Rigidity vs Fluidity

 

Bruce Lee’s philosophy on the rigidity of style and dogma is equally applicable to the visual arts, gardening, land management, and all other realms of human endeavor. Instead of subscribing to one school of thought blindly one should try learning from many masters, weaving together one’s own synthesis. Do not become crystallized. Crystals are beautiful but they are dead, static, inflexible, and unlearning. Be fluid; adapt and incorporate diverse elements into a liquid whole.

Born to Track

So what if you don’t live near a nature preserve with elk, mountain lions, or other big charismatic mammals? Maybe you don’t even have a suburban park nearby with coyotes or raccoons. Never fear, you can still practice tracking.

Paradoxically, tracking is not about animals or footprints in the sand, tracking is a way of seeing the world. It is a way of observing patterns and thinking about cause and effect. It is a system of connecting the dots that is so fundamental to the way our human brain works that it is impossible to separate ourselves from it. All humans are born trackers but it is up to each of us as individuals to either ignore this fact or embrace it.

Sherlock Holmes embraced the fact that he was born to track and he practiced his skills with assiduity. He used deep observation, deductive reasoning, and the testing of hypotheses; the same techniques used by the hunter gatherers that all of us descend from. Today’s forensic scientists and detectives continue in this tradition.

Modern archaeologists embrace the fact that they were born to track. Despite their use of high tech imaging and chemical analyses, archaeologists are asking the same big questions that every tracker asks: who, when, why, and in what order? They look at clues, signs, and remains left behind and piece together stories of what happened in the past.

So, if you are not tracking elk, coyotes, ancient mummies, modern criminals, or Professor Moriarty, then what are you tracking?

A Match Made in Heaven!

IMG_2516Tracking and nature journaling; a match made in heaven!
Come explore coastal lagoons, meadows, and dunes for an awesome day of tracking and journaling in a great location. We will approach tracking in a holistic sense and learn to integrate it into our quiver of naturalist skills.

Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore is a world class location for tracking and bird watching where we are sure to find many goodies to fill our journals. Badgers, otters, bobcat, owls, ravens, falcons, and foxes are a few of the denizens whose tracks and sign we might see.

Meet at the parking lot at the trailhead on Pierce Point Rd, approximately 15 minutes from Point Reyes Station. Wear lots of layers and be prepared for variable weather, sun, and wind. Also be prepared to walk in sand dunes.

Sunday February 28th from 10-4pm

Meet at Abbot’s Lagoon Trailhead on Pierce Point Rd in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, CA.

 

more information: http://www.johnmuirlaws.com/event/nature-journal-tracking-workshop-and-field-trip

Seeing and Not Seeing

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

–Sherlock Holmes

Have you ever revisited somewhere that you have been many times and seen things that you didn’t notice or never paid attention to before?  I know that I have.

Have you ever noticed that after shopping for one type of a shoes or reading about one type of animal all of a sudden you are noticing them everywhere? I know that I have.

It is easy for the conscious mind to come up with faulty explanations for these occurrences, such as, “Wow. Everybody is getting the same shoes as me now.”  But the truth is usually not in the outside environment but in one’s own perception.

When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, I was very observant and I noticed more things in nature and saw more animals than the average kid my age and much more than the average adult. However, I was an untrained naturalist for the most part and when it came to birds I knew few by name. When it came to local birds of prey I knew even fewer by name. The name that I definitely did know was red-tailed hawk. And sure enough, the only raptors that I remember seeing were red-tailed hawks.

Later, when I moved to another part of the state for college, I had the good luck of taking a natural history class where I learned about five different local birds of prey and learned to identify them frequently in the field. My first interpretation was: “Wow, there are so many more raptor species here than in Southern California, there must be some environmental reason.”

In subsequent visits to Southern California however, I started seeing many of the other species of raptors. Apparently, some of what had been “red-tailed hawks” turned out to be red-shouldered hawks, and some were probably even accipiters, while surely many of the other birds had just gone un-named and therefore un-noticed.

The field of cognitive science has learned a lot about perception in the last few decades and much research has been focused on vision. Most people take what they see for granted as an unadulterated, objective view of reality. As it turns out, what we see is vastly mediated by what we know, what we think we know, and what we expect or don’t expect.

If you only know the name of one kind of bird you might not see much else besides that bird. But if you read a whole book about the elusive Cooper’s hawk you will probably start seeing them (and hearing them) all over the place.

The morals of the story are:

  • What you see and what you don’t see is shaped by what you know and don’t know.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about environmental reasons for what you see or don’t see.
  • You can train yourself to see more

 


I will be adding more related articles about observation in small digestible segments.

 

Paralysis by Analysis…(rant)

There is a terrible affliction among humans past and present, it does not kill but it cruelly cripples, and it wastes many lives of those who otherwise have all of their physical needs well met. Many of the greatest minds, the most intelligent people, and the most creative types have been ravaged by this disease. And humanity has been robbed of much great art, great literature, and the greatest of inventions by the actions of this horrible disease.

What do I speak of?

I speak of Paralysis by Analysis!

It is a terrible disorder and it seems to become an epidemic especially among populations that have their basic survival needs met but are overstimulated, over-educated, over-developed, and in general have too much of everything they need. The chief irony here is that those with the most free time, the most opportunity, and the most means to achieve great new things fall into this disease by which they fritter away their time pondering what best to do and how best to do it. So much time do they spend on this analysis that they never quite get around to the execution of their overthought ideas and overwrought works.

Image result for renaissance drawing despair

While I am a big fan of “protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” there is something to be said for “just doing it.” Unfortunately, the people who spend so much time perfecting their ideas and creating the best designs often lose and are preempted by the people with the bad, half-baked ideas who actually have the cojones to get out there and produce their ideas. Perhaps this is why we are being inundated by piss-poor ideas and terrible designs.

This then is a call to arms. If you are one of those who thinks a lot but diddles away your time trying to decide how exactly to do that thing you really love and that might actually help the world but you are not sure if you have the time or the resources or the will to actually do it…this is for you. There are plenty of people on the planet with bad ideas and the grit and the gumption to produce those bad ideas and push them.

Break free of the self-imposed shackle of analysis paralysis and start producing something! Putting yourself and your ideas out there will create feedback loops that accelerate your learning and improve your product faster than your solitary pondering.

I hate to quote corporations but the most fitting rallying cry is “just do it.”

 


 

“protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” is paraphrased from a Bill Mollison quote.

The ink drawing at the top is by Tiepolo.

 

Save

Pattern Recognition Saves Lives

On a warm summer afternoon you walk down the rocky trail at your favorite regional park. Despite the beautiful surroundings, your head is full of thoughts about work, family obligations, and financial concerns. Coming to a steep part in the trail, you are about to grab a rock for support when your hand jerks back with a mind of its own.

Your distracted consciousness snaps back to the here and now. And then you see it. Coiled menacingly on the rock, inches from where you were about to put your hand, is a rattlesnake. Looking at it now with all of your attention you realize how camouflaged it is yet how striking the overall pattern is. There is something archetypal about the diamond shape of its pit viper head, the bulge of its jaw and the ridge over its gleaming eye.

Our human ancestors needed to recognize patterns in order to survive. This ability allowed them to discern dangers and take advantage of opportunities. As our proficiency for patterns grew it allowed our species to learn faster, adapt to new conditions, and eventually spread across the face of the planet. While there are fewer hidden predators and poisonous snakes for us to contend with, the modern, more urbanized human still depends greatly on the ability to recognize patterns. And for those of us who are interested in reconnecting with nature, tracking, or hunting, a fluency in the language of patterns is essential.

So what is a pattern? Two definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary stand out:

1. An arrangement or relationship of elements, especially one which indicates or implies an    underlying causative process other than chance.

2. A regular and intelligible form or sequence discernible in certain actions or situations; especially one on which the prediction of successive or future events may be based.

The first definition points to the fact that a pattern is not a superficial event and is not random, it is based on an underlying process. This is crucial when filtering information through awareness and focusing learning. Paying attention to patterns will lead to an understanding of underlying causes while paying attention to noise or superficial elements will not provide the same advantage.

The second definition points to the crux of the matter, namely the ability to predict. Patterns repeat themselves in a meaningful and intelligible way. Understanding the pattern allows the brain to make accurate predictions about future events. The ability to remember previously encountered patterns and make accurate predictions is the basis of intelligence. See my review of Jeff Hawkin’s book “On Intelligence” for more on the brain science behind prediction “On Intelligence“.

In the rattlesnake example above, the brain recognized the pattern in a “bottom up” process, where the more primitive parts made the call while the conscious neocortex was thinking about family problems and finances. Have you ever jumped back from what looked like a snake or a spider before you even realized what you were doing? Have you ever known what someone was going to do before they even did it?

These are a common occurrence that many people refer to as gut reactions or intuition. Much of our interpersonal relationships are actually based on the lower parts of our brain reading minute patterns in other people’s body language, tone of voice, and even smell. These intuitive, sometimes almost magical, predictions are also a central part of sports mythology and any field that requires high performance. Being open to these responses and training our brains through repeat exposure to these patterns we can react more quickly and more accurately whether in sports, business, relationships, or in the wilderness.

It is important to be aware of our bottom up pattern recognition but we can also bring our conscious awareness to the task and achieve great benefits. Paying special attention to patterns when learning new things will make it easier and faster to develop a holistic understanding of the subject matter. For example, When learning a new language, you can get a huge head start if you look for words that share a common ancestry with words from your native tongue. As this understanding of etymological patterns grows, your ability to learn languages and predict the meanings of foreign words will improve. If you start from scratch, with rote memorization of long vocabulary lists you will take much longer.

Some patterns repeat so often in nature that they demand special attention. The branching pattern of a river into smaller and smaller tributaries and streams can tell us much about the basic functioning of our universe. This pattern can be seen in plants, in our veins, in minerals, and even in our families.

By intentionally thinking in terms of patterns we can accelerate our learning, deepen our understanding, and make more accurate predictions in our field.
Whether predicting the presence of a poisonous snake, learning a new language, or tracking a trophy elk the ability to recognize patterns can save your life, and make it much more magical.

Eating Babies

Spring and early summer are surely one of the most delightful times of year to be outside. In this vibrant phase of the yearly cycle nature is overflowing with tender new growth, fresh life, and amazing vitality. It is the perfect time of year to enjoy the bountiful blooming of wildflowers, to watch the lazy flight of newly emerged butterflies, and to eat the succulent flesh of babies.

“What did you say!? That is horrible! I would never eat babies.”

Most people will be surprised by one element from that list of spring delights. Some will be disgusted and offended. Nevertheless, I would argue that eating babies is as much a part of the spring season as wildflowers, bird song, and the verdant carpet of green that covers the hills.

Why is it that we romanticize the unfurling of flower petals, the prodigious buzzing of pollinators, and the chorus of frogs while feeling revolted and indignant when we see opportunivores swooping in to eat vulnerable babies? This is one of those instances where many scientifically-minded, and usually objective naturalists feel an uncontrollable urge to step in and “interfere” with the natural processes. The same person who professes a “leave no trace” backcountry ethic and a hands-off conservationist approach to wildlife management suddenly finds themselves chasing a hungry predator away from a fragile baby animal.

Is this just another example of our imposition of arbitrary and misguided ethics onto the natural world? Is this a product of the Disneyfication of nature in our modern Western society? Or is it perhaps a deeper human instinct, an innate and adaptive desire to protect our own babies that is easily triggered by the young of other species? A deeper look at the logic behind our diet and a cross-cultural survey might provide some semblance of an answer.

If you are adamantly anti-baby-eating, I suggest we take a look in your fridge. Do you have any baby broccoli, baby carrots, or baby corn in there? “But that is different,” you might protest, “those are just plants.” What about sprouts, the quintessence of tender babiness, that the health-conscious human might ingest by the thousands in a single meal? You might argue,“Those are still plants. They are not really babies.”

If eating baby plants is morally acceptable because they are more distant from us on the tree of life that might make some kind of sense. We won’t delve into the controversy of whether or not plants have feelings here, nor will we look at baby mushrooms which are phylogenetically more similar to animals like us than they are to plants. Instead, let’s take another look into the fridge of the anti-baby-eater to see if we can find any other ethical contradictions.

What’s that in the cardboard carton in the door? “Those are just, well, uh, you know, eggs…” you respond someone guiltily as if realizing the logical inconsistency mid-sentence. “ But they aren’t really babies yet and, uh, everyone eats them.” If an egg is not the best example of a helpless, tender, succulent, vulnerable, under-developed baby then I’m a mountain gorilla. Yet in our society we scarf chicken eggs in astronomical quantities without thinking twice about their nature.

It is a delicate ethical tight-rope walk that we navigate with egg-eating. We eat eggs by the dozen and incorporate them into more recipes than almost any other ingredient. Yet many people in our society get squeamish if they see a speck of blood in the yoke or think too much about the biological meaning of an egg as they eat their omelette. While we Westerners hard-boil eggs and put the whites in our desserts we are revolted by the mere mention of some of the Asian uses of eggs. The partly developed “balut” eggs prized in the Philippines are particularly difficult for most Westerners to stomach. This embryonic delicacy is but one example that shows the ethical ambiguity of eating eggs and babies when a cross-cultural perspective is taken.

In the case that you argue, “But I don’t eat Balut eggs, that is just weird and wrong!” let me bring up some other examples that are more appealing to the Western palate. As we continue our perusal of the fridge of the anti-baby-eater we might have to look in the freezer. Are those lamb chops? And is that veal? These examples of baby eating require less explanation to the average American and despite growing concerns about the ethic of veal production both of these meats are still commonly consumed in the US.

I think that baby-eating is a perfect example of where the ethics of humans and the ethics of nature converge in an ambiguous gray area that we must examine further. The simple fact that such topics incite powerful and conflicting emotions in most people means they deserve more thought. There is a tendency to do the opposite, to assume that something is either right or wrong, to make an unconscious value judgement based on one’s instinctual reaction or the majority opinion of one’s mother culture. This is a perfect time to slow down and observe our own thought process, our emotional responses, our social programming, and the realities of the natural world. It is at this frayed edge of our comfort zone where deep learning takes place.

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