Fifty questions

A naturalist’s game

Long ago, somewhere in a tropical forest, a field-course instructor told the students to sit down, take out pencil and paper, and start writing down questions. Each student was expected to come up with fifty questions about whatever he or she could see, smell, feel, or hear around the chosen seat. These were not to be questions about identifying things (i.e., What’s the name of this plant or bug?). Rather, the questions were to deal with ‘why’ or ‘how’ or maybe ‘where’ (e.g., why are leaves green; why do some kinds of leaves have pointy tips; how does this worm find its food?).

We students had about twenty or thirty minutes to observe our surroundings, and then think up and write down our fifty questions. The point was not to be profound, but to be observant and spontaneous; some questions might be rather silly, but that didn’t matter.

I never got to fifty—couldn’t write that fast, even if I could think that fast. However, that didn’t really matter, either. When time was up, each student, in turn, proposed one of his or her questions for discussion, and the group then refined the question and suggested ways to answer it.

There were two essential parts of this exercise. One was getting the students to notice – really notice—what was around them. The second (since we were budding young scientists) was to engage in the scientific enterprise of designing hypotheses to explain the observation and suggesting tests of those hypotheses. It is the first part of the exercise that concerns me here, although it could be fun to suggest some possible answers too!

To illustrate how this game works, imagine that you are standing on the lower salmon-viewing platform on Steep Creek in fall, looking out over the meadow and the beaver pond. Can you come up with, say, fifteen why/how questions, all without moving from one spot? You can see various trees, a young porcupine eating willow leaves, a pond, the creek, some coho salmon in the creek, a bird in a tree, and so on.

Here are some examples of questions (there could be hundreds more!):

  • Why are willow leaves long and narrow, but cottonwood leaves are broad?
  • Why do alder leaves have ‘teeth’ on the edges?
  • Why do coho have olive backs and reddish sides?
  • Why do salmon have breeding colors so different from their ocean colors?
  • Why do Dolly Varden have conspicuous white margins on their ventral fins?
  • Why (and how) does a porcupine choose to eat leaves of just certain willows?
  • Why do some trees drop their leaves sooner than others?
  • How does a tree cut off its leaves?
  • Why does that bear scat contain so many apparently undigested berries?
  • How is that beaver pond useful for salmon or other creatures?
  • What determines the number of salmon returning to the creek?
  • Why do willow leaves turn yellow, but highbush cranberry leaves turn red?
  • Where did that huge boulder come from and why is it resting just there?
  • Why do Sitka spruce needles have sharp points?

These are just a few possibilities and, if you think about it, many of these questions lead readily to more questions. For instance, bears pass lots of undigested berries, probably because they have short guts that don’t retain food for long. But why do they have short guts? Why is rapid passage of food apparently more important than thoroughly digesting what the animal has already obtained? Do they pass digested fish as rapidly as berries? And so on.

Kids are often pretty good at kid-versions of this game, and I know some teachers use this gambit to engage their young students. Then how does it happen that so many adults seem to lose this sense of “I wonder…”?

Sometimes people tell me that knowing about what they see interferes with their appreciation of the beauty around them. I’ve never quite understood that attitude. There are what I sometimes think of as layers of beauty. There’s the top layer of scenery, on a large or a small scale (the mountains around the lake; a patch of varicolored leaves). Then there are some layers of general knowledge (glaciers dug this valley; vegetation succession; bears eat salmon). There can be many layers below that, as one probes into physiology and anatomy, food chains and habitat requirements, mating strategies and tactics, life histories, geological processes and timing, patterns of natural selection and evolution, and so on.

Sometimes I am focused principally on one or two of these multiple layers. At other times, however, I find it quite possible to engage with many layers at once, without spoiling any of them (and often wishing I knew more layers!). Indeed, I find the layers reinforce each other and strengthen the pleasure of observation.

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