Applied Activity Part 2: Natural History

After you create your map in the past lesson, reflect on your farm or land and get a sense of the place around you, and the history of the land. To begin this activity, schedule a time when you can spend about an hour exploring and observing the place where you work. Observe, discover, and reflect on the place. Natural history is the scientific study of animals or plants, especially as concerned with observation rather than experiment, and presented in popular rather than academic form. Get a sense of the natural history of your agroecosystem- not just the farm, but the place and the people that shape the farm into what it is, and the history of the land that you work on.

Working or living on a farm reminds us that refining observational skills is paramount to our success. Agroecology is based on centuries of the accumulated receptive observation and uncontrived experimentation, the first teacher is our Self in relation to our environment. In this first phase of our studies we will practice developing and refining our ability to observe our field site by asking questions, taking walks, reflecting, discovering, noticing, illustrating, describing, drawing and mapping what we see, hear and feel.

Ecology and Natural History: Connecting to Land

This activity will engage you with the concept of an ecosystem. You will explore the complexity of ecosystems, and how ecology and human culture affect one another. Agroecosystems are an example of an ecosystem that has been altered by humans for agricultural purposes. The management practices used in agroecosystems can change the natural ecosystem’s ability to sustain itself and the living populations over time.

This activity could take as few as about 25 minutes, however we invite you to use this opportunity to go in depth and learn more about an ecosystem near you.

For some of you, you might know a lot about a certain aspect of your local ecology, for example the plants or the birds. If this is true for you, try to focus your research onto an area you aren’t familiar with.

You can answer these questions into a google document and upload it, or you can incorporate the answers in a word document and then upload it.


Describe your chosen ecosystem

What are the living (biotic) creatures in the ecosystem? Choose three (or more) to answer:

  1. What are some of the tree or other large plant species in this system?
  2. What are some of the smaller plant or wildflower species in the system?
  3. What are the animals or birds that live in the ecosystem?
  4. What are some of the smaller creatures in the ecosystem (insects, other invertebrates)?
  5. What about the micro-organisms? Where do you think they live and how many do you imagine there are? What kinds (fungi, bacteria, protozoa, algae)
  6. How do all these animals and microorganisms support each other?

What are the non-living (abiotic) parts of the ecosystem? Check out our Resource Guide at the bottom of this activity to find out more about how their relationship to your chosen ecosystem, and then try describing them:

  1. Soils
  2. Rock
  3. Weather
  4. Water (rain, water table)
  5. Sun
  6. Wind
  7. What provides the food for the living creatures in the ecosystem?

Thinking about Human Cultures & Ecosystems

Who came before you? Wherever you currently are, the history of the people managing the landscape probably goes back thousands of years. In this activity, try to find out which tribe or ancestral community managed the landscape where you field site is.

You can use a search engine (like Google) to find the indigenous groups in your area. For those of you in California (where MESA is based) here is a great resource:

Take some time to explore online about the tribe’s cultural practices and land management techniques, as well as their diet. Use these guiding questions:

  1. How do you think the ecosystem continues to influence their dietary practices?
  2. How do you think these food practices influenced the landscape?
  3. What other sorts of cultural practices were influenced by the ecosystem?

For example, the Ohlone and other coastal California tribes use fire and hand-selection practices to encourage the growth of preferred basketry materials. These baskets are an important expression of culture, craft and the transmission of knowledge across generations.

Q: Would you consider their land management practices “sustainable”?

A possible answer could be yes since they were able to support their communities for thousands of years. While they altered the landscape, they did so in a way to maintain themselves and the native plants and animals, without degrading the land for future generations, as thousands of years of generations successfully survived on the land. What do you think?


Current Ecosystem Management

Land Tenure:

  1. Currently, who “owns” the land?
  2. There are some cultures that do not believe that land can be “owned”, they see it as a common good. What do you think about this concept
  3. Colonization also altered who gets access to land, particularly indigenous people and peasants. What are your reflections on how that affects land ownership today?

Land Management:

  1. What kind of farming or other land management practices could be practiced here with the least amount of impact?
  2. If someone is farming the system, or near it, what kinds of farming practices are they using?
  3. How do you think this affects the biotic (living) and abiotic (nonliving) factors of the ecosystem?
  4. What kind of farming or other land management practices could be practiced here with the least amount of impact?

Resource Guide:

Here a very interesting mapping resource on Native Land

Soils & Bedrock:



Native Plants:,

Birds and wildlife (search by zip code):

Please use your preferred version of this assignment. Complete, scan -if needed- and upload it using the link below.

PDF version of this assignment

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