Dilemmas of Observing and Naming Nature

 

Canada geese at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

Canada geese at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (DuPont, WA) is a provocative contrast to the Ruston Way waterfront (Tacoma, WA). Both are a part of the Puget Sound marine/estuary habitat and both have been sites of development and ecological restoration. The Refuge, established to protect the Nisqually delta and wildlife, features gravel walking trails and raised boardwalks, including one boardwalk that extends for a mile into the estuary. Part of the refuge was the site of a former farm. A major restoration project in 2009 removed dikes that separated farmland from the tidal action of the Puget Sound.

One primary human use of the wildlife refuge is bird watching. At the refuge many visitors, including Holly and I, take time to make extended observations of bird behavior using binoculars, telescopic or photographic lenses. In contrast, on the Ruston Way waterfront I have observed only two waterfront visitors using binoculars and groups of people observing and photographing passing trains. These observations lead me to think that the Ruston Way waterfront is not perceived as a place for bird watching.

Observing/Photographing/Distancing Nature
Susan Sontag described how the act of taking pictures is an act of appropriation that distances the photographer from what/who is being photographed. She wrote, that photography “offers, in one easy, habit-forming activity, both participation and alienation in our own lives and those of others” (p. 147).

As I walked in the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge I considered the tension between appropriation and appreciation as other visitors and I observed and photographed. I noted that for some human observers, eagles, falcons, heron, and owls garnered more attention than geese and gulls. I wondered:
–Is bird watching is an act of connecting, or distancing, or both?
–Are visitors to the Ruston Way waterfront distanced from bird life because many choose to use the site for activities other than bird watching?
–How and when do I observe birds when I walk along Ruston Way?

Canada goose

Canada goose

I also considered the ethics of photography and representing the landscape, plants, birds, and humans with integrity and respect. I reflected on how elements of the natural world are often othered in relation to human activity. As I observed a group of Canada geese I felt both connection and great distance; and I considered William Cronon’s description of the many different meanings of nature and the varied human stories we share about nature. In describing the tension of distance and relationship between humans and birds, trees, sky, he writes,
“But in the end they remain inscrutable, artifacts of a world we did not make whose meaning for themselves we can never fully know. Acknowledging their autonomy and otherness does not spare us the task of trying to make human sense of what they seem to tell us. It does not prevent us from making false assumptions about them, nor does it make any clearer what obligations we owe them” (Cronon, 1995, p 55-56).

As I continued my walk I read a sign that stated that a segment of the boardwalk was closed for waterfowl hunting season. I considered the juxtaposition of the birds, bird watchers and hunters’ actions within the refuge. Humans’ varied understandings and relations to nature are both common (shared) and uncommon (deeply debated) ground (Cronon, 1995).

Boardwalk extending into estuary at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

Boardwalk extending into estuary at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

The Limits of Language
The visit to the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge also supported me to reflect on how I (and others) grapple with language to describe the environment. Language can both limit and expand our capacity to understand, to explore, and to forge connection. I wondered:
–Who is the “refuge” a refuge for—the birds? the humans who come to observe and hunt?
–Who is the Ruston Way waterfront a “refuge” for? Why is it not named a refuge?
–Do the names “everyday nature” and “nearby nature” add conceptual clarity for describing informal learning environments like parks? Everyday and nearby for whom?
–What are the pros and cons of using terms like resident, visitor, resident species, migrating species, park visitor, or park user?

Resources
Cronon, W. (Ed). (1995). Uncommon ground: Toward reinventing nature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Sontag, S. (1973). On photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Amy E. Ryken

Amy E. Ryken

Amy E. Ryken studies partnerships that foster connections between schools and community resources, such as museums and outdoor environments. She is particularly interested in a broad definition of learning that considers how people learn, in a wide range of settings and activities, over the life span.
Amy E. Ryken

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One thought on “Dilemmas of Observing and Naming Nature

  1. Join the Wednesday Morning Bird Walk at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

    Ruston Way is included as a bird hot spot on eBird, a website dedicated to sharing information about bird abundance and distribution, hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

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