By Priya Ranganathan
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Most people think that ecology is best practiced – and only practiced – in the great outdoors. Ecology calls to mind images of national parks, herds of bison, salmon fighting the current, grizzly bears, and remote places with lush forest cover. In truth, however, ecology is far more local and intimate than we are taught to believe. Ecology, as defined by the Webster’s Dictionary, is the branch of biology that deals with the relations between living organisms and their environment. By this definition, a wide majority of us can claim to be ecologists. How many of us in childhood have explored our backyards? How many of us have squatted on the sidewalk to observe pill bugs and millipedes, spiders and ladybugs, caterpillars and snakes? We all can recognize a few bird calls, likely native to our hometowns. This is ecology at its most basic level – an understanding of how we interact with the living world around us.
Some of us are fortunate enough to have grown up amongst natural beauty. Perhaps you were born in the Appalachians, in a small town in the mountains or nestled in the hills of the Western Ghats. Or perhaps you grew up by a river, learning how to fish or skip stones or identify the best paths to navigate across the water. For some of us, a love of nature is innate, despite growing up in urban or suburban settlements. We satisfy our wild souls by catching butterflies and hanging up birdfeeders on balconies. Perhaps we visit local parks and nature centres. But ecology is an equal-opportunity science; any interested person can become an ecologist, whether at a local, regional, national, or global level.
I have spent most of my life straddling urban and suburban living, and yet I have emerged a full-fledged ecologist. Barring my degrees in geology, biology, and conservation management, I was raised to be a naturalist by the most influential person in my life – my mother. She took me outdoors daily and allowed me to sample the natural world free of censorship. My early years were spent feeding geese and ducks, rolling in wet grass, and taking walks in busy cities while observing prolific avian life. From a young age, I learned the ecology of house rats and stray dogs, of leopards in a metropolis, of kites and vultures that soared on thermal currents far above the city. I learned about monarch butterflies and milkweed and was taught to identify different birds by their calls. I watched turkey vultures and grew a love-hate relationship with white-tailed deer. I learnt how to differentiate a jackal from a wolf and the hunting hours of city leopards. All of these interactions were milestones in my ecological training.
One day, my high-flying little sister made an interesting comment. “I’ll never be an ecologist like you,” she said despondently, after I finished showing her how to identify various animal tracks in the woods. I was surprised at the defeatist attitude; we both were active and enjoyed the outdoors, after all. If I could become an ecologist, I told her, I saw no reason for her to remain unenlightened. And it struck me that if she had this attitude, countless other children must be under the impression that their little explorations in their local natural world did not count as ecology.
If you truly love nature and being outdoors, there are countless ways to increase your understanding of your natural surroundings. I recommend starting by a good long daily walk. You can walk on the sidewalk, on the city streets, in a park, or in the woods; the key thing to do is to keep your eyes open. One cannot become an ecologist with closed eyes and ears. We use our senses avidly and constantly. Stop occasionally to inspect little bits of nature – a leaf fallen on the path, an ant dragging food to its nest, a bird singing on the fence. Keep a notebook in which you write down what you see or hear. Go back home and try to identify these observations – this is one of the times technology and ecology can work in harmony. Look up local tree species and try to identify the leaves you picked up. Buy a pocketbook of local birds and animals and don’t be afraid to pull it out while on a walk. Ecologists learn at a young age to stop caring about public perceptions. We are constantly and ferociously judged for our so-called eccentricities and odd behaviours. All I can say is, if stopping to sketch a bird or watch a caterpillar wind itself into a cocoon is considered odd, then oddness suits my disposition.
Most of all, don’t be afraid to be curious. Don’t shy away from expanding the bounds of your knowledge. Don’t hesitate to ask questions – Charles Darwin never would have identified his finches without asking locals for their knowledge. Humility and curiosity are an ecologist’s greatest aids in the field. You may become an ecologist in your backyard, or perhaps one day you will be the chief ecologist of one of America’s national parks. Either way, there is much to learn at every level. Nature is constantly evolving. Humans are constantly developing and innovating. As these two forces work together and in opposition, new habitats and niches are formed and destroyed. And this means that there is always more to see and more to learn. It’s the reason I found myself tracking tigers in India during the summer of 2016, and the reason I still take a daily walk in my backyard woods to see what new marvels they have to offer me. No matter the scale, the natural world is wonderful and ever-changing. So, go out there and explore your local ecosystem. Find a niche for yourself and become an expert on its intricacies. E.O. Wilson, an internationally reputed ecologist and one of my idols, started off as a small boy in rural Alabama playing with ants. Everything big starts out small. All it takes is a pinch of curiosity, and a healthy quantity of bug spray!
About the Author:
Priya Ranganathan is a wetland ecologist who works in the wild Western Ghats. When she isn’t out wading through swamp forests, she can be found scribbling away in her notebook or practicing Bharatanatyam.