Walking the Salt



Over the last couple of years walking the salt marsh has been a journey of discovery. Not just in terms of discovering Hidden Ecologies, but in a wider sense of personal discovery.

I find my pocket notebooks filled with ideas, ranging from musing on tools of unknown purpose hanging in the decaying shacks of Drawbridge to an increasing sense of salt marsh ecology as natural history. My notebooks and our Hidden Ecologies BLOG have become journals of discovery. I am reminded of the common root of “journal” and “journey”.

Some notes came from shared experience, as one Sunday when I impulsively decided to walk the salt… I was squatting over the Weep, having hiked in alone, I thought, and heard my co-worker Cris Benton, who had come up behind me on the trail above, say: “Well… I see great minds think alike…!”

Other experiences come from the solitude of the salt marsh, a place somewhat like the high desert of my childhood. Thoughts that fall naturally into the rhythm of walking alone with an expanse ahead and behind. So I pause and jot down a few words for further pondering. And continue walking the salt marsh.

Here I am using words and writing of words, but there is another dimension. That dimension is formed of the images Cris and I both captured and the effort we made during the capture. These, like the notes, are refined into discovery and history; human history and natural history. Visual poetry to form the triangle with journey and journal.

We have both talked of writing “guides”, either to kite photography or microscopy. I have not pursued the idea because I am unsure of just how interested other folks are in doing microscopy. Perhaps more would be interested in kite aerial photography. What I do believe, however, is that very many more folks would be interested in our journey of discovery. That is the wider dimension in walking the salt marsh.

I am not sure just how to go about such a project. My instinct is not to plan it, but to just start collecting our photographs and ideas and accounts and musings and insights and histories into a notebook from which we can distill common threads. We have already started that with the Hidden Ecologies BLOG.

What I propose is to add my meditations while walking the salt to this page, in the form of chapters. It will not be a finished project, but an effort continued periodically. The first chapter follows. Stop by and visit now and then, as further chapters will be added.

Chapter 1 – On Science

I had gotten well into the next chapter, originally “Chapter 1”, when I realized I was flying without an engine. In any talk of scientific subjects, the engine that drives the discourse comes from understanding what science is and how it differs from other endeavors, particularly technology.

There is also another reason for me to address the matter of science. My graduate training was in genetics, specifically in microbial genetics. I spent much of my career in the laboratory or, later, the office. When I started hiking with a field microscope, I had lots of experience hiking, but virtually no experience in field biology, much less field microbiology. Science in the laboratory is not the same as science in the field. I quickly discovered that I had to learn the thinking and habits of natural history.

Walking the salt, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about natural history and science. My first impulse was to capture the difference in glib remarks, “The big difference is that you order critters from some other laboratory or the culture collection, so you know what they are, versus having to identify them…!” Oops…! But I slowly began to take in the subtle differences between how a field biologist and a laboratory biologists view “doing science”.

Understanding the word “science” has always been difficult and remains so today. This is not because actually doing science is difficult to understand, but because “Doing Science” is not part of the normal list of undergraduate academic subjects offered. All through school, lip service is paid to, “The Scientific Method”, usually thought of with capitals as I have written it. Doing science is still learned by apprenticeship, not by taking courses. Graduate students in the sciences learn how to do science by carrying out research under the guidance of a professional scientist. Therein lies a world of complexity.

Based on most science courses, particularly undergraduate courses such as biology, physics, chemistry, or geology, science appears as a body of received knowledge to be memorized.

In physics, you learned that F = Ma and, possibly, how to use this equation in simple dynamics. You may have learned that Newton “discovered” this “second law of motion”.

In biology, you learned the “cell theory” that living tissues are organized around modular objects called “cells”. You may have learned that Schleiden and Schwann discovered this “law”.

Finally, in chemistry class you learned that a burning substance is undergoing a chemical reaction called oxidation, in which it combines with an element called oxygen. You may have learned that this “law” was discovered by Lavoisier, who overturned the “wrong theory of phlogiston“.

It is very doubtful that, in any of these examples, you learned much about the ideas current in science at the time of the “discovery”, how the “discovery” was made, or the difference between “theory” and speculation. It is also unlikely that time was taken to examine how what you learned progressed to received knowledge, or the impact this knowledge had on human history.

Here is what I claim: During the 19th and 20th centuries, virtually all the political, social, and economic movements were driven most by technology, and technology was driven by scientific discovery.

My niece Maggie, participating in a program of accelerated learning in her high school, took a course on the history of 19-century Europe. She wrote her required research paper on the impact Napoleon had on European political history. So, I asked her, “Who was more important to human history, Napoleon or Lavoisier?” Turns out, she didn’t know because her “advanced” history course did not mention Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, a contemporary of Napoleon.

So, let’s start with Lavoisier and how he changed the world [I leave the physicists and biologists to Wikipedia citations]. The second sentence in the Wikipedia reference to Lavoisier well sets the stage. Most simply put, Lavoisier organized the results of chemical experiments into a predictive theory of quantitative chemistry. In doing so, he handed the 19th century a tool kit for technological discovery at least as powerful as Newton’s mechanics, possibly more powerful in the rapidity with which it changed human life.

Click on the Napoleon reference to read what the historians say. They do mention how Napoleon changed warfare [war has a certain fascination for historians]. Now consider Lavoisier. His quantitative theory of chemical reactions, particularly those involving oxygen, revolutionized the development of explosives [in war and in peace]. This changed war, mining, and large-scale construction. It turned mysterious and secret alchemy into useful chemical technology that developed products revolutionizing agriculture, manufacture, fabrics, materials, structures, medicine, and transportation. It remade the European and the American economy. By the end of the 19th century, life in the developed countries was totally dependent on materials and processes directly traceable back to Lavoisier chemical theory. By the end of the 20th century, all human life had become totally dependent on such materials and processes.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world population of 1800 as between 813-million and 1.1-billion. Agriculture in the time of Lavoisier was unable to adequately feed that population, even though more than 80% of all work was on a farm. With today’s world population of 6.6-billion, if we returned instantly, right now, to agriculture as practised before the impact of Lavoisier chemical theory, roughly 5.6-billion humans would starve within the next two or three years, depending on the state of present food reserves. At its very best, agriculture at the time of Lavoisier [pre-scientific agriculture] was less than one-sixth as productive per acre as modern “green revolution” agriculture.

The object of this little history lesson should be very clear: Without the simple increase in scientific knowledge, applied to technology, all of the Kings, Queens, military leaders, political movements, and whatnot would be entirely different and of no meaning. The history you studied is but the tiny surface of the iceberg, with the great bulk of real causes below the “history line”.

So, what is science and how is it done? Science is a procedure for discovery about the world around us. It was invented by a number of different philosophers, naturalists, thinkers, and practical folks around the time of Galileo. It is often described as “the scientific method“. Many philosophers and historians have written about this; I recommend reading the Wikipedia reference cited to sample their ideas.

What I want to address is how a modern scientist learns the craft, and what it means. Few working scientists actually go back to read the philosophers and historians of science. They learn it by doing.

First, here are some assertions: In spite of historian’s statements, there was no “Egyptian science”; “Greek Science”; “Roman Science”; “Islamic Science”; or even “Renaissance science”. Throughout history, various rather thoughtful people attempted to answer questions about the natural world, mostly in the form of guesses or speculations. Some of these speculations resembled later scientific discoveries, but with the exceptions of Archimedes and Ptolemy, none of these thoughtful people followed anything like the method of science. The two exceptions were in hydrostatics and practical astronomy, both resulted in predictive theories which could be readily tested. Archimedes’ theory of hydrostatics is still useful today; Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the solar system was more predictive than its initial heliocentric replacement, but it was defeated by telescopic observation and the far more precise measurements of Johannes Kepler.

In the late Renaissance, roughly from the mid-16th century to the end of the 17th century, there happened a stunning revolution in thinking. It was like nothing before, and it changed humanity.

Components of this new procedure were described or employed, variously, by Galileo, Vesalius, Descartes, Bacon, Hooke, Harvey, Kepler, Newton, and Leibniz. More importantly, in England and various countries of Europe, scientific societies were formed which provided a venue for scientific publication, and established the fundamentals of scientific procedure and conduct, reinforced by the peer pressure of the society members. The many ordinary members of these societies were the foot soldiers who, more than the famous names, unified the practice of science and established the standards by which science was carried out.

The two most important of these standards were open publication of results and a focus on predictions that could be verified. We take it for granted today that new ideas or results will be announced by open publication in readily available scientific journals. We expect independent verification of predictions, so that acceptance of a new idea often awaits its experimental verification by scientists other than those who initially announced it. It is difficult to imagine a time when this was not so. yet throughout most of human history new ideas were jealously guarded secrets and the focus was not on verifiable prediction, but on satisfying explanation.

This is still high-flown stuff for the day-to-day world of a working biologist, or physicist, or geologist. Scientific talk in the lunch room tends toward making sure the controls are good, verifying the method, was the spread of data too great, or simply did we ask the right questions.

The very first problem for an apprentice scientist is defining a question. Non-scientists start with the big broad questions: What causes cancer? Is global warming real? Is the “Big Bang” theory right? What is dark matter? These are “breakthrough” questions. Asking these questions does not provide any guidance to finding the answer. In fact, most of the “breakthrough” answers were found by working scientists attempting to answer very highly-focused limited questions and it just so happened that the answer had very much wider implications.

Hot news item recently:”Ralph Alpher, the “forgotten father of the Big Bang Theory” whose calculations provided the theoretical underpinning, but were ignored when it came time to pass out Nobel Prizes, died Sunday…”

Hot news item some years ago: Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey get the Nobel Prize for finding evidence supporting the Big Bang theory.

At Bell Labs, Penzias and Wilson were asked to determine what caused a persistent static that plagued highly sensitive radio receivers at certain frequencies. This was a practical, rather highly focused question – certainly no “breakthrough” answer was expected. They discovered it was the hiss of cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. Good question…!

Now we build satellites and special receivers to use the information in that hiss to understand the evolution of the universe.

So, what does this quick romp through a few high points in the history of science have to do with Walking the Salt?

For me it has to do with learning how to “do science” in the field, instead of in the laboratory. How to ask the right questions. How to verify tentative answers when controlled laboratory-type tests are not possible. How to replace the certainty of experiment with the strength of field observation. How to be patient; to wait for chance to reveal clues or provide tests.

If the laboratory was a great game, then Walking the Salt is a great journey.

Chapter 2 – On Time

The decaying shacks of Drawbridge speak to time. As tatterdemalian as they appear today, we know people once lived here. There were voices calling, children laughing, hopes and fears. Now it is all silent and yesterday.

Walking the salt, for me, is always about time. Brief time, like the shacks of Drawbridge. Longer time, known by traces. A thousand-year history of human use in salt production. We know the salt was traded east, across America. We know this because pipestone artifacts have been found in the Bay area, and the source of pipestone is in far Minnesota and South Dekota. It is likely that the trade route came south from what is now Minnesota, then west across the desert to California.

Some southeastern California peoples spoke Ute/Aztecan, a language that extended from the western states south to Mexico, east from what is now Oklahoma to California. It is likely they traded with each other, and their pipestone came west to the Bay Area.

This ancient trade resonates with me, because my mother’s people were part of it. I think of the Ancients, long before Columbus, who passed on the pipestone as trade goods, in exchange for salt. This trade was well established when Europeans were living in the dark ages.

So, my sense of this human time reaches back 10,000-years when the first people came across the Behring Straits to the New World. And that is not ancient. That is just yesterday, as real time goes.

Real time is deep time, the time back to when the Cyanobacteria, found today in most San Francisco Bay salt marsh waters, were the giants of earth. Truly deep time is not 65-million years ago, when the New World was shaped by a giant meteor that ended the dinosaurs. Truely deep time is not the Cambrian explosion 150-million years ago when complex sea life evolved; deep time is the time when Cyanobacteria ruled. Time 3-billion-years ago.

Here I repeat a brief movie I have used before [set your computer to play sound]. In it I struggle with deep time…

Cyanobacteria, including the species of Oscillatoria shown above, are the Old Ones. They have been restlessly moving like in mats like this since the dawn of life. Three billion years and counting.

My object in composing sound to go with the videomicrography was an attempt to capture through the dimension of music and image the feeling of deep time; the sense of a life journey of cell division after cell division, reaching back more than 3-billion years as our world evolved.

And now, take you a deep breath. Yes, like that. For most of those years, for most of three billion years, they have been busy creating our oxygen atmosphere.

Take a deep breath…

For they read the sunlight into this air, else it were like Mars today, all nitrogen and carbon dioxide. And remind yourselves, “higher” organisms, that still, in their crowded mats…

As they hide in inhospitable hot springs, black smokers of the ocean’s deep, and salt marshes, layers of sea, soda lakes, ponds, dry Navaho sands waiting endlessly for the rains…

That still, there are more of them than us.

More of them than us…? Indeed, for these critters are at the very bottom of the bottom of the food chain. As well as at the bottom of the salt marsh.

Hmmmm…, we are predators ourselves – so we think of being at the top. Perhaps these simple organisms, if they thought of it, would insist the food chain goes the other way. They are at the very top of the top of the food chain because they are the simplest, most efficient, most widespread organism to employ sunlight for food. No matter…

Each step in the “food chain” must obey physical and chemical law. It takes many, many food organisms to supply one predator. Just exactly how many depends on the predator and the prey, on the assumptions of the calculations, and the location.

For example, how many tons of plant material does it take to produce the flowers that contain the nectar required to sustain one hummingbird, which weighs less than a 5-cent coin, over a season [a 5-gm hummingbird consumes its weight in nectar every day, or about 4-pounds of nectar during a year]? So, how many tons of flowering plant biomass does it take to produce 4-lb of nectar?

Warm-blooded predators consume roughly 10-times as much as cold-blooded predators. Consumption requirement is generally the inverse of body weight, a complicated function of ambient temperature, and a direct relation to the available energy per weight of food. These considerations make it hard to state the weight ratio between each step of the food chain.

All of which is to say that the biomass of the critters at the very bottom of the food chain runs somewhere between 1,000-times and 10,000-times the biomass of the critters the next step or two up the food chain. Since we are at the far end of the food chain from the small, hidden critters of the salt marsh and other wetlands, it is safe to say that they outweigh us by a factor of more than a million.

When I walk the salt, I am seeing only about 1/1,000 to 1/10,000 of the life there. This is, indeed, a hidden ecology.

Moreover, the health of this hidden ecology is truly critical for all of us. Remember that Cyanobacteria created our oxygen atmosphere. The greatest concentrated weight of oxygen producers is found in wetlands, particularly in the salt marsh. The greatest amount of carbon dioxide is sequestered in wetlands, particularly in salt marshes.

When I am walking the salt, I am walking through some of the most valuable real estate on earth. If we valued the San Francisco Bay salt marsh land in terms of the carbon credits now traded between polluters and non-polluters, it would be seen as a public treasure.

Here are some land values: $90,000 mitigation per acre per year for some California wetland; $125,000 per acre per year for northern Virginia wetland; and, $400,000 per acre per year for tidal wetland in Virginia. About 500 wetland mitigation banks are in operation across the United States today. And, more are being created.

By this reckoning, the salt marsh of tiny [~11 acres] Heron’s Head Park in San Francisco, where I study the ecology of a small tidally-driven pond complex, is worth around $4-million per year in mitigation credits.

On that note, I think I will close for now. I will post this and, if I get positive replies posted below, indicating interest in more, I will – as the spirit moves – begin “Chapter 3” of Walking the Salt.

To be continued…

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