Picture Me Coding

Season 2 Bonus Episode: The Way of the Naturalist

March 18, 2024 Erik Aker and Mike Mull Season 2 Episode 0
Picture Me Coding
Season 2 Bonus Episode: The Way of the Naturalist
Show Notes Transcript

Mike's out this week so Erik went into his backyard and talked about famous Naturalists while birds chirped in the background. It's short and unexpected! 

[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello.

Welcome to Picture Me Coding with Erik Aker and Mike Mull.

Mike is out this week camping in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In his absence, I wanted to read passage to you from one of my favorite works of nonfiction.

The book is called A Natural History of California by Alan Schoenherr.

Schoenherr book covers all the habitats of California, and it is comprehensive.

The passage I wanted to read comes from a section called Coast Ranges, where he talks about the ecosystem of oak trees, the oak ranges on the coast of California.

Schoenherr writes, "Where fog is common, the vegetation is coated with a reticulated filamentous lichen known as lace lichen, Ramelina Manzizi.

This yellow-green growth cloaks and dangles pendulously from everything that is bathed by the fog.

The apparent function of the net-like branching is to increase the surface area available for condensation of water.

Condensation not only supplies additional water to the lichen and promotes fog drip, but it also provides a warming effect that could enhance photosynthesis."

"Where fog is common," Schoenare says, "if you've ever driven up the coast of California or hiked around coastal forests north of Point Conception, you might have noticed this lace lichen hanging from trees.

The cool thing about it is that the lichen indicates an otherwise hidden pattern.

If you see the lichen, you understand the pattern.

You see the lichen and you know lace lichen implies fog."

Actually, one time my wife and I were driving through Cambria, a town on the Central Coast of California.

We were actually looking up at the lace lichen hanging from the trees and we stopped at a stoplight.

I looked at the side of the road and there, in a patch of grass next to the stoplight, was a bobcat.

Anyway, the lichen, it just doesn't live on top of the trees.

It also serves areas purposes.

It collects the fog.

Schoenare says, "It increases the surface area available for condensation."

And so this fog then drips down under the roots of the trees it's hanging from.

And a biologist friend once told me, "Fog is rich in nitrogen.

So the lace lichen draped over the trees collects fog as condensation."

And so it becomes a really good source of nitrogen for the trees.

There are lots of hidden patterns like this in the natural world.

And an incredible thing about these patterns is you don't have to be a professional scientist to discover them.

You only have to start thinking and seeing like a naturalist.

My friend and co-host, Mike Mull, is out this week.

He's camping.

And my friend, Mike, is a naturalist.

So in honor of him, I selected a few texts to share with you about naturalism.

The next one I have comes from Jacques Cousteau's "The Silent World."

Most of our dives, Cousteau writes, have had a specific purpose-- wreck exploration, demining, or experimenting, and physiology, for instance.

But occasionally, we were able to steal hours of dawdling inside the sea, where a man could invite his sense to the nuances of color and light, listen for the lonely creeks of the ocean, and finger the water like a voluptuary.

Then one realized the privilege of crossing the barrier, that molecular tissue was a wall between the elements.

A few pages later, he continues, "The sea is a most silent world.

I say this deliberately on long accumulated evidence and aware that the wide publicity has recently been made on the noises of the sea.

An undersea sound is so rare that one attaches great importance to it.

The creatures of the sea express fear, pain, and joy without audible comment.

The old round of life and death passes silently, save among the mammals, whales, and porpoises."

Cousteau pioneered scuba diving with his friends during the Second World War, and he became a naturalist as part of his exploration of the sea.

He didn't have any training, formal training, as a biologist.

You can hear in this passage, he feels privileged to pass over into that natural environment.

A friend of mine, Paul Dayton, is a marine biologist known for his kelp research and Antarctic diving research.

In Antarctica, Paul described a super long lifespan of sponges below the ice, and they even named an undersea wall after him there.

While in Antarctica, Paul noticed that one side of McMurdo Sound was scraped clean every year by ice growing down in winter.

And the other side was deeper, so those sponges got to keep living and growing very, very slowly.

They were never scraped away by the ice.

And Paul had grown up between the desert in Arizona, logging camps in Oregon.

Inspired by Cousteau's, the silent world, he'd gotten his start diving in the Gulf of California.

In an essay titled "Adventures Scaling the Realized Niche, Saving the World and Searching for Values," published in 2020, Paul describes his start as a diver.

He says, "The family began making winter trips to San Carlos Bay near Guyamas, Mexico, where I learned to snorkel and discovered an utterly new world.

By age 10, I had a good understanding of the terrestrial natural history, but this marine environment was totally different and more scary than the bully of the woods.

But there was still the challenge to understand it.

When the family returned to our roots in Tucson, Arizona, near the Gulf of California, I was able to spend a great deal of time in the water learning a very different natural history.

At first, my objective was killing things to eat, but with the familiarity came the empathy and understanding of this system.

Cousteau's silent world was an inspiration.

And by 1956, I made my own scuba equipment from discarded tanks stolen from a junkyard, a B-29 regulator, and a simple pipe from a hardware store.

This rig almost killed me, but not before it gave me enough time underwater to begin to understand and empathize with the behavior of the marine animals from their perspective and to develop a sense of place for this strange new world.

By the 1960s, people were using scuba to over exploit the large fish and badly damage the Gorgonian habitats so fascinated me.

And I developed an obsession with becoming a marine biologist.

Eugenie Clark and Rachel Carson were marine ecologists I could relate to.

And when I read Carson's Silent Spring, I realized how important it was to develop a scientific understanding sufficient to protect the marine systems.

The dyslexia prevented me from understanding abstract processes such as learning languages or worse, mathematics.

But I did understand natural history.

And I hope that might be enough for me to become a marine ecologist.

So here Paul's describing the motivation for the beginning of his career as a marine biologist.

In spite of challenges like dyslexia and frustration with math, he overcame those.

And he was able to discover interesting patterns in the natural world.

Paul told me once on these trips diving for food in the Gulf of California with his homemade scuba gear.

He went into a cave and a moray eel attacked him.

The tanks he had had come from old firefighting equipment that they had just dumped at the town dump.

Anyway, he's in the cave, moray eel strikes out at him, hits him in the mask, dislodges it.

And in the moment, he's startled and blinded.

And he has to swim back out of the cave and up to the surface before he drowns.

So when he says his home egg rig almost killed him, this is probably what he has in mind.

Paul actually gave me all the books.

I'm going to pull passages from today.

One of my favorite books is by a writer he mentioned above, Rachel Carson.

The book is called The Sea Around Us.

Rachel Carson writes, "It was not until Cilurian time, some 350 million years ago, that the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore.

When they went ashore, the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed onto their children, in which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea.

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal, each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater.

Ever since I read this passage, it always stuck with me.

I spent a lot of time going to the ocean and looking at it and being in the ocean.

It's magical to imagine that in my blood and the blood of humans, these elements carry a pattern of the evolution of sea animals into land animals.

Now, not only is my friend Mike a naturalist.

He goes out into the forest and he studies the trees.

I think that we have a lot we can learn from naturalists as software developers.

As software developers, we're always on the lookout for patterns.

We look for patterns in our code, and we exploit these when we're adopting the dry principle.

We look for patterns in abstractions, in ideas, and means of deployment.

A major portion of our mental occupation is to find and exploit patterns.

Most of our most famous technical books about uncovering and relying on patterns.

So patterns are really important.

Naturalists study the natural world looking for patterns, too.

Ed Ricketts was a naturalist here in California.

He became pretty famous after John Steinbeck based the character Doc and Canary Rowe on him.

His most famous work is called "Between Pacific Tides," and he wrote it in between various outings that tied pools of California.

This work and Ricketts research were originally rejected by marine biologists at Stanford because he was a non-professional.

He did not have a college degree, dropped out before he could finish.

But Ricketts work is well respected today.

And in fact, "Between Pacific Tides," his most famous book, is still sold by Stanford University Press, the university that rejected him originally.

Here's Ricketts describing hermit crabs in between Pacific tides.

The pleasant absurd hermit crabs are the clowns of the tide pools.

They rush about on the floors and sides of the rock pools, withdrawing instantly into their borrowed or stolen shells and dropping to the bottom at the least sign of danger.

During the breeding season, according male may carry about a mature female for a day or more at a time, periodically butting shells with her repeatedly before mating.

Ricketts observed tide pools and saw things no one had noticed before.

And he collected a lot of these observations into this book, "Between Pacific Tides."

And that book became foundational to a lot of science about these creatures even today.

Here's a later passage from "Between Pacific Tides."

I'll one of my favorite creatures, Navinaxe enermous.

Ricketts writes, "Many snails crawl about on the mud flats in this low zone.

The largest are slugs, not particularly recognized as true snails, but actually belonging with this group of animals.

Navinaxe enermous, an animal closely related to sea hairs, is large and strikingly colored.

With many yellow dots or lines and a few blue ones on a brown background, it is common in Southern California and northern Mexico and has been frequently taken at Morro Bay and occasionally at Elkhorn Slough.

We find it commonly on bare mud, but almost as often in an association with eelgrass.

Navinaxe is a voracious feeder on other epistabronx, which it tracks down by following their mucus trails.

Overtaken prey are engulfed whole by a sucking action of the pharynx.

In bays, it feeds mostly on the shadow, epistabronx, bola, and haminoa, and on species of aglaha.

When on rocky shores, it will ease all sorts of nudibronx at the rate of three to five a day, including hermosunda and others presumably loaded with nematocysts, those are stinging cells, from a calenturate diet."

Calenturate would be jellyfish, corals, et cetera.

"In contrast to software development, a naturalist is someone who studies a natural world.

You don't have to be a trained scientist or even a professional scientist to be a naturalist.

You could be a wonderful thing called a citizen scientist.

By and large, there aren't really gatekeepers for the natural world.

There probably are in some places, private property and such, but in general, you can wander out into the grass or trees or down to the tide pools.

You could discover things just by looking."

This reminds me a bit of software development.

Software development, relatively egalitarian.

The information's out there if you wish to learn it.

Being a software engineer almost always involves some self-teaching and exploration.

And this is exactly what these naturalists did.

The subject matter, though, is a natural world, look and see, observe, learn, look for patterns.

So these texts are descriptions of the natural world by people who are fascinated exploring their environments.

The sense of free exploration and discovery we find among these naturalists, I find inspiring.

You can go outside, wander on trails, look for patterns, look for native and non-native plants and animal species, try to see the stories hidden below what you see.

It's a good use of time.