Drawing, remembering, knowing: natural history and the ecological imagination

By Meredith Root-Bernstein (Aarhus University)

Geo: Geography and Environment recently published my personal essay about how natural history practices have helped me to think about interdisciplinary research and collaborations.  I emphasize in the essay how developing and sharing habits of observing, interpreting, and considering the human contexts of nature can help form shared understandings as the basis for exchanges about social and natural sciences of the environment.  In that essay, I discuss seeing an espino (Acacia caven) with a liana growing on it in central Chile.  My research involves searching for the key problems and solutions for the conservation of a silvopastoral system (“espinal”) and the surrounding shrub and forest habitats in this mediterranean-climate zone.  The most common species in espinal is the espino (Acacia caven).  Yet, I had never seen an espino with a liana, and I became intrigued by trying to understand the potential ecological and social meanings of this unusual species assemblage.  Here, I expand on that essay with a discussion of a sketch of the liana and the espino.  While looking for something else I came across this drawing I made of the espino and its liana:

Bernstein image

I had forgotten about the sketch, and I have also forgotten the exact circumstances of making it.  I am sure that I didn’t make it in situ, and a few days probably elapsed between seeing the tree and making the drawing. The structure of the trunk is hard to read.  First I thought it suggested that the tree is old and perhaps has ridges or hollows, but this doesn’t match the photograph.  I also couldn’t think of any example of thick, undulating or textured espino trunks.  Something was wrong, either with the drawing, my memory, or my knowledge of espinos.  Then, while walking past some trees here in Denmark with ivy on them, I realized by analogy that I had drawn the vines of the liana descending to the ground.

The liana seems to be partly imaginary.  I remember seeing red stems and green leaves, but I am fairly sure that there were no black drupes at the time and that I only saw images of them by looking up the species on the internet.  The drawing thus knits together memory and imagination to represent the way I was thinking about my observation.

The ambiguity of the sketch forced me to think about the visual and structural patterns that things make, and how those map onto our other kinds of knowledge and memory.   There are really two issues here: one is that the sketch was by nature approximate, hasty, and in this case not based on direct observation but rather memory and its own approximations.  All of these aspects confer an abstract nature on the sketch.  It excludes the inessential and retains only an impression, just enough to reconstruct what was seen.  The second issue though relates to my lack of experience thinking about and observing lianas.  This led to what might be a not-so-clear abstraction of a liana growing up a trunk, and certainly created ambiguity in interpretation.  But the ivy I saw that helped me to understand the sketched pattern of something I had only seen once before—a liana on an espino—taught me about lianas and vines in general.

An important part of natural history is personal memory, the accumulation of implicit and tacit knowledge.  How do we make these memories relevant to interpreting the future as well as the past?  Writing, sketching and showing others are all important means of communication, that emphasize different aspects of nature—the narratives and cycles, the structural patterns, the kinaesthetic and embodied knowledge of where, when and how.

It is well-known that natural history drawings have features that photographs do not: they can represent a general or ideal example of something, facilitating recognition, and they can bring attention to particular features or patterns through emphasis, selectivity and abstraction.

As I mention in the article, I think of natural history as seeking patterns, which can be used to interpret the past, but also potentially the future.  In my drawing, I imagined the visual effect of the liana on the espino in a season when it had fruit. In the Anthropocene, it might be interesting to think more about the natural history of the future.  How will places look, behave and feel under climate change? How will we read the landscape of abandoned infrastructures in the future?  What unexpected species pairing will we find somewhere next year, testimony to some casual event yesterday?  These visions don’t have to be apocalyptic—and they don’t have to be written.   Drawings can often be both more subtle and more complex than words.  They have their own logic of organization and representation.

I recently saw a short article in the ESA Bulletin about how ecologists can avoid midlife crises and burnout.  Going into the field from time to time was one suggestion.  I would also add to that that the practice of natural history, and the attempt to communicate it, if only to oneself later on, can be both enjoyable and meaningful.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this sketch that I had forgotten about, and it brought a new angle to what the liana and the espino taught me about the socioecological interactions of central Chile.

Who knows, practicing a little natural history on your days out might even inspire a new line of research, maybe an interdisciplinary one.  You don’t have to try to be serious and professional about natural history, which might take away the enjoyment of being in nature.  Play is an important way to explore the world, and its not just for children.  Many accomplished scientists, among others, take time to have fun with no clear purpose as a way to think better (see here  and here).  Later on, accumulated memories will certainly make something useful out of what you observe in nature for fun, whether it’s a publishable research project or some extra emotional attachment helping you to find satisfaction and motivation.  Indeed, my paper in GEO: Geography and Environment, and this blog post, were written just for fun and have helped me to recognise how important natural history is for my enjoyment of my job.

Meredith Root-Bernstein is a postdoctoral researcher in the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project, based in the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Denmark

Uneven geographies of openness and information

By Helen Pallett (University of East Anglia, UK)

Open access to information and data appears to be a cause which has found its moment, with governments, businesses, NGOs and academics queuing up to ratify open access commitments and extoll its virtues. It has variously been heralded as a means of rejuvenating democracy, reforming corrupt institutions, holding big business and business-dealings to account, improving the quality of scientific data available, removing academics from their ivory towers, and changing relationships between publishers, academic journals and authors.

These arguments for the opening up of data and information now seem uncontroversial and have few serious detractors. However, an emerging body of work demonstrates that to take the geographies of information seriously is to add a significant but often-overlooked angle on debates in academia and policy on open access and open data. This is what Mark Graham, Stefano De Sabbata and Matthew A. Zook have done in their recent paper in Geo, ‘Towards a study of information geographies’.

In this paper the authors focus on the different internet-based platforms through which geographic information itself is mediated, hosted and delivered. The potential of the internet and related technologies to facilitate the wide sharing, distribution and processing of information has of course been at the centre of arguments for and models of open data, and even open innovation or open government. Whilst the transformative power of platforms like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap are evident, the paper draws attention to their uneven geographies in a number of ways.

At a very basic level, geographies of internet access are uneven – less than 20% of the population in countries like India, Tanzania and Guatemala are internet users. But there are also clear barriers to participation in creating and contributing to geographic information platforms which transcend questions of who is connected to the internet, and there are important geographic patterns in what gets represented and what is overlooked. For example, domain names of websites are overwhelmingly located in Europe and North America, and similar patterns are found in the numbers of people contributing information to or coding these platforms such as Wikipedia or Geonames. This geography of participation also has implications for representation, with platforms like OpenStreetMap displaying much denser geographic information for locations in Japan, Europe and North America, as compared to locations in Africa, Australia and much of South America.



Distribution of domain names by country. From Graham et al. (2015).


The authors have demonstrated that information has geographies in the way that it is produced, presented and distributed, far from flowing with ease across space. This sounds a note of caution with regards to claims about the democratising and empowering potential of platforms aiming to open up information, including attempts to facilitate access to scientific data, academic papers, and government data. It suggests that enabling open access to information at this general level can only do so much, without addressing existing highly uneven geographies of access to the infrastructures and platforms hosting and transmitting this information. Furthermore, there are not only uneven geographies of access to consider, but also uneven geographies of participation and representation which serve to further shape and limit the data and information which is available to us.

Helen Pallett is a Senior Research Associate in the Science, Society & Sustainability group at the University of East Anglia.

Learning from guano: In search of a paleo-seabird proxy

By Jessica Conroy (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA)

Take a vacation to the Galápagos Islands and you’re bound to see some of the archipelago’s most colorful denizens perched on guano-splashed basalt rocks, or a sweet ball of puffy white feathers sitting patiently in her nest, waiting for breakfast.

Seabirds like the red-footed and blue-footed booby are some of the unique inhabitants of the Galápagos. Apart from being photogenic, they are impressive animals, with amazing hunting abilities, sometimes flying over 100 km away from their nesting sites in search of food.

Conroy image

A Genovesa red-footed booby. Credit: Jonathan Overpeck

Seabirds are also harbingers of the large changes sweeping the world ocean. A study of long-term seabird populations shows many species are declining.  Recent research also points to longer-term changes in some seabird populations relative to the last several millennia, likely related to recent human exploitation of the marine ecosystem.

Natural climate and ocean variability can also affect seabird populations. In the tropical Pacific, many species of seabirds suffer the effects of interannual El Niño events, which influences the abundance of seabird prey by altering ocean properties such as temperature and nutrient availability. In the Galápagos, blue-footed booby populations are decreasing, perhaps due to shifts in climate that operate over decades.

It is important to define the natural baseline of these varying populations. In order to place recent changes in a long-term context, scientists must establish the range of natural ups and downs in seabird populations prior to recent changes. But unfortunately, there are very little long-term seabird population data.

Lake sediments have long offered a way to tell us something about past environments– how much it rained, or variations in past temperatures. But, in the right setting, could lake sediments tell us something about seabirds? We thought one such lake may have an interesting story to tell.

Genovesa Island is a small, uninhabited island in the northeastern part of the Galápagos. With no surface water, it is not a tempting site for human settlement; Darwin did not even make it here. But, it is home to thousands of red-footed boobies and lesser numbers of great frigatebirds. According to the only estimate of the island’s bird population in the scientific literature, it is home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies in the world. The birds nest across the island, including the steep crater walls at the center of the island, which shelter a very inaccessible (to humans) crater lake.

The Genovesa seabirds produce large quantities of guano. The crater is streaked in white, and the air has an acrid smell. Some of this guano makes it into the lake, either directly, or by washing in during rainy periods. We hypothesized that there would be a geochemical signal of this guano archived in the lake sediments. One candidate for a paleo-guano proxy was the stable isotopic composition of nitrogen in lake organic matter. The heavier, less abundant stable isotope of nitrogen, 15N, is preferentially sequestered in organisms, with animals higher on the food web containing more 15N relative to 14N. As seabirds sit high on the food web, they, and their guano, have a distinctly high 15N/14N ratio—much higher than the 15N/14N values related to other processes and organisms that are typically found in lake sediments.

We measured 15N/14N in organic matter in Genovesa lake sediments and guano samples. The data, expressed in delta notation, d15N, where the 15N/14N ratio is normalized to the ratio of 15N/14N in air, showed high values in both guano samples and in the sediments, supporting a geochemical signature of seabird presence in the sediment. Although pretty cool, this result has been observed before, in arctic seabird ponds. The most interesting aspect of our study was the variability in d15N values over time.

We found that higher d15N values, which we interpreted as indicating increased seabird activity on Genovesa, coincided with decadal changes in the counts of anchovies and sardines in the eastern Pacific. With more of these fish in the region, d15N was higher, suggesting more seabird activity on the island.  An abrupt increase in d15N also occurred around 1830 AD, right when ocean sediment cores off the coast of Peru and Chile showed increased ocean productivity and nutrients. Another abrupt shift occurred in the mid 1960s. Thus, seabird activity has been highly variable at Genovesa over the last 400 years, increasing and decreasing in concert with decadal and abrupt changes in the ocean environment.

What do these results imply about the seabirds living on Genovesa? They seem to be doing ok, at least in context of last 400 years. Although this year’s monster El Niño event may have a negative impact on seabirds elsewhere in the Galápagos, past observations and our guano proxy suggest Genovesa seabirds don’t seem to feel El Niño events the same way.  But a recent  increase in decade-to-decade ups and downs in the d15N guano proxy record suggests that perhaps Genovesa seabirds are becoming more sensitive to regional ocean and climate changes on the decadal timescale. Or, there may have been a strengthening of climate change on the decadal timescale in this region during the 20th century. We hope to extend our lake sediment record deeper into the past and explore more potential guano indicators in order to find out.

About the author:

Jessica Conroy is an assistant professor in the Departments of Geology and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Being philosophical about crowdsourced geographic information

By Renée Sieber (McGill University, Canada) and Muki Haklay (University College London, UK)

Our recent paper, The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique, started from a discussion we had about changes within the geographic information science (GIScience) research communities over the past two decades. We’ve both been working in the area of participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and critical studies of geographic information science (GIScience) since the late 1990s, where we engaged with people from all walks of life with the information that is available in GIS. Many times we’d work together with people to create new geographic information and maps. Our goal was to help reflect their point of view of the world and their knowledge about local conditions, not always aim for universal rules and principles. For example, the image below is from a discussion with the community in Hackney Wick, London, where individuals collaborated to ensure the information to be captured represented their views on the area and its future, in light of the Olympic works that happened on their doorstep. The GIScience research community, by contrast, emphasizes quantitative modelling and universal rules about geographic information (exemplified by frequent mentioning of Tobler’s first law of Geography). The GIScience research community was not especially welcoming of qualitative, participatory mapping efforts, leaving these efforts mostly in the margins of the discipline.

Hackney mapping

Participatory Mapping in Hackney Wick, London, 2007

Around 2005, researchers in GIScience started to notice that when people used their Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to record where they took pictures or used online mapping apps to make their own maps, they were generating a new kind of geographic information. Once projects like OpenStreetMap and other user-generated geographic information came to the scene, the early hostility evaporated and volunteered geographic information (VGI) or crowdsourced geographic information was embraced as a valid, valuable and useful source of information for GIScience research. More importantly, VGI became an acceptable research subject, with subjects like how to assess quality and what motivates people to contribute.

This about-face was puzzling and we felt that it justified an investigation of the concepts and ideas that allowed that to happen. Why did VGI become part of the “truth” in GIScience? In philosophical language, the questions ‘where does knowledge come from? how was it created? What is the meaning and truth of knowledge?’ is known as epistemology and our paper evolved into an exploration of the epistemology, or more accurately the multiple epistemologies, which are inherent in VGI. It’s easy to make the case that VGI is a new way of knowing the world, with (1) its potential to disrupt existing practices (e.g. the way OpenStreetMap provide alternative to official maps as shown in the image below) and (2) the way VGI both constrains contributions (e.g., 140 chars) and opens contributions (e.g., with its ease of user interface; with its multimedia offerings). VGI affords a new epistemology, a new way of knowing geography, of knowing place. Rather than observing a way of knowing, we were interested in what researchers thought was the epistemology of VGI. They were building it in real-time and attempting to ensure it conformed to existing ways of knowing. An analog would be: instead of knowing a religion from the inside, you construct your conception of it, with your own assumptions and biases, while you are on the outside. We argue that construction was occurring with VGI.


OpenStreetMap mapping party (Nono photos)

We likewise were interested in the way that long-standing critics of mapping technologies would respond to new sources of data and new platforms for that data. Criticism tends to be grounded in the structuralist works of Michel Foucault on power and how it is influenced by wider societal structures. Critics extended traditional notions of volunteerism and empowerment to VGI, without necessarily examining whether or not these were applicable to the new ‘ecosystem’ of geospatial apps companies, code and data. We also were curious why the critiques focussed on the software platforms used to generate the data (e.g., Twitter) instead of the data themselves (tweets). It was as if the platforms used to create and share VGI are embedded in various socio-political and economic configurations. However, the data were innocent of association with the assemblages. Lastly, we saw an unconscious shift in the Critical GIS/GIScience field from the collective to the personal. Historically, in the wider field of human geography, when we thought of civil society mapping together by using technology, we looked at collective activities like counter-mapping (e.g., a community fights an extension to airport runway by conducting a spatial analysis to demonstrate the adverse impacts of noise or pollution to the surrounding geography). We believe the shift occurred because Critical GIS scholars were never comfortable with community and consensus-based action in the first place. In hindsight, it probably is easier to critique the (individual) emancipatory potential as opposed to the (collective) empowerment potential of the technology. Moreover, Critical GIS researchers have shifted their attention away from geographic information systems towards the software stack of geospatial software and geosocial media, which raises question about what is considered under this term. For all of these reasons and more we decided to investigate the “world building” from both the instrumentalist scientists and from their critics.

We do use some philosophical framing–Borgmann has a great idea called the device paradigm–to analyse what is happening, and we hope that the paper will contribute to the debate in the critical studies of geographical information beyond the confines of GIScience to human geography more broadly.

About the authors:

Renée E. Sieber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the School of Environment at McGill University. Muki Haklay is Professor of Geographical Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London. 

Geo: Space for Review

One year from its launch at AC2014, we want to highlight an opportunity to publish reviews in Geo: Geography and Environment. Geo welcomes high quality review papers which provide theoretical, methodological and topical analysis for advanced researchers in the field, or offer critical perspectives that engage cross-disciplinary collaborations, explore policy implications and address issues of global concern (see guidelines for authors). We are especially interested in reviews exploring what it means to assemble communities of knowledge differently and making use of the opportunities for online, open access publication.

We produce reviews in our PhDs, our grant proposals and our publications. To review is to assess and appraise. Reviews have a temporal element: looking back to assess and forward to propose change. A review is also a spatial practice: the review synthesises by defining and appraising a field. Yet, margins can be reinscribed and peripheries created in this process of producing knowledge. Situated epistemological differences may get recast as conceptual or methodological ‘problems’ to be solved by further integration with the theoretical core. There can be good reasons for an emphasis on consensus or periods of normal science. However, postcolonial, feminist and geopolitical critiques attune us to the active processes through which knowledge practices are made marginal and the implications of overly dominant scientific cultures. New practices of review have the potential to make these geographies of knowledge production more visible and so create the conditions for a different circulation and assemblage of ideas.

Innovations across the social and natural sciences, arts and humanities are advancing alternative resources for constructing and disseminating reviews. From the sciences: systematic reviews demonstrate how criteria for inclusion and exclusion can be made more explicit and accountable; large-scale data sets offer opportunities for developing and tracking the back-and-forth of new modes of co-operation; network analysis software can map evolving patterns of inter-citations and the relational transformation of their content. These have not featured widely in geographical reviews, but used reflexively, they have potential across the social and natural sciences. From the digital arts and humanities there are promising experiments in developing online platforms to support collaborative working and review; innovative visualisations of data, concepts and relations; and alternative forms and frames for data mining that value difference in previously unseen data.

Geo: Geography and Environment has space for review and we want to encourage reflection on these spaces of review. We welcome your conversations and all submissions, especially those mapping the ways in which communities of knowledge emerge and creating innovative, interdisciplinary and inclusionary spaces through review.

Gail Davies and Anson Mackay (Co-Editors in Chief)

Geo at #RGSIBG15

The many faces of flooding: Wed 2 Sept, Alumni Auditorium

We are delighted to be sponsoring a public event, ‘The many faces of flooding: Policy, science, and art’, at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Annual International Conference in Exeter this year. This panel debate will explore ways we can effectively, and fairly, build resilience to future flood events. It takes place on Wednesday 2 September (18.45) in the Alumni Auditorium, followed by a drinks reception from 20.00.

If you’re interested in flooding and climate change, you might want to take a look at some of the papers recently published in Geo on these themes:

  • Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisal. By Mike Hulme, doi:1002/geo2.5.
  • Understanding local community construction through flooding: the ‘conscious community’ and the possibilities for locally based communal action By Tracey Coates, doi:1002/geo2.6

The full list of papers published by Geo can be accessed via the journal’s website. We’re delighted that our first publications include papers by physical and human geographers, policy contributions, reviews, digital humanities papers and commentaries. There are some very exciting papers in production too, so watch this space!

Talk to us about publishing in Geo!

Both editors (Gail Davies and Anson Mackay) will be attending the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference next week, so please do come talk to us about publishing open access in Geo. Anson will be at the conference on Wednesday 3 Sept, and Gail will be at Wiley stand (in the Forum) on Wednesday 3 Sept, during session 3 (from 14.40), and on Friday from 9.30 to the end of coffee.

Mapping the “Tribes” of London

By Alex Singleton, University of Liverpool, UK

Our paper, The internal structure of Greater London: a comparison of national and regional geodemographic models, recently published in Geo, explores the geography of where we live to identify 19 distinctive “tribes” that characterise London neighbourhoods. This London Output Area Classification (LOAC) was created in collaboration with the Greater London Authority.

We employ an area classification technique referred to as geodemographics, which are a set of methods that were initially developed in the 1970s (with a model of Liverpool) by Richard Webber. Further details are given our paper, however, in brief, geodemographics are created using a computational technique that compares multiple attributes of areas (e.g demographics, employment, built structures etc.) and places them within clusters aiming to maximise similarity. These are then summarised with names and descriptions.

Within the UK, the Output Area Classification (OAC) is an example geodemographic classification, and was created on behalf of the Office for National Statistics from census data. A classification exists for both 2001 and 2011, and both were built with an entirely open methodology. However, one criticism of national classifications such as OAC is that they do not adequately accommodate local or regional structures that diverge from national patterns, which is an acute issue for London. This can be illustrated with maps of the 2011 OAC for London and the much smaller city of Liverpool.

A map of OAC SuperGroups in Liverpool. Source: http://oac.datashine.org.uk/#datalayer=oac11_s&layers=BTFT&zoom=11&lon=-2.8564&lat=53.4308

A map of OAC SuperGroups in Liverpool. Source: http://oac.datashine.org.uk


A map of OAC SuperGroups in London. Source: http://oac.datashine.org.uk

A map of OAC SuperGroups in London. Source: http://oac.datashine.org.uk

The problem with the national classification in context of London is evident from these images, with the majority of London classified into 3 clusters. However, the London classification presents a much more variegated picture of London.


A map of OAC SuperGroups in London. Source: http://oac.datashine.org.uk

A map of LOAC SuperGroups in London. Source: http://loac.datashine.org.uk

The best way to view the classification is on the website:  or you can search for your postcode – you can even let us know if you think we got your neighbourhood wrong!

About the author:

Alex Singleton is Professor of Geographic Information Science at the University of Liverpool. Alex’s Geo paper was co-authored with Paul Longley. Paul is Professor of Geographic Information Science at UCL)


Singleton, A. D., and Longley, P. (2015) The internal structure of Greater London: a comparison of national and regional geodemographic models. Geo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.7.

Further reading:

  • More London-Liverpool Geodemographics Factoids:

In addition to the first UK geodemographics being created for Liverpool by Richard Webber (also a graduate of the University of Liverpool); and this paper a University of Liverpool / UCL collaboration; one of the earliest examples of area classification within the context of London includes the maps of Charles Booth created between 1889-1903 . Charles booth was a Liverpudlian philanthropist. His maps were created through direct observations, and partitioned London into a series of summarising groups which are available to view online.

  • For more on the history of geodmeographics in the US and the UK, see our other open access paper on the subject:

Singleton, A. and Spielman, S. (2013). The Past, Present and Future of Geodemographic Research in the United States and United Kingdom. Professional Geographer, 66(4), 558-567.