Blog post: Studying ecology in a more-than-human world

November 8, 2021

by Siddharth Unnithan Kumar

As late spring was blooming, and the second year of my PhD drawing to a close, I left Oxford to embark on a trip to Turtle Island. Turtle Island is more commonly known as the United States of America, but I think that names are important and that words have power, and so I prefer the name Turtle Island which was introduced to me by the works of Robin Wall Kimmerer and Gary Snyder. The purpose of the trip was threefold: spend time in-the-flesh with my supervisor Sam Cushman, visit some special people, and (perhaps deepest of all) engage with and cultivate direct experience with the landscapes of the West.

Getting to Turtle Island wasn’t straightforward – because of a travel ban for those coming from these islands, I flew to Mexico and spent two weeks in the Yucatan peninsula. The Yucatecan people were kind and hospitable, and very patient with my lack of proficiency in speaking Spanish. Before long, the summer began and it was time to travel north to see Sam, who lives in Arizona.

For much of July, I was staying with Sam and we were working together on my PhD research, which has recently involved developing a computational model to simulate animal movement paths across different landscapes (which are parameterised by things called ‘resistance surfaces’). With this model, we have been testing the abilities of several widely used tools in quantitative movement ecology – in particular, evaluating the accuracy of algorithms in landscape connectivity, which are used by a diverse range of ecological practitioners. So much of the vibrance and detail of our lived experience, not to mention that of other beings, is surely beyond the realm of the quantifiable and analytical, and so we are not aiming to capture all details of animal movement in a computational setting – but developing such a model nonetheless does importantly provide a tool for analysing certain methods employed in ecological science, and it also gives us some predictive capabilities.

The time we had together was invaluable for churning through and digesting the analytical material involved in this project, and this work was very much sustained by long afternoon walks in the Coconino forest, warm and deep conversation, and good food. Indeed, as I digest my rice and daal, and the lentils break down and suffuse my body with their nutrients, including the powering of my mental functions, who is it that is really doing the intellectual work – is it me, ‘Sid’, doing this work as an entity somehow independent from other processes and beings…or is it the lentil too, and the sunshine and rain and farmers who grew those lentils, and all the humans and other beings involved in bringing that lentil to my plate (not to mention all the other things which nourish me aside from lentils)?

The experience in Turtle Island, which was two months in all, was a deep privilege for me, especially being a student of ecology. Ecology is so broad a subject of study (I think of it as the study of the earth and all its webs of relations and interconnections – so perhaps, the study of everything), and so to have the opportunity to engage with ecology in a felt and embodied way – to really sink into the landscapes, to develop my rapport and rhythm with the ponderosa pines, the blue and grey mountains, the golden deer and curious seals – was not just a profound and healing experience, but also deeply informative and guiding for bringing me in tune with the ecological knowledge disseminated by nonhuman beings. After all, as David Abram writes in the opening of his wonderful book the The Spell of the Sensuous, are we not human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human? Indeed, from my own experience this summer, I found that opening myself to and receiving the more-than-human collective of beings shows me very deeply that the world is indeed full of magic and wonder. And, at summer’s end, I returned to Oxford with something deep inside feeling alive and well.