The biological survey as counterculture

The other week I participated in an informal biological survey of a ruderal ecology slated for destruction sometime over the next couple of months. New City Vision developers own and intend to develop what was once the site of the Govan Graving Docks and despite the fact that the project has yet to be approved, plan to strip it of vegetation sometime in the next two months–as a way, it appears, to circumvent local resistance to development on ecological grounds (since there will then be nothing left to protect). As a marginal urban space whose importance is concealed by the diversity of ways in which it is used (since the ‘community’ it serves is not clearly identifiable as such), this is a story that deserves to be told more fully (and will be to a certain degree, in the work of Ruth Olden, the PhD student and landscape architect who organized the survey). Here I limit myself here to a couple of observations about the activity of surveying.

I have never been involved in a truly scientific survey, but this is not the first time I have had the opportunity to tromp around a landscape with others, in search of ‘interesting’ plants. Putting aside the question of what counts as interesting (I would dearly love to participate in a survey of weeds), I was reminded how pleasurable it is, not just to devote oneself, to the task of noticing plants, but to do so with others. Looking for plants (or birds, or bugs and other small things) produces a unique social situation, one in which a set of values different to those of most other settings prevail. For one, you do not need to express yourself well, or even look others in the eye to have a meaningful interaction in this context. And though a certain kind of knowledge is highly valued (i.e., the knowledge of species and their differences), it is expressed in perceptual terms, which means that it depends equally on skills and capacities such as looking closely, taking account of context, and not rushing. Finally,  since what is shared between participants is a knowledge or love of something other to the human, a certain degree of humility and/or wonder seems to inform the interactions. Participating in a survey can create an alternative social space, one in which it is possible to experience a different, more inclusive and much slower relation with others. This makes it an activity that is culturally quite radical, but without requiring an explicit intention (or the bravery) to be so.


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