies of the past who were more like us,” I pointed out. “These were the aggressive societies that rolled over their weaker neighbors, like us against Native Americans. And societies that dominated people also tended to try to dominate nature.

“Jared Diamond popularized this idea that only the winners are relevant, that cultures who were conquered are failures that we can dismiss. After all, history is written by the winners.

“But let’s look at this rationally. Even the U.S., the most powerful country on earth, could be wiped out by an asteroid. Might doesn’t make right, and weakness and defeat don’t prove inferiority. In the 1950s, a multidisciplinary group of scientists spent 18 months on a remote atoll in the Pacific, studying every aspect of the terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and using native people as their assistants. And the leaders of the expedition came to admire the native culture so much that they would’ve given up their careers and stayed for the rest of their lives if they hadn’t had families back home.

“These peaceful people had achieved a stable equilibrium in their very limited habitat, cultivating food plants in patches of wetland without trying to engineer or manage the entire atoll, and harvesting seasonal resources from the ocean, sustainably. And they managed to keep their population from growing beyond its capacity.

“They’re part of a larger anthropological project by the University of Alabama called Peaceful Societies, and pacifism is roughly correlated with sustainable ecological practices. By focusing on the dominant winners and ignoring the submissive minorities, we may be missing some valuable lessons.”

John and I went on to have a long, productive, wide-ranging talk, our first in many years, until he realized he still needed a shower and good night’s sleep before the early morning start.

I, on the other hand, lay awake all night, watching the moon trail away over my shoulder to its own bed, watching the constellations rolling after, and the Milky Way rising in the final hours of darkness. My mind wasn’t racing, I wasn’t worried about anything. I just watched, resting my eyes occasionally, never falling asleep until dawn, when our camp came alive again, and I crawled out of bed, exhausted, to start the first day of the survey.

Challenging the Patriarchy

I always look forward to meeting grad students doing field studies at the desert ecological preserve, in hopes of learning about their work and deepening my understanding of the desert. This time, hauling my gear into the residence hall that I helped build 25 years ago, I met Ally and Haneen, beautiful young PhD candidates working together on a study of ecological facilitation in the understory of the creosote bush.

Traditionally patriarchal like all science, biology is undergoing a demographic revolution as female recruits increase. And at a much slower rate, the male-biased dogma of biology are being challenged as women gradually replace influential male peer reviewers.

The aggressive, coercive, domineering nature of Anglo-European society ensured that male biologists would see competition and negative interactions, rather than cooperation and positive interactions, at the foundation of both evolution and ecology, but female biologists are beginning to restore balance and a more accurate view of nature.

A generation ago, Lyn Margulis overcame male resistance to gain wide acceptance of symbiosis – interspecies cooperation – in evolutionary theory. More recently, some biologists have turned their attention to “facilitation” – cooperation and positive interactions in ecology. The distinction between positive and negative, competition and cooperation, is another historical artifact of Anglo-European tradition; the reality is clearly a continuum or spectrum of behavior and interactions that can go in or out of balance around a state of dynamic equilibrium.

The women and I got to know each other over a period of days in the common room of the preserve facility. Ally, from Toronto, was blonde and wholesome-looking; Haneen was raven-haired, tanned, more reserved and enigmatic. We were joined from time to time by Fred, an older botanist and plant illustrator, and Tasha and the kids, who had adopted the “girls” as big sisters. In contrast to my older scientist friends, Ally and Haneen were at the beginning of their careers, receiving a lot of support and encouragement from the establishment, excited about their future rather than discouraged by the setbacks that plague us all as we age and see more of life.

I talked about desert places and phenomena they hadn’t encountered yet. Haneen was interested in my music, and Ally pointed me to some background reading on facilitation. Her current work focused on the use of the creosote understory by other plants and by pollinators. Facilitation spans an infinite variety of natural phenomena that we really only need common sense to observe, from spatial structure (one species creating a nursery, home or workspace for other species) to community diversity (structuring interspecies interactions), from protection from stress and predation, to seed transport by birds and rodents. A male Anglo-European eye is likely to see selfishness behind it all, but that’s only one perspective, a form of anthropomorphism.

Hidden Underfoot

I arrived in the desert the day after heavy rain, and hiked up to the seep on our land, where I began to notice something I’d been only marginally aware of in the past. Here, the gravel slopes were laced with outcrops of white, sometimes translucent metamorphic rock, and my eyes were drawn to vivid black clumps of “stuff” that was neither plant, nor rock, nor soil, knobby mats swelling around cracks in the bright rock, as well as in patches in the pale gravel. I guessed that it must be biological soil crust, a community of lichens, bacteria and other tiny organisms that work together to build these structures on the interface between the living and the nonliving. Why hadn’t I noticed and studied these before, in the 35 years I’d walked among them? Probably it was the rain, the water they’d absorbed that made them more prominent, and their contrast against the bright substrate here.

I’d first encountered soil crusts, or cryptobiotic soil, 25 years ago during my Paiute skills course. The instructors had started by briefing and warning us about the extremely delicate crusts in the powder sand of the Colorado Plateau, an important part of the ecosystem which is instantly crushed when walked on and takes centuries to regenerate. I always work hard to avoid trampling these when I go back there, but I’d totally ignored their counterparts in the Mojave.

Now I was smitten. I got down on my knees and examined our local crusts. Unlike the Colorado Plateau crusts, which form a distinctive, modular architectural pattern, our Mojave crusts are free-form. They may swell around cracks in the rock like a spreading amoeba, or appear as small bumps across the bajada. My favorites are the scalloped rings.

Close up, their structures reveal a chaotic pattern of irregularly-shaped, variously sized knobs separated by gaps. The crusts in the white rock appeared black at first glance, but those out on the bajada showed more of a dark rust color. Whereas the Colorado Plateau crusts are delicate, these feel tough, like old leather.

Humble soil crusts were mostly ignored throughout the male-dominated history of biology and ecology. Macho male biologists tend to focus on charismatic megafauna. But crusts are finally getting more attention, which I suspect is a result of more women in the field. Per usual, there’s controversy over whether crusts are primarily competitors or facilitators in the ecosystem. A botanist friend told me that they’re essential for regeneration of shrubs, which may be set back by centuries when crusts are trampled or burned by wildfire. I remembered this the following week, when I hiked into a remote, heavily grazed valley where invasive bromus had replaced native grasses, encouraging a wildfire which had stripped the center of the valley of its shrub cover and significantly reduced its capacity to capture water in vegetation. I followed the tracks of the cattle and eventually saw them in the distance, half-wild, running away from me up a steep hill.

At the ecological preserve, I asked Tasha and she referred me to a female crust specialist, from whom I hope to learn a lot more about these fascinating communities of organisms working together at the foundation of life on earth.

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