Studying science in college was thrilling for me, it was exciting to put words and explanations to things I had only seen. As I hiked through deep canyons in the Arizona desert I had wondered what made the rocks different and how they came to be in the form they were. Wanting to understand more about rocks was what led me to the study of Earth Science. Reading about earth history and geomorphology, how the rock cycle plays out, how life arose, how species are changing over time, the enormous span of geologic time…all these concepts were interesting to me because I had first spent time wandering through canyons looking at rocks.
Each time I entered an introductory science class for a different ‘branch’ of science they would teach the litany of its history. Who were the founders, what were the major discoveries that led to this body of science, what are the terminology and definitions necessary to understand the field and its focus. Every field of science is first taught this way, a picture assembled from fragmented ideas. Science is an enormous edifice, a world constructed by different specialists. Similar to how a building is constructed some lay the foundation, others build the walls some from lumber or others from stone, some put beams into the roof, others add the skin of sheet rock that covers the walls, or the pipes that carry water, the wires the electricity, etc, etc. And like the individual trades and craftsmen scientists have unique view points.
All science majors are required to study math, physics, and chemistry, the foundation for understanding the physical universe. But most people claim a specific science discipline and remain with it their entire career, only putting up pipes never sheet rock. As a generalist I tended to cross boundaries; going from Earth Science to Soil Science to Civil Engineering, and finally into private business. I did this because my interests keep leading me across boundaries. It wasn’t always easy; each field I entered looked at the world differently, each had a different language, different concepts or ways of prioritizing information. I can still recall the moment sitting in an introductory soil science class after finishing my degree in earth science and realizing how different this was going to be. At times it felt like I had fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole.
In earth science we have one word for soil, ‘regolith’. It essentially means all the messy stuff you have to scrape off the surface to get to the important part below, the rocks! In soil science we have one term for the rocks beneath the soil, ‘parent material’. Parent material is all the hard stuff below the soil and what was broken down to make the important part, the soil. In Geotechnical Engineering (a branch of civil engineering) we are mainly concerned with how well soil can be compacted, how much strength rocks provide to the important part, the structures we build on them. The cycle of rocks or the formation of soil from rocks is not important in engineering with soil. Each field I studied had its own narrow window through which it viewed the world and experts within a given field tended to ignore information outside of its view.
The problem with a narrow view is that we begin to live in tunnels, believing it’s the only way to view the world. We tend to assume others see the world the same way we do. Communication between fields of science is difficult because each specialty has its own language and conceptual understanding of the world. I believe too few scientists are even aware of the isolation caused by their specialization. Specialists become successful only by being the best in their field, focusing on their specific discipline and rising to the top of their profession. This narrows our thinking and prevents us from seeing other view points; and this is true of science as well as business, government, and religion. Few people realize that we see the world through rose colored glasses, through windows that frame our view. The only way to see a larger view is look though new windows, to see what others see, to listen and talk to each other, to ‘walk a mile in others shoes’ so to speak.
As a soil scientist and expert in compost I was asked to join a botanist in a study of commercial organic apple production. We were going to study the effects of different soil amendments and mulch treatments on the growth of young apple trees. One beautiful spring day we were in the orchard gathering data in the second year of the study. I was happily digging into the soil beneath the trees collecting samples and making many interesting observations when I heard my colleague commenting about the diameter of individual tree trunks. Suddenly it dawned on me that I hadn’t really considered the trees because I was so focused on the soil. And what was more concerning was that when I looked at the trees I didn’t know what to look for! We each had our focus and we were looking in different directions.
My curiosity made me look up from the soil and at the trees. I listened to what he was telling me about their health and growth. I am thankful for what I learned about trees that day and also what it taught me about tunnel vision. We all use our senses to explore and gather information about what we experience. But how can we understand the broader world if we can’t really see it? My experience in the orchard that day helped me to see beyond my own narrow view and to appreciate the interconnection of trees and soil.
System thinking has moved beyond the isolated understanding of separated fields, combining theories in ways that help us create bigger pictures of the dynamic world in which we live. It’s been a great time for generalists such as me, but I’m not sure how well specialists are doing. Some people prefer processing information in a linear fashion; one idea follows another in a specific sequence. Some people prefer taking apart the thing they want to understand; believing that somehow the pieces will tell them more than the whole of it. Logical thinking is simply following the pathways with which we are familiar. We tend to follow the same route in thinking again and again; like a well-worn foot path through the hills that we have always followed. Maybe following predictable paths is preferable because it allows us to daydream along the way from here to there. We don’t have to think about where we are going, it’s automatic and we trust we will arrive at our intended destination.
Einstein once made the observation “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” These words seem to be particularly relevant today as we consider the many problems we face in trying to scale back energy and resource consumption, reduce carbon emissions and global climate change, and positively change our collective economy. Physical scientists and social scientists are working together using system thinking, not simply looking at the world with a different focus or attempting to solve problems with the same thinking that created them. Permaculture is a systems view and most of the people involved in this area are system thinkers. Permaculture embodies the idea of learning from nature, making observations with our eyes, learning with our senses, and trusting our intuition.
I once went on a field trip with a soil scientist who was in his 70’s. He grew up on a farm, ran tractors for many hours up and down the same carefully tended acres that had belonged to his family for several generations. He knew about tilling, planting, and harvesting; crop rotations and cover crops; moving cattle to pasture in spring, cleaning out the barn and spreading manure on the fields; barn chores in the morning before school. As we walked along the road looking across the field he commented about the trees lining the edge, the ‘windbreak’. Some trees were shorter than others and he said this was an effect of the difference in soil and moisture across the landscape. The soil under the shorter trees was likely drier and perhaps more compact than under taller trees. He told us before we collected samples we should look across the landscape, the trees along the edge, to get an idea of how soil varied across the field. I thought about how he had learned this wisdom; the many hours he had spent in his youth driving a tractor up and down the same fields, thinking about what he was seeing and later how this lead to his broader understanding of the landscape as a whole system, not just one part separated from another.
Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making compost. As a business owner I have given many tours to school groups from elementary to college age, seeing the differences between them. I watch the joy of elementary age children approaching the piles of compost. I often grab a handful of well-cured compost and smell it, talking about the wonderful ‘earthy’ odors of it and inviting the children to do the same. Some children don’t hesitate; they grab a handful and lift it to their nose curious about how it smells unafraid of exploring this stuff called ‘compost’. Few have patience for listening to concepts. Some only want to climb on the piles! Others hold back not sure if it’s alright to touch something they’ve been taught is ‘dirty’.
College students are often the least interested in touching compost, never interested in climbing on a pile! They are more interested in asking questions; how often do I test it, how do I formulate recipes, when do I know it’s time to turn it, will they need to know this for a test? I know that this is what college does to us. This is what happens when students become the teachers never having left academia; the ivy tower we bemoan. I try to explain to them that when I first began making compost I did a lot of reading, testing, measuring and collecting pieces of data, but after years of filling hundreds of spreadsheets with data I finally felt confident of just using my senses. After a while, my experience making compost had taught me how a pile was doing by grabbing a handful and smelling it, by feeling the moisture and temperature against my skin. Experience taught me to judge how a pile was doing by the amount and smell of the steam that escaped when I dug into it with the loader.
Composting, like so many things in life, is both a science and an art. The science is in the details and theories that others have carefully recorded for us to read and learn. The art comes when we go beyond concepts and begin to judge with our senses, trusting our intuitions. Art is when we love what we do and take pleasure in doing it; when it’s more about exploration and less about expertise. I wonder if this is what it was like for people before we ‘discovered’ science, before we fell into narrow categories or professions. Yes, maybe the Age of Reason that began in the 18th century was a rebellion against the inflexibility of religious thinkers. And maybe Permaculture and system thinking is a rebellion against the over specialization of science, the arrogance of experts.
I wonder if the process of learning and discovering with our senses isn’t really what makes us human, what makes our life worthwhile. Perhaps this is how as humans we evolved our ‘big’ brains, our specialized neural networks. Maybe in exploring the word with our senses and trying to make sense of it all, we developed language in order to tell stories, we developed writing in order to keep records, and in the process we advanced our social group from tribes into culture and from culture into civilizations.
There is no question that all life forms learn with our senses; and through our senses we come to understand and affect the world. I would like to believe that humanity will move past our problems today forward into a future of health and well being. Perhaps we can give up narrow tunnel vision and stop assigning knowledge to classes of ‘experts’. Perhaps humans can once again find the art and joy of exploring the world, spending a lifetime learning with our senses.