Thoughts on wildness, and the scientific method
On May 5th, 2019, I received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Alaska Southeast. In the weeks leading up to this appointment, apprehensive and intimidated, I began to rough out a short talk under the working title “acceptance.” In the mornings, before my ‘editor’ kicked in, some rather animated ideas assembled themselves. By mid-day, more sobered and ‘realistic,’ I’d erase em. What was I thinking!? You can’t say that in such a serious and sacramental gathering!
Well, aversion to predictable discourse eventually prevailed. Above is my ~9-minute talk as recorded by UAS media, overlaid with historical images from my disreputable youth. At a time when more ambitious 20-somethings were homing in on bachelor and master’s degrees, I was hiding out in the northern rockies with an ungroomed wolfhound. I wouldn’t recommend it to graduates seeking rapid career advancement.
But if assimilation of wildness is humankind’s highest intellectual quest (yes, I actually said that), then wild places are the logical classrooms. Somewhere in the middle of my 9 minutes, I proposed that in academia, wildness is called the scientific method. A poetical thought, but no doubt bewildering to non-hunters. At the risk of over-saddling this analogy, allow me a few more paragraphs of afterward:
In 1973, my philosophical compass was reset by publication of Tender carnivore and the sacred game, from the cultural ecologist Paul Shepard (1925-96). Because the world is simpler in one’s early 20s (for me, actually, well into my 40s) Tender carnivore seemed to legitimize my backcountry pursuits. Shepard’s core thesis was that the onset of agriculture ~10K BP was an ecological and cultural catastrophe. For 99% of our evolution, we hunted and gathered, so neither the environment nor human nature was prepared for this peremptory aberration. My feature article for the Winter 2013 Discoveries has more background on Paul Shepard’s influence on me, and other naturalists at Discovery Southeast.
When hunting, you never know when or where the deer is going to appear. It’s temperamentally different from herding sheep, or organizing carrots, or indoctrinating scholastic adherents. My father Edwin Carstensen (1919-2016) was not a hunter, but he was the best scientist I’ve ever known. Dad said that his finest moments in science were when the hypotheses escaped, which generally heralded exciting new inquiries. The scientific method is a stumbling, erratic, unassuming hunt; its only sideboards intended to keep us from getting too full of ourselves. Not to say that scientists themselves embody those qualities to any greater degree than the average pilgrim. Humility can be as elusive as truth.
Like my father, Dan Bishop, my mentor in environmental consulting, had a genuinely open mind, slow to judgement. He reminded me, explicitly or more often by example, that in reporting to governmental or corporate clients, we represented neither the client nor the environmental community. We spoke for the lands and waters, or at least what we could learn from them by fingering duff, splashing down thalwegs, and climbing trees. Warring institutions tend to dig themselves into trenches, investing more in messaging than learning. That’s where the freelance scout comes in.
Having spent the latter half of my career insisting that I’m a naturalist, not a scientist, the irony of this Doctorate of Science does not escape me. I rarely practice the scientific method—my Dad’s religion—in its strictest sense. But I love and honor that wild (and sometimes bloody) intellectual journey, and count scientists among my closest friends. Perhaps I can best serve science by continuing to nip at its pastoral proclivities. Not like a border collie, to cluster the herded. More like, well, old C. latrans, who’d hang this lovely hood on the wall, and get back to dispersing those strait-laced congregants.
Just as my critique of institutions may have seemed to some like biting the feeding hand, a kneejerk takedown of agriculture could feel pretty shallow to thoughtful gardeners. That’s the problem with graduating from one’s simplistic middle age into the more nuanced late-60s, with elderhood just around the bend. To my horticultural neighbors, please don’t read too much into these ramblings; and gunalchéesh for your fine potatoes!