Clicking vs. Knowing
Counting trees. A whole summer of counting trees. Betula papyriferae, Quercus albus, Fagus grandifolia, Acer sacchirinum. I noted down their names and approximate widths in a soggy logbook, my pencil sometimes tearing through the wet paper as the rain dripped off the brim of my baseball hat. I leaned against their bark and peered up into their canopies, estimating their spread. I accompanied the supervising ecologist out to the center of ponds where I dredged up their pollen and put the silty soup in labeled plastic bags. And when the days were done I trudged out through the muddy Adirondack paths, miles and miles sometimes, back to the truck, counting my footsteps all the way until I could get back to dryness and food and think about something other than trees. This was how I spent the summer of my 21st year on this planet.
Anyone who has ever done biological fieldwork surely knows this feeling. The entomologist dodging stings to count up wasp larvae; the ornithologist breaking into foul-smelling kingfisher burrows to see about this year’s nesting success; the mammalogist scanning the horizon for caribou: three females, one male, two calves, moderate ground cover. The drone of observable phenomena logged, tabulated, and annotated for later analysis. In many ways, getting to know nature can be a major drag.
And yet? And yet.
Nowadays, when I walk through a forest with a group of people, their iPhones in hand while they pull up their LeafSnap apps and shout out “shagbark” or “shellback” before I can even say “hickory”, I have the distinct impression they are missing something. We all like to be the one to know the name of something. We all feel a sense of power when we are the ones with the knowledge. But who really has the insight in a situation where a digital tool is used to catalogue the sights and sounds around us? The algorithm in the phone or the amateur arborist? Or perhaps neither. What if knowing is something much more profound than a name? What if a name is just the gateway into a much more complex understanding of relationships?
The more we learn about the lives of the life around us the more we see how narrow the digital peephole tech has given us to nature. Why does a tree bearing one…