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.