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Monitoring: Notes to your future self

Updated: Sep 26, 2020

What happens when we look back in history and check the record, the monitoring, that has been done? We might find glimmers of clues as to how to understand our present.

I’ve been reading my grandpa’s “stories” that he wrote in his retirement about different aspects of his life. He had been the owner of a small-town grocery store, and then worked in a bank, and my grandma had been a librarian, so between the two of them, their organizational skills were off the charts. In his stories, for example, he has scanned pages from the little booklet they took along on their honeymoon in 1953 to write down the prices of everything they spent money on: gas, food, lodging. Can you tell (above) that they spent a grand total of almost $85 on gas on a two-week trip from South Dakota to Alberta, Canada, and back?

I learned while working with an ecologist, and then again when learning more about taking scientific notes when in the field, that there is a name for what my grandparents did with that little booklet. They were taking field notes. And people who take these kinds of field notes in a systematic way, every day or month or year, are carrying out an important scientific exercise called monitoring.

Have you ever noticed how many birds come to your yard from one year to the next? My mom does. Or, have you ever wondered the meaning of certain trends you’re seeing? Maybe grocery store prices, or gas prices, or rainfall in your garden. Guess what, you’re monitoring!

I wasn’t always a “science person.” Now I have a master’s in social science, and I worked and shared an office for nearly eight years with a biologist in Costa Rica, so I might consider myself at least a little bit “sciency.” I used to be strictly “humanities-y.” While I’m not a “science expert,” I have learned a few basic concepts about scientific research that I think are interdisciplinary, and useful for life, in general.

Monitoring is one of these basic concepts I found to be revolutionary. The field project most dedicated to this idea in the ICADS Field Program where I worked is a visit to an organization called ANAI in the Southern Caribbean region of Costa Rica. Through ANAI, scientists and community members work together to catch fish and “bugs” (macro-invertebrates) in the local creeks and rivers, and write down what they find, every year. That’s it.

Pretty cool undergraduate students participating in bird and creek monitoring in Costa Rica

I mean, along the way they learn to identify creatures, which is the first best step to protecting biodiversity (What do they need? What do they eat? What does their presence tell us?), but the simple act of writing down what is present each year, and then comparing year to year and place to place, has a lot of power. When a natural disaster comes along, or a human-made disaster, or long-term incremental changes like climate change, monitoring can help to compare this year to last year, or to twenty years ago. Plus, it gets you out into your local environment noticing things, which is fun, and good for the soul.

There are some tools that help with monitoring in the natural sciences, like field guides and binoculars. Binoculars help people see what is out there in the world, and field guides help them to identify those things, and learn about them. I remember when I realized the power of these handy vision-boosters. Walking around the cloud forest of Savegre, in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica, it’s obvious that you want a set of binoculars to view the iconic resplendent quetzal. But when I lifted my binoculars to my eyes (this takes practice, believe it or not!) to check out a little grey bird in the underbrush, I was astounded to see that it had yellow legs! I never would have known…

My former colleague David Norman in Costa Rica has contributed to this effort with his recent publication of a field guide to the reptiles and amphibians of two national parks in Costa Rica. He shared with us in a presentation that making easy-to-use, affordable field guides that help people identify what is going on around them (animals, plants, etc) can help all of us to better understand our environments, take care of them, and notice when they need help.

My mom has noticed that not as many birds have been coming to her feeders in the past few years in her yard in South Dakota. We take this information and start to wonder what it means, and start to look things up, pay attention, talk with others.

Journaling is another form of monitoring, perhaps a more humanities-related form. Writing down thoughts and feelings, and comparing and contrasting them to the present can bring insight and may even suggest a path forward when it’s otherwise hard to see one. Have you been keeping a journal during the pandemic? Or at other times in your life? Perhaps our social media is our collective journal, these days. I wonder what it would be like to look back at our notes to each other, twenty years from now. Will we like what we see? What will we learn?

Here’s a poem I recently found in my study abroad journal from 2004, when I was finishing my semester in Central America, waiting, like everyone there in Nicaragua, for the rainy season to begin and break the heat that was building and building as April melted into May. I was reflecting in my journal on the decades of violence in Central America, with the US always taking a side and sending troops into civil wars and revolutions there.

The clouds gather

slowly, slowly.

They are welcome

shade from the piercing sun.

They grow fuller and fuller,

grayer and grayer,

angrier and angrier.

Like the people who are fed up

with piercing injustice.

The air grows heavier also.

Smells like rain.

You can feel it on your skin;

the future rain

that will quench

the thirsty ground.

Managua, Nicaragua, my home for 2 months while studying abroad there during college.

This year, in 2020, we hear the word “unprecedented” so many times. This week we hear of the devastating wildfires in the west. Perhaps all of these events truly are unprecedented. What happens when we look back in history and check the record, the monitoring, that has been done? We might find glimmers of clues as to how to understand our present. I invite you to “monitor” your day-to-day, and to go back and look up the things that you notice around you. You don’t even have to be “a science person” to do it.

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