It’s been a little over eight months since I last posted anything here. In that time, I’ve been on the COVID roller-coaster with the rest of the United States—holed up working from home, dealing with zoom fatigue and maintaining sanity with daily bike rides, walks, and explorations of local preserves managed by The Trustees of Reservations.
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
Throughout the eastern United States, one of our most iconic forest trees is dying. Eastern hemlock (a.k.a. Tsuga canadensis; Figure 1) is being sucked to death by a small insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid (a.k.a. Adelges tsugae). As a scientist, I study how our forests may respond to the loss of this “foundation” tree species.[i] As a human being, I cry, I mourn, and I look to the future for hope.
To reconcile the desire for knowledge and the emotional tearing that affects many of us who study eastern hemlock and all of us who are living with these fading trees,[ii] I have partnered with two artists—David Buckley Borden and Salua Rivero—to develop Hemlock Hospice: a collaborative, field-based installation that blends science, art, and design that  respects eastern hemlock and its ecological role as a foundation forest species;  promotes an understanding of the adelgid; and  encourages empathetic conversations among all the sustainers of and caregivers for our forests—ecologists and artists, foresters and journalists, naturalists and citizens—while fostering social cohesion around ecological issues.
Starting today, and over the next several weeks, we’ll be installing Hemlock Hospice in and around the oldest stand of eastern hemlocks in the Prospect Hill Tract at Harvard Forest, and I’m using this space to keep track of its background and progress. I’ll also be presenting an overview of Hemlock Hospice in a five-minute “ignite” talk at the Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland Oregon, August 6-11, 2017.[iii]
I live in a small, rural town (population ≈1200) in north-central Massachusetts, so when our librarian asked me if I’d do a program at the library on blogging, I happily signed on to help fill in the calendar. With tomorrow fast approaching, I thought it would be useful to set down some notes in, naturally, a blog. And besides, what better way is there to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon than on the writing of a self-referential blog entry? Sure beats trying to keep up with Twitter or cleaning up the workshop!
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve written a post. I could plead some normal excuses: just back from a sabbatical and nearly 18 months mostly overseas and returning to an avalanche of house cleaning and office work; getting married two weeks after stepping off the 12th plane flight in seven weeks; or that old stand-by, writer’s block. But really, none of them apply.
In fact, I’ve been preoccupied with meeting a contractual end-of-May deadline to deliver a 29-chapter edited volume—Carnivorous Plants: Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution—to Oxford University Press. I’ve cross-checked tens of thousands of in-text citations against nearly 1700 references in the combined bibliography. Wanting to avoid future litigation and unfavorable court judgments, I’ve made sure that the Oxford comma is used uniformly throughout the book. I’ve made sure all 111 figures are either 600 dpi tiff files at 50% of a B-4 page or vectorized eps files that scale well to any page size; that final versions of chapters by authors from around the world are all laid out on U.S. letter-sized paper (which is absolutely not the same as A-4) with equivalent margins and tabs (note to self: 1.27-cm tabs translate in Word to 0.49″, not 0.5″, tabs, and yes, my eye can tell the difference); that the proofing language of every file is set to English, not Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hebrew, German, Spanish, Portuguese, or Australian; and innumerable other details clearly explained in the OUP style sheet and in detailed letters from me and my co-editor that most chapter authors cheerfully, unknowingly, or willfully ignored.
All that after indeed just returning from a sabbatical that took me, over the course of nearly 18 months, to every continent except Antarctica, to dozens of interesting labs and field stations around the world, to new collaborations with friends and colleagues and new friends, and, at the end of it all, to a wedding in Brookline. But those are all other stories for other times (explore this site for all but the last).
Editing a book (my second; the first, Stepping in the Same River Twice: Replication in Biological Research, co-edited with Ayelet Shavit, was published last week by Yale University Press) is very different from editing for a journal (which I’ve also done for nearly 20 years, as a handling editor for American Journal of Botany [1995-2004], Ecology [2002-2015], Ecology Letters [2005-2008], and PeerJ [since 2012]) or editing and running the journal itself (which I’ve done twice, first as the founding editor of Ecological Archives [1998-2001], and second, as the editor-in-chief of Ecological Monographs [2009-2015]).
So I thought I’d jot down seven lessons I’ve learned from editing a couple of scientific / technical books that might be useful to others who are (or are considering) editing such a book and to remind me, if I’m ever asked to edit another one, that saying no might be the best response.
This week The unBalanced ecoLOGist features its first guest blog. Written by Ahmed Siddig and edited only lightly for posting, it re-caps themes of the short-course on the science of biodiversity that Ahmed and I taught in Khartoum, Sudan, earlier this month and sketches a proposal for establishing a long-term ecological research (LTER) program in Sudan.
I just wrapped up an 11-day visit to Khartoum, Sudan, where I co-taught, with my colleague Ahmed Siddig, a six-day intensive short course intended to cover designing reliable biodiversity monitoring studies, basic analysis of the resulting data, and the fundamentals of the R programming language. With approximately six hours available each of the six days (nearly equivalent to the amount of lecture time in an average semester-long course), our initial syllabus included: introductory lectures on data needs about biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa; using biodiversity data to inform environmental policies; sampling design; a morning field exercise to collect biodiversity data on the Shambat campus of the University of Khartoum, in and around the grounds of the Faculty (i.e., Department) of Forestry; a discussion of best practices for data management; basic R (interface, syntax, data entry, manipulations, and exploratory data analysis); and using R for standard ecological statistics applied to biodiversity data (rarefaction and extrapolation, occupancy and detection probability, ordination and classification, and hypothesis testing using regression and analysis of variance). There were also a few skills-building lectures tucked in after hours: success in research and teaching; science communication; and open discussion of how to apply for overseas opportunities.
This seemed like a reasonable schedule and a reasonable goal for a workshop attended by an expected 20 or so M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, junior and senior faculty, and established forestry and wildlife researchers at government agencies. Files would be shared using Dropbox and we would be building scientific capacity among the current generation of young Sudanese researchers and conservationists. Success was assured.
And then our expectations met reality.
Having spent the better part of two weeks moving down the Amazon River from Tabatinga to Belém, I’m now in the midst of the last 2-1/2 weeks of my year-long sabbatical leave, working on all things ants with my friend and colleague Rogério Silva at the Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi. Rogério and I have been working on ecological similarities and differences between temperate and tropical ants. He’s visited me twice at Harvard Forest and now, with support from the Museum in Belém, I have an opportunity to learn first-hand about the ants of the Brazilian rainforest.
But first we have to get there.