The unBalanced ecoLOGist: Hemlock Hospice [II]

Hemlock Hospice opens to the public on October 7, 2017 at noon, and will be up for more than a year (through November 18, 2018). We have a website, a schedule of events for the opening reception, and are putting the finishing touches on the last of more than a dozen sculptural pieces emplaced thoughtfully throughout a new interpretive trail within the Prospect Hill Tract at the Harvard Forest. A substantial outreach effort is leading to press coverage, interviews, seminar invitations, etc., especially in the art world. Scientists, though, generally are a bit more muted in their response or apparent interest. Why might that be?

In pursuit of an answer, I explore here the importance of empathy in field research.

empathy, n. “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online, June 2017. Accessed 10 September 2017

At the recent annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America, my colleagues Carri LeRoy, Kim Landsbergen, Emily Bosanquet, and I between us organized two “ignite” sessions on intersections between art and science. A total of 16 speakers talked about various aspects of using art to communicate science, to inspire action, and to creatively improve our scientific practice. The last has been discussed much less frequently among scientists; somehow we’re supposed to be “objective” in our formulation of hypotheses, collection of data and evidence, and pursuit of truth.

Yet, it was inspiring to hear many of the speakers and discussants, and others in informal conversations over the next several days, talk about how art can inspire science, and to admit that, yes, there is a creative, often intangible, aspect to the successful pursuit of scientific knowledge. Less common in the conversations I heard and participated in, however, was a discussion of empathy.

Perhaps my primary motivation for collaborating in Hemlock Hospice is to engender and extend our capacity for empathy to things other than persons. And to be empathetic in our day-to-day practice of science, especially when we study and do experiments on other organisms. Throughout the conceptualization and development of Hemlock Hospice, I have thought a lot about empathy, and what it means to be an empathetic scientist. I’m still grappling with how to best express my thoughts about this…

It is now standard practice among scientists to pay attention to and minimize or eliminate any potential to inflict harm on other people who may be subjects of research, and to seek to minimize pain and suffering of laboratory animals (viz. vertebrates at least as high as amphibians on the scala naturae), but paying attention and filling out forms is not the same as empathy.  (Indeed, I have filled out many IRB and IACUC forms, and have chaired college IRB and IACUC review boards. The paperwork and bureaucracy of IRBs and IACUCs appear to be designed to eliminate all traces of empathy from scientific practice). Nor do animal-rights activists have any monopoly on empathy for animals (much less the scientists they harass or physically attack). But it remains extremely difficult for us to put ourselves in the metaphorical shoes of our study organisms, be they animal or plant, fungus or bacteria.

“Hemlock Shoes,” installation at Harvard Forest, 1 × 2.25 × 2.25 feet, wood and acrylic paint, 2017, by David Buckley Borden, Aaron M. Ellison, and Salua Rivero

I’ve been thinking about empathy in my work for more than 30 years now – virtually my entire career as an ecologist – and for which I have story that leads across those years straight on to Hemlock Hospice.

As a 27-year-old, I started my second post-doc at the La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica. What nascent ecologist wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to live and work for a year in the rainforest, listening to frogs call at night, seeing exotic animals, and hugging the huge trees soaring overhead. And I jumped. But what did I do my first week on the job (besides getting lost in the woods not three meters off a poured concrete trail…but that’s a story for another time)? I joined the project PI (Julie Denslow, now Professor Emeritus at Tulane University) and a chainsaw-toting field crew on a 4-km hike to our field sites, where we proceeded to cut down half a dozen rainforest-canopy trees to create treefall gaps (n =6) in which we could study the ecology of rainforest succession.

Let me say that again. In 1988, we cut down trees in a rainforest to study how the rainforest grows.

Now this was a pathbreaking experiment. It was the first controlled experiment studying disturbance and gap dynamics in any forest – temperate or tropical – anywhere on Earth. It was (I was told), supported by the first award of greater than $1 million from the US National Science Foundation’s Ecosystems panel within what is now the Division of Environmental Biology (then it was Biotic Systems and Resources). We were excited. We were hopped up on adrenalin. We were studying detailed mechanisms of how Nature works. And we were killing trees to do it. And we didn’t think anything of it – neither the death of the trees nor the simple irony of the experiment.

And then it turned out our gaps weren’t big enough to do the job. So, unable to find suitable experimental sites at La Selva, a year later we entered into an agreement with a nearby farmer to lease a section of his farm—as yet uncleared for pastos—where we could cut down multiple trees to make larger gaps. Which we did, to continue our study of how rainforests respond to disturbance.

Now I’m not denying that we learned something from these experiments. We published some technical papers based on the experiments (here’s a link to one of them, and to another). Our results have informed our general understanding of the ecology of tropical (and temperate) forests (see, for example, the Long Term Ecological Research site at Luqillo, Puerto Rico) that continue to be relevant today, especially as hurricanes ravage the Caribbean islands, the Florida peninsula, and the mainlands of the United States, México, and Central America. Nor am I saying that I wouldn’t do the experiment again. In fact, as an experimental ecologist, I’ve spent my career killing the organisms I love to better understand them and the systems of which they are crucial, irreplaceable parts.

And one of those experiments is the Harvard Forest Hemlock Removal Experiment. This experiment, which I designed early in the 21st century, has been running for 14 years now. Its goal is to better understand how North American forests dominated by eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) will respond to and change as a result of the loss of this forest dominant, this foundation species, to the depradations of a small insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, and to its pre-emptive salvage logging by Homo sapiens intent on profiting from it.

In pursuit of this goal, and to better understand how the actions of a small insect differ from that of a human equipped with a chainsaw, skidder, and chipper, we systematically logged all the hemlocks (and some merchantable oak, pine, and maple) out of two hectares or girdled (cut two rings at the base of the tree, through the bark, the xylem, and the phloem) all the hemlocks in another two hectares. From the logged trees, we built a handsome new maintenance barn at Harvard Forest. The girdled ones died standing in place, and now stand watch—ghost-like sentinels—over the birch and maple saplings growing towards the sky.

plot 1 panorama 20070821
A girdled plot, 2 years after the all of the hemlock trees had been girdled. Photo/panorama montage by Aaron M. Ellison / Harvard Forest

When trees are girdled, what actually happens? With our instruments, we watched.

“Lifeline of a Dying Hemlock,” installation at Harvard Forest, 1.5 × 4 × 10 feet, wood, acrylic paint, vinyl, and hardware, 2017, by David Buckley Borden, Aaron M. Ellison, and Salua Rivero

Cutting through xylem is like cutting a water pipe in the basement. When the pipe is cut, the water no longer flows to the sinks, the icemaker, the dishwasher, or the toilet. When the xylem is cut through, the water supply to the leaves is cut off. They dry and wither, no longer able to make sugar and starch from light, carbon dioxide, and … water. Cutting through phloem is like cutting your circulatory system. The flow of nutrients that move through the phloem to all parts of the plant stops. And slowly but surely, the girdled trees die.

By all the usual standards, the experiment has been a resounding success. It is a core part of the Harvard Forest Long Term Ecological Research program. My students, post-docs, colleagues, and I have published more than two dozen papers about it (here are links to a few recent ones: 1 2 3). They’re featured in a couple of chapters in a book to which many of us working at the Harvard Forest contributed (Hemlock: A Forest Giant on the Edge).

But when, on the day of the girdling back in May 2005, I asked my colleagues on site how they felt about having just watched the slaughter of nearly a thousand hemlock trees in a couple of hours, the blank looks on their faces spoke volumes.

How do you feel about it? 

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