Urban Tracking

Sometimes it is difficult for tracking geeks to understand why everyone else is not into tracking. When you realize the holistic breadth of tracking, the powers of perception it gives you, and the joy you find in the practice it can indeed be hard to believe that more people aren’t tracking.

I believe there are several factors and misconceptions that keep people away from tracking. In this essay I will attack one common misconception.

“I can’t track in the city!”

In the last decade we have gone from a planet where most people lived in rural areas to a planet where most people live in cities. This is one of the most powerful demographic trends on the planet and appears to be steady. In most of the “West” we are saddled with an intellectual heritage that falsely imposes a Nature vs Man dichotomy on the landscape. We see places as either Wild or Not Wild. This bias runs SO deep that many people don’t even see nature at all when they are in urban areas.

Modern studies of the brain have shown what sages have long known: You don’t see what you are not looking for. Your perception of reality is not unbiased or complete. Instead, your perception is shaped and filtered by your belief and experiences. If you “know” that tracking is something done in the “wild” places then you will not see the tracking opportunities all around you in the cities and suburbs.

Most would-be trackers and many experienced trackers falsely assume that there is no tracking to be done outside of the Regional Park trails or National Seashore dunes. They feel like they have to travel in a car to a designated “wild place” to do any legitimate tracking. If you believe this and shut off your tracking when in urban areas you are missing out on the tracking opportunities that are most relevant to your daily life! You are missing out on tracking 90% of your daily life!

Does it matter if you can distinguish the tracks of three different species of endangered sand crabs but you can’t recognize the alarm calls of the urban squirrels in your backyard? Can you recognize the gait change of a short-tailed weasel in the Sierra but you don’t know how the neighborhood raccoons squeeze through your cat door and eat your Pop-Tarts?

Animals and plants are unburdened by the Nature vs Man dichotomy that plagues our worldview. Dandelions, deer, finches, and bears don’t know that there is no nature to be found in the urban areas. They don’t know that they are supposed to stay in the “Wild Places.” They don’t wait until they are in a regional park to leave an interesting trail or drop a steaming scat. We need to follow their example (not necessarily pooping on the sidewalk). We need to question the Nature vs Man dichotomy and recognize that nature is everywhere. Tracking opportunities are everywhere. Some of the best bird language opportunities and wildlife tracking lessons can be found in suburbs and urban parks. Think outside the box! Keep your tracking mindset turned on! Jim Sullivan, a holistic tracker in California calls this “24/7 Tracking.” Not only will 24/7 tracking improve your skills faster it will also provide you with insight into your native environment (the majority of us live in urban areas not Regional Parks).

Urban wildlife is not the only thing to be tracked in cities and suburbs. Try broadening your perspective and noticing tracks from humans and other domestic animals. Why are so many avid trackers so uninterested in domestic animals (humans included)?! Is it because they are so familiar that we know everything about them? Or is it because they fall on the wrong side of the entirely arbitrary Nature vs Man dichotomy? Obviously, the latter is true. I challenge anyone who thinks that domestic animals are so familiar and boring because they know everything about them. How many times have you watched the gait of a five year old child in mud puddles? How many times have you examined the hole dug by a pet pit-bull and wondered about the biomechanics of dogs digging?

Animals are not the only things that can be tracked in urban areas. Plants, vehicles, and weather also leave their characteristic marks. Which curbs near your house are covered with skid marks from cars cutting the corner? Can you visualize the trajectory of the cars? Why is the street designed that way? Where can you see the gouges in the asphalt that indicate where cars bottom out? Can you see the tracks of snow, ice, wind, or sun in the urban landscape? How have weeds invaded vacant lots? Are the weeds clustered around edges of buildings or evenly distributed? Have some trees influenced the infrastructure? Can you see plants growing on buildings?

If you have not tried tracking because you think you need access to “Wild Places” then rejoice, for the best tracking is outside your doorstep!
If you are an experienced tracker but tend to overlook urban tracking, then reconsider the Nature vs Man dichotomy and turn on your 24/7 tracking. This perspective shift will super charge your learning process and provide you with relevant information about your native environment.

Thanks to Jim Sullivan for the term “24/7 Tracking”. See his website for more information and for a schedule of talks and classes in California.  http://www.animaltrackingandbirdlanguage.com/

Tracking Birds

Many animals do not leave tracks in easy to read substrates such as sand and mud. Some animals climb trees, swim under water, or fly in the air. Other animals burrow under the ground or slide across it on a mucous-lubricated peristaltic stomach-foot (snails and slugs).

Are these animals impossible to track?

I take a holistic approach to tracking and would argue that everything leaves tracks including fish in water, birds in the air, and slippery slugs. It is often necessary to change your perspective or think outside the box to see or infer these “tracks.”

I recently wanted to see the tracks of a bird that I have never seen walking on the ground. It is a common bird that prefers to perch on branches or fences, flying out to catch insects on the wing. There were a couple popular perch spots near my house and I decided to create “tracking traps” on these spots. I simply sprinkled some fine dust on the flat surfaces (cheap white flour works well (unless the animals are gluten-intolerant)).

Phoebe Tracks - 3

Luckily one of the perches was on the edge of a wine barrel so there was plenty of flat space to put the dust. I knew the bird perched on the very rim of the barrel. I tried to get dust on the rim but I also hoped that the bird might venture a footstep or two onto the flat area.

Immediately, the dust began recording interesting information. A variety of marks were being made in the dust, some clearer than others. One added benefit was I could tell which scats were new because they were on top of the dust.

Phoebe Tracks - 1

While I have yet to get the footprints that I hoped for I did get some perhaps more interesting and important tracks. Tracks are not only made by feet and in this case the tracks appear to be made by the other set of appendages that birds have, the ones they fly with. Look closely at the photo to see the marks left by an extended wing. You can even see the individual ridges on the feathers if you look closely.

Phoebe Tracks - 2 bigClick on me

This experience has several embedded lessons:

First, all animals leave tracks. They might be vortices of air or thermal disturbances that we usually can not see. Or they might not be what we think of as tracks and we might not know how to interpret the pattern.

Second, you can manipulate the environment to accelerate your learning. You don’t have to travel 50 miles to sand dunes or riparian areas that have the best substrates for tracking. You can sprinkle flour or rake out a good spot of dirt in your yard.

Third, be prepared to notice and learn what you weren’t expecting. Even though I was hoping to get footprint tracks I got something else. If I had been so fixed on seeing footprints I might have missed the subtle tracks left by the bird’s wing. Often times this unexpected lesson is the thing you really need to learn about more than the thing you were looking for.

 

Guessing Game: If you think you know your bird scat and habits try to guess what species this is. I will reveal the answer in a future post 🙂

 

 

“On Intelligence”

I recently listened to an audiobook format of Jeff Hawkins’ 2004 book “On Intelligence.” In this essay I will try to review some of the key concepts from the book. In a future essay I will relate these concepts directly to holistic tracking and awareness.

Jeff Hawkins has focused much of his life on understanding computers, the human brain, and searching for an overarching theory of intelligence. In his book titled “On Intelligence,” he presents such a theory, supports it with research, and explains how this theory can help design truly intelligent machines.  Hawkins does a great job of explaining the fundamental differences between computers and brains and the reasons why the most advanced computers of today still cannot do certain tasks that a three year old human does with ease.

Some of the key arguments that Hawkins makes can be summarized as follows:

1. Behavior is not the best way to measure intelligence.
2. The type of intelligence that he is looking at is an aspect of the neocortex (the most recently evolved part of the brain).
3. The main function of the neocortex and the basis of intelligence are memory and prediction.
4. Intelligent machines should be built by using the principles of the neocortex otherwise it will be difficult to make them truly intelligent.

Hawkins’ first point is that intelligence should not be measured by behavior such as the classic test of artificial intelligence called the Turing Test. Many aspects of having intelligence do not require action and behavior by itself can be very misleading. Instead, Hawkins’ is interested in the type of intelligence that humans take for granted but that has been very difficult to achieve in computer programs and robots. He is interested in how humans understand the world around us, learn patterns, and make meaningful predictions effortlessly without getting bogged down in millions of calculations.

Hawkins focuses almost exclusively on the most recent part of the brain known as the neocortex. While I might normally criticize this reductionism I feel that he justifies his focus and it works with his narrow definition of intelligence. One of the most interesting points he makes about the neocortex is the uniformity of it in appearance and structure. Hawkins’ cites the work of neuroscientist Vernon Mountcastle as pointing to the simple yet overlooked possibility that all of the neocortex is performing the same basic operation. He calls this the “single cortical algorithm.” This structure is seemingly redundant yet extremely flexible and functional. Unlike computers, it allows us to take incomplete information, recognize patterns, classify experience hierarchically, think creatively through analogy, learn language, and make useful predictions. Unlike a pre-programmed computer or robot this cortical architecture is specifically set up to learn, adapt, and function in an unknown and novel environment.

The single cortical algorithm does four main things:
1. It stores sequences of patterns
2. It recalls patterns in an auto-associative way
3. It stores patterns in invariant forms
4. It organizes stored patterns in a hierarchy

“Prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence. The cortex is an organ of prediction.”  I must admit I was very stoked with how Jeff Hawkin’s emphasized the primacy of pattern recognition, memory, and prediction in his book. These are three attributes central to much of what I do and this framework has a lot of useful applications especially in tracking and awareness. In our daily life our brain is constantly making predictions about the world around us. These predictions are based upon patterns that we have learned through experience and store in our memory. As a child you learn how different objects respond to your touch, you store these experiences as patterns, and by the time you are an adult you unconsciously make predictions about how much force is necessary to push open a door. When everything goes according to subconscious predictions the tendency is not to notice. However, if something does not meet your prediction it is quickly brought to your conscious attention. If the door is rigged to be heavier you will notice because your prediction about how much force is necessary to open it will not match up.

In the last part of his book Jeff Hawkins explains the steps necessary to create intelligent machines based on the single neocortical algorithm and he delves into some of the ethics surrounding this field. As a non-computer scientist I still found this part of the book easy to understand and extremely interesting. His arguments were compelling and gave me a much better understanding of the hurdles faced by artificial intelligence. It also helped me broaden my conceptions of AI beyond the influence of Hollywood and popular media. It is amazing how the popular imagination and the worldview of the industrial age have had such a huge influence on the trajectory of AI research.

Overall, I truly enjoyed this book. It was thought-provoking, well-argued, and I look forward to synthesizing the key ideas and incorporating them into my approach.

For more information on Jeff Hawkins:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Hawkins

Culture: Definition and Function

“Culture refers to the learned, socially acquired traditions of thought and behavior found in human societies. It is a socially acquire lifestyle that includes patterned, repetitive ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.”  –Marvin Harris and Orna Johnson 2003

If you were to take a person and peel away their clothes, food, tools, language, ideas, beliefs, and worldview, what would you have left? Would that naked body and empty mind still be a person? Would they be able to survive?

Humans are the only animal that depends more on culture than biology. Our bodies are weak and unimpressive compared to most animals. We are ill-protected from the elements in our thin skin, our senses seem mediocre compared to most, and we seem to have few physical adaptations for self-defense or harvesting of food. Nevertheless, we have colonized more of the planet than any other species and have developed strategies for surviving in some of the harshest bioregions.

Since the emergence of anatomically modern humans, 200,000 years ago, culture has been our main way of adapting and evolving. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution allows for much faster change. In many cases, cultural evolution allows for adaptations and novelties that would not be possible with biological evolution. Human populations that migrated to the arctic did not have to evolve thick layers of blubber, dense fur, or other physiological adaptations to the cold. Such evolution would have taken thousands and thousands of generations if possible at all.

Cultural characteristics, whether they be material culture or worldview, can be analyzed from a sort of evolutionary perspective. The basic assumption is that if culture is our way of adapting to the environment then there should be a rationale to cultural characteristics. While this view can be criticized as overly simplistic and deterministic I feel that it often provides useful insight and is capable of explaining many things. This way of seeing culture can also be helpful to get away from the idea that some cultures are superior to others or that there is a progression of cultural stages from lesser to greater. All cultures came about as an adaptation to a particular environment over time. Cultures that have been in the same region for thousands of years must adapt to fit that environment. From this perspective, the aboriginal culture of a region is likely to be the best-suited culture for that region.

This essay outlines the basics of the anthropological definition of culture. Whenever I refer to culture it is this anthropological definition that I am referring to.

How Buckeye Changed Me…

Going to the Buckeye gathering for the first time in 2011 opened up a world for me.

I thought I had a well-grounded, practical, relatively sustainable and resilient lifestyle and a broadly informed and well-rounded perspective on nature, culture, and the human experience. I had studied cultural anthropology, organic farming, and permaculture, I had traveled and worked extensively in less developed countries, I had lived in simple off-the-grid ways, and I thought I had a relatively deep connection with the natural world.

 

I was wrong…

 

I realized there was a HUGE piece missing from my worldview and my skill-set. Learning primitive skills and meeting the people who practice them blew my mind open in a way I didn’t know was possible. Being introduced to tracking, nature awareness, and bird language added a whole new dimension of meaning and connection to my experience of nature. The level of sophistication, functionality, and beauty behind some of the skills and crafts gave me a renewed appreciation of material culture. And the camaraderie around the night-time fire and the trade blanket gave me a new heartfelt perspective on the potential of community.

 

Primitive skills gatherings, tracking, archery, hunting, and bird language are now all part of my daily perspective and my yearly calendar. The skills I have learned (or at least tried) have all taught me something powerful. The crafts I have created, the feelings I have felt, and the community I have connected to are now all central to who I am. Buckeye has made me a more whole person, more grateful, more humble, and more connected to nature and culture than ever before.

 

Check out the Buckeye website and these other gatherings:

Buckeye

Acorn

The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle

Wintercount

Rabbit Stick

 

Photo at top is of Myron practicing hand drill friction fire technique.

Why learn primitive skills?

Stretching goat hides - 1
Your ancestors did not hop into their GPS-guided, climate controlled SUV’s and drive (while texting) to the nearest Wal-Mart to take care of their survival needs. They did not have heat, light, and water at the flick of a switch next to the refrigerator full of food. Your ancestors depended directly on their skills and in-depth knowledge of their surroundings to survive.

“Why do primitive skills still matter today? Aren’t we beyond that?” Some people might ask, implying that modern technology negates the importance of such ancestral ways. There are several major reasons why these skills are worthy of study and appreciation. First, I would point out the fact that for 99.9% of our existence humans have lived in small, non-hierarchical, minimally-specialized bands of foragers. That means that individuals understood, owned, and practiced the skills necessary for their survival. That is the context in which our species evolved; that is who we are.

When you begin to learn some of the basic skills that your ancestors used to survive you will develop a new understanding and connection with what it means to be human. You will be humbled by the level of sophistication, strength, dexterity, coordination, and creativity required for “primitive technologies.” Failure, frustration, exhaustion, and blisters will teach you to appreciate ancestral skills and hopefully you will stop taking for granted the luxuries of more modern technologies.

While humbling, primitive skills offer endless rewards for those who take time to practice and learn. In addition to a newfound sense of connection and respect, you will develop an empowering sense of self-sufficiency and a new way of seeing the world. Knowing your survival priorities and how to take care of them from materials found around you is a powerful and extremely basic set of skills. In today’s society the average person knows more about video games and celebrity pregnancies then they know about what their body needs to survive! Ask them to list their survival needs in order of priority and they will fail. No, Wi-Fi and caramel macchiatos are not survival priorities!

Studying ancestral skills will make you feel more confident, more connected, and more self sufficient. It will also put your life in perspective and help you deal with many modern issues. When you understand the basics that have provided for our species for the majority of our existence it will be easy for you to detect bullshit in the modern world. You will have a better grasp on what matters and what does not matter; you will see which modern technologies are indispensably useful and which are worthless trash.

Some primitive skills, such as tracking and nature awareness, have the potential to entirely change how you see the world! You will notice things and recognize patterns that other people will be clueless about. Not only is this perceptual shift fun and intriguing it is also utilitarian. Noticing things and being aware of subtle clues comes in handy in the modern city world just as much as in the woods. It could give you new insights at work, help you find your keys, or save your life.

There are also ecological benefits to learning and practicing Ancestral Skills. Basic human survival skills are the most fundamental way in which we relate to our surroundings. When you spend more dirt time practicing you get more connected to your environment and better understand your relationship with it. This should lead to a sort of environmental ethic that is not naive, city-born, or blinded by the human-nature dichotomy. Such an ethic and understanding can inform wiser daily choices. In general, our pre-industrial ancestors had a much deeper and culturally codified understanding of sustainability, resilience, and ecological responsibility.

Other benefits of practicing Ancestral Skills can come to our social lives, and our mental and physical health. Getting outdoors and cooperatively working with other people on tasks that we evolved to do has a powerful way of inspiring and satisfying. Communication, teamwork, and conflict resolution are also survival skills that served us in the past and are necessary in the modern world. This social aspect combined with the nature of many of the Ancestral Skills provides great exercise for the brain and the body. Many of the skills require new perceptual training, sensory development, and cognitive functions that we don’t engage sufficiently in modern life. Working on the type of tasks that our bodies and brains evolved to do has a powerful effect.

“Now I see why these skills matter, and they sound fun and interesting, but how am I supposed to learn about them? They don’t teach those things at my school!”
Ironically, now is the best time in history to learn these skills. There is a resurgence in the US and other countries to teach and practice primitive skills and technologies from different cultures and time periods. Below are links to several events and organizations that are good places to start.

Buckeye

Acorn

The Sharpening Stone

Saskatoon Circle

Wintercount

Rabbit Stick

Bulletin of Primitive Technology

 

 

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Knowledge as an obstacle to learning

raven feather water droplets - 10

With today’s omnipresent media it seems that the average person knows more than ever before in human history. Google searches, wikipedia articles, and countless online news sites make huge amounts of information available. This information bombards the modern person from all directions: TV screens at gas stations and checkout lines, 24 hour news channels, magazines, shared articles on Facebook, DIY websites, and Youtube tutorials. How often do people quote some bit of information that they “know” but they have no idea where the information even came from?

 
I have been wondering about this phenomenon for a while and I have become more and more critical of the whole idea of “knowing.” These days I try really hard not to recite bits of information that I’m not sure about, where the source is forgotten, or at least I put a strong disclaimer on what I spout. For those who are interested there is a field of philosophy that deals with knowledge, how it is acquired, and how it influences belief, certainty, and the concept of truth. This branch of philosophy is called epistemology and is worth some reading. For a basic article see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology

 
Lately, I have been leaning towards the idea that “knowing” or knowledge is one of the major obstacles preventing learning. This phenomenon is easily observed in young children who are the masters of learning. They constantly ask unusual questions and make novel connections when young. This flow of novel thinking is essential to how children learn about the world around them. Unfortunately, this type of thinking is often pruned out and paved over with “knowledge” in the process of socialization. I’m frequently saddened by how adults respond to the often keen and always worthy questions of children. The first possibility and perhaps the most common is for adults to ignore or not notice a child’s question. They might reject the question outright or not take it seriously. If they do provide an answer for the child it often is an answer that shuts off the child’s line of inquiry. Once the child “knows” this answer, often misinformation, they are much less likely to pursue the matter further. They think that they know. Following is an example of this unfortunate stifling of the learning process.

 

I was once visiting the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, an impressive center with diverse animals and plants in well made exhibits. At the enclosure for the desert bighorn sheep I was watching the adult male of the herd repeatedly bashing his head against a large palm tree. From the sizable dent in the tree it was evident that the ram did this on a regular basis. A large group of people stood milling around the exhibit and I could only imagine the pent up stress and boredom of such a creature. Just then, a little girl asked out loud, “Does that hurt it when it hits its head like that?” It seemed to me like a legitimate question rooted in a feeling of empathy for another creature. However, the girls mom seemed to think it was a stupid question and answered quickly without a second thought, “Of course not. Haven’t you seen them bashing heads all day long on TV?”

 

The mother’s answer is based on “knowledge of the the world” that she has acquired over  the years of her life (apparently much of this from watching TV). She may have seen bits of documentaries about bighorn sheep where the males ram into each other during the mating season. Even more likely she saw this behavior in a popular beer commercial that ran during a Superbowl. From this she assumed that since this is normal behavior for them that it probably doesn’t hurt. She also expressed a high degree of certainty about her “knowledge” in her response to her daughter. She did not add any modifiers or maybes. She did not admit her own lack of an answer to the question.

Chances are that bighorn rams have lots of anatomical features that mitigate the potential damage of their intense head-on impacts. Chances are that the male we were watching was not causing too much damage to himself by ramming the palm tree. However, the point is that we will probably never know if he was experiencing pain. More importantly, the girl’s question is totally valid and a perfect entree into a fascinating line of inquiry that could open many doors of learning. Let me create an alternative scenario where an adult did not insultingly answer the question in a way that stifled a potential learning experience:

At the bighorn sheep exhibit the adult male repeatedly bashed his head against the palm tree in the corner. A large dent in the trunk showed that this was a regular behavior. Just then a little girl asked out loud, “Mommy, does that hurt him when he bangs his head like that?” A thoughtful moment passed before the woman answered, “ I’m not sure honey, how could we find that out?” Instantly, more neurons are firing in the girl’s brain, more connections are being made, and she is forced to think creatively. She recalls her own experiences of pain while also searching her memory for examples of other animals experiencing pain. “ I know that some animals can feel pain, remember that injured horse we saw?” The question hangs in the air before she continues, “But how can we know what they are feeling if we can’t talk to them?”

It is easy to imagine all the possible lessons that could stem from the girl’s original question. Maybe this conversation will lead her to become a behavioral biologist or inspire her to study the neuroscience of pain. Unfortunately, all it takes is an unthoughtful and self-assured answer in the wrong tone of voice from an adult to stifle the learning opportunity. This scenario can also happen between adults, in a whole community, or within the microcosm of our own mind. I think we must be careful of this tendency if we truly want to learn. For true learning is a process, a way of seeing and thinking, it is not the mere accumulation of bits of information.

Be always wary of knowledge and answers; seek instead the power of good questions and child-like curiosity.

For more info on the wonderful Arizona Sonora Desert Museum see here: http://www.desertmuseum.org/

Learning how to Learn

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One of the “meta” topics that I’m most interested in is learning. Learning about new subjects and learning new skills is great but learning how to learn is even better. If you know how to learn in a more effective way you can apply this skill to the learning of any new material. This provides flexibility and adaptability that are increasingly important in the modern world. When the future is uncertain and overwhelmingly complex it is hard to know what skills and subject matters are most important to learn. Will it be more useful for me to study small scale food production, wilderness survival, conflict-resolution, or self-defense? Or would I be better off focusing all my energy on the narrow subject matter of a particular career? In unpredictable and rapidly-changing times one thing is certain: being good at learning itself is a major advantage.

A look at human history and prehistory shows that the ability to adapt to new and rapidly changing conditions is one of the hallmarks of our species. It is likely that much of our biological hardware and cultural software arose to deal with the difficulties of an unpredictable environment and novel challenges. There are many debatable things about human evolution and human nature. However, one thing that is apparent is that we are born to learn.

If we are innately so good at learning how come we often find learning new things difficult, especially as we get older? Unfortunately, our culture, that all-powerful tool, often dictates to us what is possible and not possible. Recent neuroscience continues to show us the incredible feats of plasticity, connection, and memorization that the brain is capable of. Many popular beliefs and cultural assumptions about the limits of the brain have been totally blown out of the water. “An old dog can’t learn new tricks” is a good example of a cultural meme that is not based on brain science and can influence our capabilities. Luckily, we do not have the brains of dogs, and we are indeed capable of learning new tricks, new languages, and other new skills as we age. The burgeoning field of neuroplasticity continues to find evidence that the brain’s ability to learn and adapt is far greater than previously assumed.

I will be writing several entries about learning since it is one of the great meta-topics under which all of my other interests fall. I will get more into specific techniques for improved learning while delving into particular topics of study and also philosophizing about learning and knowledge in general. I will tie in current research in cognitive science because we are in the golden age of brain research. Everyone with a brain should be interested.

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Science Illustration

DSCN3562 Here is an example of one of my illustrations.

My diversity of interests, unique perspective, and holistic outlook have frequently complicated my search for a clearly defined career in today’s myopic and overspecialized world. I often lamented the fact that I could not pursue the multi-faceted life’s work of the renaissance man, such as Leonardo da Vinci, or the diverse skill base of the 19th century scientists and natural historians, such as Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt.

In my continuing quest to find a way to connect my widespread interests and follow a life path that is in tune with my earliest predilections I have found the field of Science Illustration. In particular I have decided to apply for the Science Illustration graduate certificate program at CSU Monterey Bay. This program used to be at UC Santa Cruz and I heard about it when I was studying anthropology there. However, I somehow thought that it was not really a viable career path. Some type of deeply ingrained and insidious bias against art had me subconsciously convinced that art was not something to major in or seek a career in.

For more about the program that I’m applying for checkout the website here:

http://scienceillustration.org/index.htm

Make sure to check out the gallery with alumni artwork here:

http://scienceillustration.org/gallery/galleryhome.htm

Since I was a kid I have loved drawing and I have loved nature. Drawing was always a personal thing for me and I never really pursued formal instruction. Looking back, part of me wishes I had taken it more seriously, took more classes, or majored in art. However, I know that the path I took, no matter how circuitous, has allowed many experiences that are essential to my personality and outlook today. If I had majored in art in college I might not have gone down the path that taught me so much about sustainability, agriculture, homesteading, primitive skills, and tracking.

One of my inspirations for pursuing science illustration is John Muir Laws. He is the author and illustrator of a field guide to the Sierra Nevada and several other books. He fits the bill for a 19th century Naturalist with keen field observation, countless hours of dirt time, evocative and accurate illustration skills, and a strong science background that is not overly specialized, corporatized, or computerized. Laws is also extremely generous with his knowledge and techniques, often teaching workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area and posting many useful tutorials on his website.

Check out John Muir Law’s excellent website:                                   http://johnmuirlaws.com/

I have sent in my application for the CSUMB program and should hear back in the next month or so. It is a very exciting turning point in my life and I am looking forward to an extremely stimulating and challenging learning experience!

I’ll get a portfolio of my work up soon.

The Green Revolution: Representations of Hunger and Agriculture in India

The Green Revolution: Representations of Hunger and Agriculture in India
In the 1940s, the Rockefeller Foundation funded research in Mexico in the development of new “high-yielding varieties” of wheat that could produce more grain given certain conditions. This project caught the attention of the U.S. government and other funders, who pushed to expand similar agricultural development programs in “underdeveloped” countries around the world. In the 1960s, one of these projects, led by the agronomist Norman Borlaug, went to India and Pakistan to promote the “high-yielding varieties” (HVCs) as part of a technological package that would help modernize agriculture on the sub-continent. These various efforts to introduce new, energy intensive, agricultural practices in the Third World during the 1960s came to be known as the “Green Revolution.”

The official, spoken aim behind the Green Revolution was simple: increase agricultural production to feed the hungry and to help economic development in poor countries. It was, and continues to be, depicted as an altruistic effort, working under the heroic yet neutral banner of “science and progress.” However, upon closer analysis of the programs themselves, and examination of the results of the Green Revolution, it becomes apparent that there was much more at play than the noble and scientific aims made explicit by the “Revolution’s” proponents.  The Green Revolution was in fact based on particular assumptions and representations of India and the Third World, as well as particular ideologies and definitions of “development,” “poverty,” and “hunger.” It was not just a heroic, apolitical, philanthropic project to feed the hungry and improve the living conditions of the poor. Instead, It was a strategic project that served the political and economic interests of those powerful actors who promoted it.

The first set of assumptions and beliefs underlying the Green Revolution provide the imperative or the necessity for the “Revolution” to take place, because the Third World needs to be poor and hungry before it can be fed and developed. At the core of these assumptions is a bias against regionally-based, small-scale agriculture (and in fact agriculture in general). Regionally-based and small scale systems of food production are the way that agricultural societies have been feeding their populations for thousands of years. This type of production is characterized by a dependence on much human labor but few external inputs or energy sources. The industrial revolution changed the way that food was produced in much of Europe and the U.S. As external sources of carbon-based energy could be harnessed and used in more and more ways, through the use of machinery and chemicals, less and less human labor was necessary to produce food. (This change is erroneously thought of as increased efficiency. In fact, industrialized agriculture is far less efficient because it uses more energy in the form of fossil fuels than it produces in the form of food calories. The change is just that fewer humans are necessary in the actual work on the land.)

The industrialization of agriculture in much of the U.S. and Europe allowed for, or forced, many people who once worked in agriculture to seek new jobs in the booming industrial sectors. An abundant supply of workers meant that wages and production costs dropped, stimulating the growth of industry even more. This positive feedback allowed for the increased growth of industry and the increased industrialization of agriculture. Industrial growth (and colonialism) fueled the economies of these nations and provided the foundation for what they are today. The affluent nations that took this path of development are now considered the “First World” nations, or the “Developed” countries, or perhaps more tellingly, the “Industrialized Nations.” They are contrasted with such countries as India, Pakistan and Mexico, collectively called “The Third World,” or “Developing” and “Underdeveloped” nations.

The bias against small-scale or “traditional” agriculture in the development field stems from the fact that the world’s most affluent countries got to where they are today by abandoning such agriculture. Almost everyone’s family used to farm in the U.S., but today, only about 2 percent of the population is involved in agriculture. From the particular histories of such Western countries it is assumed that all countries must follow a similar path in order to feed their starving populations, and develop their economies. This perception is evident in political and economic policy as well as public discourse. Small scale agriculture is seen as unproductive, backwards and often unsustainable.

Agricultural work in general is often denigrated, undervalued, and associated with poverty. Indeed, small scale and subsistence agriculture and rural life have come to epitomize poverty and “Third Worldliness.” The ability for industrialized, energy-intensive agriculture to produce more food than small scale agriculture is questionable, and when so-called “externalities” are taken into the equation, small scale agriculture in India and else where is a much more efficient way of producing food (Muller and Patel: 2004).

In an article examining the technological changes that the Green Revolution brought to India, Govindan Parayil exemplifies the ingrained biases against small scale or “traditional agriculture”(1992). After off-handedly remarking that Indian agriculture had not changed at all in centuries while European agricultural technology had advanced dramatically, Parayil laments the fact that the British colonial administration had not done much to improve India’s backwards agriculture while they were there.

Thus, at the time of independence in 1947, India was a vastly poor nation with almost 90 percent of its population living in nearly 600,000 villages dependent on agriculture. Indian Agriculture remained essentially the same as it had been hundreds of years earlier, No perceptible technological change was noticeable in agricultural practices (741).
If only the British had left behind some of their advanced agricultural knowledge and techniques! Parayil hardly mentions the impoverishing effects of the British administration such as the ridiculously exorbitant taxes on grain production that precipitated the Bengal famine of 1942-43, in which around 3 million people died. Might colonialism have something to do with the state of agriculture poverty in India?

In Parayil’s paragraph it is easy to see how taken for granted is the equation of agriculture with poverty. In the rest of the essay, Parayil does not provide any other data to show how India was a “vastly poor nation” after independence. The fact that the majority of the population was dependent on small scale agriculture is assumed to be quite sufficient proof of this poverty. At the same time, Indian farmers are given no agency, small-scale agriculture is depicted as a living fossil that can only change with outside( Western scientific) influence. Parayil goes on to say that the only way for India to get out of the food crises of the 1960s was to allow the introduction of modern technology from the West, in other words the Green Revolution.

The idea behind the Green Revolution was that the new technologies, developed by agronomists, trained in the U.S. or Europe, could be spread to India and other countries to increase their agricultural productivity. These techniques, resources, practices and other components came together in what are often called “technological packages.”. One of the most touted components of these packages, evidenced by their name, were the “miracle seeds,” or “high-yielding varieties” (HYVs). Agricultural engineers and plant breeders had been working for some time developing semi-dwarf varieties of rice and wheat that could produce large amounts of grain in the right conditions. These varieties are called high-yielding varieties, because their production responds well to the energy and input-intensive agriculture that was being practiced in industrialized countries. Agronomists had already noted that the increased use of fertilizers, irrigation and other industrial intensification only slightly increased the productivity of most traditional rice and wheat varieties. If Indian and other Third World Farmers were to plant these “miracle seeds” instead of their traditional varieties, then they could benefit from all the other great advancements of modern agriculture! They could increase production by homogenizing their fields, applying new irrigation techniques allowing them to cultivate year round, and applying synthetic fertilizers that would compensate for the loss of the soils existing fertility.

Greater agricultural production, made possible by the technology packages, would mean more income for poor farmers and more food for the hungry of India. At the same time, fewer people would have to work in agriculture because the new techniques of large scale industrialized production made many human jobs obsolete. Those Indian farmers who did not jump on the boat of agricultural modernization would not be able to compete with their more motivated compatriots and the agribusinesses. These backwards farmers would be forced to work on someone else’s farm, or move to urban areas in search of work. This consolidation in the countryside would make agriculture more “efficient” and the migration to urban areas would provide cheap labor for other industries. (It starts to sound familiar, like the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the U.S. It must be the road to development.)

It seems that there must be some other, less noble, motives behind the Green Revolution. We know that the “Revolution” was supposed to be for the poor and starving of the world, but whose interests was it really in? Backing the efforts of this project was in the economic, political and moral interests of the Western, scientific, corporate, and governmental communities. They maintain the position of altruism and caring because their only explicit goal is to end world hunger and poverty(how nice?). At the same time this puts the countries engineering and distributing these technologies in a strong negotiating position.

The Green Revolution was by no means the apolitical philanthropic project it was purported to be. It is important to remember that the Green Revolution took place during the Cold War era.  Decisions about which governments would get this type of agricultural technology packages and development assistance and which governments would not was a powerful way for the U.S. to promote its ideologies abroad. The Green Revolution also grew out of the paranoia about the growth of peasant/agrarian-based people’s movements in South Asia. Many proponents of the Green Revolution saw it as a way to control the conditions in which such uprisings might gain strength. Technology is neutral right? So promoting the increase in food production could release some of the pressure building as a result of long histories of colonial extraction, landlessness, political corruption and general inequities. By focusing on production, attention is effectively taken away from the underlying roots of poverty and hunger, the somewhat touchier subject of the national and international structures that institutionalize inequitable access to power and resources.

We can also see whose interests are truly being served by the Green Revolution when we look at the economic implications. The introduction and promotion of new agricultural technologies into a country such as India does not just mean that all of a sudden all the farmers will have free access to the seeds, agrochemicals, and other supplies necessary to start cultivating in new, “more productive” ways. It is important to keep I mind that there are millions upon millions of farmers in India. It is therefore one of the biggest potential markets for agricultural products in the world. The Green Revolution started off with funds and government sponsorship that would make these inputs fairly easily available to some farmers, through support packages and credits. The inevitable result however, is that at some point, all of these farmers are going to need to be buying seeds, buying fertilizers, buying machinery and buying pesticides from the agribusinesses that produce them. These giant businesses happen to be located in the U.S. for the most part. Millions of Indian farmers have gone into cycles of debt, never being able to get the harvests they were supposed to with the expensive inputs they got loans for.

By looking at the political and economic implications of the Green Revolution we can see that the “Revolution” was definitely not the best help for many of the people it was intended to serve. Many proponents of the so-called Revolution are quick to point out that more wheat and rice were produced in India than ever before. At the same time however, more wheat and rice yields does not automatically equate into well nourished people. There were declines in the production of other, nutritionally vital crops, and not all the grain produced got to those who needed. Grain wastage in stockpiles, export and other distribution problems prove that the production of more food is not the cure all that it was extolled to be.  We can also see that the ideals of neutrality, humanity, and progress that the Green Revolution preached were based on a questionable foundation of assumptions and representations of India, the “Third World,” small scale agriculture, and the meaning of “development” and “poverty.” Equally apparent is the fact that supposedly philanthropic mission of the Green Revolution served the interests of powerful corporations and governments.

On the website of the Rockefeller Foundation, the main supporter of the Green Revolution, there is an ironic quote from John D. Rockefeller saying “The best philanthropy is constantly in search of the finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure evils at their source.” If this approach was truly taken to the issues of hunger and poverty in India and other countries, the result would not be programs like the Green Revolution. The result would be a much more unsettling and dangerous critique of the very system of inequity  that the foundation’s endowment is invested in.

“The three-quarters of all farmers who cultivate one third of the total land mass, remain marginalized by the government. Small farmers produce 41 percent of the total grain and over half of India’s total fruits and vegetables. They are more productive than the Green Revolution farms even though they cultivate rain-fed lands using only human labor and animal traction.” (Muller and Patel) FOOd First

The philosophy behind the Green Revolution is one that sees technology as the answer to all social and natural problems. ….The inability of  India was a result of backwards agricultural practices that could not produce enough food for the growing population

The main assumption that this entire philosophy rests on is the assumption that lack of production is the reason for hunger and other manifestations of poverty in India and other developing countries. If agricultural  production could just be increased than hunger would no longer be a problem and the country could develop along the path of the industrialized affluent nations. The other broader assumption is that the underdevelopment of the Third World is evidenced by the dependence of a large percentage of the population on agriculture. Because Western industrial development has led affluent countries to the point where only a tiny percentage of their populations work the land it is assumed that this small percentage is a sign of their developed economies.

Is it valid to assume that the only way for a country to develop  is to reduce the number of people working the land by modernizing agriculture? (In other words to increase large scale production and eliminate small-scale and subsistence agriculture) Vandana Shiva argues that this is a biased model, proposed by the affluent industrialized nations of the world.

Shiva argues that there are two myths that underlie much of the policy and popular belief around agricultural and economic development in India. The first is that small farms are signs of poverty and economic stagnation. The second, connected myth is that small farms are not productive. “Farming is not a past that can disappear, farming is the future of humanity” (2006).