Taking the Long View: Time and Space in the Study of Ecological Change

“Land Tenure, Land Use, and Long-Term Research: The Case of El Yunque, Puerto Rico”

Megan Raby (University of Texas)

Historians of science have not taken land seriously enough. Since the spatial turn of the late 1990s, scholarly emphasis on the geographies of science has become commonplace. At the same time, the history of science shares increasing intellectual territory with environmental history. Nevertheless, our field has only scratched the surface when it comes to core issues of concern to geographers and environmental historians: land tenure and land use. The history of science in El Yunque forest demonstrates why we should pay attention not just to space, but to land. Today a US National Forest and the location of the Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, El Yunque was a Spanish Crown Reserve before the 1898 US invasion and occupied by Taíno into pre-Columbian times. It is most famous as the site of Howard T. Odum’s Rain Forest Project (1962-1970)–– involving the experimental irradiation of a portion of the forest––which has overshadowed its deeper and more complex history of scientific use and control over the land. El Yunque helps to reveal how field scientists come to terms with the land- use histories of their research sites, how they negotiate for the long-term use of field sites, and how their own activities shape landscapes. This paper approaches fieldwork as a form of land use, one that must be seen as contiguous with a landscape’s past and geographically adjacent uses, and one that must also be understood within larger social and legal structures of land tenure.

“A Tangled Legacy: Biodiversity and Novel Environments”

Anita Guerrini (Oregon State University)

Although the landscape at the Coal Oil Point Reserve in Santa Barbara County, California, is often presented as an example of a natural, even a pristine, environment, in fact it is largely a novel or at best a hybrid environment. Over 8000 years of human habitation have left abundant evidence of disturbance, but the landscape we see today is largely the result of the past 150 years of human activity, some of it by scientists. Yet the novel environment that has resulted is remarkably diverse, and by many measures, quite successful in ecological terms. This paper will examine the relationship between biodiversity and novel environments, and the clash of values between two visions of history. Restoration efforts at Coal Oil Point wish to return the area to an unspecified largely prehuman past, while historians and some ecologists wish to acknowledge past human presence and accept the current hybrid state for what it is: a natural environment deeply imprinted by human culture.

“Saving Evolution in the Galápagos Islands”

Elizabeth Hennessy (University of Wisconsin)

Since the mid-twentieth century, the Galápagos Islands have been protected as a “natural laboratory of evolution.” Over the past 50 years, naturalists have worked to “conserve evolution,” as some have put it, in this place where Darwin found inspiration for his theory of natural selection. But just what does it mean to save evolution? Based on oral histories and archival research, I examine how Galápagos conservationists translated scientific rhetoric celebrating Darwin’s link to the islands— used to justify the new Galápagos National Park and Charles Darwin Research Station in 1959—into actionable conservation policies. To save processes of “natural” evolution in this isolated “laboratory,” conservationists focused on the health of endemic species as proxies of past evolutionary history—most notably the islands’ giant tortoises, dispersed on different islands and volcanoes across the archipelago, and understood as exemplars of evolution by adaptive radiation. Scientists thus made saving evolution a problem of ecological restoration to be solved by breeding giant tortoises and cleaning their island habitats of introduced predator and competitor species, including goats, rats, and pigs. By breeding tortoises and killing goats, conservationists sought not only to restore island ecosystems to a past state, but also to conserve a mythologized narrative about Darwinian history. While both tortoise breeding and invasive species eradication have been major conservation success stories, I argue that even their success demonstrates the limitations— conceptual, ethical, and ecological—of this approach to saving evolution in a world where isolation is a thing of the past.

“'The Charm of Oxford:' Wytham Woods as a Scientific Site and Source of 'Mental and Spiritual Refreshment'”

Georgina Montgomery (Michigan State University)

In 1945 A.G. Tansley declared that “the British landscape owes its diverse charm, partly…to the variety of physical features in hill and valley, plain, plateau and peak, river and lake.” He went on to describe the “combination of cultivation with half-wild and wild country” as a jewel in Britain’s crown “for nowhere is there a greater variety of rural beauty.” It was these aesthetic qualities of Britain’s rural landscape that “touch[ed] one of the deepest sources of mental and spiritual refreshment.” (Tansley, Our Heritage of Wild Nature, 1945) Beauty, and our spiritual connection with outdoor spaces, also informed how a diverse range of scientists and so-called amateurs studied the bats, badgers, blue-tits, voles, deer, and other species who made Wytham Woods, Oxford, their home. Just 5 km due northwest of Oxford city, Wytham Woods – a 4 km2 patch of woodland - has served as an ecological laboratory for the academics of Oxford since the inception of the University. Within this setting – whose charm was as beyond description as that “of a great symphony, or of a great poem” – scientific icons like Charles S. Elton conducted long-term research on animal populations. However, expertise was also held by the foresters, woodsmen, agriculturalists, and socalled amateurs who also studied the diverse species who lived in and shaped the woods. This talk will examine the role of aesthetics, scientific expertise, and local and national politics in how various species were understood and reconfigured during decades of ecological study.