Scientists are taught to evaluate and classify. To take in data systematically, process it, and produce conclusions. In my research on collaborative natural resource governance, I identify social organizations and put definitional boundaries around them for study. I ask questions such as: What type of organization is this? What processes does it operate through? Who has the power to make what kinds of decisions within it? I assign phenomena to categories in order to understand them and make them more knowable for others.
Spend enough time training your mind to work like this and it automatically will, even when you’re not at work. As I move through the world, I am alert, ready to process what I encounter. I wander my home landscape of the Columbia River Gorge, proud to be quick to recognize the hawk that calls, the small flower that opens first in spring, the shape of the mushroom that I can safely pluck.
After a few days under spruces and near sea, I realized that my busy, ever-categorizing mind was misfiring. I stood beside the estuary up close for the first time. The blurring of land and water began with the spongy green splotch on the barnacled rock, from a distance a probable sea creature that became a fuzzy plant under my fingers. I heard the loud waves of wind through the alders but no, they were still; it was refracted surf echoing its rush up the river. Expected sights and sensations were tricksters, eventually showing up in other categories.
Another day found a crab stranded in dry grass, this blanched body a mile from the ocean. On the mudflat, a scapula gleamed algal green. I didn’t need to know if it had belonged to an animal of the land or sea. I touched and left it to go back out under the tide. Voices of coyotes barking, yipping, were seemingly all around me yet from across the river. The leaves trembled outside my window inequivalent response to the flicker of raindrops and the landing of birds.
Out on open water seems unfettered. Maybe it’s the wideness of it or the confidence with which it diffuses sound. Here, boundaries between strangers may also become porous. Kayaks drifting, our words sometimes fainter and sometimes closer, Meg and I spoke of our respective lives. Under us, the current slid west and the edge of the bore surged east.
While I work to confine things to understand them, many other margins show their permeability. Natural resource governance involves trying to manage complex ecological and social phenomena that often don’t neatly stay within the lines on maps. Wildfires start in one place yet may end up affecting many others. Animals utilize abroad territory regardless of international borders. On the Salmon River, each day signals this unboundedness, this resistance to categories, this reminder that we won’t ever know everything with certainty or be able to affix it so it stays securely where we want.