Learning humility

I’m not a forester, though I sometimes forget that. I’m not an expert on sustainability, or environmental policy, or environmental history. While I know a lot about these things, my knowledge is riven with holes – and I’m often unaware of those holes.

When I teach environmental science, I know that I’m a dabbler when I talk about the atmosphere, or weather, or even ocean currents. I know my geology is self-taught. As a consequence, I know enough to make sure I know what I know and avoid stepping off the cliff into ignorance. But when I talk about environmental history or policy, when I talk about sustainability or land-use or economics, I don’t know what I don’t know. I built a decent edifice of knowledge on a foundation honeycombed with ignorance. He who knoweth not, and knoweth not he knoweth not.

There are things you know because you have a solid foundation, but not a whole lot of updated, specialised knowledge. But what you know serves you well. I can teach chemistry or physics to environmental science students and not feel like they are ill-served. My physics ends at A Levels and my chemistry with my first year undergrad, but what I’m teaching is barely O Level.  It’s stuff I know inside-out, backward and forward – well enough to take apart and explain to the science-phobic. When I hit an unknown, it doesn’t come as a surprise – it’s either higher-level knowledge that I never got to (but may be aware exists) or it’s something I once knew, but have forgotten. Forgetting can be annoying, but it’s just part of what happens to specific bits of information you haven’t though about in 25 years.

Hitting a gap in ecology, forestry, or environmental history can be vertigo-inducing.

I remember not knowing who Aldo Leopold was, early in my career as a grad student, when everyone else seemed conversant with his work. It was very different from discovering how much I didn’t know about the importance of Howard Odum or Robert MacArthur because at least I had heard their names.

So what sparked the current crisis of faith? Aldo Leopold, again.

Aldo Leopold (1887 – 1948) developed from his long professional experience in Pinchot’s Forest Service, his discussions with the British ecologist Charles Elton and his encounter with the German ‘Dauerwald’ experiments.

Dauerwald. The term doesn’t even have an article in the English Wikipedia, though it does exist in the German one (and, apparently, its Russian and Estonian counterparts). Not knowing about something that I don’t know exists shouldn’t really bother me, but once I started looking I felt like I shouldn’t have known about this.

Dauerwald is a forestry system that eschewed clear-cutting and defined timber quotas for a system that more closely mimicked nature. I’m immediately reminded of the Periodic Block System. It was required by the Nazi government. Really? And it was, of course, influential on Leopold.

There’s just too much there I should know, but don’t. Discovering this for the first time makes me feel profoundly ignorant.

Dauerwaldrevier2 Baerenthoren