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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Sunday, January 07, 2007


we could do some interpretation here. well, a little bit. but let's go down a bit farther, there's a bunch of stuff for interpretation down there.

when it was founded, the city of Irvine set aside land that was to be preserved and never developed. in the interest of keeping the land as pristine as possible, it is not open to the public. this land is referred to as the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve and is managed by the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve Trust. in addition to removing invasive species and other ecological restoration, part of the Trust’s role involves organizing activities where volunteer docents lead hikes, mountain biking, equestrian rides, and other events so that the public can enjoy the land without damaging it. I know, there’s a bit of backward thinking here, but I suspect that the majority of people who live in the OC would not know how to treat nature with respect. it sucks that the minority can’t use the land freely as a result, but this is a debate for another day.

today, I went on a mountain biking ride that the Trust organized. I’m a novice mountain biker still, so I went on the beginning/intermediate ride. during these rides, they occasionally stop to let everyone regroup and make sure no one gets left behind. at one such stop, one of the volunteers leading ride make some comment about “interpretation,” which is paraphrased above. I was rather confused. were they going to be doing an interpretive mountain bike dance? at any rate, once the whole group made it to the next stopping point, one of the guides started talking about the native plant life. he described how the north and south faces of a hill will have different vegetation because of the different amounts of sunlight they receive and pointed out a few examples. my girlfriend, who works for the Trust and was helping lead the ride, pointed out some mustard, an invasive species in the area. some of the other volunteers chimed in with information about the wildlife that lives in that region. altogether, rather informative.

I was still, however, quite confused. was this interpretation? and if it was, why was it so named? hmm, very interesting. let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?

the first thing that struck me, when the guide began his explanation, was that we was going to look at the land and interpret it to determine what geological events had occurred to make it so shaped, e.g., this valley is the result of the massive rains two years ago, or this ridge is the result of ice shelves receding at the end of the last ice age. but, no, it was just informing us about the flora and fauna. my girlfriend later informed me that the Trust organizes “interpretive hikes,” in which docents spend the entire hike interpreting the landscape. my question, then, is why call it interpretive hikes? why not informative? or educational? or instructional? I suspect the answer may be that these docents really see themselves as not just educating the public, but interpreting the landscape for them. I think in this case there may be two relevant senses of interpret.

first, I’m struck by the way that someone can interpret a text, or scene from a play, or a single sentence. for example, the sentence “no fruit flies like a banana” has at least two possible interpretations. in this context, interpreting is analyzing the form, using it to discern underlying meaning, and sharing that meaning with others. with this sense of the word, guides see themselves as finding the meaning behind the landscape and passing it along to participants.

second, when a translator is hired to serve as an intermediary between two people who speak different languages, the person who does the translation is sometimes referred to as an interpreter. in a similar sense, guides may see themselves as the intermediary, translating between the landscape and between the public, between mother nature and her uncomprehending children.

both these cases contain the transmission between two parties via an intermediary of an idea, of some thought, of meaning. in this view, under this conceptual stance, using this metaphor, nature is not the environment in which we live, but is a conscious, competent entity that can readily communicate with us, if only we know how to interpret what it/she says. considering that most of these guides chose to engage in activities like hiking and mountain biking, that these activities take place outside, that the areas where these activities take place are some of the few places in the OC to get away from suburbia, it is unsurprising that the language they use would have such a stance towards nature as a part of its underpinnings.

may be just random word choice, but I think it’s significant. what do you think? is this an arbitrarily chosen term, or might there be some deeper meaning behind it? what other possible senses of “interpretation” could shed light on this word choice?


  • Before my discussion of interpretation, I’d like to clarify; even though it may seem like “backward thinking” I believe the idea of leaving the land closed but allowing some public access makes sense. First of all, it would not be doing anyone any good if it were closed entirely. we already get a large number of people jumping fences so they can “enjoy” the land who get very irate when told they cannot be there. people (or at least people in OC) don’t seem to understand that the wild land has not been set aside simply for human enjoyment.. but that’s a different issue entirely. second of all, the reason some public access is allowed is because it is necessary that people connect with the land and understand why it has been protected. the hope being that once they get this understanding, they will become stewards for it’s protection in perpetuity. through these hikes, mountain bike and equestrian rides, the goal is always education through nature interpretation.

    I agree, interpretation is a strange choice of wording, but here is a little more insight into what interpretation is meant in this context. I was curious so I attempted to find more information about it using google. I only had limited luck when typing in “nature interpretation.” the ever helpful wikipedia states that interpretation “is a particular format for the communication of relevant information. It “involves translating the technical language of a natural science or related field into terms and ideas that people who aren’t scientists can readily understand. And it involves doing it in a way that’s entertaining and interesting to these people.”’ I’d say that pretty much hits it dead on. in fact, there is even a “National Association of Interpretation” (http://www.interpnet.com/) where naturalists and the like can get certified in this nebulous interpretation. this gets me to thinking though, if you have a certification in interpretation- who will actually understand what that means? (sound much like a masters in social ecology.. what?) I agree, maybe a different choice of wording makes sense, but in a way we are interpreting the environmental around us, it’s natural history, it’s geological formations, it’s flora and fauna, etc. just as a translator interprets a foreign language, for many people out here preservation, and the importance of this open space as something no just for human enjoyment, is a foreign language. Biological hot spot, endemic species, diurnal, crepuscular- sounds like a foreign language to me!

    interpretation should be POETRY; a useful mnemonic device people use when “teaching” interpretation skills. Purposeful- it should serve some sort of purpose, Organized- the style and type of presentation needs to be organize, Enjoyable- no one likes sitting in a biology class listening to someone rant, it needs to be fun, Thematic- people tend to remember themes and stories much more than they remember rote facts, Relevant- the information has to be related to a person’s daily life, and You- each interpreter should bring his or her own style to the interpretation.

    there may not be much, if any, scientific evidence that people who go on these interpreted activities do actually form a strong connection with the land. maybe only people who already care about the environment go on these programs in the first place. however, my experiences so far with it tend to make me think otherwise. with the groups like the mountain bikers, or the people interested in the cardio hikes, they are in it for the exercise, or the thrill of going fast. don’t get me wrong, I enjoy those as much as anyone else- but what a great opportunity to teach them a little something about the land they are enjoying while they are out there. who knows, maybe I’m just an optimist, but I can hope that at least a couple of people are thinking twice about their environmental impacts after going on one of these programs- seeing the smog (wow I should really try to cut down on my car trips), or simply learning something cool about the area (I had no idea that the deer weed changes the color of the flower after a bee has already pollinated it). after all, it is basically a form of education, and who couldn’t stand to learn something new?
    -meghan sherburn

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thursday, May 10, 2007 9:24:00 PM  

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