Friday, February 8, 2019

My Year of Orchids: On close observation

I used to harangue my students to observe closely. I still do, when I teach my online classes for BU. It took me some time to realize that my own education was gotten through close observation, not the memorization of facts. So it made sense to me that I should teach observation instead of what seemed to be ever more random and purposeless scientific concepts.

Not that I paid attention to my own words all the time. My corner office, which faced south and west, became incredibly hot almost from early spring. Our building had an antiquated HVAC system where half the building was chronically cold and the other half excessively hot. So I blamed it on my building. One day a student asked me if I’d looked behind my door for a thermostat. There it was. And my heat problem was solved, or at least mitigated. But I had to eat crow, not always a bad thing for a professor.

Close observation. What does it give us? It offers a chance to get away from learned behaviors and packaged ideas. It lets us see something from its own perspective, or at least to get nearer to that perspective. It allows us to contemplate, bring in some imagination, ask our own questions based on what we observe, play around with ideas. Close observation gets us lost in the seething reality of what we’re observing, experiencing that reality from the inside rather than the outside. From a bottom-up outlook instead of top-down. Maybe to challenge givens and gain surprises. Insights. New models of reality.

Well all this sounds like a tall order. I did practice it a few times formally, most significantly I think during my doctoral work at Harvard where I stared purposelessly at thousands of lichen specimens under the dissecting microscope. This gave me the uncanny ability to see what was hidden in plain sight. And to forge a new direction in lichen studies.

The direction I took, studying lichen shape and shape-making (morphology and morphogenesis) took me quite far in understanding new things about the lichens I studied. My findings were not well received by the small academic community of lichenologists, whose scientific horizons were dictated by 19th century taxonomic concepts in a sickly dance with reductive 20th century notions about lichen chemistry. All this is to say that there was little room for new perspectives. Especially because during this time throughout the academic botanical world perspectives based on whole-organism studies were being supplanted with ever more stringently technical molecular techniques.

Now I’m retired and I’m not pressed to publish or even make sense of my observations. All I have to do is observe my orchids, keep a close watch, and learn from what I see. It’s the greatest pleasure to share these findings, findings which are perhaps not entirely mainstream, with people who read them for the sake of learning more.

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