There Isn’t an App for That

Oct 23, 2015 - 4:35 pm

There Isn’t an App for That

-From Water Quality Protection Lands Biologist Matt McCaw

“Curiosity, awareness, attention.  Those are the tools of our everyday survival.  We all must be scientists at heart…”[1]


We at the Wildland Conservation Division have been bestowed with a list of more than 425 species of plants that grow on the Onion Creek management unit.  Because of this list, we now know that while the Onion Creek unit represents less than 0.7% of the land area of Hays County, it contains more than 46% of the county’s plant species.  Twenty-three of these species are found only in Texas, and 13 grow only on the Edwards Plateau. 


This list is helping us to realize that our lands are special, and furthermore that they are special not because of some inherent quality that makes them so – in the way that geysers make Yellowstone special - but because, perhaps for the first time ever, they are being managed with ecosystem function as the highest priority.  We are learning that any landscape, so managed, can be equally special.


I mention this story because the work of compiling this list could only have been done by a real person.  The real person in this particular case is named Tom Watson.  There isn’t an app or a drone or an algorithm capable of tromping around in the brush for a decade and a half and identifying every damn plant on 3,000 acres.  It could not have happened any other way.  An old codger with a crinkled field guide, a re-plumbed heart, and a heap of curiosity, awareness, and attention is the only tool for the job.


These are our volunteers.  These are the people who hand-seeded almost 1,800 acres with native grass because the ground was too rocky for a tractor and drill.  These are the people who hand-collected and cleaned over 100 pounds of native grass and wildflower seed in a single season because the species could not be readily collected by a mechanical harvester or purchased from any supplier.  These are the people who, every other week for eight years, collected juniper samples from remote locations across two counties and physically processed them by hand in order to inform prescribed burn planning.  And they did this – and still do - because the information which is so critical to burn planning cannot be remotely sensed, modeled, or automated in any way.


As we increasingly outsource our knowledge and skills to technology in order to automate our lives, we are reminded often that there are tasks that even the slickest of widgets cannot perform and we find ourselves depending, once again, on real people with real abilities honed by curiosity, awareness, and attention. 

[1] Gonzales, Laurence. 2008. Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.