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Napkin Notes of a Farmscape Ecologist: Meeting the Family

We tend to think linearly. In other words, beneficial A eats pest B and lives in habitat Y. Thus, more habitat Y, will mean more beneficial A, and fewer pest B. This can jive with some of our observations: watch a spider eat a grasshopper and that certainly seems to result in one less crop consumer. But ecology is often more complicated than that.

I have numerous photographs of spiders eating bees; spiders don’t check the agroecological passports of their prey. And even if they eat more pests than beneficial insects, the grasshopper population might be expanding much more rapidly than spider consumption can control it. Further, to say ‘pest’ or ‘beneficial’ is our own somewhat arbitrary classifications: the same species of ground beetle hailed as a weed-seed consumer in corn might hound the strawberry grower. Even the habitat piece of the equation is tricky – sure, planting lots of showy, nectar-bearing flowers will probably attract bees, but you may attract them so well that they lose interest in the adjacent crop flowers. We can suss out some details and qualify our generalities. We can study occurrence, diets, and demographics. Perhaps we’ll learn something useful or perhaps we’ll just reach the next level of perplexing complexity. Portraying those intricacies in a 30-minute talk that leaves growers less confused than when they arrived is not easy. The understandable urge is to simplify reality, to lie in a way. But what is the alternative?

Perhaps, as Daniel Wildcat, a Yuchi member of theMuscogee Nation of Oklahoma, environmentalist & philosopher and many other Indigenous philosophies suggest, thinking about how to consider nature “family” and that non-human beings can be considered kin is admitting that spiders/bees/beetles, etc. ‘are people too’? Along the same vein, there’s relatively recent efforts to give legal personhood to bodies of water giving them the same legal rights as humans as a step to protect them. By these perspectives, speaking personally, I don’t mean a humanness that translates into having a cup of coffee with a caterpillar, but I do mean recognizing these creatures as complicated beings warranting observation and nuanced reaction. We don’t approach relationships with other humans in a linear way, instead, we approach these relationships with our senses open, our ‘feelers out’. You change the other person changes, at various time scales and for various reasons. A successful relationship seems to lie somewhere in the space of sensing one’s own dynamics, sensing the other’s dynamics, and then trying to navigate and guide the resulting dance. Perhaps it is the same with spiders, at least if one supposes that personality emerges at the species scale for some organisms. A flurry of bumblebee activity, a surprising patch of wild orchids, a pop-up fox den can all be thought of as conversations with nature. Does such a perspective mean anything for our actions vis-à-vis spiders or other species, or does it mean we dissolve into fuzziness and inaction?

Human relations are not all sweet wine and roses, likewise, it would be naïve to suppose that a philosophy such as this will magically eliminate the groundhogs in the lettuce or the flea beetles on the brassicas. It won’t. But as we interact with friends, relations, and complete strangers, we carry a level of innate human respect for the other, a realization that you are in them and they are in you; the ideal of co-existence, the wish that peace and joy come to you. Despite such desires, disagreement and violence occur, but it is not the ideal and society creates various structures to try to avoid it. So too with the rest of nature.

I have spent much time trying to document life in various on-farm habitats and to quantify wild nature’s interactions with farm production and management, but that can only go so far. I am coming to believe (as farmers have hinted to me before) that I can’t mathematically make the farmer-nature relationships work. That’s like supposing that were I to create the algorithm for the perfect dating app, conjugal bliss would thenceforth reign. Perhaps, one role for mislaid naturalists like myself is encouraging familiarization – facilitating farmers to see a little more of the nature around them; enabling them to pause when that hairstreak butterfly momentarily lands next to them and to think “Huh, haven’t seen that one before”, or helping them to note a new bird call from the fence row or mark a turtle track in a muddy wheel rut. That consciousness will not, in and of itself, change the bottom line or control pests, but it is vain of me to suppose that I could accomplish such monumental change anyway. Rather, by abandoning that linearity, perhaps I can help a few people become more familiar with the wild kith and kin around them and, by doing that, have the most profound effect I can hope for helping to facilitate an expanded empathy and informed compassion that encourages others as they apply their own heart and ingenuity to interacting with nature on their own particular farm, with their own particular tools, in their own particular time.

Conrad is a naturalist with the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program; he can be reached at conrad@hawthornevalleyfarm.org