Flowing North

rachelr's picture

The much weather-delayed botanical exploration that froggies315, Srucara, and I led was part of our third web-event, the other parts being the class notes and a reflection. Here is that reflection, inspired by the class exploration, but also by recent readings, memories, musings, and opinions.


What is a native plant? It is one that grows naturally in a specific area, untouched by humans. Plant diversity is essential for the proper response to ecological shifts and changes, and the parallel evolution of animals and plants in an area means that the native plants are the best food and the best material for native animals. Apparently it is possible for non-native plants to become naturalized if they are introduced to the area’s landscape and find a way to adapt to the ecosystem around them (reference). The more aggressive of these that are disadvantageous to the natural landscape we refer to as weeds. Native plants are at risk of being displaced and driven to extinction, and with their exodus come changes in the landscape’s diversity and quality of life (reference). Often these aggressive invasive species follow those who introduced them to the landscape; here in North America the white man brought the species from Europe, and as he moves across the continent disturbing the land with trails, roads, buildings, and farmlands, these weeds follow him.

In our class we have a collage of individuals with very different histories with the landscape. I can’t pretend to know them. But overall there was a feeling of desire to be more attached to our landscape paired with the knowledge that we were not. Where better to begin the connection to the Earth than at the home? The goal of knowledge of this site we call Bryn Mawr is central to the movement we have undertaken in this course: our site sits, Harriton House, the botanical and geological rambles.

I was excited to undertake a project different than a formal (or exploratory) paper. Over the course of my site sits I have come away with many photographs of what I have seen, but they are flat once uploaded to the internet, devoid of texture, smell, and depth. Looking at these photos I know that no one else can experience what I saw the way I did, even if they had been beside me; but giving at a photograph on a screen added even another level of removal.

Its always surprising to me what my mind chooses to remember; looking back on my introductory biology course two years ago, when I first went out into Morris Woods, certain things are foregrounded. Ironically, I was also confined to a boot then… It took Srucara’s reminders to coax some experiences back into memory. Is it that I had forgotten, or that I just couldn’t quite remember it right then?

I think with age comes some forms of timidness. Then with more age comes a rejection of that which you took on in order to conform, to avoid being the odd one out. Sardines is that for me. I can remember playing sardines with joy in the woods as dusk fell when I was young at camp, and around my friend’s houses when we gathered for our monthly mother-daughter book group. Then I hated it. You were either in, or you were out; found or seeking, hiding or searching. My searching became a way of being with the group, the goal not being to win, but just not to lose at any cost. When did this transition happen? I can’t say. It was a fear of not being able to find what I was looking for.

Direction. While we wanted to let the class explore the woods we also recognized the need for direction. Srucara’s engaging lesson on bushes, trees, vines, and groundcovers was based on experience: feeling, crushing, smelling. Moving. I hoped my “field guide” would provide both a reinforcement of Srucara’s lessons as well as a chance for people to branch out, to explore. We had hoped that everyone would spread out more, move away from the pack and engage in self-discovery. As the initial minutes passed people did, reaching and looking out, out at the surroundings. Froggies315’s piece of the puzzle was the most exploratory, our interactions with our surroundings being taken from academic to primal. Oh how quickly I found my tree, the way the root system stretched out, the two types of vines winding their way up the trunk, the way my arms only went perhaps halfway around the massive trunk, the curvature of the individual grooves of the bark…

Movement. After our walk Anne remarked how stagnant our classes feel, how we needed more movement. I am beginning to think that froggies315’s is right: how much can writing about our experiences do? I can read, I can appreciate, I can even learn. But the learning is only mind deep. I have always had trouble reading instructions. I often choose not to even bother trying, it’s as if they are written in a different language. Show me how to do something and I can do it. Muscle memory allows me to grab a bike in the summer and ride away, a year after I last did it. I can catch things I drop before I even realize I drop them. I can go into work and set up the dining hall without thinking about what I’m doing, and I have to remind myself that the new workers won’t just march into the refrigerator and come out with the blueberries; I have to rack my brain to come up with the words to explain its location. These things are skin, muscle deep.

Our connection with the environment, with the world that provides us with all we need, must be deeper than the brain, deeper than the skin, deeper than the muscle. It must be in our human essence. I think that is what Terry Tempest Williams was deflecting with that sharp metal knife slicing so easily through the green meat of the avocado- love is at our essence, and we have forgotten how to love. Our essence cannot just read about experience, it must touch, smell, taste, see, breath, drink. 

I hope that our walk got us at least part of the way there. Standing together, holding hand with eyes cast down to the Earth or up towards the sky, we breathed and we felt together. Not exactly the wilderness of the books we’ve read, but it is the wilderness of where we are planted now. Together.


The Nile Delta drains into the Mediterranean Sea in Northern Egypt. When I was younger I thought some magic made it run the opposite direction of most rivers in the world. Why does it run South to North? The reason is much more “logical”: it follows the decline of the land. Most bodies of water flow North to South because their source is in the mountains of the North, and they simply roll downhill until they drain at the mouth in the South. I think after learning something like this, most people say “Oh! How interesting,” and move forward. We need to stop and wonder at the way that leaves that look so similar can smell so different and perform so differently in the environment. We need to be in awe of a river flowing 4,130 miles, providing life to so many people, plants, animals, and the Earth. We need to look forward, to imagine an Earth where the rising of the sun tomorrow is not a certainty. I recently came across a quotation from Douglas Adams that read: “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” We have the ability to imagine the future, but we do so selectively and self-centrically. If we were evening thinking anthropocentrically then we would think of the children of tomorrow but we seem to lack the ability to feel for these future people, animals, plants: life. Love. We are in this together. 



Anne Dalke's picture

"A site of friendship" and "open-ended answers"

Srucara and rachelr--
I'm grateful to you both--and to froggies315--for the important work you did in getting us up and out of our chairs for a class-time, of unsettling our "sitting" (I really hadn't realized how stuck-and-stagnant we'd been, until you unstuck us!).

I'm grateful, too, for these further shared reflections on our ramble into Morris Woods, and very glad to have them together in one place--which suggests, also, a kind of "going beyond" that you all achieved--in this case, going beyond the usual individual student work (in Srucara's words) for more collective creation that draws on each of your perspectives.

And so I respond to you both together, musing along with you.

For me, the most interesting idea to emerge from our ramble in the woods was the challenge to the terminology of "native species." Rachelr's first reference, above, says that "The native-plant movement has its supporters who are quite restrictive in what they call a native plant." Srucara says, elsewhere, that "The distinctions with which we easily separate native vs. non-native species of plants are not as easily transferrable to humans.…in fact, it may be quite offensive to do so….it may be…no longer feasible to deem something as 'native or non-native.'" I'm very much drawn to that revision; it seems in accord with the notions of "ecocultural complexity" that emerged in the last section of our course--the ways the ecocritic cannot be extricated from social institutions, and the "long mixed up" quality of natural and built environments.

But, as both of you testify, our ramble in the woods was not just about the emergence of ideas. I love rachelr's observation that "Its always surprising …what our minds choose to remember," your further formulation that "learning is only mind deep," and your adding those experiences that "are skin, muscle deep."

Or: what the body knows.

Srucara's account is similar, moving from a "treasure hunt" for what you knew you knew about Morris Woods, which shifted for you from "a site for experimentation and study of its respective ecosystem," to, delightfully, "a site of friendship between a tree and I" (am thinking here of the queries I got from Lynn Elkins as I was imagining our upcoming jaunt to Ashbridge Park: "What kinds of observations are your class hoping to make? Will you take any measurements or do any analysis?"

As you say, our observations--> measurements--> analysis here are of a different sort: "multiple right answers… on a continuum of the amount that they offer growth to our society." This seems to me a step "beyond" (?) Aldo Leopold's claim that "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community." His focus is on stability, yours on growth.

So, rubbing the two together: how to make growth sustainable?

Srucara's picture

Personal Insights

Adding on to rachelr’s superb essay on reviewing and reflecting upon the main aspects of our Morris Woods exploration as well as her musings on life, I would like to offer a personal account touching base upon things I appreciated, learned, and struggled with as one of the co-creators of the day.  Beyond serving as a role of co-creator of the day’s program, I too learned much about the Morris Woods and the species which sustain, thrive, and compete in the ecosystem. I learned many aspects of the plants I didn’t know before in my research while planning out the botanical tour, but also while taking the walk and identifying and physically experiencing the species. I had spent weeks in the woods and have felt comfortable in it in the spring of 2012, however, now that the air has chilled and the plants are preparing for winter – the Woods transformed completely. I had visited the Woods a good five times before the class in preparation for the event spending some time familiarizing myself with this new world. Morris Woods became an entirely different place in comparison to the lush, green, blossoming and dense little forest in April that I remember. Thus, I myself initially had difficulty figuring out the identities of the leafless understory shrubs (such as Privet, Spice Bush, and Viburnum.) The few leaves that were remaining were quickly advancing through the process of decay and have lost their distinct colors, texture, and smells. Thus, it became a treasure hunt to find a spice bush (most all of them have lost nearly all their leaves, and leafless – they look like all of the other understory growth!) and I was also surprised to note the few populations of weedy buttercup that were left in comparison to the vast abundance present in Spring as well. But finally, when the day came, I had felt comfortable with the plants and trees in the Woods – enough so to be confident in my responsibility to share the botanical aspects of the woods.

During the exploration, I was thrilled to be able to share a part in leading class but I was also a bit nervous. One of my favorite aspects of EcoLit 313 with respect to the structure of the class is that there are multiple right answers. Perhaps these answers lie on a continuum of the amount that they offer growth to our society – however most all of them are valid and important enough to consider. In my education background (I have been going to school since I was one years old – accompanying my schoolteacher grandmother in her classes), I have been trained to search for the right answer – although there may be different paths to get to the correct answer, there is still however, a single correct answer. Anything different will result in partial credit. In our class, however, we value each of our perspectives and all that we have to offer individually to collectively create as a whole group. Due to our diverse backgrounds and the abundant wealth of knowledge we all have together, we have the potential to create some of the greatest answers. The reason I point this out is because I during our ramble in the woods, I tried my best to be as cautious as I could with respect to emphasizing open-ended answers in place of right answers. I found that I think although I was a bit nervous, in practice I did strike a balance in identifying the correct times for offering the right answers (species identification) and the open ended answers (what is a native species) as could serve our learning purposes best.

Finally, one of my favorite parts of our collective ramble was the last activity led by froggies315. I found that physically interacting with a single tree through my senses of touch and smell offered a wealth of experience and a spark of a small friendship with my breech tree and connection with nature. I spent a whole 7 minutes tracing my fingers along the smooth bark and the fuzzy stem of the english ivy vine that grew on top of it. I pressed my face close to the trunk and breathed in an earthy smell that was both refreshing and intriguing. I wrapped by arms around the tree in a wide motion and circled it with small footsteps.  After rachelr led me far away from the tree, I only had to turn around once before I knew exactly which tree was mine. I had embraced Morris Woods in a different way on this day. In the spring of April 2012, Morris Woods was a site for experimentation and study of its respective ecosystem. In October of 2012, Morris Woods was a site for preparation of a class-exploration. On the Monday, Nov. 12, Morris Woods became a site of friendship between a tree and I.

Overall, I absolutely enjoyed our small class trip into the woods and all that I have learned because of it. Through my confident preparation, my struggle for maintaining appropriate approach to learning and answers, and my newfound friendship, I have certainly grown in numerous ways. I will keep returning to the Morris Woods for all that it offers – a site of learning and exploration as well as moments of peace, renewal, and friendship.

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