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Learning Ecology by Divagation

Bill Meredith

"It’s not easy being green" - Kermit the Frog

(1/2018) I took my first Ecology course in 1953, and it would be a vast overstatement to say I saw it as a turning point in my life. I was young and naive; to me the future was a long way off. I had signed up to take a required Botany course that fall, taught by Prof. Roberts, a genial, elderly man who studied mosses and chain-smoked Pall Mall cigarettes in class. There were only two students in the course, and I found it interesting but not very challenging. But Prof. Roberts died at the end of the fall semester, and his place was taken by a young man who had just received his Ph.D. I found him less likeable than Roberts, but vastly more up-to-date and challenging. And in the second semester, he changed the course from General Botany to Plant Ecology.

The new professor was a stickler for definitions, and he defined Plant Ecology as "The study of the interactions between plants and their environments." In those days, when a professor asked a question, someone would always ask, "Will this be on the test?" That usually was the end of any discussion, so when I thought about what an ecologist would actually do, I assumed the answer was, "study plants and their environment." That wasn’t exactly wrong, but it was so oversimplified as to be useless. But it was several years before I realized it.

When I started college, I assumed I would be a high school biology teacher… noble enough as a goal, but hopelessly naVve. Fortunately, other opportunities intervened. By the time I arrived in Emmitsburg six years later I was still pretty naVve, but I had learned a lot by experience as well as by memorizing definitions. I had acquired a wife, a baby daughter, a Master’s degree, and an ambition to succeed in academic life. And sometime around 1960, I found a definition of what being an ecologist really means. In the preface of a new textbook, I found this definition by a British ecologist named Amyan MacFadyen:

"An ecologist is something of a chartered libertine. He roams at will over the legitimate preserves of the plant and animal biologist, the taxonomist, the physiologist, the behaviourist, the meteorologist, the geologist, the physicist, the chemist, and even the sociologist; he poaches from all these and from other established and respected disciplines. It is indeed a major problem for the ecologist, in his own interest, to set bounds to his divagations."

My first reaction was to sit there in stunned silence. Wow. Wow! As Pogo would say, "Double Wow, with Nuts!" …An ecologist writes like that? …What the Heck is a Chartered Libertine?" …"divagations?" …and then, "You mean I have to learn all that stuff too?"

The answer to that question was, simply and bluntly, "Yes." It turned out that there were two ways to do it. The way followed by many… perhaps most… is less effective. As graduate students used to say, "You keep taking courses and learn more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing." Sometimes, when I am in a pessimistic mood, I think the ones who are educated that way all end up as politicians. The other way follows two models. The first model is Socrates sitting on one end of a log asking questions, and a student sitting on the other end groping for answers. Socrates never answers the questions directly, but he keeps rephrasing them until the student is led to the answers. The second model is the Three Princes of Serendip, whose father sent them into the

world to wander about on their own and look at things; they learned all kinds of wonderful things just by the coincidence of being there, and after many years they came home as wise as sages. From their divagations, we get the word, "Serendipity," and those who follow that model are the lucky ones. They become ecologists, and their education never ends. The result is that they think differently than non-ecologists.

If more people had that kind of education, we might avoid a lot of problems. For example, in my first ecology course we learned that in nature, the plants and animals that live in a specific place are called a Community. Each community is adapted to the habitat it lives in… the climate, the soil, the elevation, and the other organisms that live there. Relationships exist between different species… they may compete for resources, they may cooperate, they may eat others or be eaten by others. As long as all these factors do not change, the whole community can exist for thousands of years. Each community will have one or a few dominant species…in cold climates with long winters, evergreen forests develop, and small trees or shrubs have to adapt to living in deep shade. In warmer climates with over 30 inches of annual rainfall, hardwood trees are dominant… maples and beeches in wetter areas, oaks and hickories in drier ones. Generally, less than 25 inches of rain produce a grassland community, and less than 10 inches produces a desert. But changes always happen: climate changes over long periods, like the Ice Age, or a hurricane or tidal wave may wipe out a community in a few hours. An invasive species may be introduced, like the gypsy moths that were brought to this America in the 1860s and are now destroying the oak trees all over the eastern U. S. As the world’s population expands more people travel over long distances and new species are brought in by accident; the result can be disastrous enough to wipe out human communities… think of the recent scares about Ebola virus, cholera, or bird flu.

One of the examples in my first ecology text was called the Fire Disclimax. It was known by the earliest settlers in certain parts of California. The climate was hot and droughts occurred every few years. Fires would get started by lightning, and the dry vegetation would be burned, including any small trees that may have sprouted during non-drought years; so the communities that developed there were grasses and shrubs whose roots went deep enough to escape the surface heat. When droughts occurred, there would be fires, but since there were few large trees, the burnable fuel was sparse and the fires didn’t last long. Thus the plants that could withstand occasional small fires survived and created a community that was adapted to periodic disturbance by small fires, and it came to be called a Fire Disclimax.

You know the rest of the story. Gold was discovered in California in 1849, and droves of people moved west; most of them didn’t find gold, but they found rich soil that could be irrigated. Cities developed, more people came, trade and commerce grew, railroads were built, fortunes were made… and the newly rich built houses in the Fire Disclimax areas. Naturally, they began putting out the small fires, and trees began to grow where previously there had been just grass, weeds and cactus. The ground became covered with dry, dead weeds and brush. Fires were started not only by lightning, but also by accidents and arson; and within the past several decades, as more people moved in, large fires became more frequent. The Thomas fire, now the largest in California’s history, started on December 4 this year, and three weeks later it is still burning, having consumed over 273,000 acres. In today’s news, I read that many who lost their homes are moving out of that area and seeking new homes. But in today’s economy, land and houses are becoming scarcer. Inevitably, many will stay and rebuild, and new ones will come.

Even 60 years ago, I could have told them that living in a Disclimax is not a good idea; but they wouldn’t have believed it. After all, ecologists have a weird way of thinking… what do they know? Why, they even believe in global warming!

Read other articles by Bill Meredith