Concerning the need for a distant horizon in a biologist’s education

Freedom, though not necessarily ease, of movement over expanses of land allows for a far more visceral understanding of the lives of wild animals and plants than could any amount of reading. The two ways of knowing are, of course, deeply and necessarily complimentary, but not until a student of nature has moved for a time across a landscape wide enough to allow them to experience and negotiate a variety of environments and conditions will they have more that an abstract understanding of the lives and histories of the place’s inhabitants.

(The Clan Alpine Mountains, Churchill co., NV, from the floor of Dixie Valley)

A student of biogeography, one interested in the peculiar distribution of a montane species in the the basin and range province offers a useful illustration of this complimentarity. A review of the literature concerning this hypothetical species shows that it hasn’t been recorded beneath about 7000 feet in elevation. Strangely, though, not all areas above 7000 feet in the region harbor this species. Why? Clearly the hot, alkaline basins surrounding montane areas in this region are insurmountable barriers to migration.

(Equisetum sp., in Ash Canyon, Carson City, Nevada)

A long hike or drive on dirt roads from ridge to ridge via an intervening basin,┬átaken with plenty of water but with no books, lays the foundation for this abstract answer to become a visceral understanding of what is, of how things operate. The mountain air where the species is found cools the sweat on the brow while the basin’s hot wind leaves skin dry and with an accumulation of gritty salt and dust. The distances involved, easily laid out on a map, are more comprehensible from the point of view of a wild thing after half an hour of bouncing across a dirt road brings only a small change to one’s view of a distant ridge.

(A violet in a a sunny ponderosa pine woodland)



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