What's in a Name?

January 16, 2009  •  Leave a Comment
A large portion of my professional work entails the refinement and application of classification systems to the ecological and vegetation communities found in Washington. The purpose is to compile a list of targets to help guide and prioritize conservation efforts. I mostly use the U.S. National Vegetation Classification, a hierarchical system used throughout the United States and, increasingly, other parts of North and South America. This tool helps us make sense of the patterns we see on the landscape. However, categorization can seem, and often is, trivial. Because of the diversity and complexity of the natural world, life has a natural tendency to pick apart its surroundings and place the pieces into more easily understood or useful boxes. These boxes help illuminate a path toward understanding, whether esoteric or utilitarian. However, the categories we use are constrained by time and space, reminding us that our classification schemes, while useful and maybe even necessary, are subjective lines drawn around a continuous, dynamic, and diverse world.

Ponderosa pine mixing with bitterbrush

Linnaeus gave us a classification scheme that has worked pretty darn well for plant and animals species. Ecologist have not been so lucky. First, there is the complication that ecologists are attempting to distill the complex patterns of interactions among multiple species along with their interaction with soils, climate, geology, topography, etc. into simpler, meaningful units. Plenty of ecological classification schemes have been developed in the past 150 years (or less) but no standardized, globally accepted system, similar to Linnaeus's binomial system, has emerged. Regional or local terms emerge from varying classification objectives, local ecological expression, and academic philosophy. Depending on one's specialty, philosophy, or particular interest, ecologists end up drawing lines around the natural world in slightly (or conspicuously) different ways. Although these differences in vocabulary may seem trivial, they often prove to be a reflection of a culture's underlying philosophy of, and relationship with, the land. In my line of work, we strive to divide Nature only to understand, honor, and to interact with the land in a sustainable way.

Herbaceous bald

We tend to think of Nature as a mechanistic rather than an organic system. It is just much easier to process such complexity if you can visualize its parts. But, as soon as you start organizing, inevitable contradictions arise as our terms don't always reflect Nature and our models are not as accurate as we'd like them to be. Why? Because, Nature embodies an element of holism which we are unable to account for, either because we fail to see it or we refuse to accept its legitimacy. We humans often find a need to first dissect in order to synthesize information. Such deductive reasoning has allowed our species to survive natural selection rather successfully. On the other hand, stepping back and absorbing the continuous, complex, and beautifully diverse world without names, lines, or boxes, allows one to experience the natural world as it IS rather than what we perceive it to be. Such moments seem to provide the most satisfying form of clarity.

Subalpine meadow giving way to forest
(thus, blurring the line between the two)

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