Occasionally – just occasionally – the gods smile on us when we least expect it. And Wednesday was one of those days: fieldwork on a glorious winter day in the Lake District without a cloud in the sky and barely a breath of wind. The pleasure of being outside on such a day was offset slightly by the necessity of plunging my arm into freezing cold water at intervals, but the views of the mountains beyond Ennerdale Water more than compensated for these temporary discomforts.
The coldness of the water, today, offers me a link to a book I am reading, about the 19th century German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, a polymath who was ahead of his time in many ways, and whose writing pre-empted ecological thinking of the twentieth century. One of his strongly held beliefs was that scientists could not really understand nature from a laboratory: they had to be outside, experiencing nature first hand. That seems to be a fine New Year message in a world where ecologists seem to spend more and more time staring at screens, and their managers are increasingly reluctant to let them spend time in the field.
The ecology of lakes and rivers in this area in winter continues to fascinate me. Look at the picture below: a stream bed at the coldest time of year that is covered with lush growths of algae in a range of hues, most strikingly the pink-red of the Rhodophyta Audouinella, complemented by the green and blue-green algae around it. The first young olive-green filaments shoots of Lemanea, another Rhodophyta, were also apparent at a couple of the sites that I visited, and there were thick brown diatom blooms smothering many of the stones too. These are all thriving at a time of year when either most nature has shut down for the winter or most natural historians have plonked themselves onto the sofa to watch Living World II rather than challenging the first clause in this sentence. You decide.
A riot of colour on the stony substrata of the River Ehen, a few kilometres downstream of Ennerdale Water, Cumbria, January 2017.
One of Humboldt’s big concerns was that scientists saw the big picture (“naturgemälde”) rather than getting bogged down with details. He was someone whose mind had been formed by the Enlightenment, when the necessity of cataloguing and classifying the diversity of nature was a primary concern. However, he saw that this was not enough, and that one had to understand the connections between these different life forms, and between each of these and their environment. He saw the natural world as a web of interdependencies, and humans as potential disruptors of the delicate balances that existed.
The problem we have in the modern age is balancing the need to see the big picture in focus without losing site of important details. Or, as Ed Tipping said during a meeting at CEH last year: “we stick to the principle of simplifying to just short of the point of naivety”. He had his tongue in his cheek but there is an important point here: the complexity of the natural world means that its secrets will only be yielded to those scientists who can keep their natural proclivity to get lost in detail in check. At the same time, if we forget that those details are out there we may reach erroneous conclusions. And, I fear, microscopic benthic algae may be ecology’s Sirens, sitting on submerged rocks and luring the unsuspecting into a world of taxonomic detail that is too rarely accompanied by profound ecological insight.
William Wordsworth, born in Cockermouth, just a few miles away from Ennerdale, was one of Humboldt’s readers. He recognised the need to be outside experiencing nature applied as much to a poet as to a scientist and reacting against the dry, dissected knowledge that the Enlightenment encouraged. His words offer a succinct conclusion for this first post of 2017, and encapsulate my resolution to be as holistic as possible in my thinking during the year ahead:
For was it meant
That we should pore, and dwindle as we pore,
For every dimly pore on things minute,
On solitary objects, still beheld
In disconnection dead and spiritless,
And still dividing and dividing still
Break down all grandeur …
William Wordsworth, The Excursion, 1814