There’s been a small but interesting discussion on an ecology-related listserver that I subscribe to in response to someone’s request for resources for teaching kids about their local environment. Most of the responses have cited variations on this 30-item inventory. I’d be curious to hear readers’ scores on it, but I’m even more interested in knowing how you know the answers. How much of it did you learn in school? And was that on the syllabus or the result of a particular teacher’s desire to impart local knowledge? How much did you look up for yourself just out of curiosity one day? What did you learn just by observing, or from talking to people who have lived where you live for a long time? If you have lived in more than one place, how does the length of your residence correlate with your score for each location?
My intuition is that most people gain their knowledge about their local ecosystem these days through education rather than experience out working/playing in/on the land. Because there’s no immediate practical applications for knowing many of these things in our day and age. I don’t mean because we can just google it; I mean because the average person does not need to know when high tide is or what kind of bird that is any more. At the same time, you probably have only the vaguest notion where your garbage goes after the truck comes because, not only do you not care as long as that garbage is out of your sight, you’ve never met your local garbage truck driver and the dump is miles out of town. I’m not saying it’s bad that many people in the western world don’t live off the land directly, or that many more live in cities these days than in the past. Just that, because of these factors, we don’t know things about the places in which we live, and we have to obtain that knowledge by other means, if we ever obtain it at all.
And this sort of knowledge isn’t just something we should learn for the sake of knowing. It could actually be useful. Knowing about the climate and soil type of a region is useful for, say, designing buildings to put there. You could just dream up a blueprint without knowing anything about the land it’ll be built on, and that would probably be fine for a while, but in the long run you could save a lot of maintenance and energy bills if you instead designed your building to maximise its light exposure (or shade) and to deal with, say, the fact that it’s in an earthquake-prone area.
So these are all really obvious statements, I know. But apparently not obvious enough that people will actually enact principles based on them as often as they should be.
Anyways, the knowledge inventory. I scored 16ish for my old stomping grounds in southwestern Ontario (should’ve payed more attention on the ol’ school trip to the water sanitation plant!), and a measly 8 for Vancouver. (For the record, I employed a fairly strict interpretation of the questions—so, for example, although I have a vague notion that Vancouver gets more rainfall than Toronto and I know how the rainfall is distributed across the year, I didn’t count that as knowing the answer to #21 for either location.) I know for sure I gained most of my local knowledge about Ontario from hanging out at a nature centre, although I do think some of this was also covered in school as well, particularly the parts about local aboriginal culture.
A final thought: the questions I could answer mostly easily—and the questions that I addressed in my “sense of place” blog series—were mostly the species-related ones. That’s probably my biologist bias coming through.
*colonial powers ignoring/devaluing local aboriginal knowledge of an ecosystem…see what i did there?!?/!?!11!!??