Observational Ecology

“Observational Ecology involves partaking in the never-ending story of the natural world and our relationship to it by carefully observing the forms, patterns, colors, and cycles present all around us. It is also an integrated practice that aims to inspire connection, consciousness, and conservation actions.”

– Alan Ruiz Berman


Observational Ecology in Theory & Practice 

Ecology, or the study of life on Earth, must necessarily begin with intentional observation, including the use of all our senses, plus the many new forms of perception offered by the myriad technologies that have vastly extended our spectrum of appreciation and understanding, from Galileo’s telescope, to the Janssen microscope, to Steve Job’s smartphone.

Observation of the natural world is of course as ancient as mankind itself, and indeed even older, but like many ancient ideas, it was codification into formally academic and widely translated and disseminated writings, particularly in the 19th century, that ushered it into the analogs of modernity. Of course, these analogs included little to no mention of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, or the deep roots that all our knowledge has in a countless number of Indigenous Traditions. These omissions, often purposeful, were intended to demonstrate that all progress was the purview of a supposedly superior white and Western class that was bringing light to a dark and savage world. Nonetheless, modern ecology was built on the foundations of at least two hundred thousand years of human tradition, not to mention our genetically inherited capacity for communication and comprehension.

The man who coined the phrase “Observational Ecology,” and indeed the word “Ecology” as well, was none other than Darwin’s champion German scholar, Ernst H.P.A. Haeckel (1834-1919), who described and named thousands of species, mapped the first genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined other crucial scientific terms like “phylum,” “phylogeny,” and “protist.” Haeckel was a legendary illustrator, naturalist, philosopher, physician, and marine biologist, but also, sadly, an outspoken antisemite before that term even existed, and the stain of his support for ethnic eugenics has kept him almost entirely out of our textbooks.

Nonetheless, Haeckel’s art is singularly beautiful and demonstrates his total dedication to careful observation as a means of biological description and understanding. While people like John Brown (800-1859), an early and prominent leader in the American abolitionist movement, proved that not all men and women were “victims of their time,” when it came to adopting the worst attributes of their societies, it is in my opinion, wrong to ignore Haeckel’s work and legacy in the iconoclastic effort to sweep his worst qualities and ideas under the rug of history.

After all, the conception of “Observational Ecology” may represent the first acknowledgment from Europe, perhaps since the Renaissance and at least since the Enlightenment, that intentional observation is at the very essence of humanity’s capacity for revealing the true nature of the world. The turn of the century was the beginning of the industrial era, and it saw the rekindling of sparks of human intellect that set fire to doctrinaire notions of the dogmatic and divine, demanding a deeper understanding than what had been offered by the Christian church, which was still a powerful institution. Like the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries and the Enlightenment period of the 18th century, the 19th century was characterized by an effort to surpass prior human conceptions and achievements.

This was perhaps most effectively done through the deep integration of science and the humanities, and as proof, we might recall that it was Darwin’s careful observations in the form of beautiful sketches and detailed notes made in his field journal on a sailing voyage across the world that led the young naturalist to crack the code of phenotypic modification through natural selection – perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of all time.

Despite being largely developed in Europe and made exclusive to white males of upper social classes for many generations, contemporary science is today both universal and inestimably powerful. The term “Western Science” has become a problematic misnomer, because all of science is founded on Middle Eastern empiricism and logic, and for hundreds of years it has incorporated major contributions from individuals and institutions hailing from nearly every ethnicity and culture on Earth, and from men and women alike. 

Indeed, science is useful precisely because it is universal, and it is through science, and perhaps only through science, that our globalized society can achieve collaboration and consensus across any social or economic barrier. Despite a surprising number of contrarians, science is also replete with invaluable tools for understanding the world in which we humans and all other living organisms exist. These include universal systems, like Linnaean Taxonomy, introduced by the Swedish biologist and physician Carl Linnaeus in 1761, along with various methods to reduce inevitable human biases and mistakes, such as the Double-Blind Experiment. The unique ability that universally replicable methods have to produce an exponentially flourishing crop of deep insights and impactful technologies becomes more evident daily, and indeed it has often been pointed out that our technology has far outpaced our mental capacity as human animals to use it to our benefit, let alone to the benefit of our biosphere.

Here, I will add a personal anecdote. When I asked an elder woman of the Comcaac, or Seri, tribe if she would prefer to live in the world of her parents, in which science and technology were entirely missing, she said very matter of factly, “Of course not, life was very difficult then.” This was a potent reminder that science and technology, despite opening a pandora’s box of problems, including the destruction of most of Earth’s natural habitats and biodiversity, along with introducing the ever-looming threat of nuclear annihilation, have reduced human suffering in ways that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.

Today, the study of patterns and often cyclical changes that can be observed in flora and fauna across the variables of space and time is known as “phenology.” This term is derived from the word “phenotype,” which is the physical and outward manifestation of an organism’s genetic code, or “genotype,” as it interacts with its surrounding environment. Few people are familiar with the term phenology, however, and it is sometimes confused with the pseudoscience of “phrenology.” So, I have taken the liberty to resurrect Ernst Haeckel’s 19th-century term, “Observational Ecology,” which for me is not just a synonym for phenology, but also an apt description of my integrated and wholistic art, science, and conservation practice.

Indigenous people, meanwhile, never forgot how to observe their world, and it was not they but self-aggrandizing Europeans who had been living a primitive life in relative darkness when it came to having a deep understanding of natural history. Traditional Ecological Knowledge has been misattributed and appropriated in myriad ways, for example by claiming that the manifestos of Westerners like Arne Naess, a Swiss climber who coined the term “Deep Ecology” are in any way original. Nonetheless, most white folks can finally admit that Naess’ Deep Ecology and other similar constructions are a re-iteration of the ancient Kaupapa, or purview, to borrow a Māori word, of Indigenous peoples since time immemorial.

Humanity survived without science, and with just rudimentary technology, precisely by applying deep ecology for hundreds of thousands of years. To discount the knowledge that we acquired and passed on through oral traditions, art, and craftsmanship for most of human history would be the pinnacle of ignorance and colonial hubris. Fortunately, recognizing the crucial role of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or TEK for short, a vast and nebulous body holding the full wisdom of our elders and ancestors, is today a well-established cornerstone of academic practice, along with budding Indigenous-led frameworks for the integration of time-honored traditions with modern science –  a practice sometimes called “Two-Eyed Seeing.”

The fact that Indigenous people have chosen the word “eye” to describe these distinct forms of acquiring human knowledge, namely science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, reveals that they have something quintessential in common; the practice of careful observation. Furthermore, all knowledge is derived from the human mimicry of the rest of the natural world. Unfortunately, mimicry is a term with negative connotations in a contemporary society obsessed with myths about the new, original, proprietary, and divine. But contrary to these deluded notions, I believe that, when practiced respectfully, mimicry is ultimately wise, intentional, evocative, and, summarily, artful. As my fourth-grade art teacher would say, “mimicry is the highest form of flattery,” and at the end of the day it is synonymous with sharing. 

While it may be cliché to portray artists, and sometimes scientists too, as selfish loners or appropriators, my experience has convinced me that both art and science are most effective when they become an act of sharing. My practice of Observational Ecology is thus all about the sharing of colors, forms, ideas, values, stories, traditions, traditional knowledge, scientific findings, and the endless palette of human ideas and emotions that we can all use to paint our individual and collective futures together, as a community might join to paint a mural.

Observational Ecology is perhaps best exemplified by the field artist and nature journaling enthusiast who spends long hours outdoors, observing, writing, drawing, painting, taking photographs, interacting with local culture keepers, and revealing some of the infinite connections in what the Navajo and other Indigenous peoples recognize as the great web of life and learning. Through this practice and platform, I aim to spread the idea that by fostering an individual sense of place, namely through careful observation and appreciation of the natural world, we can, as individuals and collectives, come to better understand our place within our biosphere and in doing so reconnect with our weighty responsibility to it.

Ultimately, I hope to inspire people to create spiritual and tangible reciprocity with the life-support system that so generously provides us with everything we could ever need, including breathable air, potable water, food, shelter, and endless enrichment for our hearts and minds. Importantly, there is no single way to be an Observational Ecologist, and I encourage you to find your sense of place and connection in whatever way most appeals to you, provided it is respectful to life on Earth and to the traditional cultures that have stewarded our blue-green planet across the ages.

Thank you for reading, and for looking just a little more closely than most take the pleasure and opportunity to do.

Alan Ruiz Berman