New Ventures in Old Habitats

by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711

The present juxtaposition of interests between the newly created Keck Graduate Institute and the Robert J. Bernard Field Station, of the Claremont Colleges, should be eye-opening to us all. There could be no stronger and no more timely contrast in purposes, methodologies, and world views. Ironically, both institutions claim roots in biological science; yet they proceed in profoundly different directions in a contradiction that is all too commonly a part of our times.

While the debate about land use that has been raging between the Claremont University Center (CUC) and both the faculties and the students of the Claremont Colleges may seem to be simply a collegiate matter, it is truly far more than that. It is a community issue and it is appropriate that the community should discuss it. First, it is a community issue because the land lies inside of the community and because most of the people involved are part of the community. Second, it is a community issue (in a much wider sense) because the choices represented in this discussion and the ultimate meanings of those choices are truly relevant to this community and, indeed, to all American communities, today.

It is proposed that the Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) will serve mainly Master's Degree level studies in bio-technology with the substantial involvement of business enterprises. It is clearly postured far from the general conception of biological science as disinterested and objective knowledge about organic systems. Instead, its position is clearly taken up in the camp of technology, literally, the systematic organization of the "manipulative arts." My impression of the KGI theme is that biological knowledge is "ripe for harvest" and that the contemporary combination of small business enterprise and engineering is just the team to get the job done. Clearly, there is a lot to be done, here, but what it has to do with education, as such, remains to be seen. There is good reason why KGI made its way through faculty discussions with such difficulty. It will be a very different kind of Claremont institution.

In contrast, the Bernard Field Station was established on an 80-acre piece of property, owned by the CUC, to allow faculty and students of the Colleges an opportunity to study and to do research on the flora and fauna of a uniquely natural chunk of Southern-California inland-valley habitat. The goal, here, was not to manipulate or intrude nor was it to make a profit for anyone, except that which will profit us all in the form of understanding native landscapes and, hence, in the form of understanding ourselves somewhat better. The Field Station annually hosts visiting students and faculty from all over California; it is a resource of unique character and quality.

There is a lot about the BFS that connects with Henry David Thoreau who, in 1854, retreated to a cabin at the edge of Walden Pond. Thoreau's retreat was no "wilderness" adventure any more than the BFS is. Thoreau's point, rather misunderstood by contemporary "wilderness" advocates, was simply to modify his own lifeway, to step outside of the run-of-the-mill daily life of his times, and to learn something about what nature could teach him. He himself reported, "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." What he reveals in the several hundred pages of the book he wrote is most interestingly a report about observation and how the patience and devotion of careful observation taught him the complexities of nature but also taught him central lessons about being human.

Sometimes, when we read Thoreau, he sounds like a crank because of his stay-at-home declarations. But the message is loud and clear. Modern transportation and mobility have taken us away from nature because little of importance can be observed when speeding past at 70 miles per hour. Even at the nominal 40 mph mandated on Foothill Blvd and ignored by most drivers, few passersby have any comprehension of what lies in the 80 acres along the north side. To truly see requires commitment, and to truly understand requires full attention. To really see nature in operation, Thoreau suggested, brings us to the point of a new beginning in understanding ourselves as the natural creatures that we are --- something to which we have become culturally blind.

My only disappointment in the Field Station is that its preservation of a natural landscape misses "nature" in one important respect; it does not include a human presence. To be natural, really, there should be some indigenous human life there --- perhaps a Thoreau, living next to the little BFS pond. But he/she should be living there as the Tongva lived near Padua Hills and on Indian Hill, in a willow and tule domed hut, weighted down with rocks around its circumference and thatched tightly against the winds and rain and penetrating sun. And that person(s) should be hunting and gathering food and fuel from the local environment. What would be wonderful about that project would be the knowledge we would gain about the environmental impact of a human life. Indigenous people had a good understanding of nature and respected the fact that nature requires balance. Thus, what would be interesting to learn would be rediscovering, today, what the Tongva before us well understood, the amount of space required for a human's needs to be balanced with the resources locally available. How many people could live an indigenous lifeway on the 80 acres of BFS? I suspect that it would be lucky for one person to live there in balance --- something that we should consider, in contrast, to the whole debate about parcel sizes in Claremont's northeastern corner.

Nature should not be understood as that which exists without humans, because humans have been a part of nature for hundreds of thousands of years. The important feature of nature is dynamic balance. Nor should we assume that nature is always and necessarily balanced. There have clearly been periods of time in which localities have gone out of balance. What is "natural," though, is the inevitable return to balance no matter what has to happen in order to achieve it. If there is a reason to distinguish between a natural environment and a human-built environment, today, it is precisely because natural environments are where we can still observe balance and human-built environments are profoundly out-of-balance. We can see they are out-of-balance by observing the amount of energy and the mass of material that it takes humans to maintain what they have built and by observing what happens to human-built environments everywhere that they are abandoned by human attention. Draw a circle around any human-built environment and watch how much flow of material and energy must pass across that circle on a daily basis. Do the same with a natural environment, and you will know what balance is.

The study of nature has more importance today than ever before and that is because we have more to learn about ourselves than ever before. It is not something that we can learn by observing contemporary urban society only, because we cannot understand how far out of balance we are without fixing nature's own message of what balance is. The KGI does not address nature-as-balance; instead, it continues today's bizarre mode of appropriating everything in the world to human intervention, manipulation, and self-serving domination. The implicit theme of bio-technology asks, "Why should we raise a pig by traditional animal husbandry, procreation and birth, when we have the possibility of cloning hundreds of identical and perfect pigs through genetic technology?" "Perfect by whose standard?" we might ask. "And for what purpose except opening a new theater for profit-taking?" But, as I understand the present state of planning, the KGI is unprepared to ask "Why?" In fact, it would be a much more interesting academic institution if it were prepared to do that in a serious way. Consequently, it entirely misses the point of education and simply signs on with the prevailing economic forces of our time.

The sad thing about this is that the very first victim of KGI will be the Bernard Field Station which is the one institution solely devoted to a long-term understanding of a natural local landscape where, in spite of urban protrusions, toxic air, etc., balance still prevails. We can learn much at BFS; but once it is damaged or gone, there will be no other comparable place. Unfortunately, the kind of project expected in the KGI could be located almost anywhere in Southern California without alteration of its program.