Ecologists' Burden: Maintaining Wonder in a Conservation Profession
As a biologist, scientist, ecologist, conservationist, or activist, we must have passion for our work, but that passion can become a bit hypoxic through the day to day application of our science over time. This can estrange us from the initial wonderment that led us to our passions in the first place, and that we need to fuel our passions and sustain us in our vocation.
We may find ourselves needing to periodically regain, or to actively maintain, the wonder of whichever resources our passions and initial wonder led us to protect. It's not complicated, but remembering to do so is not intuitive or easy.
Passion that is accompanied by wonder, or at least the ability to feel awed, is more sustainable, healthier, and more fulfilling.
Threats to Wonder
1. Scientific Lens
To see the world around us always through the lens of a scientific discipline can be invigorating and enlightening, but can also be exhausting.
While others hear a media tid-bit about a discovery or fact that sounds promising, exciting, or romantic, for example, we often hear something sadly different. We are often too mired in our trade to get past the minute inaccuracies or the unanswered questions that technically make the information meaningless. It can be a bit depressing to see through things people around us find uplifting.
Politics of Science ~ Always Something to Fix
It may be the politics of land management, research grants, or tenure. But one way or another, the privilege of a career in the sciences can come at a steep cost.
Sometimes, when there is a problem important enough before us, the politics bring a passion that seems as powerful as wonder.
This is a productive and important force, and at the right time and in the right place, it is world changing. We may never see it as such, at the time or thereafter, but I think this is one of the reasons we each land where we do. Our whole life path may be putting us each at the right time and place for even just one fleeting moment that makes a difference.
This is valuable and important and enough of a reason to do what we do. But we can't do it if we burn out. And we can't maintain fight or flight for a whole career. It makes us tired and less effective and takes away our ability to have any shot at a balanced life.
3. The Curse of Clear Vision
We are also often cursed with a much clearer view of issues, problems, or even impending doom that the rest of the world cannot or will not see.
There is timeless value to all of Aldo Leopold's work, but these words creep into my mind more and more as my professional life overlaps with social media:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Science and Wonder
Which scientist do you think kept the most wonder alive?
Regaining Wonder and Awe
A scientist must maintain or regain an ability to achieve wonder and ensure they are swept away with awe at least half as often as adrenaline. Otherwise there is constant risk of losing the passion, balance, and health that are essential to their effectiveness.
Passion can take different forms at different times, and is not always the type with great gusto that is needed. Although we may enjoy a greater feeling of importance than this, we must recognize that sometimes our value is primarily a function of being in the right place at the right time to bring the right people or ideas together.
Without an innately sunny disposition, an occasional sabbatical, interactions with curious children or some way to hold on to the wonder, our work can rob us of an unspoiled appreciation of the wonders we are so accustomed to dissecting and explaining.
Your Inner Twelve-Year-Old
Throughout my career there have always been glimpses here and there of species or issues that gave my twelve-year-old excitement.
Fighting fire for the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest during summers as an undergrad, I was fortunate to have a boss that let me capture newts as we refilled our engine, or look at nests as we patrolled high mountain roads.
By the time I finished my graduate degree and was working professionally as an agency biologist, I had two kids in tow that helped me keep my twelve year old perspective. I was even able to bring them to work.
When I work with bats, I'm too happy to sound like a federal biologist. Bats are intriguing, so I start to sound like a scientist as soon as I get into detail. But my glee trumps my ego and I am twelve again when I'm around them.
But it gets harder as our field time decreases (another unfortunate function of time) to find those moments, and eventually you will need to seek them beyond your work.
Recreational Science or Science as Recreation
Early on in my struggle with chronic illness, I decided I needed to see sea turtles. I didn't logically think that finding them would cure me. But I had to go see them none the less. So I did. And I felt wonder and joy that still chokes me up to think about.
I was swept away by the other travelers on their own sea turtle pilgrimages and it was impossible not to see something beyond science or the ecology or natural history of the species I was viewing. Nowhere in my brain were thoughts of size or age classes or fecundity or population trends. Just sheer enjoyment of a magnificent creature.
This has worked with bats as well, but to a slightly lesser extent. Because my twelve year old self is too excited about the science of bats to fully set that aside when I'm travelling to see bats in other parts of the country. But I love finding them in interesting places or feeling the wind of their wings on my face as they emerge from a cave.
Education and Citizen Science
Educators are interested in science and love to incorporate people from the sciences into their class lessons. Librarians are often looking for ideas for reading days or activities as well. Between school or day camps, watch for opportunities to share your science with kids. Even if you're not great at it. Even if it's not often (which perhaps is better if you're not great at it).
An annual frog day through my most recent position drew in participants of all ages, then drew them all into their twelve year old selves. What could be better than that?
Revisit Inspiring Figures
Revisit Inspiring Aspects of Your Field
Reread Inspiring Works
Remember Your Early Inspirations
We tend to become too sophisticated as we reach professional stature to openly claim our early inspirations on a regular basis. They may be trivial or juvenile or cliché. But where would be with out them.
Some or all of them may be more timeless than you realize.
- Reread inspiring works. Rereading the works that inspired you may have the added benefit of inspiration from glances at the annotations left by your earlier self. Most ecology students read A Sand County Almanac at some or multiple points in their education. This is valuable exposure, but our volume has likely sat idle on our shelves for years. Read more about Aldo Leopold and support his namesake institution and you won't cease to be inspired.
- Remember inspiring figures. Most people have professional hero from their earlier years. If you are one of those people blessed to have been on your chosen course as early as childhood, you may only cast fleeting glances at your childhood heroes. Mine was Jane Goodall, having saved babysitting money at age 12 to see her speak for the first time.
- Revisit politics that gave you passion. Visit forums if it is a good trigger or find writings or journals from student life where you may have written when you fired up.
- Pick up a textbook. I had some pretty great assigned readings, especially collections of essays or conglomerates of works from inspiring figures, so this may be a way to hit multiple strategies at once.
- Google a few favorite professors. You may see a citation that takes you back to a course you love or you may find that current work has the same appeal. It may very well have more now that you've got some real world experience.
These may all seem overly simple. But that is the precisely (and simply) the point!
Feed Your Fire
The things in my work life that draw me in to my twelve year old self are the things I value the most because they feed me as they draw me in, no doubt working me into the right place and time for the fleeting moment they will need me to make an important difference I may never see.
I don't want to imply that feeding ourselves should be our drive. If it were, there are plenty of other things we could do with our life. We care about the natural world and protecting it and that is why we do what we do. We care about teaching new generations to do the same and we contribute to that, directly or indirectly, knowing or unknowingly. It is as important for them as it is for us and for the resources we strive to protect that we find our twelve year old selves as often as we can.
And again, the right person's passion in the right time and place can be world changing. We may never see it as such, at the time or thereafter, but I think this is one of the reasons we each land where we do. Our whole life path may be putting us each at the right time and place for even just one fleeting moment that makes a difference
So you need to learn to see when your fire is fading and listen when your feet are tired. Find the place you can go to get wonder back. Not just passion, but also the wonder that sustains it.