Monday, July 25, 2011

I saw the VM’s face in the willows, part 2

Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus ( often an image or sound) being perceived as significant” according to Wikipedia.  This mental propensity is the basis of Rorsach ink blot tests, the idea being that what we see reflects our personality -- dogs, clouds, people having sex, a world about to blow apart.  Named rock outcrops are another product --  the Teapot, Punch and Judy, and Cochise’s Head which reside in Chiricahua National Monument where I used to work were very popular subjects for tourist photographs.  We are especially predisposed to see faces -- the Man in the Moon or the face of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich (supposedly on eBay recently).
I thought of plant communities when I read about pareidolia, having spent the summer of 1998 in the Black Hills of South Dakota trying to discern discrete associations of plant species in specific habitats.  Sometimes it was easy, bringing feelings of great relief.  Often it wasn’t.  I asked repeatedly “am I seeing something that isn’t there?”  The experience is so ingrained that even though it happened 13 years ago, it still rapidly surfaces when triggered.
Now I’m going to try again.
The montane grasslands I’m studying this summer actually are one of the least recalcitrant of the plant communities in the Black Hills.  A small group of grass species occur together consistently in these meadows, which are also wildflower-rich.  There usually is little difficulty distinguishing the meadows from other grassland-types based on species composition.  They are restricted to higher elevations (above 5500 or 6000 feet) usually underlain by limestone.
But we don’t want to make things too easy.  We are going to attempt to describe and assess these stands in detail -- pattern-seeking galore.  If we’re lucky, we’ll see the face of the Virgin Mary in the willows, or the Buddha in the aspen.

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