Ecological Autobiography

Maureen Ryan, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, Western Washington University.
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


The ecological autobiography is a multi-stage reflective and written exercise that draws on students' personal history and experiences as they consider the ecological context of some period of their lives. The goal is to individually and collectively explore how the landscapes and ecological communities we have inhabited influence us as individuals, set the context of our lives, and influence our expectations of landscape. I have used this exercise in a variety of interdisciplinary courses, all focused at the intersection of ecology, evolution, and environmental history. The exercise can be easily tweaked to broad application across the natural sciences, environmental studies, environmental history courses, or other courses. The exercise involves two stages of personal reflection and writing, and a third stage of natural history exploration. These stages also can be combined or some can be made optional to shorten the assignment. The first reflection is focused on describing details of species or natural systems from memory; the second reflection is then intended to deepen personal connection and garner insights into the role that the remembered species or systems played in the individual's life. The third stage of natural history exploration is designed to enhance ecological knowledge and spark renewed curiosity about the species and natural communities that form the core of the reflection. While the assignment is completed independently, many students report that they turn to interviews of family members and friends to enhance their memory, and the assignment becomes a kind of collective revisiting and exploration of the places that they live or have lived together.

Learning Goals

As a whole, the objective of the exercise is to illuminate the species and natural landscapes of our own histories that often fade into the background of our memories and to incorporate these "community members" in the narrative of our lives, thereby expanding the sense of connection and natural texture of our lives. Specific goals of this exercise are for students to:
  1. Pay renewed attention & enhance sense of connection to the species and natural environments with which they grew up or spent important times – i.e. contextualize students' lives within the living world.
  2. Consider the role of these species and natural environments in their personal histories, development, and expectations of landscape.
  3. Highlight the role of attention in both defining the content of personal narratives and sparking curiosity.
  4. Develop reflective writing skills.
Depending on the sequence of the curriculum, when possible, I have also linked this exercise with the idea of ecological scales. In a temporal sense, this involves recognizing that different elements of the natural world and our own lives move at different paces, and that the natural world, being "slow" relative to many human elements, can provide continuity in our lives amidst change (or if lost, elicits grief in the loss of this continuity). In a spatial sense, students often realize how precious small patches of backyard and wild space were to them as children, how big those spaces seemed, and start to consider "humanized" landscapes and their capacity for restoration differently (e.g. small patches within yards that could become habitat for birds or salamanders or butterflies, or the possibility of creating smaller patches of wild space that link together to create corridors within rural and urban landscapes for larger species).

Context for Use

This exercise is very flexible. I have generally used it in 300-level interdisciplinary discussion courses at the intersection of ecology, evolution, and environmental history. However, it is appropriate to any natural sciences, environmental studies, environmental history courses, and could be tweaked for a much broader range of course types. My students have ranged from second-quarter freshman to seniors. I always concurrently assign short readings that serve as examples of ecological memoir in different forms. The memoir-style then approach leaves flexibility for students at different stages of their undergraduate work to express what is meaningful to them. I have experimented with the sequence of the exercise. The one described here has three parts, but at times I have also assigned parts 2 & 3 as alternative options from which students can choose. I recommend giving this assignment with at least 5-7 days advanced notice, since many students end up going to family and old friends to remember details, and the multi-stage approach takes time to do well. Students do not need to have mastered any particular skills, but experience with basic natural history research and species identification is helpful, as are developed writing skills.

Description and Teaching Materials

Ahead of the written assignment, I have students read a couple examples of memoir-based meditations on landscape to get their ideas flowing. I often give them several authors and ecological contexts from which to choose, including some from urban landscapes (e.g. Peter Sauer and Richard Thompson's pieces below). There are many from which to choose. Here are some examples:
  • David James Duncan. 2001. "The Non-Sense of Place," chapter three in My Story As Told By Water. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco. (Oregon & Montana)
  • Barry Lopez. 1998. "The American Geographies," chapter eight in About This Life. Knopf, New York. (US)
  • From David Landis Barnhill's (1999) anthology At Home on the Earth. University of California Press, Berkeley. Some of my favorites are:
    • N. Scott Momaday's "A First American Views His Land" (Northern New Mexico)
    • Robert Finch's "Into the Maze" (Cape Cod)
    • Peter Sauer's "Water Under American Ground: West 78th Street" (New York City)
    • Alice Walker's "The Universe Responds Or, How I Learned We Can Have Peace on Earth" (California)
    • Linda Hogan' "Dwellings" (Colorado)
  • From Thomas Fleischner's (2011) The Way of Natural History. Trinity University Press, San Antonio, especially:
    • Charles Goodrich's "The Gardener Gets Arrested" (Oregon)
    • Richard Thompson's "Music and the Natural World" (London)
  • Excerpts from Terry Tempest Williams. 2001. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. Vintage Books, New York. (Utah)
  • Excerpts from Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (Wisconsin)
  • Any of the "On the Spot" essays in SueEllen Campbell's (2011) The Face of the Earth: Natural Landscapes, Science, and Culture. University of California Press, Berkeley. (global)

Assignment Prompt for Ecological Autobiography
General Prompt: Write your ecological autobiography or memoir in images of your native (or chosen) landscape(s) & ecological communities. The goal is to choose encounters with the natural world that you feel influenced you enough that by describing them you are in some way describing and exploring elements of yourself. The assignment involves three parts. Please follow the prompts in each section.

Part 1: In two pages, describe the inhabitants of a place, encounter, or sequence of places and encounters that are particularly meaningful to you. You might choose several places connected with a few strong memories from the span of your life, or the details of one particular landscape that you know well, or an encounter with a particular species that stands out in your memory. The key to this first part of the exercise is to shift focus to the ecological context of your life and see what emerges when you focus outwards on the details of what exists outside of you. For this reason, describe the species and natural systems that you have encountered creatively and in detail, but without referencing yourself. For example, if you are describing an encounter with a fox, you might describe the way the fox moved, its physical appearance, the species that set its background, but you would not describe your own reaction to it yet, or your place in the frame. To remember details, it helps to choose a particular moment or sequence of moments to describe. You will have the opportunity to incorporate yourself in the next part of the exercise.

Part 2: In two pages, reflect on part 1, adding yourself back in. Some questions you might consider are: What species or natural communities jumped out in your memory, and what is the basis of your special relationship with these species? How do you know them? How did your experiences with them influence your own personal growth and the development of your ideas? Have the places you encountered them undergone a lot of change, and if so what kind of changes? How do you feel about this? How does your landscape (and its abundance or dearth of sun, rain, forest, ocean, snow, swamp, etc) influence how you view and understand new landscapes when you encounter them, i.e. how has it set your expectation of landscapes? Where do you feel safe? Where do you feel exposed?

Part 3: In two pages, research and write about the natural history and evolutionary history of a few of the species you mention, in order to get to know them better. Surprising details always emerge. Some good resources to support your explorations are:
  • Field guides on species' ecology and natural history
  • Wikipedia for information on species' ecology and natural history
  • Tree of Life website, where you can look up what is known of your species' evolutionary histories
  • Time Tree of Life website to estimate the time since you and each of your species shared a common ancestor, or since pairs of your species shared a common ancestor
  • Web of Life database search (through the library) to find scientific papers about your focal species

Following the assignment, I provide time for discussion in class, either as a whole class or in small groups (see below under Teaching Notes and Tips). If there is sufficient time in the course, as a follow-up assignment, I have students read excerpts from Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now (1999, Basic Books, New York). The book discusses ideas of cultural and ecological scale in a non-technical, intuitive, and thought-provoking way, and is useful in contextualizing the experiences and places on which students reflect in this exercise in a larger scope. A majority of students in multiple classes have described The Clock of the Long Now as their favorite reading of the course, and several each quarter request to borrow the entire (short) book to read ahead of that day of class. (For this reason, I keep multiple copies on hand to lend.) I have a second exercise focused on this reading that I will write up separately.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Some students are confused by the first part of the exercise, specifically about how to write without referencing themselves. I generally give some examples of paragraphs gathered from the reading options that go with the assignment to illustrate (e.g. from N. Scott Momaday's A First American Views His Land (reference given below): "There is a wide, irregular landscape in what is now New Mexico. The sun is a dull white disk, low in the south; it is a perfect mystery, a deity whose coming and going are inexorable. The gray sky is curdled, and it bears very close upon the earth. A cold wind runs along the ground, dips and spins, flaking drift from a pond in the bottom of a ravine..." or from Terry Tempest Williams' Red: "River. The river is brown is red is green is turquoise. On any give day, the river is light, liquid light, a traveling mirror in the desert.")

Another sticking point is finding resources for natural history when students may have moved (i.e. local field guides are not useful) and may not be familiar with doing field identification, much less based on memory. If their systems are local, you can at minimum I make field guides available in course library reserves, and ideally incorporate field time in the course so that students can practice doing natural history observations and using a field guide in advance. I also provide links to online natural history sites like iNaturalist where they can look up locality-specific information on species, Wikipedia, taxon-specific sites like Amphibiaweb, and links to local land trust or naturalist groups' websites. To help motivate students, I mention that naturalists have been shown by neuroscientists to be among the most perceptive groups, and that the practice of natural history observing enhances actual perceptive abilities. This generally resonates most strongly with students who are seeking greater connection to the natural world but struggling to "find their way in." Conceptually and personally, I emphasize the practice element of natural history – i.e. the idea that over time the giving of attention to what surrounds us actually trains our brains in how to pick out forms and distinctions more readily so that we actually see differently. I reference the notion of the "search image" in ecology with respect to this (brains' ability to quickly learn to pick out particular forms).

After writing, students often want to talk about this reflection with others. I have had success with a variety of methods of both whole-course discussion (if the group is small) and small group discussions. Not surprisingly, these discussions can be extensive, however, since everyone has a lot to share, so prepare for this in your lesson planning. An alternative to save on in-class time is to have students swap reflections and give each other written feedback. Trading reflections in advance, then discussing in pairs or small groups can also be effective.


I have assessed the effectiveness of this activity in meeting the four goals outlined above through a variety of means of verbal feedback, formal surveys, and evaluation of the quality of written work. Goal four (develop reflective writing skills) is the most easily assessed, and for this I track individual improvement in writing skills over the course of the term, based on the quality of this and other written assignments. I assess progress on the other three goals (Pay renewed attention & enhance connection, Consider role of natural environments in personal development, Highlight role of attention) through a combination of formal and informal methods. Least formal is evaluation of the gestalt of student response following the exercise (Do students express renewed interest, new perspectives or a-ha's about their histories, excitement, enhanced feelings of connection?). I also track improvements in the quality of student natural history observations over the course of the term in response to feedback from this and other activities. I sometimes give this assignment shortly before planned individual meetings with each student, and then discuss the impact of the assignment on each student during our meetings. (This obviously only works for small classes & is very time-consuming.) Most formally, I incorporate questions about this assignment into an end-of-course survey (e.g. Did the assignment yield new perspectives on the student's personal history? Did the assignment enhance the student's sense of personal connection to the natural world? Has the student developed, or does s/he plan to develop, a natural history practice? ).

References and Resources

This is the only online reference to this specific activity. Here is the full list of references from the sections above:

David Landis Barnhill. 1999. At Home on the Earth. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Stewart Brand. 1999. The Clock of the Long Now. Basic Books, New York.
SueEllen Campbell. 2011. The Face of the Earth: Natural Landscapes, Science, and Culture. University of California Press, Berkeley.
David James Duncan. 2001. My Story As Told By Water. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Thomas Fleischner. 2011. The Way of Natural History. Trinity University Press.
Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Barry Lopez. 1998. About This Life. Knopf, New York.
Terry Tempest Williams. 2001. Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. Vintage Books, New York.

Online resources
Tree of Life website:
Time Tree of Life website: