Real Work: Research and the Environment

A scientist scrutinizes cells through a microscope. A journalist checks and rechecks the facts in a local library. A government worker punches the sighting of a hermit thrush into a datalogger. A woman cradles a dying swan in her arms.

These are some of the visions of environmental research that are brought to life in this issue of Whole Terrain – unique and personal interpretations of an expansive field. But as wide as the field may be, research is often a narrowly understood term. We commonly think of it as a purely objective pursuit, fixated on an endless quest for countless points of data. We assume it is undertaken only at universities and in private industry. We envision it as academic, sterile, and disconnected.

The field of research, however, is deeper and broader than this vision. It is any work that pushes the boundaries of our understanding. It is work that probes at the edges of what we know and accept, confirming or denying formerly held convictions. It is an expression of our passions, our biases, and our hopes for the future.

Research is real work. Real work, according to Gary Snyder, “is what we really do. And what our lives are.” Like any other work, research can be as mundane – and as necessary – as doing the morning dishes or stacking firewood. But it can also be as lofty as building a community or pursuing a spiritual calling. The topics we choose to research illuminate what is important to us on a personal, cultural, or global scale.

All the essays in this issue revolve around a research process. Some explore the field through traditional structures, such as laboratories and scientific literature; others approach research from the perspective of a backyard or a congressional courtroom. The writers describe the long hours, collaborations, and insights that guide them through their work. Many of them also focus on the emotional, spiritual and societal implications of their research. These varied perspectives result in a collection of essays that bring us deeply into the minds, hearts, and work of people who engage in environmental research. We are immersed in the writers’ pull towards the research profession, their struggles with its dark side, and their use of research as a tool to enlighten and protect the public.

The first group of essays explores the various reasons that people are drawn to the research profession. They examine research as a field that enables healing, emotional fulfillment, and connection with our biological roots. They describe the ways in which people have grown through their research, enabling them to articulate new visions of themselves in the workplace. They illustrate how our choice of professions stems from a need to unite our passions with the labors of our hands and minds.

Passion about our labors often leads to great sacrifice. Why else would researchers give up the comforts of home and desk jobs in favor of field work and life on the road? Why would they challenge themselves with uncharted territories when they could make a fine, safe living repeating the work that others have done? As Paul Spencer Sochaczewski says, “Why travel far?” Through relating his own field experiences and telling the tale of Alfred Russel Wallace, Sochaczewski raises a critical question regarding the field of research: Why do it? Why push the boundaries of our knowledge? There are, of course, innumerable answers to these questions. He embarks on just one, explaining how research, exploration, and activism can serve as rites of passage – a crucial ritual which is conspicuously lacking in our culture.

Phyllis Windle does not ritualize the research process. Instead, she believes this type of work instigates an ongoing personal transformation. “When I study or perform research, I am creating a new relationship between myself and knowledge,” she writes. The research profession, as she presents it, has tremendous potential to shape us personally and professionally. It allows us to test the boundaries of our knowledge, question our assumptions, and reveal our struggles with uncertainty. Windle brings us full circle through all of these realms, showing how research, like many other professions, is an intensely emotional and human occupation. “We make deep and complex connections when we select our professions,” she writes.

The connections and struggles that emerge in the workplace can appear in other locales. In our attempts to accomplish tasks in our communities, for example, we often question our own power and knowledge. Sue Holloway tells a poignant tale of trying to save a dying swan. In her efforts, she struggled with local authorities and doubted her own ability to succeed in her mission. Although her work may seem to push the edges of our conventional definition of research, she engaged in a study of this bird that was rigorous, comprehensive, and deeply intuitive – skills which are critical in the work of any behavioral ecologist. In her essay, she reveals a lesser-known aspect of the research process: the unexpected bond that can emerge when intensively studying an organism. Since we often consider our work in terms of the process rather than the products, the results of our labors can take us by surprise.

Deb Habib certainly didn’t expect some of the outcomes of her work. Through her research on inner-city adolescents, she accessed lingering wounds from her own childhood. The process of listening, sculpting, and reflecting on the experiences of others resulted in her own healing. In freeing herself from these past injuries, she was empowered to cultivate new passions. “Through this research process,” she writes, “I strengthen my resolve.”

The research profession also has a dark side. Hiding behind a fortress of statistics, industries and governments have used research data to justify egregious actions. Scientists have physically and mentally sacrificed humans and animals in the name of knowledge. Our society has consistently placed too much – or too little – faith in the results of our work.

In addition, research often distances us from the natural world. It persuades us that living entities must be named and counted in order to be real. It forces us to make enemies of certain organisms, for fear of contamination or illness. It arranges the natural world hierarchically, with the needs of humans heavily weighted.

These darker facets of research can lead us into making assumptions about how this type of work must be carried out. For example, there are certain platforms that we have accepted as the fundamental, irrefutable tenets of the research process: logic, measurement, precision, objectivity, and specialization. Although these guidelines are crucial to a certain degree, they can limit acceptance of other ways of knowing. Tom Fleischner turns a critical eye toward these fundamentals, analyzing and deconstructing what he calls the “pillars” of research. In his essay, he articulates both the necessity and the limitations of such conventions. In addition, through his rigorous analysis, he sculpts the role of a sixth pillar: passion. Without passion, he writes, we are disconnected from the process and the subjects of our inquiry.

Introducing passion is, perhaps, a way to incorporate another way of knowing into the research process. As it is commonly accepted, scientific research does not lend itself to intuitive or non-quantitative information. It is bounded by its quest for objectivity and specificity. Greg Gordon delves into this limitation, relating his experience working as a field biologist for the Forest Service. He writes that our quest for numbers has hindered our ability to understand the natural world from a non-numerical perspective. Instead of revelling in the simple beauty of a landscape, we have created forests of “walking data.” He questions how data is used in our society – how it is often contorted or ignored to serve political needs.

Short-term economic gain is one of the political needs that often results in a disregard for science. “I witnessed firsthand how science was falling on deaf ears as many of the ancient forests I was studying were being logged,” writes Dominick DellaSala. Despite fifteen years of experience as a field researcher, his knowledge and expertise were spurned by a Congressional subcommittee. DellaSala explores the anti-environmental political climate created by the 104th Congress. He attributes this climate to a lack of connection between our spirit and the natural world. He also links the attitude to a failure to relate human health to the well-being of the environment.

In addition to safeguarding our health, research can be vital in protecting our civil rights. Through the process of gathering and synthesizing information, researchers can expose wrongdoings and misinformation. They can present complete, albeit complicated, pictures of contemporary issues. Journalists, in their neverending quest for information, are the quintessential synthesizing researchers. They extract the facts that carry implications for the public. They spearhead the struggle for open access to meaningful information.

Honest probing, however, often touches defensive chords, resulting in a blackout of information. “Those of us who strive to learn the whole truth are shut out of the real goings-on,” laments Gene Logsdon, a farmer and writer. He tells about the process of researching an article on the corporate takeover of the hog industry – work which stems from a passion to defend not only rural culture, but his own livelihood. In brazen pursuit of the truth, he invites himself on factory tours and monitors the levying of punitive fines in his region. With the insidious “wrenching” of rural culture, he finds himself forced to use research as a weapon against the encroachment of agribusiness.

But research does not always need to be brandished in order to effect change. Rather, it can be highlighted and interpreted, empowering citizens to make informed choices. Picking up on threads left dangling by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring, Dianne Dumanoski joined forces with researchers Theo Colborn and Pete Myers to gather and interpret studies on the impact of chemicals on our endocrine system. In her essay, she describes the complicated process of writing the resulting book, Our Stolen Future. She details the cooperation and trust that was critical to their endeavor as they attempted to present technical research in a format for the layperson. She also highlights the vital importance of collaboration between scientists and other professionals as environmental issues grow in complexity.

This growing complexity necessitates a transformation of the practice of research. It calls out for a shift toward holistic mindfulness in our scientific examination of the issues that threaten global well-being. People who practice mindful research engage with their subject matter; they confront the potential uses – and misuses – of their work; they strive to turn their study towards the common good. Rachel Carson is one of the most well known of these mindful practitioners. She had a “strong emotional feeling to save what she considered most important, which was the natural world that we’re living in,” says Paul Brooks, author of her biography, The House of Life. Her work touched upon all of the realms of conscious and connected research: the passionate engagement, the struggles with the dark implications, the empowering nature of synthesis, and the vital need for interpretation.

Whole Terrain celebrates the work of these writers, their subjects, and the many other researchers – novice and seasoned alike – who have helped to sculpt our understanding of the world. They have given us a common language with which we can define issues and seek their solutions. They have provided us with models of collaboration, showing how individual glimpses of discovery can be unified into a vision of understanding. They have highlighted the dangers and pitfalls of the research process. And they have defined the essence of real work: a deeply committed and emotional connection to the objects of our labors.

So read these pieces, revel in the intention and beauty of the writer’s work. Then, head out to your offices, your gardens, your assembly lines and classrooms and celebrate your own labors. Real work; it’s what we all do.

Amanda Gardner, Editor