Friday, January 22, 2016

Floating Gardens of Science

I think it was 1978. I was a junior environmental biology major at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). I was just beginning to understand, from my classes, the many ways in which organisms, particularly plants, interacted with one another in the vast network of life. For example, I was just beginning to learn about rain shadows and biogeography, and how they produced the patchwork of vegetation types in California.

It was the golden age of environmental education at the University of California. I studied plant ecology with Dr. Bill Schlesinger, who is now PresidentEmeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies but back then he was a new assistant professor. I studied general ecology with Dr. Joe Connell, who is now retired but who was a world leader in understanding the basic framework of ecology and who designed ingenious experiments. I took a course called Plants of California from Dr. Bob Haller, back when there was enough money in the budget for us to take long, expensive, and astonishing field trips. I also became acquainted with Dr. Cornelius Muller, who was a world expert on oak trees (though I did not know it at the time), especially the rare species of oaks stranded on top of desert mountains; and he was an early proponent of allelopathy (plants poisoning one another) as an important process in ecosystems. Though retired, Muller came to his office every day in his tweed jacket, white shirt, and red bowtie. I studied briefly with the eminent plant anatomist Maynard Moseley, and must have seen the other great plant anatomist, Katherine Esau, walking around the halls, without knowing who she was. Somehow I missed the famous human ecologist Garrett Hardin and the parasitologist Armand Kuris. What a place to be!

And I was just beginning to attend scientific presentations. They were mostly over my head, since the audience was mostly professional scientists. Indeed, when I attended my first scientific meeting (Ecological Society of America at Oklahoma State University in 1979) I was pretty lost. But one of the first presentations I attended at UCSB was by Dr. Steve Gliessman, who had been a graduate student of Cornelius Muller. At the time, I thought ecology was something that happened out “in nature,” such as the chaparral on the mountains behind Santa Barbara. It had not yet occurred to me that farms and cities can be ecosystems, something that an urban ecologist such as Steward T. A . Pickett would be able to explain to you. I was expecting Gliesman to talk about wild trees or shrubs or grasses. But instead he talked about his research in the floating gardens of Mexico.

These chinampa floating gardens are not actually floating but are artificial islands with canals between them. The Nahuatl people had to create their own artificial ecosystems in order to grow crops in the bottom of a shallow lake. Without knowing anything about what we call science, the Nahuatl people used the principles of ecology to create a food production system that was very effective and sustainable. Because of the continuous water supply and mild climate, a chinampa could produce seven harvests a year.

It was partly from this very early experience, hearing about Gliesman’swork, that I developed my way of looking at the world that has never left me: science is a way of helping people live on this planet. Science is not a diversion for scientists, but an essential way of helping the world. I have never forgotten this, in any book I have written or any class I have taught.

And finally this idea has caught on in lots of places. Back when I studied music theory at UCSB in the late 1970s, art in general and music in particular was a pursuit totally (as far as I could tell) disconnected from anything useful. The kind of music a lot of people wrote back then was incomprehensible, and if you expected to actually like it, that shows how little you know. But today, artists want to be relevant. The slogan for the National Endowment for the Arts is, “Art works.”

We, the scientists and other scholars, are the servants of our fellow humans and our Earth. Or at least we ought to be. I will not forget this. Thanks, Steve.

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