Saturday, April 23, 2011

As seen by McIntosh; Symposium at last

Currently reading The Background of Ecology: Concept and Theory, by Robert P. McIntosh (1985), and just wanted to drop in to record a couple comments he offers about Paul Sears.
Paul B. Sears (1935c), perhaps the most articulate plant ecologist in relating ecology to human affairs, examined the ecological consequences of misunderstanding the Great Plains in his book Deserts on the March. Sears followed in the footsteps of his eminent predecessor C.E. Bessey (Overfield 1975, 1979) in scientific and ecological consideration of the American grassland and grassland agriculture. Both shared a conviction that a knowledge of the environment was essential to advance human society... (p 307)

In fact, ecology was first described explicitly as a subversive subject by Paul Sears in 1964. Granted that Sears was no run-of-the-mill ecologist, it is fair to state that he was not alone or even first among ecologists in this perception. As usual, he simply said it more effectively than other ecologists. (p 313)

In other not-so-new news, the long-awaited "Sears symposium" volume has been published by the Ohio Academy of Science as a special issue of The Ohio Journal of Science. Twenty years in the making, it includes contributions by Sears' two daughters, as well as colleagues, protegees, and researchers who followed in his footsteps and who assess his contributions to various fields.

McIntosh, Robert P. 1985. The Background of Ecology: Concept and Theory. Cambridge University Press. 371 p. (Link at JSTOR for those who have access, otherwise try GoogleBooks, etc.

Ohio Academy of Science. 2010. Knowing Nature: Paul Bigelow Sears (1891-1990) and American Ecology. The Ohio Journal of Science 109(4-5):76-144. (Abstracts online at link; copies available for $15 from OAS.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Sears and the Yale Conservation Program

Another of Paul Sears' students in the Conservation Program at Yale was Dr. Oak Thorne II, founder of Thorne Ecological Institute here in Colorado. In 2006, we talked about Sears' teaching style, the founding of the Conservation Program, and some of the people involved. Here are a few of my notes.
  • Sears was always calm, very wise, and never angry. He always made people feel relaxed.

  • On getting into the Yale Conservation Program (YCP): Thorne walked into office to set up appointment, secretary went to inner office, came out saying “he’ll see you now.” He sat and chatted informally with Sears for an hour or so, then asked about next steps in applying. Sears said “you’re already accepted”… the conversation was an interview. [a similar story is told of Aldo Leopold in his bio]

  • Fairfield Osborn was at the time “one of the most influential people in conservation.” He’d gotten to know Sears [through Conservation Fund, which Osborn headed]. Osborn went to Whitney Griswold, then President of Yale, and told him “you have to have this program, and we’ve got the professor and the $$.” CF funded the position, and pushed for it, over the head of Dr. Sinnott, who was Dean of the Yale Graduate School at the time. Bill Vogt [William Vogt, author of Road to Survival, which, with Osborn’s Plundered Planet, raised early envt alarms, pre Silent Spring] was head of Planned Parenthood at the time. [He also helped push/support the program at Yale. Thorne is not sure about this, but Vogt did come up to talk to the students during a couple of seminars].

  • While a graduate student in the YCP, Richard Pough (founder of The Nature Conservancy) gave Dr. Thorne a project raising money to save an ancient holly forest (known as the Sunken Forest, on Fire Island, a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island). Thorne was able to raise $15,000 from the Old Dominion Foundation, which was TNC’s first grant after receiving its tax-exempt status.

  • On the Yale Conservation Program: The program was “40 years ahead of its time.” Students could choose any course they wanted in the entire Yale University. Al Burke was a professor who assisted Sears; these two ran the entire program. Sears held a weekly seminar that was mandatory for all Conservation grad students; used the Socratic method. There were 12 students, 1.5 professors. It “changed my life,” Thorne says. After Sears left, YCP ended and was soon (in a couple of years) picked up by the School of Forestry, which then changed its name to the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. (Story on having the added name chiseled into the stone wall –the stone mason left out the letter “n” at the beginning of “Environment” and had to add “n” over the “v” in the “Ev” that he had already carved.)

  • Other YCP Students: Thorne remembers having long talks with Paul Shepard, fellow student, about wilderness philosophy. Shepard became a famous author in this area. George Lamb started in 1954 as a student, and later became Laurence Rockefeller’s “right hand” (assistant), running the American Conservation Association for Laurence. Estella Leopold (whose degree was actually in the Botany Dept at Yale), daughter of Aldo Leopold, was also a student of Sears. The two of them talked together in Spanish.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Telltale Dust

One way or another, Paul Sears spent his career studying and writing about dust. So he confesses in an 1964 article of the above title for American Scholar, originally presented as an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in December 1963.

Dust itself is nothing new. Like the circle, it is a symbol of eternal time. Long before the days of the microscope and the chemical balance it was understood that dust is the beginning and end of all things. Dust is always in the air we breate, an invisible world of tiny, buoyant particles, infinitely rich in its variety, and with laws of its own. ... The world of dust is never at rest...
Two phases of his early research and writing involved dust. First, his ground-breaking book about the Dust Bowl, Deserts on the March, in 1935, for which he is best known. Second, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, his "microscopic study of those remarkable bearers of life and heredity that we call pollen," the dust of plants that tells us about times long past.

We might add a third phase, an archeological exploration in Mexico that attempted to understand the dust of human prehistory. In some ways this combined the earlier two, using the lake sediments of the Mexico City basin to untangle a story of ecological collapse more than 3,000 years old.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

On Population and Quality of Life

Personally I am far less interested in guessing how thickly mankind can be amassed on this planet and still survive than I am in the optimum quality of existence for those who do.

--Paul B. Sears, The Steady State: Physical Law and Moral Choice, 1959, The Key Reporter 24(2):2-3; reprinted pp 395-401 in The Subversive Science: Essays Toward an Ecology of Man, 1969; Shepard and McKinley, eds.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Physical Law and Moral Choice

Ecology is a science, but it is not value-neutral as most sciences aspire to be. It has a message. After decades of ecological practice in his career, and 20 years after he first articulated it, Sears in his later years still concerned himself with the conclusions to which his science and his view of history and philosophy brought him:

“The applications of science must be guided, managed, controlled, according to the ethical and aesthetic principles and in the light of our most profound understanding. … Modern society seems incalculably rich in means, impoverished in ends. The dazzling success of science in placing facilities at our disposal has left us all, including the scientist, a bit confused… Yet it is clear enough that the fundamental problems of mankind are no longer technological, if they ever were, but rather cultural. … People shape their values in accordance with their notions of the kind of a universe they believe themselves to be living in. The basic function of science is to illuminate our understanding of that universe—what it may contribute to human ease and convenience is strictly secondary.”
from Physical Law and Moral Choice in the Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter, January 1959; as quoted in MANAS Reprint, Vol XII, No. 13; April 1, 1959.

"People shape their values in accordance with their notions of the kind of a universe they believe themselves to be living in." In the final decades of his life, it seems Sears concentrated more and more on the cultural and social implications of his lifelong observations.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sears on Science

"Science has the power to illuminate, but not to solve, the deeper problems of mankind. For always after knowledge come choice and action, both of them intensely personal and individual. …

Indeed, the faith which reposes in the human mind for the power of science to work miracles is at once touching and dangerous. It is a curious destiny to befall that branch of knowledge which has done most to free mankind from its cruder superstitions."

--Deserts on the March, 1935

Monday, May 15, 2006

A Sears Legacy: Paul Shepard

Last fall, as I was getting interested in Paul Sears' career, I discovered that Paul Shepard had been one of his students. Correspondence with Shepard's widow, Florence Shepard, sheds a little insight into Paul Sears' later years, and Florence has kindly allowed me to post her recollection:

"We visited Sears, while he was still alive and living in Taos, New Mexico. He was in his 90s at that time, but very mentally alert and involved in continued research as well as active in local ecological affairs. Sears was always so happy to see Paul [Shepard] and they immediately engaged in conversation that continued throughout our visit. Sears was also very interested in other students. One spring (I believe it was 1986), students from the first Yale Conservation Program met in Taos for a reunion with Sears. Paul Shepard was one of about 30 students in that program. …At that reunion, Sears was still mobile (later he was in a wheel chair) and very active. He took the group on a field trip to explain some of the ecology of the area!!

He never stopped teaching and loved to work with graduate students. He was also a talented musician and played the violin for the group."

On the Shepard website, Florence adds that "the names of his admirers... are often more familiar than his." As with those of Paul Sears, perhaps Shepard's ideas have become part of the foundation of our understanding to such an extent that we forget where we first heard them. Or perhaps it is through those inspired by them that we can best get to know these great thinkers and their contributions.