Learning with our senses

Studying science in college was thrilling for me, it was exciting to put words and explanations to things I had only seen.  As I hiked through deep canyons in the Arizona desert I had wondered what made the rocks different and how they came to be in the form they were.  Wanting to understand more about rocks was what led me to the study of Earth Science.  Reading about earth history and geomorphology, how the rock cycle plays out, how life arose, how species are changing over time, the enormous span of geologic time…all these concepts were interesting to me because I had first spent time wandering through canyons looking at rocks.

Each time I entered an introductory science class for a different ‘branch’ of science they would teach the litany of its history.  Who were the founders, what were the major discoveries that led to this body of science, what are the terminology and definitions necessary to understand the field and its focus.  Every field of science is first taught this way, a picture assembled from fragmented ideas.  Science is an enormous edifice, a world constructed by different specialists.  Similar to how a building is constructed some lay the foundation, others build the walls some from lumber or others from stone, some put beams into the roof, others add the skin of sheet rock that covers the walls, or the pipes that carry water, the wires the electricity, etc, etc.  And like the individual trades and craftsmen scientists have unique view points.

All science majors are required to study math, physics and chemistry the foundation for understanding the physical universe.  But most people claim a specific science discipline and remain with it their entire career, only putting up pipes never sheet rock.  As a generalist I tended to cross boundaries; going from Earth Science to Soil Science to Civil Engineering, and finally into private business.  I did this because my interests keep leading me across boundaries.  It wasn’t always easy; each field I entered looked at the world differently, each had a different language, different concepts or ways of prioritizing information.  I can still recall the moment sitting in an introductory soil science class after finishing my degree in earth science and realizing how different this was going to be.  At times it felt like I had fallen down the proverbial rabbit hole.

In earth science we have one word for soil, ‘regolith’.  It essentially means all the messy stuff you have to scrap off the surface to get to the important part below, the rocks!  In soil science we have one term for the rocks beneath the soil, ‘parent material’.  Parent material is all the hard stuff below the soil and what was broken done to make the important part, the soil.  In Geotechnical Engineering (a branch of civil engineering) we are mainly concerned with how well soil can be compacted, how much strength rocks provide to the important part, the structures we build on them.  The cycle of rocks or the formation of soil from rocks is not important in engineering with soil.  Each field I studied had its own narrow window through which it viewed the world and experts within a given field tended to ignore information outside of its view.

The problem with a narrow view is that we begin to live in tunnels, believing it’s the only way to view the world.  We tend to assume others see the world the same way we do.  Communication between fields of science is difficult because each specialty has its own language and conceptual understanding of the world.  I believe too few scientists are even aware of the isolation caused by their specialization.  Specialists become successful only by being the best in their field, focusing on their specific discipline and rising to the top of their profession.  This narrows our thinking and prevents us from seeing other view points; and this is true of science as well as business, government, and religion.  Few people realize that we see the world through rose colored glasses, through windows than frame our view.  The only way to see a larger view is look though new windows, to see what others see, to listen and talk to each other, to ‘walk a mile in others shoes’ so to speak.

As a soil scientist and expert in compost I was asked to join a botanist in a study of commercial organic apple production.  We were going to study the effects of different soil amendments and mulch treatments on the growth of young apple trees.  One beautiful spring day we were in the orchard gathering data in the second year of the study.  I was happily digging into the soil beneath the trees collecting samples and making many interesting observations when I heard my colleague commenting about the diameter of individual tree trunks.  Suddenly it dawned on me that I hadn’t really considered the trees because I was so focused on the soil.  And what was more concerning was that when I looked at the trees I didn’t know what to look for!  We each had our focus and we were looking in different directions.

My curiosity made me look up from the soil and at the trees.  I listened to what he was telling me about their health and growth.  I am thankful for what I learned about trees that day and also what it taught me about tunnel vision.  We all use our senses to explore and gather information about what we experience.  But how can we understand the broader world if we can’t really see it?  My experience in the orchard that day helped me to see beyond my own narrow view and to appreciate the interconnection of trees and soil.

System thinking has moved beyond the isolated understanding of separated fields, combining theories in ways that help us create bigger pictures of the dynamic world in which we live.  It’s been a great time for generalists such as me, but I’m not sure how well specialists are doing.  Some people prefer processing information in a linear fashion; one idea follows another in a specific sequence.  Some people prefer taking apart the thing they want to understand; believing that somehow the pieces will tell them more than the whole of it.  Logical thinking is simply following the pathways with which we are familiar.  We tend to follow the same route in thinking again and again; like a well-worn foot path through the hills that we have always followed.  Maybe following predictable paths is preferable because it allows us to daydream along the way from here to there.  We don’t have to think about where we are going, its automatic and we trust we will arrive at our intended destination.

Einstein once made the observation “Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”  These words seem to be particularly relevant today as we consider the many problems we face in trying to scale back energy and resource consumption, reduce carbon emissions and global climate change, positively change our collective economy.  Physical scientists and social scientists are working together using system thinking, not simply looking at the world with a different focus or attempting to solve problems with the same thinking that created them.  Permaculture is a systems view and most of the people involved in this area are system thinkers.  Permaculture embodies the idea of learning from nature, making observations with our eyes, learning with our senses, and trusting our intuition.

I once went on a field trip with a soil scientist who was in his 70’s.  He grew up on a farm, ran tractors for many hours up and down the same carefully tended acres that had belonged to his family for several generations.  He knew about tilling, planting, and harvesting; crop rotations and cover crops; moving cattle to pasture in spring, cleaning out the barn and spreading manure on the fields; barn chores in the morning before school.  As we walked along the road looking across the field he commented about the trees lining the edge, the ‘windbreak’.  Some trees were shorter than others and he said this was an effect of the difference in soil and moisture across the landscape.  The soil under the shorter trees was likely drier perhaps more compact than under taller trees.  He told us before we collected samples we should look across the landscape, the trees along the edge, to get an idea of how soil varied across the field.  I thought about how he had learned this wisdom; the many hours he had spent in his youth driving a tractor up and down the same fields, thinking about what he was seeing and later how this lead to his broader understanding of the landscape as a whole system, not just one part separated from another.

Over the years I’ve learned a lot about making compost.  As a business owner I have given many tours to school groups from elementary to college age, seeing the differences between them.  I watch the joy of elementary age children approaching the piles of compost.  I often grab a handful of well-cured compost and smell it, talking about the wonderful ‘earthy’ odors of it and inviting the children to do the same.  Some children don’t hesitate; they grab a handful and lift it to their nose curious about how it smells unafraid of exploring this stuff called ‘compost’.  Few have patience for listening to concepts.  Some only want to climb on the piles!  Others hold back not sure if it’s alright to touch something they’ve been taught is ‘dirty’.

College students are often the least interested in touching compost, never interested in climbing on a pile!  They are more interested in asking questions; how often do I test it, how do I formulate recipes, when do I know it’s time to turn it, will they need to know this for a test?  I know that this is what college does to us.  This is what happens when students become the teachers never having left academia; the ivy tower we bemoan.  I try to explain to them that when I first began making compost I did a lot of reading, testing, measuring and collecting pieces of data, but after years of filling hundreds of spreadsheets with data I finally felt confident of just using my senses.  After a while, my experience making compost had taught me how a pile was doing by grabbing a handful and smelling it, by feeling the moisture and temperature against my skin.  Experience taught me to judge how a pile was doing by the amount and smell of the steam that escaped when I dug into it with the loader.

Composting, like so many things in life, is both a science and an art.  The science is in the details and theories that others have carefully recorded for us to read and learn.  The art comes when we go beyond concepts and begin to judge with our senses, trusting our intuitions.  Art is when we love what we do and take pleasure in doing it; when it’s more about exploration and less about expertise.  I wonder if this is what it was like for people before we ‘discovered’ science, before we fell into narrow categories or professions.  Yes, maybe the Age of Reason that began in the 18th century was a rebellion against the inflexibility of religious thinkers.  And maybe Permaculture and system thinking is a rebellion against the over specialization of science, the arrogance of experts.

I wonder if the process of learning and discovering with our senses isn’t really what makes us human, what makes our life worthwhile.  Perhaps this is how as humans we evolved our ‘big’ brains, our specialized neural networks.  Maybe in exploring the word with our senses and trying to make sense of it all, we developed language in order to tell stories,  we developed writing in order to keep records, and in the process we advanced our social group from tribes into culture and from culture into civilizations.

There is no question that all life forms learn with our senses; and through our senses we come to understand and affect the world.  I would like to believe that humanity will move past our problems today forward into a future of health and well being.  Perhaps we can give up narrow tunnel vision and stop  assigning knowledge to classes of ‘experts’.  Perhaps humans can once again find the art and joy of exploring the world, spending a lifetime learning with our senses.

14 Replies to “Learning with our senses”

  1. You’re a wonder, Jody – making bread by hand and compost with heavy machinery, studying Zen Buddhism and Civil Engineering, herbalism and geology.
    There is a kind of separation between learning through the senses (and the grounding that comes with it) and learning in the academy. All too often the academy becomes an end in itself, and one’s studies drift farther and farther away into highly specialized research on a subsection of the field and the tunnel vision that you speak of closes in.
    I love new words: “regolith.” Thank you for that and for your insights on the different perspectives on rocks and geology and soil. As Andrew Cliburn of Kestrel Heart says: “Rocks have given us ourselves, in a sense, because they carry the soul, are soul.”

  2. Jody –
    I like your progression on an expertise continuum from school studies and scientific rigor at one end to the ‘artfulness’ at the high experience end. As a grad student I’d eschewed any ‘art’ to the science. One might get creative as to their approach to a problem… the methods, but data must be collected, bias must be avoided, statistics must be applied.

    While I’ve not wondered across as many disciplines as you have, I have had the opportunity to work alongside others and have witnessed the various aspects of the different jargons, perspectives, and institutional biases that you discuss. I think the ‘tunnels’ they create serve a purpose for beginners. To take too broad an approach when starting out could overwhelm most of us. But with time and ambition one can (and likely should) bore through the parent material to various other tunnels as you have. They say the grass is greener on the other side… perhaps the knowledge vistas available are broader as you keep exploring beyond your tunnel.

    When I’m asked about what I do – particularly by someone who already knows something of plant breeding – I find myself describing some of the choices being made as ‘coming from the gut’ – essentially having a ‘feel’ for the organism – the art behind the science. [Barbara McClintock’s ‘A Feeling for the Organism’ comes to mind]

    I’m also reminded of testing hay in a windrow to know if its dry enough to bale… you develop a feel as your expertise grows.

    Have you tried to describe the smell of the best compost?

  3. Clem,
    I loved the experience of graduate school and working in a research lab. There are days I still miss that experience. I agree with you that in the beginning we need a narrow structured approach with a lot of discipline. In fact, the word discipline seems to say it all. In order to fully develop we need to discipline our thinking in order to define a path, it’s boundaries, and direction if we want to make progress.

    Perhaps the most important skill we learn is to remove our biases and to think objectively. I know that my formal education improved my ability to think clearly, to avoid the impulse to jump to conclusions, to spend time organizing my thoughts into coherence, and to better articulate my understanding. This is a valuable skill and we can’t give up what we haven’t first acquired!

    I once met a renowned scholar who impressed me with his intellectual brilliance and his humble appreciation for learning. I think what inspires me the most are people who spend their life searching for greater understanding and meaning, not closing their mind or narrowing their view. I admire people who have a love and thirst for knowledge. I think it takes a lifetime to develop a human mind. I know I’m certainly am not done! Over the years I’ve learned to ‘think’ outside of boxes, to appreciate large mindedness. Perhaps its been the practice of meditation that has helped me appreciate the experience of opening up to mystery.

    It seems that in children human minds are open taking in raw, unfiltered data. This is what we love about childlike wonder. We admire children’s ability to be spontaneous, to watch their simple enjoyment in exploration. As we grow and mature, with formal learning, we develop the abilities to read, to write, and to think. As humans we seek to absorb and extend the knowledge retained by our civilization. But I think at some point in developing our philosophy of life, we are no longer satisfied with intellectualism. We reach a point when we long to experience more than ideas. Some part of our mind knows that something essential is still missing from intellectual formations.

    What is missing, I think, is the experience where mind becomes fluid and dynamic, surrendering to infinite possibility beyond the mental constructs. The Buddha called words and ideas mental formations. I think when we learn to let go of mental formations we reach the place where forms are fluid. This is where we find great art, music, poetry, and literature are created; where scientific breakthroughs are found. Perhaps we could call this place the ‘universal mind’ (although any term is only partially true).

    No, I’ve never before thought to describe the smell of ‘best’ compost. But now that I have I would describe it like this. When I smell compost that is filled with microbial diversity living in dynamic balance I detect generally an “earthy” odor. It is a rich complex odor that is almost intoxicating. Any undertones of sulfur or sourness, indicative of anaerobic conditions, are strongly unpleasant and easy for the human nose to detect. I can’t describe any individual gases, but that may be just my limited ‘nose’. A ‘nose’ is something we must train.

    I’m sure the ‘earthy’ odor contains a vast complexity of molecules. Whatever they are I believe they go straight into my brain causing a release of serotonin making me feel deeply relaxed and filled with well being. I think there is actually research findings that show the ‘earthy’ smell of soil helps eliminate depression. So perhaps for me it is as much about how I feel when I smell ‘good’ compost as it is what I recognize. I can also feel microbial activity on my skin, but my husband the biochemist insists that is impossible! Nonetheless…I trust my senses!


  4. “… feel microbial activity on my skin” Hmmm, presently on board with your Hubby on this one. Perhaps my mind hasn’t sufficiently opened up to this possibility. But I am with you on the ‘earthy’ smells of compost, rich high organic matter soils, and the surface duff in a forest. The volatile organics (and there are VERY many) should be right up your husband’s alley.

    This goes a bit wide of the present conversation, but in the soybean research field there is active and ongoing work looking at the contributions of exogenous sources of nitrogen on seed protein content. As a legume, soy fixes N; but high yielding varieties will also scrounge N from the soil – so higher organic matter levels in the soil can help a good soy crop place more protein in seed. And for me, that smells good 🙂

    It also seems we share quite a bit on matters of learning and thinking. Though on the matter of training the nose… I wonder whether we are not actually training the brain to better interpret what the nose is detecting? But I would agree some noses are better than others, so perhaps it’s comparable to color blindness or tone deafness… nose nosiness??

    1. Clem,
      Perhaps feeling microbes on our skin is a function of their microbial biomass. From testing of my compost I know it contains an extremely large and diverse population of bacteria. I also know that bacteria have quorum sensing, when the population gets large enough they “talk” to each other more. I also know that microbes on our skin “talk” to our skin cells, training our own cells to recognize pathogens.
      What I feel when I’ve had my hands in contact with fresher compost is a sort of tingly feeling. It is like my hands are lite up. That is the best I can do for a description. It seems to me that putting all the above factors together it stands to reason that when my hands are in contact with a large and different population of microbes, my skin cells and perhaps my skin microbes respond ‘loudly’ enough that I can sense the commotion.
      I do know that I have heightened nervous perception for some stimuli. My dentist can’t understand how I can feel things so well!
      Regarding training the nose…I once participated in an compost odor study. The researcher trained students to detect odors. He insisted that during the study we had to avoid using any hygiene products with scent added, avoid smokers, and avoid exposure to a long list of other specific chemicals that affect our sense of smell. Also, avoiding allergens so that our nasal passages weren’t swollen shut! Then he trained our nose through specific exposure to specific compounds in diminishing quantity to help us recognize what they were. Some people can detect smaller concentrations of only certain compounds. It’s kind of the same training process that wine testers do.

      1. Ok, so now I’m leaning a little closer in your direction… the quorum sensing helped immensely. I’ve known about QS and it makes sense a fresher compost would have more CFUs and the cell biomass likely much more active. Still not entirely in your camp, but much closer than I was before.

        I wonder how you might react to being called a compost whisperer? The wine testers you mention – sommeliers – would be the sort of experts I imagine you qualify for in the world of compost. I’ve had a few folks refer to me as a soybean whisperer and I have to admit the notion didn’t insult.

        Oh, and in terms of a small world story… I have a niece who is a Junior Civil Engineering major at Purdue. She has done water projects in several places, including one in Africa.

        1. Clem,
          I’ve been thinking about your earlier comment about whether we are not actually “training the brain to better interpret what the nose is detecting?” this is probably a reasonable explanation for how our senses learn. But there is a lot of new interesting developments in neurosciences and microbiology. For example, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4228144/

          “The discovery of the size and complexity of the human microbiome has resulted in an ongoing reevaluation of many concepts of health and disease, including diseases affecting the CNS. A growing body of preclinical literature has demonstrated bidirectional signaling between the brain and the gut microbiome, involving multiple neurocrine and endocrine signaling mechanisms. While psychological and physical stressors can affect the composition and metabolic activity of the gut microbiota, experimental changes to the gut microbiome can affect emotional behavior and related brain systems.”
          It seems that communication with microbes is much more intentional and active than we realized. The questions I always come back to is “what are the microbes trying to tell us and why is hard for us to hear them?” I think our medical use of antibiotics is much more of a health problem than we realize.

  5. Clem,
    I certainly do not take offense to being called a “compost whisperer”! I think being a whisperer is really just being a really good listener.
    So now I’m curious what you’ve learned listening to soybeans and how that ability might relate to plants in general? It seems like an excellent skill to have if one is a plant breeder. You are in excellent company along with Luther Burbank.

    It also explains your comment about Buhner “that once we spend some time with something we begin to come to a deeper awareness of it.”
    I wasn’t quite sure what you meant by “Where I’d part with Buhner on the investing of time as a beneficial practice is that I don’t see it being a universal. Some folks ‘get it’ and some don’t. Perhaps those who don’t yet, might someday. I hope this for them.”
    Are you saying that coming to a deeper awareness either comes natural or it doesn’t? I believe our focus can be sharpened with practice. Cultivating a focused mind takes practice and practice takes time. Any latent talent can be developed over time. It starts with paying attention. Even those with exceptional talents won’t develop if no effort is applied.
    Indeed, we live in a small world. Nice to hear you have a niece nearby. Purdue is a very good school. Two of my sons are currently enrolled at Purdue.

  6. Judy said:
    Are you saying that coming to a deeper awareness either comes natural or it doesn’t? I believe our focus can be sharpened with practice. Cultivating a focused mind takes practice and practice takes time. Any latent talent can be developed over time. It starts with paying attention. Even those with exceptional talents won’t develop if no effort is applied.

    Where I was headed before relates to a couple tendencies I’ve noticed in some people I’ve worked with over the years. I do imagine there is variation among folk for various abilities and we often suggest these come ‘natural’ or they don’t. I agree that talents can be sharpened, but I would add that in order for a certain talent to be improved one needs some level of motivation to apply the practice required. Some experience great improvements in some talents more readily than others. Some folks are just lazy. I hope for the lazy, they’re really missing out.

    You continue to pull me toward the microbes on the skin talking to you meme. The microbiota of the gut certainly do communicate, and the gut is merely the skin on the inside of the tube of the critter. And so long as we’re thinking along creative lines I so suppose a mosquito communicates with us when she bites. Scale shouldn’t be the limiting factor… so a microbe on the skin is just a tinier version of a fellow critter interacting with us. And one could go to the microbes that cause acne or other skin irritations… Hmmmm, am beginning to wonder if a certain biochemist needs to bone up on his microbiology??

    1. Clem,
      I love that you wrote “a mosquito communicates with us when she bites.” It is wonderful having a discussion with someone that knows mosquitos that bite are female. All this amazing information we collect over our life. You are also motivating me to be more precise in how I communicate! Yes, sommelier is a more precise term than wine taster.
      If you haven’t heard about it I encourage you to dive deeper into the Human Microbiome Project. https://hmpdacc.org/hmp/overview/
      “The NIH Common Fund Human Microbiome Project (HMP) was established in 2008, with the mission of generating resources that would enable the comprehensive characterization of the human microbiome and analysis of its role in human health and disease.”
      I first learned of this research in 2010. It’s rather funny how this study began. Scientists finished sequencing the human genome, probably thinking they had reached the pinnacle of the mountain, wondering “Well, what do we do now?” Someone suggested that they look at sequencing the microbes that live on and in us. They thought if they looked at a few healthy people vs a few sick people they might see some differences. The truth of the matter quickly became apparent. It’s been a fascinating journey thus far.
      If I was younger I’d go back to school and study microbiology just to be working within this amazing field.
      I would think microbes on the roots of plants would affect plant health and would be equally fascinating. Eventually I think everyone will reach a consensus that microbes (in the soil, on our body, everywhere) are vital for all health and we’ll stop trying to kill them off. I am beginning to think that Jim Lovelock’s Gaia theory may simply end up being the action of microbes. Microbes are the only life form that is ubiquitous across most of the earth, genetically responds to system perturbation the fastest, and has some rather unique abilities to communicate across species boundaries.

  7. If I was younger I’d go back to school and study microbiology just to be working within this amazing field.

    I came close to making this change when I was an undergrad. A good friend was the TA for a microbiology class I took. Did pretty well in it and was invited to be the TA the following year. Enjoyed being a TA too, but the chance to dig into the field even more was the outstanding part. What’s more, if I had made the change, soil micro would have been my chosen direction.

    And your notion that microbes on plant roots would be important is prescient too. There are beneficials and pathogens both. Soybean being a legume will host Bradyrhizobium (a gram negative rod… how’s that for digging back into the cobwebs of the mind?) for nitrogen fixation. There are the mycorrhiza too. A big help. On the other side most of the plant pathogens are soil borne fungi. So it does help knowing some microbiology in my line of work.

    And you might not need to go back for more than a class or two. Shoot, if your basic biology background is strong enough (which it sounds like it is) you could probably read up on your own without actually taking a class.

  8. Clem,
    If I wanted a job in academic research I would need to do more than take a few classes! But thanks for your optimism. My life has taken a different path. I still enjoy reading and studying, but I gather knowledge for my own edification now. Many of the customers that call me are surprised to find someone on the other end of the phone line. They are even more surprised to find expert advice at no charge.
    While I was doing research I often asked myself if what I was doing was really making a difference in the world. The answer was rarely yes. Research, although enjoyable, rarely seemed to make much of a difference. Publishing a paper in a journal that was read by a handful of people did little to solve the world’s problems.

    In my community I sell excellent soil for raised bed gardens. There has been a large increase in the number of families growing food at home and I like to think it has something to do with the success they achieve using my soil. I’ve developed a following.

    So, I’m happy running a loader at Soilmaker and making really good soil. I may not be advancing science, but I am advancing the quality of life in my community. This seems like a good outcome of my efforts. But I would probably think differently if I were about to be 30 vs. 60!

  9. Nope – didn’t see the academic idea coming… and yep – more than a few classes would have been required.

    Can’t stay to chat right now, but would like to revisit the notion of value between various life paths. You do have a quite a bit to be proud of right where you are. And from where I sit I’d imagine you’d have plenty to be proud of had you gone a different direction. Is your biochemist an academic?

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