Getting to know our neighbors at the Natural History Museum of Utah
The myths of human separateness are many and varied: Mankind is special—we are the only animal with a soul and emotions, the only tool-users, the only producer of language and culture, and so on.
Humans do plenty of things that other animals don’t, but as Darwin pointed out, it is a separation of degree, not of kind. Every living thing influences its environment. Ants actively rework their environment to make it more suitable for themselves, including killing plants they dislike. In the arena of environmental change, we humans have constructed for ourselves a superpower, then cultivated the ability to ignore our influence. Maybe that is a uniquely human ability: to rework the world in a profound way and then fail to notice.
If we are to live on this planet as a species for any extended period of time, then meeting the neighbors, and noticing our impact on them, is an excellent idea. Through May 25, the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) is providing a Utah-centric introduction. Explore who we’re sharing our backyards with, what lives on the margins of human spaces, how trees in neighborhoods are making us healthier and how we can return the favor. Learn to cook with weeds, how lights impact bird migrations, and how long house sparrows have been living with humans (spoiler: it’s in the thousands of years).
Nature All Around Us is visually stunning with enough information to make multiple visits not only satisfying, but probably essential.
Eat the weeds
For instance, in the digital Dandelion Café, chef Megan Mullineaux prepares several dishes from foodstuffs foraged in her yard or nearby in Salt Lake City. There are many reasons to eat wild foods: for an astonishing collection of micronutrients, some mind-blowing flavors, and to show respect for the ecosystems we reside in.
Eating the weeds can also be excellent revenge, but I have found that eventually my relationship with these plants shifted from adversarial to partnership. They are incredibly hardy. They require almost nothing from me in water or care. If I’m eating them regularly, they can’t take over.
By participating in my immediate ecosystem there is greater balance both within and without. The recipes for all of Megan’s mouth-watering creations will be coming soon to NHMU’s social media accounts. I salivate in anticipation!
Cultivating the skill of observation
Noticing can lead to superpowers and it’s not just dinner that gets a boost. We cannot protect what we do not know exists. With internet access and a camera, anybody can change the world. How can taking a picture and downloading to iNaturalist make a difference? At a bioblitz run by NHMU in the Fife Wetland Preserve (945 So. 110 West in Salt Lake City), volunteers photographed three species of threatened dragonflies. (A bioblitz is a communal citizen-science effort to record as many species within a designated location and time period as possible.) No one knew they were using the area. Now, instead of spraying the weeds in the preserve, city employees pull them. The use of fewer chemicals has a direct, positive impact on the dragonfly populations, but also benefits everything else that is part of the Great Salt Lake watershed. All because a few people took some pictures.
There is an ongoing need for people to document the wild-living things they come into contact with. To paraphrase Ellen Eiriksson, NHMU’s Citizen Science Coordinator, you don’t need to know what it is you’re looking at, and you don’t need to take amazing pictures. Just notice, snap a picture, download. It’s all relevant, no matter how mundane it may seem.
Did you know that bees come in iridescent blue? From extra-large bumbles and carpenters to tiny diggers and sweat bees, Utah is home to more 1,000 species of bees. Make sure to leave enough time to sit in Wendy Wischer’s meditative visual poem Written on the Wind. Check out the tree dating ap ‘Timber’ and find arboreal true love. Notice. Be a part of your ecosystem.
The survival of so much depends on our outsized influence. Plenty of altruistic reasons exist for us to notice what we do to the world and rework our behavior accordingly. Plenty of selfish reasons also vy for our attention—big scary ones, such as we don’t breathe or eat without functioning ecosystems, and more subtle ones. What do we lose in health and happiness when there are no more aspens in the world? I’d rather not find out. Better to live differently than to learn, too late, that I cannot live without the Nature All Around Us.
Carrie Black is a regular contributor to CATALYST.