Diagnostics

At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.

H.D. Thoreau “Walden”

Andrew and I started by taking the windshield wipers off then removed nuts and bolts to release two guards beneath.  Through a process we’d completed before, we removed long screws and a couple of hose clamps and lifted the air intake manifold out of the way. Now we could reach the wire harnesses that needed to be released as well as pneumatic lines to the engine. We tugged and unsnapped other car parts that I cannot identify. We were then ready to replace spark plugs and the things called coil packs that I’m told make them spark. If my car rolled again at completion, we’d have done well.

“Look at all that oil on the case. It’s worse than last time.” Andrew was first to notice the greasiness of everything surrounding the spark plug tubes.

“That might be the cause of your whole problem, right there. Let’s pull a plug or two and look in the tubes.”

This seemed wise and so I did pull all four of the packs and plugs and found the tubes to be inundated with oil. Our project went in a whole new direction at this point, knowing that bigger work was afoot and that the best we could do today was to keep me rolling for a bit and get parts on order with my mechanic. An interesting week-long process followed in which I ordered parts, got my vehicle to the mechanic, changed the whole diagnosis and subsequently payed through the nose for seals and gaskets, one of the downsides of owning an oddball vehicle that was never very popular here in North America.

This all seemed typical of an automotive troubleshooting process: a) I recognized a problem with the vehicle  b) I researched and made a guess about where the trouble was  c) With help, I investigated the problem and changed the initial diagnosis and  d) Finding that the problem was beyond my extremely constrained abilities, I payed the professionals to make it right.

Automotive systems are complex but they are also finite. It is possible to troubleshoot and then dig in and rectify the issue, whether by yourself, with a friend or through professional help. It is all knowable.

Shifting gears completely (yes, pun intended) the complexity of biological systems awed me as a teenager, as I got my first glimpses of their workings. If anything, these organic systems impress me more today. My learning about nature has been a long history of adding constantly to personal knowledge of aspects of ecosystems I’d once assumed to be simple and predictable. I’d come to find that nothing in nature is really simple or predictable though. It’s all organic and by definition, cycling, evolving, metamorphosing and transferring energy. The stochastic vision of nature portrayed in high school text books or in mainstream media comes to seem laughable. But most laughable are the people who profess to know it all and who have already made value judgments both for the biological world and for a world of individuals.

Nature has humbled me, made me far less likely to assume I have the right answers or universal solutions to environmental problems. Reading Edward O. Wilson on ants while a teen taught me that some of the most minute creatures build “civilizations,” respond to a wide array of chemicals and navigate through varied habitats in unique ways.  They also learn and, given time, evolve. There are at least eighty four North American genera of ants and around a thousand species. Ants belong to an order known as hymenoptera which includes bees, wasps and similar insects. The hymenoptera represent one of about twenty eight known orders of North American insects. Most, if not all, are less well studied than ants. How much complexity exists in the functioning of the class insecta alone?

If you could learn everything about ants alone, they would have changed by the time you’d done it.

Fishermen, or at least most fly fishermen, strive to understand the biology of the waters they fish. Ultimately, we’d like to obtain practical knowledge that will ultimately bring more fish to net on any given outing. And so, we learn about the habits of the various trouts (and other fishes) and we begin to study the insects found in and around the water. Among the genera of aquatic insects are some whose nymphal stage is described as a “grazer.” Grazers consume periphyton, essentially, the living slime that covers the rocks of most streams.

One of my most interesting fisheries-related conversations over the years was forty minutes or so with a Dr. Honeyfield of the U.S. Geological Survey in which he described his current work on periphyton. Periphyton is hardly the monoculture that one may assume but rather consists of colonies of algae, bacteria and other minute organisms. Every stream has unique assemblages and these change as one continues down through the stream continuum. Dr. Honeyfield’s thesis was that within streams, biodiversity and, by extension, ecological integrity, was expressed in the periphyton – organisms that he and his team were far from understanding fully.

And this was only the most basic level of stream life – simple organisms that are the fundamental source of primary production. How much complexity resides at the higher levels? How complex are the interactions between trophic levels from periphyton to osprey?

My eyes were opened to much of this when I went to work at a lab of the USGS and Cornell University as a kid in upstate New York. My work was basic but did involve reading portions of studies, thinking about what was said and recording what was pertinent on a computer. At that time the fish nutritionist who had brought me on was involved in a study (the first scientific study that was ever explained to me fairly thoroughly) involving thiamine deficiency in Great Lakes salmonids (trout and salmon). Historically, the forage fishes of the lakes had changed significantly and the pelagic forage base was now (mid-1990’s) dominated by smelt and alewives in Lake Ontario. These fish contained high levels of thiaminase, an enzyme that blocks thiamine uptake from the digestive tract. The best hypothesis at the time was that the high levels of fry mortality (Cayuga syndrome) being seen in lakes with these forage species had to do with elevated thiaminase at a life stage of high vulnerability.

Who would have thought of that? Thiamine is just one of many essential nutrients needed for growth and metabolism. And it’s not that they were eating things somewhat deficient in the nutrient but rather that some of their forage contained an enzyme that contravened this vitamin’s availability. How much similar complexity is floating around among the fishes of the Great Lakes that we remain utterly unaware of? What other nutritional puzzles remain to be solved among the organisms all around us?

Learning about the brook trout between 2007 and 2011 disabused me of the notion that anything in nature is simple. I tried to absorb all the information currently available on the species yet at the end I was filled with more questions than answers. Brook trout are known to spawn over groundwater upwellings for consistent temperature and flow but some studies suggest that re-emergence of flow channels from below the substrate (hyporheic flow) is enough. Brook trout populate the Alleghenies here in Pennsylvania, reproducing naturally and it’s tempting to call these natives. But the history of human interactions with our native trout show that the various strains of brook trout were moved across watershed boundaries and intermixed to the point that only genetic testing can tell us whether any given specimen is truly of a native lineage. I once thought there was a rather short list of the favorite foods of brook trout. Now I realize that they, like most fishes, are opportunists, eating radically different things depending on where they’re found and at what season. Brook trout are commonly thought to be fishes that thrive best in the headwater streams of Appalachia, living on as four to seven inch adults somewhere high above a barrier waterfall. I found that the brook trout really thrived in much larger, lower streams, where they could. Brook trout were said to be a fragile species often on the cusp of local extirpation but I was shocked by the resilience I witnessed. Surprises abounded and I couldn’t have begun to discover them without devoting years to such a project.

The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit – not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.

H. D. Thoreau – Walden

I may have been tempted to feel like a bit of a know-it-all following the discoveries of the Eastern Brook Trout Solo Adventure but shortly after my book was published, I began to discover mushrooms and found how little I still really knew of vast biological realms, things I’d walked past a thousand times with hardly so much as curiosity. We pay much attention to the things that grow in green profusion and to the animals who consume them (or to the fish we’re pursuing). We don’t often think of the other side of life cycles, of the decomposition, the return of borrowed nutrients to the soil. This is where the mycelia come in, the network-like organisms that flower from time to time in the form of mushrooms.

The fungi are generally less well-studied than the plant and animal kingdoms so there’s still a lot of mystery. It’s still very possible for amateur mycologists to make discoveries. Among the areas in which  discoveries are being made is the complex interrelationships of fungi with plants, particularly with the roots. Indeed, it’s becoming apparent that many plants need a certain fungal partner or partners to live or to flourish. Obvious pairs include boletes and certain conifers, Amanitas and various plants and certain Cortinarius mushrooms and oak.  Mycologists are just beginning to unlock the secrets of mycorrhizal associations and their broader impacts on the ecology of all around them.

In the internet era it’s become popular for people with only superficial understandings of biological phenomena to cite single studies they were directed to by search engines, particularly in the heat of vigorous online “debate.”  These citations are meant to prove simple points, to conclude an argument to the satisfaction of the finder. We use bits of science that suit us, perhaps even ones that search engines know will appeal to our patterns and habits of thought. And in so doing, we do a disservice to ecology, to entangled network systems, to a whole that lies beyond comprehension. We eavesdrop on a fragment of a conversation pursued back and forth in scientific journals and emerge claiming to have an answer. We sacrifice deeper learning for a win.

To take an extreme case, if we have an accurate account of the motions of the heavenly bodies that we do not find appealing, we cannot alter these motions to conform to a more attractive theory.

John Rawls – A Theory of Justice

But perhaps worse still is the tendency to imagine we can fix what’s “wrong” with the biotic realm. Young people for a few generations now have been encouraged to jump into this realm headlong, becoming activists against “pollution,” deforestation and global warming. We’re asked to trust that scientists do indeed understand the whole, proceed with no motivations but the best and are accurately portrayed through their spokespeople in activist organizations or the media. We become activists without a chance of comprehending the full consequences of our proposed manipulations. We are new to all this; the very term biomanipulation was only first employed in 1975.

We want to stop pollution without realizing how nature uses its constituents. We want to stop deforestation without realizing how much more most animals prefer the open plots and edge habitats we create to dark unbroken forest. We’re told of the necessity of global warming abatement without a thought to the ways animals and humans alike would be hurt by a cooler planet, even if we could curb water retention in the atmosphere – the main cause of global heat retention. And we’re certainly never told that most pollution levels are a fraction of what they were in the 1970’s, that aforestation exceeds deforestation in North America by far or that there is no warming trend underway distinguishable from the post-glacial Pleistocene trend. We want other people to have to buy carbon offsets as though we could understand a hundredth part of earth’s carbon cycle. Imbued with higher purpose, we tilt at benign windmills and forge steel and use energy to create new armies of windmill idols on our forested ridges.

Global warming could bring drought, disease and war – and it could bring prosperity, cooperation and freedom. The future is not destined to be dark or light, fallen or triumphant. Rather, the future is open.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger – Breakthrough

And then, accustomed to following the biology professed by politicians and media establishments, a new germ arrives. It’s sensationalized by politicians and the media alike and we trust them not to exaggerate or overstate or pursue personal ambition over truth. We mistake worst-case prognostications for unbiased reporting, as usual. We perhaps even believe that reporters are striving to understand the intricacies of microbial infection and metastases, rather than striving to be quoted and invited and published. We allow faith to replace science even while professing to follow the science. And we let fear and conformity reign because it’s easier, the way humans do.

We tell others to follow the science, as though science had values or a will. The value decisions we’ve made a priori elude us as we tell others to listen to the scientists, as though scientist was a singularity. We’ve decided that it’s unconscionable to lose another species while the earth goes on shedding them as it always has, like so many dead skin cells. We berate those who kill animals never realizing that the kindest death almost all animals will die is at the hands of man. We say that the great north forests cannot be defiled with a pipeline or electric right-of-way, never realizing how much plants and animals would celebrate and use a departure from the trackless spruce forest monoculture. We want “renewable” energy, just not when it obstructs the aesthetics that make us feel good. Tell me again about the science and how it should lead us.

The frivolous make themselves merry with the ideal theory, as if its consequences were burlesque; as if it affected the stability of nature. It surely does not.

R.W. Emerson – Nature

We do this because we can’t see the whole picture and can’t admit that we can’t see the whole picture. We do this from hubris. We do this to keep up our image.  We do this to stay in line with our political tribe. Watching what people talk about, where they spend their time and where they spend their money, why would we tend to think that people are motivated by truly ecological goals, aside from what they say, which is known to be cheap? We act with religiosity, atoning for sins, following our high priests, repeating baleful catechisms and placing faith in things we cannot know. We act as humans would though, never as omniscient gods.

We do this also maybe because we think mechanistically, that we can look under the hood, find the problems and start turning wrenches.

I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity…

W. Wordsworth – Lines Composed Above Tintern Abbey

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