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The Science of the Impossible

Sep 4 2019

Jacob shows off the trading cards. (photo credit: Ruth Askevold)

By Jacob Kuppermann '20

Hometown: Laguna Beach, CA

Major: History or Biology

Resilient Landscapes Program Intern, San Francisco Estuary Institute

Out West Student Blog

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Historical Ecology is inherently a science of the impossible. In my time working as an intern working at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), I have sorted through pages and pages of old diaries and sailor’s logs, deciphered the geographies of maps made by explorers long past, and analyzed historical photos of a city growing past its bounds. I’ve taken in records of animal and plant life from archaeological excavations of Ohlone shell mounds, paperwork recovered from the burned down ruins of the California Academy of Sciences, and contemporary citizen science occurences on iNaturalist. This work—of collecting and sifting through immense amounts of historical data to excavate those rare shards of useful information—is all in the pursuit of an unreachable, beautiful goal: to understand a place as it was before intense human modification.

At SFEI, the main project I worked on was called Hidden Nature San Francisco (HNSF). Its aim was to answer a deceptively simple question: what did San Francisco look like before the Gold Rush? Yet from that simple question flows an unstoppable river of answers, each insufficient to satisfy the question on its own but perhaps enough to do together. It’s like building a puzzle from pieces you have to carve out yourself, with rules and practices that have to shift and recalibrate based on what you find.
 
That process, of constant recalibration and goal adjustment, is what led to me spending the last three weeks of my summer making trading cards.   
                                                                              
As July rolled into August, those of us working on the HNSF project realized that we had encountered the classic problem of having far too much information to communicate effectively. We had spent the first part of the summer digging deep into the archives and a dataset of species found in the city, and had begun to analyze our data to build a holistic portrait of San Francisco before San Francisco: dusty and unpromising, covered in coastal scrub, dunes, and wetlands but not much else. Yet those fog-drenched dunes and forests were also home to hundreds of species, many of which are now rarely seen in the vicinity of the city.

Yet the goal of our project was not simply to gain an understanding of the historical ecology of San Francisco, but to communicate that understanding effectively to people who don’t have the time or interest to look through dusty archive shelves or arcanely formatted databases. Enter the trading card. The humble trading card-- roughly 9 square inches of card stock, packed to the brim with information on whatever you sought to discuss, was the perfect vehicle for giving a face to endless columns of data. Each card focuses on a single species or habitat once found within the city, telling the story of its glory and decline. It’s enough information to feel like you understand this fragment of history but not so much that it’s inaccessible to the people we’re trying to reach. Because what’s the point of science without science communication?

Read more at the Out West Student Blog »

 

 

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