A Public Service Announcement

Another guest entry from Ranger Tim:

“This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome — there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment.” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

Cactus Ed wrote that during his season as a ranger in the sublime slickrock wilderness of Arches National Monument in Utah. Me, I’m privileged to be on my way soon to a summer’s work at my own most beautiful place.

Lake Superior Provincial Park covers 600 square miles of Northern Ontario forest and lake country. The land teems with bear and wolf and moose and beaver. It’s here that the most topographically and geologically complex expression of the Canadian Shield’s ancient bedrock is exposed along a moody, waveswept coast of the world’s largest freshwater lake.

It’s a landscape of profound aesthetic drama, and many visitors find that it speaks directly to a place in their souls, some very old place. Still, there’s always room for explanation, for unveiling of secrets; we who are entrusted with the stewardship of this unique wilderness are often called on to convey the deeper meanings and back stories in its natural and human history.

If you’ve spent time in large parks and reserves anywhere, you know that this work has traditionally fallen to the ranger/naturalist/guide, who’s walked every mile of trail, knows the name of every rock and tree and bird, and who can conjure in narrative the experience of the Ojibwe shaman, or the voyageur, or the trapper in the one-room cabin on a lonely cove, surviving his first winter alone.

But it’s gotten harder in recent years to get by on the old park interpretive staples of amphitheater slide shows, campfire storytelling, and guided walks. For one thing, operational funds in the parks service have been stagnant in the face of increasing visitorship and, in some cases, a swelling natural asset base (In Ontario, wilderness area under protection has in recent years leapt to about 13% of the province’s land mass — the highest in any jurisdiction in the world. As problems go, too much public parkland is a pretty good problem to have).

Then there’s the fact that young park staffers, passionate but perennially underpaid, face the temptations of a dynamic — and predominantly urban — private sector economy that can employ them year-round rather than according to the vagaries of the tourist season. So we suffer high staff turnover, which over the long haul robs a park of its most important soft assets: memory, knowledge, an unbroken thread of verbal tradition.

Before the tech bust sent me spinning back into the orbit of the parks service, where I cut my teeth as a naturalist in my early twenties, I managed software development teams for Fortune 50s, middleware vendors, and hot startups. It was in that professional incarnation that I was struck by the power and economy of using web-based tools to capture and present organizational knowledge and other information assets.

This summer I’m setting out to apply some of the same techniques to what is, at heart, just another information business. There’s a vast amount that’s known about Lake Superior Park, or any other public land asset for that matter, but it’s scattered and locked away in manila file folders, herbarium cabinets, racks of videos and 16mm films, shoeboxes of cassette tapes, and thousands of archive sheets of Kodachromes. And most critically, the minds of park staff and local old-timers who at any time may move off to city jobs, a mobile home in Lauderdale, or worse, some place from which there’s no return.

So I’m going to try and build the foundations of an institutional memory for the park using software tools like Wikis and weblogs and relational databases. No doubt it’ll take years, but my aim is that everything that’s known about the place, every tall tale and map and still image and video and sound snippet, makes its way into a searchable, ontologically-indexed, instantly retrievable digital form.

This central information repository will of course help future staffers efficiently do their job of conveying the significance and wonder of the park in their direct interactions with visitors. But I’m hoping we’ll also find a way to navigate the policy minefields and put the knowledge base into the public domain. The forests and the lakes and the coastline are after all a public trust, and so should be all the knowledge and stories we’ve layered over this landscape across the generations. Coming soon to an internet near you.

Anyway, enough of the utopian manifesto. Here’s the practical matter: Through a one-off windfall seeded by a former provincial government, we’ve come into some pretty first-rate digital media and computing gear. High-end DVR, film and flatbed scanners, video production workstation, fast Dell laptops. I’ve ponied up personal funds for hosting. And we’ve got a crew of bright, motivated, dynamic college kids on their way north in a couple of weeks. But we’re still tight on operating funds, and as is typical for government, what purchasing decisions there are happen glacially. So it may be a while until we get an allocation to buy the training materials I need to turn my staff into a crack media production and content management team.

Having watched over the shoulder of dervala.net for some time now, I know that many of this site’s readers are accomplished designers, technologists, and digital mediamagicians. I am sure that many of you have shelves full of O’Reilly texts and the like that you have outgrown. Would you consider donating the dustier of your books to our effort? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of our training needs:

– Linux/*ux administration
– shells
– emacs, vi etc
– sendmail
– Apache
– Dreamweaver
– MySql
– Adobe Photoshop, Premiere, AfterEffects, Audition, Pagemaker

I realize that there’s a lot of good teaching material online but one of the consequences of being based out in God’s Country is the absence of anything but slow, intermittent dialup connectivity. So the dead tree editions, even if they’re a little out of date, remain the medium of choice for our learning.

If you are located in NYC, Toronto, Ottawa, or points in between, I can arrange pickup. Otherwise we might have to do things through the post. Just email tim AT finitor dot com if you have something you think we might be able to use.

I can’t offer much in return other than deep gratitude and modest recognition when we go live. My thanks to to all of you who’ve made it this far in the missive, whether you have books to give or not. And of course a big shout out to Dervala for interrupting her usual eloquence to provide me this soapbox.

“Desire is a treasure map. Knowledge is the treasure chest. Wisdom is the jewel. Yet without action they all stay buried. Hope is the pillar that holds up the world.” — Pliny the Elder

3 thoughts on “A Public Service Announcement”

  1. i think this is a great idea! Ontario Parks is lucky to have ranger rick. unfortunately I have none of the sought-after training material–but i’ve forwarded the list around to my friends i know to be top-heavy with over-priced (and now underused) computer texts and manuals.

    working in lake superior provincial park is my dream job! any tips on how to woo them into hiring me, dervala? oh to be back on the coastal trail right now!


  2. the best way NOT to get a job at the park, i’d imagine, is to call ranger tim “ranger rick”! d’oh!


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