Discovering Knowledge through Geography and the Inconspicuous Proletariat

Plenary 3: Knowledge Discovery, Synthesis, and Application at the Forest Science/Management Interface


Jack Dangermond on the wonders of Web GIS. Source: Eric Schramm
Jack Dangermond on the wonders of Web GIS. Source: Eric Schramm

The planet is evolving, according to Jack Dangermond, and geography as a science is playing a key role in that evolution.

Dangermond, who is the founder and president of ESRI, addressed the third plenary session of the 2014 IUFRO World Congress.

“We live in an age in which we are beginning to measure everything that moves and changes, using GPS and satellites,” he said. “This technology will become a platform for our evolution because GIS makes science come alive. It is a visual language.”

“This is changing how we see the world and how we think and how we act. Geography—this science I learned to love fifty years ago—is now more important than ever.”

GIS is integrating science into virtually everything we do, he said, from providing basic driving directions to developing sophisticated analytic models for monitoring and predicting the future.

But GIS itself is also evolving. “The individual pieces of GIS are becoming part of an interconnected platform. We are learning how to share content—I can share my content with your content across networks.”

Dangermond discussed Web GIS, a new platform developed by ESRI and designed to make data sharing and manipulation easier. “It is fundamentally a new architecture. Traditionally we put maps into a database. This centralized approach, while powerful, is inflexible.”

Web GIS, on the other hand, will make data sharing and access easier by integrating old maps and new maps, imagery, in situ data, as well as social media. “Web GIS opens up GIS to everyone,” he said. “It makes knowledge available to everyone, and it allows you to combine multiple maps, media, and text to tell a story:”

Dangermond emphasized not only imagining how we want to future to unfold, but taking steps to turn imagination into reality. “We need to start thinking about creating a better future. We have to make a plan for the future that leverages everything that we know now.”

“Creating a better future means geo-enabling people, envisioning and empowering and educating ourselves. Education using GIS needs to move down to the K through 12 level,” he said. “Kids understand it. They can put together maps of their neighborhoods.”

“Our forests are facing many challenges. Geography and GIS are more important than ever.”

If Dangermond focused on a larger, more abstract way of discovering knowledge, David Haskell focused on a part of the world you can hold in your hands.

Haskell, who is professor of biology at the University of the South, also addressed the plenary session. He is the author of The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature, a book in which he contemplates the life found in one square meter of Tennessee forest.

David Haskell shared his experience studying one square meter of forest for one year. Source: Schramm
David Haskell shared his experience studying one square meter of forest for one year. Source: Eric Schramm

His inspiration for the book came from a late-winter walk on a mountain slope in the southern Appalachians. “I wanted to conduct an experiment in experience,” he said. “What would it be like to spend hundreds of hours in one place? I wanted to tell the stories of the forest for non-specialists.”

Using just a hand lens, his senses, and a notebook, Haskell sat – or sometimes lay – on the ground, foreswearing what he called the “problems of bipedalism” to get down where the action was.

According to Haskell, the wonder of nature is too often buried away from the general public in scientific papers and technical reports. “These mind-blowing stories are mostly untold and unseen. This matters for several reasons. We can’t hope as a broader society to be responsible co-participants in life’s community without knowing the nature of that community.”

“There is inherent value in society at large in knowing about the community we live in and knowing something about our kin.”

A metaphor that guided his contemplation was a Tibetan sand mandala, which can represent the entire universe in one square meter.

“I took insights from religious traditions and applied them in an ecological context,” he said. “A sand mandala is a symbol of impermanence, and the only thing we really know about ecology is that ‘this too will pass.’ ”

Haskell noted a few themes that emerged from studying his square meter.

“I saw very clearly – and even smelled – that the world is ruled by the inconspicuous proletariat, that the larger organisms are the hood ornaments of life,” he said. “The engine is the microbial community, the tiny insects and fungal strands in the soil. Nutrient cycling and carbon storage are dominated by the microbial world.”

“Reach down into the soil and take up a half-handful and realize you hold a billion organisms in your hands. Raise it to your nose and use the app you don’t need you download and smell the soil. It is the celebratory wine of life,” he said. “Personal sensory experience gives us an awareness of small-scale processes and warns of the limits of our knowledge.”

Haskell shared a story about the role of biological networks in the forest.

“I was sitting on my rock, very still for a couple hours. A deer walked up to me, then realized that I was there, in front of her.” The deer gave a warning call, then bolted away.

In the stillness that followed, Haskell could hear the reaction of other species to the deer’s alarm. “Chipmunks began their alarm call, and a wave like a ripple in a lake moved out from the center. Squirrels sounded their alarms as well.” Animals are connected to a cross-species social network, alerting each other to what is happening and the threats in the world around them.

“It’s like nature’s Facebook,” he said, “but if you miss the status update, you are dead.”

To Haskell, the fundamental reality is not the self, but the network. “Without the network, the individual falls out of existence,” he said. “The challenge is that we barely understand most of the connections.”

Haskell concluded with an invitation to consider how the audience members might conduct their own experiments. “Find a place and give it your complete attention over months, over years. To quote T.S. Eliot, ‘Be still and wait.’ ”


Written by: Pete Gomben




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