Marisa: A few weeks ago we were talking about job titles, and the one that felt most apt for you is Rogue Ecologist. I really appreciate that you bring ecology into any space you're in. Are there particular ideas or concepts that you'd like everyone to know? Is there a message you find yourself returning to?
Dylan: Hah, rogue ecologist. I do invite ideas and processes into the project of ecology that are too often shunned or ignored by scientific institutions: empathy, intuition, imagination, justice, trust… We should openly ask questions like, how will this knowledge affect the land? Who will benefit from this research? What kinds of privileges, identities and desires am I bringing to the table? The subjectivity and nuance of these questions would seem to run counter to the expectation of being an objective, impartial and abstract observer. But I’m not even sure how to be objective without asking about the dynamics of power and oppression in my life.
To focus in on imagination, I’m pretty sure that daydreaming is a crucial part of the scientific process for most people (it’s not like we’re robots) but that well of creativity within us is rarely discussed in any serious manner, let alone the possibility of being trained in the use of scientific imagination. What helped me develop the right questions for my master’s research was imagining what it’s like to be a network of mycelia interconnected between multiple trees, to really get my mind in there, underground, and try to embody the fungus. What does it feel like to be a strand of hyphae encountering another strand growing from the same individual? Is that bewildering? Does it feel aggressive? Do I feel like giving an enthusiastic high-five? I imagined contentious dialogue between deer and plants and mushrooms. Eventually I drew a picture of what I saw and that formed the basis of my hypotheses. I think I even brought that drawing to a committee meeting.
A wonderful example of scientific imagination can be found in one of Einstein’s thought experiments. He imagined himself riding alongside a beam of light travelling through space, only to be absolutely puzzled by what he found there. And that puzzlement led to his special theory of relativity. Powerful stuff. I’d like people to know that there are many paths towards knowledge, many ways of knowing. The logic and empiricism that characterise the scientific method are only two ways of knowing things. Intuition, imagination, memory, faith… these are also ways of knowing, and they complement each other.
You asked about a possible message that I keep returning to. I’m reminded of how I once tried to design a deck of tarot cards based on the themes, symbols and stories of my experiences in the woods: the bumble bees working themselves to death for the sake of their little hives, the falcon perched on a snag reaching up through the canopy, the decomposing nurse logs serving as a refuge for tree seedlings, the salmon returning to their stream of birth, the seasonal antlers of a stag, the flush of fiddleheads every spring… I wasn’t able to complete the deck because I kept seeing the same story everywhere. The forest is perpetually changing, dying, creating, transforming, giving birth to itself, over and over again. It is a painfully brutal yet also beautifully interconnected world, and we are a part of this eternal recurrence.
What I learned through ecology is that we have a choice about how to participate in this unfolding brutality and beauty. Getting to live as a human being, even for a short time, is a very special privilege because we are an opportunity for the forest to experience a curiosity and loving kindness towards itself that is so difficult to achieve when you’re constantly going through cycles of change. And when I say forest, I mean the world. Like Carl Sagan said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself”. Intelligence and empathy are, of course, expressed in all sorts of plants and animals and ecological processes, not just in our species, but nothing quite compares with the possibilities and capacities of being human.
So knowing that choice, when I see a mushroom trying to lift up a big rock, I lend a hand where I can. I know how triumphant and magical that must feel because I’ve survived my own challenges with a little help from my friends. It endlessly delights me to be that kind of mischievously loving force of the woods. And it doesn’t need to be a mystical we-are-children-of-the-cosmos hand-wavy sort of thing. I relate to trees as though they were trees, soil as soil, birds as birds, and fungi as fungi, to meet them where they are, but I strive to do that from a place of curiosity and kindness where possible.
Dylan: At the University of British Columbia, I studied the cascading effects of an invasive deer species on the plants, fungi and soils of Haida Gwaii. I was particularly curious about the mycorrhizal fungi which form symbiotic relationships with the very plants consumed by the deer, such as salal, sword fern, red huckleberry and oval-leaved blueberry. The plants provide sugars for their fungal friends, and in return, the fungi transport water and nutrients from the soil to the plant roots. If the invasive deer completely annihilate the food source of these fungi, it seems pretty intuitive that the fungi would perish.
But that’s not quite what I found. While some species of fungi do seem to prefer some islands over others, overall, the mycorrhizal fungi associated with those understory plants are just as abundant on deer-invaded islands as on islands without deer. So my research stumbled upon a new mystery: Who is supporting these mycorrhizal fungi? How are they able to survive in the absence of understory plants? I suspect the overstory trees may be involved, which raises the possibility that they form common mycorrhizal networks with the understory plants via a poorly understood group of fungi, the dark septate endophytes. That may be my next rabbit hole
We also found that in Seward Park, the proximity of sword ferns to big trees and decaying logs is associated with a greater chance of the ferns surviving. Assuming that our seasonal drought adds compounding stress onto the ferns, this pattern of enhanced survival could be due to common mycorrhizal networks shared between cedar trees, big leaf maple and sword ferns, or hydraulic redistribution or both. Similarly, large decaying logs might act like a water reservoir for the ferns during the summer, relieving some of their drought stress. By lowering the drought stress in the ferns, their close proximity to trees and logs may give them an advantage in defending against a pathogen. At least, that’s what I imagine.
What these two seemingly disparate situations have in common, the deer invasion of Haida Gwaii and the sword fern die-offs of Puget Sound, is that they are ecosystems out of balance, ecosystems that had been sustainably managed by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, but are now struggling to adapt to rapid changes caused by a disturbance agent. On Haida Gwaii, that disturbance is caused by a species of deer introduced by Euro-Americans. In Puget Sound, it is likely a pathogen of unknown origin. In both cases, that disturbance has ripple effects on the rest of the ecosystem, propagating in the soil where the earth’s lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere all intersect.
Marisa: So zooming in to the Sword Fern die-off project. I'm amazed to hear that you're part of a voluntary group conducting scientific experiments. Can you say more about this? I'm concerned about how funding for science often comes from petroleum, pharmaceutical, and military sources, so hearing about this independent science project is exciting to me.
Dylan: We should all be concerned about how money and power influence the scientific process. There is an obvious conflict of interest between the responsibility of a scientist to provide knowledge to our community, and their financial dependence on extractive or exploitative industries. When research is primarily funded by big corporations or the military industrial complex, there is an incentive to only report findings that support those benefactors and to suppress findings that would compel our society to regulate, curtail or shut down the industry should it be found to be harmful to our community and planet.
A great example would be research into habitat restoration or soil reclamation funded by the tar sands industry. A so-called objective scientist receiving funding from those corporations might claim that knowing how to restore degraded soils, after the wood from the forests and the petroleum from the soil has been extracted, can only benefit our society. But how will that knowledge actually be used? The tar sands industry is hijacking the science of restoration ecology to justify their destructive practices by showing us how green it can look afterwards. Meanwhile, they would let the world burn, the ice melt and the seas rise as a result of the climate change driven by their industry. Such research is complicit in their crimes and fundamentally irresponsible.
One way that scientists can ensure that their research is conducted in a more ethical way is to directly engage with the communities who are affected by their research methods or who have a stake in the knowledge that would be generated. This is especially true in ecology which is a fundamentally place-based discipline. You have both the land and the people to consult with in terms of the potential benefits and harm associated with your research.
I suppose citizen science is another way to engage with the community. Unfortunately, when researchers talk about citizen science, it is usually in terms of volunteers providing free labor for menial tasks like data collection or data entry. Yes, it’s a way to involve people that might not otherwise have an opportunity to participate in science, and yes there are some questions in ecology that are simply too big to address without a small army of volunteers. But it’s worth remembering that this model of citizen science is a hierarchical system of power. As a result, reciprocity with the community is often quite superficial, perhaps limited to some basic job training. It should probably be called something else like “minion-based ecology”. I say this as someone who has practiced minion-based ecology and who is forever grateful for the hard work of all our volunteers!
Working with the network of citizen scientists studying the sword fern epidemic has been a very different experience from how research is typically practiced at a university. It is a diverse and inclusive group with people from many backgrounds: volunteers, non-profit organizations, municipal government, university-based researchers, independent rogue ecologists like me… Communication is fairly open and non-linear. People share ideas for small projects and self-organize into semi-autonomous committees to see a project through. What really sustains this kind of research is our generosity with knowledge and resources, reciprocal relationships, and inclusion in the full process, from generating the research question to interpreting the results. Navigating such unstructured relationships can be challenging, especially in the absence of the rituals, authority and policies that define an academy. But it is intrinsically rewarding to do research that is without a doubt needed, called for and supported by the community.
Dylan: In urban environments, our gardens are part of a living mosaic connecting the fragmented remnants of our native forests, prairies and wetlands. Every garden contributes to the quality of that matrix, positively or negatively, so the most important thing is to first recognize that underlying interconnectedness. When you realize the power of your garden, a living system that will likely outlast us, then you are ready to ask, how am I participating in this greater urban ecosystem?
Ecological health is a bit subjective but I would define a healthy ecosystem as having a similar balance of physical structure and biological diversity as our native forests or prairies, or some other reference ecosystem, as well as facilitating the typical ecological processes of those systems: pollination, migration, nutrient cycling, predation, succession, etc. While a tiny garden patch can’t replicate all of the complexity of a vast forest, it can certainly contribute to the structure, diversity and processes of our urban ecosystem. A simple way is to do that is to incorporate more native flowers, shrubs and trees into the mix, with special care taken to consider the space and environmental conditions that those species need. Once they become established, native plants are remarkably easy to care for because they are already perfectly adapted to our Mediterranean climate, with its midsummer drought and mild winters. I enjoy gardening with native plants in part because of all the creativity involved. Do you want plants that have edible berries or showy flowers? Groundcover to outcompete weeds? Attract hummingbirds or butterflies? Provide shelter for migrating birds? Protect against soil erosion on steep slopes? There is a native plant for every function of a garden.
One of the most harmful ways that our gardens influence the urban ecosystem is through the introduction of invasive plant species such as English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, English holly, yellow archangel… the list goes on. It’s truly a mind-boggling menagerie of species. When we allow invasive plants to thrive at home, our gardens become a seed source for those species to become established in our forests where they create monocultures that outcompete our native plants, eroding way at the processes sustained by those ecosystems. Although most non-native plants sold at a nursery are quite safe to garden with, the converse is also true: most invasive plant species come from our gardens.
It can be a lot of work to remove invasive plants from a garden but it is a part of good stewardship and homeownership. Unfortunately, because of the corrupting influence of big horticultural and agricultural businesses, you can’t rely on the noxious weed boards of our local governments to inform us about all the invasive plant species that we should be on the lookout for. The official list of noxious weeds is only the tip of the iceberg, so good stewardship requires a lot of self-education, or an experienced gardener or arborist.
Dylan: To learn more about garden stewardship and native plant ID, I highly recommend the books The Conscientious Gardener: Cultivating a Garden Ethic by Sarah Reichard, and Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. I also recommend Keeping It Living by Douglas E. Deur and Nancy J. Turner, Native Seattle by Coll Thrush and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Those three books were very eye-opening. As for role models, Dr. Suzanne Simard has been a great source of inspiration to me. Check out her TED talk, How trees talk to each other. And for something to really tickle your imagination, suspend your disbelief temporarily and read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.
Marisa: Thank you, Dylan! I appreciate all you've shared here so much. I hope that creative and humble inquiry such as yours can continue to move us towards coexisting on this planet more fully.