This logbooks shares practices of monitoring local biodiversity at Ecodorp Boekel using non-digital modes of observation. This logbook is part of fieldwork carried out in the Netherlands in the summer of 2023.

The Stories of Local Plants

Another way of knowing local plant biodiversity beyond species identification emerges through pedagogical practices and getting to know plants in more detail. One of the ecovillage inhabitants, Maria, is very knowledgeable about plant life and took Michelle on a journey through the small garden patches attached to people's homes.


During the walk Maria shared her knowledge about the different names of plants, and their medicinal, therapeutic, and edible values. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

Maria shared how local plant knowledge practices suggest how wild plants start to grow near the homes of people who could use their medicinal, edible, or therapeutic properties. Certain edible plants that can support people with physical ailments start growing in the gardens of those people who need them. Other plants offer emotional support or remind people of the valuable things in their lives by suddenly appearing in the ground nearby. Knowledge about the special properties and local use histories of wild plants can really change our connections with our surroundings.

During the walk we observed wild plants growing in different gardens of the eco village. While some inhabitants have planted specific vegetation in their gardens, many inhabitants leave space in their garden to support local biodiversity. Here, also knowledge about certain wild plants such as thistles that would overtake gardens if they are left to grow is also needed to support local ecosystems. What struck us the most is the differences between each garden. We observed very clear lines between adjacent gardens between different homes, where entirely different plants could be spotted mere meters apart. Some plants only appeared in one garden, while others could be found throughout the eco village.


An example of one of the gardens in the eco village. Due to the circular structure of the built environment, the area also includes different microclimates. In this particular part of the eco village, front gardens are sunny and protected from the wind, while back gardens experience more shade and cooler temperatures. These difference enrich local plant life. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

There was only one garden where we observed a vergeet-me-nietje and we speculated about the history behind the name of this beautiful small flower (forget-me-not, in English). A little later another neighbour joined and we found that the Arabic name for this species translates to 'mouse-ear' (أذن الفأر). A later search revealed that this name was also used in Ancient Greek descriptions of the plant (μυοσωτίς). In the Northern hemisphere, where this plant is native, the flower is also known as 'scorpion grasses' due to its growth pattern. Worldwide, the flower has numerous cultural and historic values.

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These vergeet-me-nietjes were found at only one spot in the eco village. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

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It took us a long time to find the Arabic word for this flower as translation websites convert forget-me-not into a literal translation. The Arabic Wikipedia page of the flower is titled أذن الفأر, or mouse-ear. We found this a really suitable and memorable name for this particular plant. Screenshot taken from Wikipedia by Michelle Westerlaken, retrieved on May 28th 2023 via https://ar.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D8%A3%D8%B0%D9%86_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D8%A3%D8%B1


ObsIdentify recognized the picture of the plant at the eco village with a 94% accuracy rating as an akkervergeet-mij-nietje (an agricultural field-forget-me-not). Screenshot of open-dataset taken by Michelle Westerlaken, retrieved on June 8, 2023 via ObsIdentify.

The automated species recognition of the ObsIdentify mobile application was used throughout the walk to help us in identifying species that we were not sure about. In some cases this provided helpful new information, and in other cases it did not seem to recognise the species. The accuracy rating was once again an often recurring element of our conversation around local plants.

Different wild plants are growing in all corners of the eco village and urban development in-progress means that there are no clear borders (yet) between human pathways and wild plant growth. This walk changed the way we moved through the eco village. Michelle became increasingly concerned about walking on top of the plants. The entire walk was also audio-recorded.

Exploring Biodiversity through Multidimensional Observations

In order to contrast a focus on (automated) species identification with the use of mobile applications, one afternoon of the BioBlitz weekend at Ecodorp Boekel was dedicated to noticing biodiversity in different ways, using different senses of our body and engaging with the more-than-human relations in our surroundings. 11 participants joined these sessions, guided by Michelle.

After an intensive morning that solely focused on digital, image- and data-based forms of interacting with local biodiversity, the first part of this session focused on reconnecting with the environment through our other senses. In a grounding type of meditation, we closed our eyes, smelled, and listened to the environment. We observed the ways the wind carries biodiversity around, noticed the sky that contains invisible species, and wondered what lives beneath our feet inside the soil. We meditated on how biodiversity contains life, death, and the compost in between. We tried to notice living beings both close by and very far away. We reflected on our curiosities and imagined connecting to the creatures that we would like to get to know better.

With this short activity we tried to wake up some of the different senses that we can use to notice biodiversity beyond visual and cognitive forms. Michelle then invited each participant to take 10 steps in a desired direction and write down 12 different things they noticed about the biodiversity from that spot. This activity was adapted from a recent workshop I joined about air pollution, organised by Waag Society.

Participants noticed the different smells in their environment, the ways the wind felt on their bodies and moved the leaves. They noticed small sensations and irregularities on different plant species. They used distinct language techniques to name their surroundings that departed from taxonomic names and involved adjectives related to their personal sensations. Participants noted 'cooperating ants', 'shiny snail slime', 'bird shadow', 'prickly branches', 'humidity', 'crackling', 'worm minis', 'dinner time', 'vulnerable/strong', 'unity', 'the wind that travels through the trees', 'richness', 'crawlers', 'passing fluff', 'itch', 'bird poop', and many other small and sensory-rich observations.


Two participants engaged in the activity of noticing biodiversity through different bodily senses. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken

A third activity involved a closer look at the biodiversity that had thus far remained nearly invisible during the day but can also be explored without specialised equipment: soil biodiversity. Michelle invited each participant to collect Schepsels, a term that in Dutch can refer to a 'creature', something collected with a scoop, or a 'creation'. With paper-scoops and magnifying glasses we tried to zoom in on these patches of earth and find the smallest traces of biodiversity that we could identify.

The soil of the urban area at Ecodorp Boekel has a remarkably low biodiversity due to its recent history as an industrial space and farmland site before the eco village was built. Yet, with enough patience, nearly each of the small scoops of soils collected contained living creatures. We tried to describe, analyse, and illustrate the creatures in as much detail as possible. We described the relation of the collected sample with the larger environment and we gave different names to the creatures of which we did not know the taxonomic name. Participants were also asked to note down questions they have for these creatures. Nearly all participants asked how they can improve the surroundings for these creatures, or what these tiny inhabitants of the eco village need and prefer.

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A snail that joined the BioBlitz afternoon activities. Most of the species that were observed in the 'Schepsels' exercise were too small to photograph. Image taken by Michelle Westerlaken.

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