Tag Archives: Nature

Landscapes and Libraries

South of Salt Lake

South of Salt Lake

Driving south from Salt Lake City, I found it hard to believe that we were en route to a celebratory vacation. The landscape surrounding us looked like any other commercial strip-mall, except that it was situated in a very harsh — almost bleak — semi-arid desert terrain. To my surprise, and — I might say, great relief — it was not long thereafter that the scenery underwent a tremendous change — some might say a phase transition. Indeed, I was not disappointed. Awestruck, we found ourself face-to-face with the rising sandstone cliffs of the Capitol Reef. The only comparable vista that I have ever seen is at the site of Petra, in the land of Jordan. However, the Capitol Reef is not only much vaster — extending over a hundred miles; unlike Petra — where Man had a major role in carving out its topology and architecture — the Capitol Reef owes its unique landscape and incredible array of multi-colored sandstone canyons, castles, pinnacles, and buttes — some of them reaching right up to the sky — to Nature’s rich endowment of evolutionary forces. Here, over eons, the rain, the snow, the sun, and wind have converged, employing all of their might to render a grandiose and unforgettable landscape.

Resembling all too closely a stage set from a Pixar film, the Capitol Reef’s natural landscape appeared at first to be unreal — simulacra, so to speak.

Resembling all too closely a stage set from a Pixar film, the Capitol Reef’s natural landscape appeared at first to be unreal — simulacra, so to speak. It is only when we explored the area on foot that we were able to get a real feel for the extent of life and movement around us. For example, we followed the path of a wash through winding canyons, where new delights emerged from around every bend. Making our way along this trail, we experienced the secrets of the place unfolding before our very eyes. Each historical epoch — dating back as far as 250 million years — was revealed to us in the distinct colors and layers of the rock formations, the rare remnants of petrified wood, fossils embedded in the canyon floor, and the deposits of mammoth rocks that Nature had imported from afar. Just as in a library or archive, the record was open and there for all those inclined to see.

instead of the essence of human nature, nature’s libraries unveil the mystery of the evolutionary process itself.

Libraries have existed for centuries, archiving and documenting the history of mankind. Browsing through their stacks, turning over the pages of their voluminous books, we get a sense of human nature as a whole, not just a snapshot of the myriad, individual parts. Exploring Nature’s repositories, such as the Capitol Reef, provides much the same kind of experience. However, instead of revealing the essence of human nature, nature’s libraries unveil the mystery of the evolutionary process itself.

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Abbey's novel.

Recognizing their value, nearly all communities are willing to provide public support for libraries that preserve materials written by human beings. Unfortunately, in the case of Nature’s libraries, the opposite may be true.  Although Capitol Reef is protected by Federal Law, there are many exquisite landscapes that are not. One need only consider the situation in Southern Utah where all too often we saw drilling pads, clear cut logging, desert-destroying off road vehicle trails, and just plain vandalism. It’s all documented in Edward Abbey’s classic account The Monkey Wrench Gang as well as in the more recent, equally eloquent writings of Terry Tempest Williams.

A Froggy Goes A-Courting

Bull Frog, courtesy dbarronoss on FlickrIn Washington, D.C., I am often awakened by the shrieking sounds of sirens, as police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances go racing past my house and down my street. But here, at Lake Hawthorne, it is the sounds of frogs — Bull Frogs to be exact — that interrupt my nightly reveries. Some say that it is chirping, but I perceive the Bull Frogs’ vocal chorus more like “plink-plunk,” as in the cello’s pizzicato notes that adorn some of Beethoven’s chamber music. Except for their mysterious, and thankfully temporary, disappearance several years ago — the Bull Frogs, together with many amphibians all across the States, constitute an eternal feature of The Lake. Thus, as is true for other aspects of my surroundings here, I have tended to take them for granted. No longer! Reading Skyrms’ The Stag Hunt, I have been inspired to ponder them, or in Jim Rosenau’s words, “to think about them thoroughly.”

Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions.

Recall that the Stag Hunt is all about cooperation, and how it might emerge and be maintained, notwithstanding that, at the individual level, non-cooperation will likely have a higher pay-off. Here we have a major social dilemma; for, although the individual may gain in such a case, society as a whole loses. Nature’s solution to this dilemma is the evolution of a signaling systems (or, as we have seen in the specific case of language, conventions) are established not by prior agreement. Rather, they evolve through interactions. As importantly — pointing to many human experiments and computer simulations — Skyrms notes that signaling systems are in equilibrium (in other words self-enforcing) in nature; hence, alternative strategies just don’t survive the evolutionary process. No wonder, then, that this kind of cooperation can be observed all around us, especially in the biological world. Thus, we find that cells merge together to create organisms; mouth bacteria join together in a community to form plaque; and myxococcis xantus aggregate themselves in mounds so as to survive food shortages. When, and how, these life forms alter their behaviors — often described as a phase transition — depends on timing and the specific situation in which they are located, as well as the types of messages that they exchange. 

At Lake Hawthorne, with Skryms’ discussion in mind, I am not only awakened by the Bull Frogs, I typically spend the next few hours, after their first “plink-plunk,” contemplating their sounds and signals. Imagining the contours in the lake’s circumference, and imaging the sequence of coves, I wonder which frogs are making what signals, where? I ask myself: What messages are they communicating? Do their different pitches signal a different message? According to my subsequent Google search, Bull Frogs communicate in order to stake out their territories, or to attract a mate and reproduce — certainly one form of cooperation. That the Bull Frogs signaling system is effective in this latter regard is verified to the extent that, according to my Google sources, female Bull Frogs — on connecting up with a Bull male — produce up to 25,000 eggs. This number assures their survival, even if, as my dog Sparky is wont to do, intruders constantly dive into the frogs’ habitat, seeking to satisfy their own curiosity about the sounds and signals.

There is another way in which The Stag Hunt is relevant to my experiences with frogs at Lake Hawthorne. As young adults, my cohorts and I initiated one more yearly tradition — the Frog Jumping Contest. It was held on the Fourth of July. To enter, and capture a contestant, we had to organize a “stag hunt.” In our little cooperative venture, one person rowed the boat, one held the flashlight, and two got in the muck (along with the leeches) to net the frog. The pay-off was having fun. In those days, we called it a “blast.” But one night, after searching all the coves, and getting all mucked up, we had little to show for our efforts — a smallish frog, no more that four inches in length. Perhaps we were over-zealous, but in our merriment, we decided to substitute our frog for a larger frog that our friends — who were also competing in the Jump — had sequestered that evening in their bathtub. Stealthily sneaking into their house, and switching our frog for theirs, was every bit as challenging, not to say entertaining, as the hunt itself. But in the morning, it didn’t seem so funny: our friends, viewing us as “defectors” who had broken the rules of the game, were no longer enthusiastic about the Jump. Understandably, there were few subsequent jumping contests after that night. And it was soon thereafter that the frogs just disappeared. My mother, who loved the frogs, said it was the fault of Frog Hunts. Post-Skyrms, I think that she might have been right — too many intruders disrupting their life cycle, or, better yet, their signaling system.