Observational Ecology, Where Passion Meets Purpose

Observational Ecology is a practice, and a movement, that involves exploring 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. The aim of this practice, which integrates science, the humanities, and traditional knowledge and values, is to inspire connection, consciousness, and conservation actions.”

– By 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. Despite being largely made exclusive to White European males of upper social classes for many generations, contemporary science is today practiced by all. Indeed, 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,  have reduced human suffering in ways that most of us cannot even begin to imagine. Nonetheless, Indigenous peoples never forgot how to observe or appreciate the natural 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 someone 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 thus 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 words “eye” and “seeing” 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. 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 countless Indigenous Traditions. These omissions, often purposeful, were intended to give the false impression that all progress was the purview of a supposedly superior White, Western class that was bringing light to a dark and savage world. 

Nonetheless, the turn of the century in Europe was the beginning of the industrial era, and it did see sparks and the rekindling of the human intellect and imagination – a fire that would consume more dogmatic and doctrinaire notions in its insatiable desire for a deeper understanding than what had been offered by, primarily Christian, theology, 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 in Europe and beyond was characterized by an effort to surpass prior human conceptions and achievements and to look closer at the fabric of the living biosphere. 

The man who coined the phrase “Observational Ecology,” and indeed the word “Ecology” as well, was none other than Darwin’s champion scholar in Germany, Ernst Haeckel, 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. Still, 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. 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 society, 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.

Ernst H.P.A. Haeckel (1834-1919)
Haeckel’s representation of a horseshoe crab, one of my all time favorite marine species, demonstrates a his deep capacity for observing nature.

After all, Haeckel’s art is singularly beautiful and demonstrates his dedication to careful observation as a means of biological description and understanding. What is more, it marks what is perhaps the beginning of the era of modern science; the concept of “Observational Ecology” being among the most significant acknowledgments from Europe that intentional observation is at the very essence of humanity’s capacity for revealing the true nature of the world, and not worship of the divine. 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 Haeckel’s word “phenotype,” which is the physical and outward manifestation of an organism’s genetic code, or “genotype,” as it interacts with its surrounding environment. The US National Phenology Network is based here in Tucson and helps track environmental change across the country. Still, few people are familiar with the term phenology, and it is sometimes confused with the pseudoscience of “phrenology.” So, I have taken the liberty to restore 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.

A sketch of yours truly studying the landscape from the UA Desert Lab on Tumamoc Hill, done by a class colleague in a field journal.
Charles Darwin’s first phenological tree of life was sketched in one of his journals.

The historical significance of the deep integration of traditional knowledge, science, and the humanities is evident in the story of Darwin himself, whose careful observations in the form of beautiful sketches and detailed notes that he made in his field journal on a sailing voyage across the world, on which he no doubt met many local guides, led the young naturalist to crack the code of phenotypic modification through natural selection – perhaps the greatest scientific achievement of all time. This tradition of holistic learning has continued to this day, and scholarship seems to become ever more integrated, interdisciplinary, and intersectional, in a concerted effort to include more individuals and perspectives, and thus arrive at a more complete understanding of nature, people, and society. 

In summary, I do not feel there is a zero-sum game between science, the humanities, and traditional knowledge, despite there being some tension in how these fields of understanding are integrated and by whom. All knowledge of the world, after all, is derived from our capacity to observe and mimic the natural world. Unfortunately, mimicry is a term with negative connotations in our contemporary society, which is obsessed with myths about the new, original, proprietary, and divine. But contrary to these deluded capitalist 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. 

Indeed, 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. The 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, much in the same way that a community might come together to paint a mural.

Painting a mural brings diverse folks and stakeholders together around cultural and environmental appreciation and conservation in Punta Rucia, a fishing village on the border between the DR and Haiti.

Importantly, Observational Ecology can be practiced in myriad ways and by anyone, but it 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. Furthermore, 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.

Thank you for reading, and for looking just a little more closely than most 😉

~ Alan Ruiz Berman