Friday, November 1, 2013

Companion Modeling In Montpellier, France (Written by Hannah Birge)

The Sand Hills reach up and take hold of you. Rooting from deep in the earth, through the bottom of your feet and anchoring your heart to their depths. The landscape is at once strange and achingly familiar. It rolls and falls away from you forever, a million secrets in its shadows, ghosts slowly wandering the hills. The grass is an endless sea, ebbing and raging in silvery green torrents against their roots and the wind.  It’s a place where, when the wind drops, you can almost hear the cells shuttling through your brain. Where you could lay down a square of your soul and stitch it into earth, a piece of you forever quilted into the land. You can never truly leave this place once you  give yourself over.

            Overlooking the Niobrara River in Lynch, NE. Summer 2013. Photo credit Hannah Birge

When I decided to run my first marathon I was living in Lynch, NE in the eastern Sand Hills completing the first season of my PhD  fieldwork, and looking forward to an academic semester abroad in central Europe. “Decided to run” might not be the right phrase. Instead, following a  successful field day (rare) and a few glasses of red wine (not rare), I felt invincible. So at 11pm on a Wednesday in late June, I clicked “confirm” to deliver my 90 euros to the organizers of the Athens Classic Marathon with nothing but ribald confidence. Immediately, a tiny doubt-voice niggled at me: But you’ve never really run more than six miles and it’s really, really, really hot here to be training for a marathon. And hilly! Don’t worry; I told me, I got this. Yeah!; said the wine, she’s totally got this.

It wasn’t until 6am the next morning, five minutes into my second bird survey and miles from the nearest cup of coffee, that I remembered. Not an unfamiliar feeling; my skeptical self is no stranger to recovering a few steps behind my more optimistic self.  And skeptical self is very persistent until its been stifled with a combination of coffee, yoga and, of course, wine. Skeptical self is such a downer.

So instead of my default glass of wine and data entry (the latter desperately requiring the former), when I got home that evening I laced up my running shoes. 

Hills of Lynch, NE. Summer 2013. Photo credit Hannah Birge

Sometimes the sun and heat were relentless, beating down down until my legs felt were so heavy that dry dirt road felt like it was sucking, ankle deep mud. And sometimes torrents of rain turned the road into actual mud, creating an slick treadmill of every upslope and a rock-filled slip’n’slide of the downs. Deerflies, ticks, chiggers, gnats. Poison ivy in places where poison ivy should never be. Illeotibial band syndrome. Foot pain. A particularly unpleasant mid-season migraine. Every time I laced up my shoes I was preparing for battle. Marching against the weather, the road, the weight of the hills and my body.  

What’s funny about the wars we wage is how they change us. The victory, the answer, is often in our own defeat, our own transformation.

So, very slowly, my body relented. The rain cooled my face, the sun eased my shoulders. My legs and heart grew strong and light, and I moved deeper into the hills, closer to some answer I didn’t know I needed. Moving through the achingly beautiful landscape with nothing but my own strength. Stuck with my own thoughts. Stitching the rhythm of my feet into the flow of the earth, joining a million cadences of life that create the beautiful, chaotic orchestra of July. Tumbling into to a place where patterns emerge and dissolve like waves falling back on themselves, without purpose, but forever moving and rising, a story told in ephemeral scraps of seeming nonsense. How do you find answers and meaning from that? From something that refuses to reveal any single answer for more than a fleeting moment? Do I stand still and try to capture something before it recedes, or do I chase it over the next crest, hoping that the truth I glimpsed is still there, waiting for me in perpetuity as long as I never stop running?

L'Arc de Triomphe at dusk. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

Walking the streets of Paris in the rain, I find myself moving backwards in time. I’ve been in Europe for nearly two months, and pushed my body to limits I didn’t know possible (20+ mile runs!?). That familiar tattoo of my feet growing stronger and faster, the new landscape slowly rooting up through my feet, holding and showing me its own tightly held little secrets.

As I walk along the Seine in Paris, I’m transported to my 16-year-old self, on an exchange program with one of my closest friends, Kara*. We were young, lost, innocent, and tangled up in our own myopic egos, like nearly every 16 year old in the history of 16 year olds.  I remember laughing and crashing around the city, experiencing the terror and thrill of being abroad for the first time together, giddily planning our futures over our first in-public experience drinking wine (high school in rural Vermont doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment). I think it was the first time we were forced to be something new, and it suited us.

 Then life swallowed Kara up. Within two years, Kara lost her mother to Lou Gehrig’s, her sister to mental illness and her father to that impossible type of depression that comes from losing your high school sweetheart and the mother of your children. She dropped out of college to care for her mother during the worst stages of the disease, her sister gave birth to a little girl whom she promptly abandoned to Kara’s care, and she watched her father slide away into helpless despair. We lost touch, and I’m not proud of it. I’m back here in Paris, and all I can think about is how her life spiraled so hard away from our plans. I can only guess why she turned to crystal meth. Maybe as her once-tight family dissolved around her, meth offered her the support, comfort and escape that was ripped away by her mother’s death and its fallout.

The last I heard of Kara, she met a boy in rehab and they have a son together. I hope she doesn’t blame me for being so wrapped up in my own college experience and leaving her to fend for herself, but I can’t imagine why she should. It’s funny how being here brings her back to me somehow, looping back around to remind me of the bitter and pointless things that happen. That no matter how you plan and prepare and think you’re finally chasing the right answers, it can all be made to feel so small and silly in light of catastrophe.

            The Schönbrunn gardens in Vienna, Austria. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

To be a traveler, you need to experience a journey within and beyond yourself. You need to learn when to move and when to let yourself be moved. To expose your deepest answers to a new sun, letting them shimmer and fade, swell and fall in on themselves as they're challenged under a different light. When you truly travel, you fall into an endless, iterative tide of growth and collapse, slowly careening towards a gleaming pearl of universal meaning, expanding beyond who you think you are.

Sculpture in Wrocław, Poland. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

Any single “-ology” can provide us with an elegant, simple explanation of life. It can give you answers that you can really hang your hat on. That resonate and make you want to shout them to the world. But just as ecology cannot explain the idiosyncrasies of the free market and economists can’t explain the chemistry of love, no one –ology captures the essence of reality.

But this is sticky: as we combine individual -ologies to get at a more whole story, they rapidly lose their elegance and simplicity. Their answers start to collide with other answers, and nothing is deliciously easy anymore. You start to question your answers, where they came from, what constrains them, at what point they break down. And this is a problem, because the innate desire for a powerful, simple solution is highly successful in human history.

The Mediterranean Sea 60km outside of Montpellier, France. Fall 2013. Photo cred: Hannah Birge

Fossil fuel exploitation, synthetic crop fertilizers and stream engineering, to name a few, are triumphantly effective to furthering human civilization. And yes, these simple, powerful answers inevitably bring with them smaller, negative tradeoffs. But these are historically ignored at no great consequence.

Yet, the problem with life, again, is that it doesn’t always do what we want or expect it to do. Our planet and its systems are wildly complex, and exploitation of one thoroughfare in that system is only successful to a point: as the smaller reverberations began to slowly erode the integrity of the system, we approach a threshold where the system begins to breaks down. Only then is the true complexity of the system revealed: as it starts yielding catastrophic and unpredicted outputs. 

For example, damming streams produces electricity, prevents major floods and ensures water availability during droughts, all of which impart undeniable benefits to society. However, river engineering also disrupts wetlands, natural flow variability, sediment transport, and ground water dynamics. And with this ecological disruption comes, for example,:

1) a significant loss of natural hazardous waste removal (e.g. fertilizers, heavy metals, etc) by microbiota who rely on saturated soils for their habitat,  
2) decreased soil fertility as intermittent floods are repressed and the land becomes ecologically disconnected from the river, and
3) increased risk of crop-debilitating soil salinization as ground water tables drop.

That these ecological side effects are ignored should come as no surprise: the economic boon of river engineering is overwhelming against the effects of ecological degradation in a cost-benefit analysis to society. 

St. Stephens Cathedral illuminated at night in Vienna, Austria. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

But as more rivers are dammed and swelling human populations put increasing pressure on already over-appropriated rivers, the ecological costs mount. And as they smaller costs add up, there begins a more rapid degradation of the system as a whole. And we are simply running out of the capacity of complex social-ecological systems to absorb these costs. Even more daunting, at some threshold, it will be impossible to reinstate all of the moving parts required for the system to return to its original, reliable functioning (an effect known as hysteresis).

Some find it helpful to use the Humpty-Dumpty analogy to explain this concept: keep adding king’s horses and men to the case, but he’s never going to look or act like the original Humpty-Dee. Granted, eliciting help from a horse to repair an anthropomorphized bird egg can’t be the most thoughtful approach.

So how can humans, whose linear problem solving approach to complex problems is successful and efficient, ever hope to manage the complexity of social-ecological systems to maintain their function and relative predictability? First we need to get rid of a singular –ology. Economics, ecology, psychology, sociology and hydrology all give us their own, clear picture of the system, but all are limited to a narrow slice of the truth. But when combined, different –ologies don’t neatly fill in the remaining pie. Instead, they clash with other –ologies, losing their clarity and power of explanation as their fundamental assumptions are wildly undermined, ignored or even directly opposed. Think of it as trying to fit mismatched, randomly shaped slices into a pan without a shape. Yeah, it’s messy.

 Defending his turf. Rural Hungarian village. Fall 2013. Photo cred: Hannah Birge

And that’s where we come in, we who adopt this ugly, cumbersome, intellectually uncomfortable mess as our –ology. Think about this: we’re scientists by training, trying to understand reality using a structured, analytical approach, and the basic tenant of our work is that uncertainty is intrinsic to all complex social-ecological systems. And no matter how hard we work, fight, discuss, yell, sob or write, we only reduce uncertainty to a point. Who wants to listen to the answer that there is no clear, reliable answer?

Experts like Drs. Francois Bousquet and Olivier Barreteau, whom my NSF IGERT cohort had the incredible pleasure of meeting at CIRAD-IRSTEA in Montpellier, France, are some of the foremost experts inhabiting the bizarre intellectual space. Their approach to selling the-answer-is-that-there-is-no-answer conundrum is to make proverbial lemonade (or some uncertain yellow drink; users beware!). They make use of an iterative, fluid process called “Companion Modeling”, whereby they constantly readjust and fine tune their questions as they learn. They effectively let the goalposts meander as their questions and assumptions shift. They gather information by casting a wide net,  glean small truth fragments from wherever they can find 'em: experts and data from the different –ologies, anecdotal data from non-experts, and the robust meanderings of their own brilliant minds. And even though their approach is satisfying to a new PhD student grappling with the discomfort of uncertainty, it’s still really, really uncomfortable and doesn’t emotionally stack up to a singular –ology. Moreover, human institutions are in no way set up to handle the uncertainty of companion modeling.

In fact, the societal institutions that drive civilization are intrinsically designed to war against uncertainty. And so far, that war has worked to our advantage. But things are changing. The wild spaces that buffer the worst of our ecological assaults are shrinking as human demand is growing, and the systems we inhabit are starting to grumble under our weight, threatening reveal the depths of their complexity as they breakdown.

At some point, we will cross a threshold and those systems we heavily exploit will cease to function in the way we've come to expect. Maybe then we’ll relinquish the need for simple answers and certainty, turning instead to the creativity, strength and adaptability that also define us. And as spaceship earth careens through outer space, maybe we’ll embrace the uncertainty and endless learning required to reveal those precious pearls of understanding from within the chaos.

Or perhaps we’ll reject uncertainty and repeat our mistakes, spiraling off onto a new iteration of the past.

             Central Cemetery of Vienna, Austria. Fall 2013. Photo Credit: Hannah Birge

The power of work like that of Drs. Bousquet and Barreteau is that the groundwork is being delicately laid: we are beginning to understand how to study complex social-ecological systems in all of their messiness. And as humans grabble with failing systems, this work will be unmatched in its value to society as we begin to look for answers in a new way.  

Standing on Lovelock Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge 

The reality is that I haven’t been very faithful to my marathon training program. I ran a lot over the last five months, but probably not enough. Injuries, traveling for the program and an annoyingly time consuming statistics class are neat excuses. I have no idea what the marathon is going to be like. I have no idea how long it’s going to take me. I have no idea if it’s going to really, really hurt after mile 22 (ok I have some idea that it’s going to really, really hurt). But I do have a good idea that I will finish. And I have a good idea that as I carry myself those 26.2 miles, I’m going to move across boundaries within myself that have never been tested. And that’s ok, because afterwards I’m going to sit back and let some answers chase me for a change.  

*Name changed for privacy