The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science

Akiko Busch discusses how a thoughtful citizenry can learn, understand, and act upon their findings as they observe the natural world around them

In her new book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, Akiko Busch discusses how a thoughtful citizenry can learn, understand, and act upon their findings as they observe, closely, the rapidly changing natural world around them.  In reading her introductory remarks, in which she gives the pride of place to a quote from Edward O. Wilson–“We do not understand ourselves yet and descend further from heaven’s air if we forget how much the natural world means to us”– an overwhelming truth hit me square in the eye. As a long-time resident of the big city, I have forgotten my innate connections with the natural world. As I went deeper into Busch’s text, I came to a painful realization of what this careless disconnection has done to me. I now know that the further I have turned away from that natural world, the more impoverished I became, both intellectually and emotionally. Busch’s examples of citizen scientists, those who regularly observe, record, and act upon the wrongs visited on the natural world in their own back yards, seem to have a deeper sense of place than those of us who stopped paying attention. In addition to using their keen powers of observation, these alert citizens take it upon themselves to share their findings with others through all kinds of social networking, thus adding to the sum total of human knowledge of our world.  They also get their hands dirty, like Busch and her cohorts have done in the Hudson Valley, where she made these observations about nature, human nature, and the nature of deep connections to place. Here, as she talks about her encounter with water chestnuts, she got me intrigued about Bats in the Locust Tree, Coyotes Across the Clear-Cut, Eels in the Stream, just a few of her evocative chapter headings I’ll be getting involved with next.—SSS

Weeding water chestnuts (trapa natans) from the river is an exercise in which leisure and industry easily coincide; it’s a brand of gardening in which a sense of purpose can intersect with being languid.

From time to time, I saw an elver, a juvenile American eel, winding around a stem or root like some weird extra plant appendage. Although the fish diversity is lower here than elsewhere on the river, eels can withstand the low oxygen levels of the water chestnut bed, all the while snacking on its assorted invertebrates. Yet if the eels swim off quickly, everything else seems to take its own time. Like anything else that is done in water, weeding is done slowly, as though it is possible to take on the liquid motion of what is around you. The stems can be pulled out with the gentlest tug; their attachment to the riverbed seems slight, their resistance imperceptible. Yet there is the smallest bit of spring to them, as though some bit of elastic thread has woven its way through the watery pink tendrils, and they have that sense of give that the most tenacious opponents sometimes seem to have. With a bit of stretch, these interlopers seem to be hanging on, though without much faith. And the mud on the bed of the river has a give, too; at each step, we sink in a bit. Perhaps this is why I am so drawn to the waterworld of rivers: nothing here stays the same for too long; things are always shifting, drifting, gently giving way. Our weeding accessories were primitive. Once we had pulled the water chestnuts up, we put them in small, gray buckets. Dime-sized circles had been punched into the buckets so that the water would drain out. The buckets were kept afloat with a bright blue foam swimming noodle encircling them and attached with a strip of silver duct tape. Buckets, noodles, tape. There was an almost childlike quality to the tools we were using, as though they were the accessories in some kind of water game. We were not dousing the leaves with pesticides, because there are no such things as safe pesticides. Nor were we relying on the blades of a mechanical weed cutter or harvester.

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They are expensive, and the heavy boats that carry them are impractical for shallow water. And while biological controls may be found in the future, there is nothing conclusive or licensed, for that matter, yet. Not long before I had read an account of Qingdao, a city in China whose coast was being choked by an unexpected bloom of green algae, officially said to be a result of warmer weather and heavy rains, but more likely a product of excessive nutrients from sewage, industrial pollutants, agricultural waste. The photographs documented not so much a landscape of displacement but a grotesque parody of aquatic flora; what should have been the surface of clear water was a swirling, shaggy stew of chartreuse plant life. The city was to host the regatta for the summer Olympics, and thousands of city residents had volunteered—or been ordered—to go out into the Yellow Sea on foot or in small wooden boats to scoop up the green algae by hand. And I wonder how it has come to be that our responses to these invasive species are so rudimentary—our little gray buckets, their little wooden boats; and how our ingenuity so often fails us when it comes to cleaning up after ourselves, as we are going out now, collecting these weeds with nothing but our hands. Certainly the term “citizen activist” describes the kind of effort we were engaged in this morning, but the phrase that stuck with me was “incidental steward”: what we do and what we use to do it with both have the air of the improvisation that so often comes from necessity. Pete Seeger says the world changes one teaspoon at a time, but on the river on this shining July morning, it is more like one leaf, one stem, one seed at a time.

Akiko Busch is known for her writings on design, culture, and the natural world. She was a contributing editor to Metropolis magazine for twenty years and has written three previous essay collections, including the Metropolis book, The Uncommon Life of Common Objects.

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