John Wesley Powell

The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell. Revised edition, published by the Smithsonian Institution. 1895. I listened to the Librivox version, by a very able group of readers.

I remember seeing the six-cent John Wesley Powell expedition commemorative stamp, when it was issued in 1969, but I never gave it much thought, except to notice that the steersman has only part of his right arm. I had learned somewhere, sometime, that he was the leader of the first United States expedition through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. When I came across this account in the Librivox catalog, I thought I ought to listen to it, and I’m glad I did. This is the story of an epic journey told by an extraordinary individual.

Checking Powell’s biography on Wikipedia, I learned that by the time he was 25, he had rowed the entire Mississippi, Ohio, Illinois, and Des Moines Rivers and been elected to the Illinois Natural History Society. After his service in the Civil War (he lost the forearm at Shiloh) Powell taught geology at Illinois Wesleyan University. Along with his students and his wife, he made an expedition to Colorado to collect geological specimens.

His expedition, ten men in four boats, left Green River, Wyoming, on May 24, 1869, and reached the mouth of the Virgin River, at the lower end of the Grand Canyon on August 30, with two or three boats and six men. Three men had left to climb out of the canyon shortly before the end, because the expedition was dangerously short on food and still faced unknown risks on the river. As it happened, they were the unlucky ones: Powell later was told they were killed by Shivwits Indians, who believed they were part of a party that had  murdered some other Indians shortly before Powell’s men passed through.

Powell’s book reads like a journal and is based on the records he kept, but some later editing occurred, apparently. Whatever the case, it is a harrowing tale. One boat was wrecked early, and the rest were frequently capsized. Food was lost or spoiled by wetting, so by the end, they were in danger of running out. Many stretches had to be portaged round or the boats lowered and hauled through on ropes. That and the rowing made every day exhausting. At one point their fire spread into some driftwood and nearly incinerated them in a narrow alcove where they had camped. Powell and some of the others also made regular ascents of the canyon walls to take instrument readings, examine the landscape and scout ahead where possible. These involved rough and dangerous ascents of thousands of feet and tortuous scrambles through narrow slot canyons. This by a man with only one hand!

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the voyage was the uncertainty of what they faced ahead. Around the bends of the river, they were sometimes confronted by large falls or dangerous rapids, with little time to decide whether to go ahead and try to run them or make desperately for some safe stopping point. It seemed possible that they might meet an impassable obstacle at a point where they could not escape from the canyon. They could face a choice between starvation and near-certain drowning. Today, hundreds raft down the Grand Canyon, aided by years of experience, modern equipment and a flow now controlled by the Glen Canyon Dam. Powell’s trip was a plunge into the unkn0wn, Samuel Walter Foss’ opening lines for The Coming American “Bring me men to match my mountains,” could be applied to Powell and his crew, perhaps modified to “…men to match my canyons.”

Powell and Tau-gu, a Paiute, 1871-72

His descriptions of the geology, the river, the landscape and vegetation are vivid and sometimes enthralling. The latter part of the book describes the trip he made in 1870 and 1871 back over some of the same ground, but visiting many of the Native Americans resident in the lands north of the canyon and eastwards to the Pueblos of New Mexico. These are also fascinating. He worked for the rest of his life as a geographer, ethnologist and administrator at the US Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution and was a strong advocate that development in the arid western states, should be carefully limited.


Moth Lady

Moths of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter. Doubleday, Page and Co. 1921. I listened to the Librivox version, beautifully read by J M Smallheer.

I would not have thought that listening to a book about insects, least of all large moths, without being able to see the illustrations, could be utterly absorbing, but Gene Stratton Porter’s descriptions of the finding and rearing of some dozen species certainly is. All of them came from from around her home near the great Limberlost Swamp of northeast Indiana, found by herself, her husband and numerous friends and neighbors, some of whom went miles out of their way to bring her specimens. Besides her accounts of the finding of the adults or caterpillars and her meticulous descriptions of each species behavior and development, there are her minute descriptions of the patterns and colors of all stages, carefully based on the freshest individuals. As a photographer and painter of birds and insects in the days of black and white glass plates, she had to be a very close observer and recorder of colors, if she wanted to get good illustrations based on her photos. A look at the illustrations from the book shows that she did extremely well.Moths_of_the_Limber crop

Her life history observations, such as how hawk moth larvae pupate, burying themselves in the ground and then wriggling back to the surface, posterior end first, while still in the pupal case, so they can spread and dry their wings upon emergence, are fascinating. I like her attitude towards the published literature on moths. She mentions many famous lepidopterists (see my post from on Butterfly People from last February) has read their work, but is willing to point out the shortcomings of their accounts of the actual lives of the insects they describe and illustrate.

Her anecdotes of catching and keeping moths are delightful. Her home must have seemed like more of an insectarium at times, with moth eggs carefully marked and protected on the floors and carpets, because a gravid female escaped and could find no host plant to lay them on. The effort put into successful rearings and the failures that invariably accompany attempts with unfamiliar species must have been very demanding, and the moths were not even her chief occupation. Her novels, the most famous being A Girl of the Limberlost, 1909 and bird photography and illustration took even more time.

Even as she studied them, species like the Cecropia moth and the Polyphemus were losing out to expanding agriculture, lumbering and drainage of swamps like the Limberlost. Later would come DDT and street lights to put still more stress on their populations. Parasites introduced to control gypsy moths have added to the widespread decline, especially in the Northeast. Today, aerial images of the Limberlost show mostly agricultural fields and only a few remnant woodlands, including one small restoration site on Loblolly Creek. We can be grateful that Gene Stratton Porter left us such a beautiful record of what was there before.

Death Valley Days

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, first publication 1903 by Houghton Mifflin.

The Librivox recording of this wonderful book from the first decade of the twentieth century is a pleasure to listen to. Mary Austin’s descriptions of the desert country east of the southern Sierra Nevada are beautifully clear, evoking the harsh land, the hardy plants and animals and the various humans who live among them. My favorite was the pocket hunter, a prospector traveling with his burros and a gold pan that is cleaner than his cooking pots, and who dreams of finding a strike rich enough to allow him to set up as a middle class Londoner. Twice, he made enough to visit England, but each time he returned, with only a pair of elegant green canvas traveling bags to show for the trips. He told how once in a blinding snowstorm he sought shelter with what he thought were a flock of domestic sheep. Looking about in the morning, he saw he had slept among wild mountain bighorns. They bounded away through the drifts like God’s own flock. Breathtaking.

Whether it is the denizens of a mining town or the native Paiute, among them the blind basket weaver and the Shoshone exile medicine man, who must be killed when he can’t prevent an epidemic of pneumonia from taking away a third of the band, Austin tells the stories simply and with evident deep compassion.

She has a soft spot for the coyote, that butt of Warner Brothers cartoons, but in her view far from a fool. She gives loving descriptions of the numerous desert rodents and the jackrabbits whose tracks lead to the waterholes like the spokes of giant wheels, along with their enemies the birds of prey and the scavengers who watch all that goes on from far above, waiting for the predator’s kill or the dying gasp of the starving.

Plants get just as careful attention, some of the best botanical description I’ve read. Whether in her neighbor’s field or on the mesa, she evokes the marvels of the California desert flora with its tough shrubs and delicate ephemerals that blossom only in years when enough rain falls to waken the seeds out of dormancy.

Everything about this book makes me want to visit this land.

Climate Change, Equity and Security

“Equity and Greenhouse Gas Responsibility” by Paul Baer et al. ( )

“Energy and Equity” by Ivan Illich ( )

David Lempert and Hue Nguyen, “The global prisoners’ dilemma of unsustainability: why sustainable development cannot be achieved without resource security and eliminating the legacies of colonialism” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 7(1): 16-30 (2011) ( )

I am a teacher of both natural sciences and liberal arts by training and experience. In that spirit, I offer some thoughts on climate change, energy and equity.

Baer et al. provide a succinct statement of the problem of preventing climate change through greenhouse gas regulation and conclude that any future international agreement must be based on principles of equity, specifically, “equal rights to common resources” and “polluter pays.”

They analyze a simplified version of the problem, as follows: They assume that to avoid unacceptable climate extremes it is necessary to keep global CO2 levels from exceeding twice the preindustrial levels; to do this it is required to hold annual greenhouse gas emissions to the equivalent of 0.3 T/capita, assuming a stable world population of 9 billion by about 2050. Current emissions they estimate to be about 1 T/capita, ranging from 5 T in a few developed countries to less than 0.1 T in some poor developing nations. The problem is how to allocate allowable emissions under a cap and trade or similar global arrangement. The Kyoto Protocol, they argue, is flawed because nation’s caps are based on past emission levels. This institutionalizes unequal access to common resources and allows some people to impose environmental damages on others, without penalty. Another way to look at this is that under such a scheme some people have greater access than others to a common resource, the atmosphere, and pay nothing for the priviledge.

The solution, they offer is a global per capita limit, which would be set at a value above the ultimate limit and then gradually lowered, until the required value [in their example, about 0.3 T/capita] is achieved. Those above the current limit would have to purchase the unused emissions allowances of those below the limit. Such an equitable scheme, based on equal access and “polluter pays,” is the only basis for achieving a worldwide agreement. They cite a number of treaties and national laws that operate on these principles. They acknowledge that the details of such a scheme and the would require much negotiation, and that considerations such as income, ability to pay and historic and current energy needs would be used to adjust targets and mechanisms for enforcing the limit.

Such a system is possible, with a great deal of administration and monitoring. It implies a fairly large transfer of wealth from developed to developing countries to pay for the emissions rights until zero-net-carbon energy sources can be deployed.

Baer et al. argue that ending fossil energy dependence globally is unlikely be negotiated except on equitable principles, but because their focus is on the environmental, and not the social and political effects of energy consumption, they leave unanswered a critical question: will the developed and developing nations opt for continued dependence on massive inputs of energy, only of “sustainable” character, or will they opt for minimal energy dependence and expanded (or restored) political freedom and equity?

In Energy and Equity, from 1973, Ivan Illich provides a starting point for a discussion of what sort of technology is compatible with living well, meaning, I think, living sustainably, in freedom and equality. I use this text in my courses, Environmental Issues and Green Politics, to lead students to reflect on what seems at first to be a technical environmental problem, but which turns out to raise much more fundamental questions. Illich observes that beyond a critical (and very low) threshold, continued expansion of energy dependence in societies leads to growing inequity and the loss of access to basic resources and freedom for the less favored.

Illich argues that large doses of energy, applied to problems like getting around, have counter-productive results. Industrial solutions, rather than serving as means to achieve ends we value, become a burden.

He begins the opening section:

The advocates of an energy crisis believe in… a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command.

and continues:

This belief is… threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

His analysis takes humans’ ability to walk as a starting point and shows that new modes of travel have not improved on it by any net increase in range, economy of time or access for the disabled. Instead, he argues, once the power of the new modes crossed a threshold, they began to restrict, rather than enhance, mobility for all but a fortunate few. Part of the downside of this “Industrialization of traffic” is loss of freedom, as the new modes create barriers that make walking and other modes of self-powered transit difficult.

Another drawback is loss of time: powerful modes of travel impose a monopoly that requires most people to devote more time to transit and to earning the means to purchase it. He claims that in the early 1970’s the average American spent 1600 hours of total time in transit related activity, direct and indirect, while traveling an average of just 7500 miles, for a net speed of 5 mph, barely faster than a walk and much slower than a bicycle.

The “habitual passenger” feels frustration, but attributes it to lack of the latest technology, hoping always for better service, not seeing that his dependence on being served is the source of his frustration.

Greater speed demands more and more space for airports, freeways, high-speed rail, etc. More human effort and money must be spent on controlling the system, and as we saw in Baer et al. controlling the environmental effects. Escalating costs make it impossible that everyone can go the same speed as CEO’s.

Illich identifies the critical threshold of speed, beyond which industrialization of traffic imposes an ever increasing burden of lost time, lost freedom and lost equality on the society, as fifteen miles or twenty-four kilometers per hour. The source of this limit is simply the maximum speed that normal human muscle power, aided by technology, can maintain. In other words, the speed of a healthy cyclist on a good bicycle.

The bicycle symbolizes the choice between the “Radical monopoly” of industrialized transport, which he connects to other radical monopolies in areas such as education and medicine, and the autonomous mobility which self-powered transit offers, provided it is protected by a speed limit.

The essay concludes by suggesting that if motorized transport would keep within the threshold of speed (his actual number here is 25 mph/40 kph) it could supplement human-powered mobility, giving freedom to the disabled and carrying burdens too big for individuals to bear. He is not a Luddite. He is a radical, political critic, but not an enemy of technology as such.

How do citizens of a highly developed nation, respond to this? My students, exhibiting what Illich calls speed-stunned imagination, declare that such a limit is ridiculous and deny that their cars deprive them of lifetime. They maintain that we need better technology, so we can all move faster to more places.

Of course, there are doubts. These students see how roads, railways, parking lots and suburbs restrict them from walking and cycling. They experience the loss of time from being stuck in traffic, having a car break down or waiting for a bus. They are acutely aware of the struggle to pay for the services required by industrialized society: tuition, cars, insurance, traffic tickets, etc. They know they may someday have to pay, directly or indirectly, for the environmental damage. They propose many ingenious solutions, but all require increased social control over our lives.

Yet almost nobody at my college is more than a day’s ride away from home, at a speed of 40, or even 25 kilometers per hour. All weather, human-powered transit is certainly possible, but in New Jersey it is dangerous to take long trips under human power in current traffic conditions. There is a wonderful book about human-powered travel in this “Garden State” as New Jersey is known, Snowshoeing Through Sewers, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press, 1994) which demonstrates this.

As for Illich’s larger claims, my students believe that radical monopolies can arise from the growth of technology, but they take a fatalistic attitude. The possibility of political action to free themselves does not seem real to them. The only solutions they can think of are technical or economic. Like my students, the climate negotiators from the major polluting nations avoid even the easier questions about energy and equity posed by Baer et al. Most of the world’s political, social and scientific leaders seem to avoid them, too. I believe they don’t see that they are the “habitual passengers” Illich describes. Until the citizens of the developed and developing countries can recognize their growing dependence on energy is curtailing freedom and creating greater inequality, it is unlikely that the gridlock over global warming can be broken.

There is a further complexity here, which is the relationship between security and the political choices about resource consumption and sustainability that are open to developed and developing countries. I quote here from what I think is a very important contribution on this topic, David Lempert & Hue Nguyen:

Rather than considering the destruction of the environment as a cause of war over dwindling resources, there may actually be a more complex relationship—a vicious cycle—in which the need to secure resources may actually be driving their overexploitation as a means to increase economic and military strength. This iterative process further drives competition over dwindling and disappearing resources. Moreover, this positive feedback loop, supported by ideologies and institutional structures that are the legacy of colonialism throughout the world, may itself be a Nash equilibrium that is now impossible to change because it is self-reinforcing through “rational” choices by governments and cultural groups. This outcome may also explain the “rational choice” of countries to begin to prepare for climate wars and further resource competition rather than to agree to the very frameworks for sustainability of the planet that are, ironically, also the key to maintaining globalization. In other words, the current approach to globalism does appear to be promoting its own breakdown because of a built-in contradiction in the approach to sustainable development.

I take this to mean that the militarized “security” approach to preserving our environment contains the seeds of its own destruction. Unless we can find means other than military force to ensure the common security of the resources that we all need to survive, we simply risk ever more antagonistic interactions, of the kind that now plague the Middle East and parts of Africa. Small countries are led to play the game because of the fear, too often realized, that stronger powers, and especially, superpowers, will simply impose their will by threat or violence (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) It also encourages destructive insurgencies, leading ultimately to collapse of states (Somalia, Libya, Syria, Lebanon) Currently, the global response relies on shifting coalitions of powers that still operate much as the colonial powers of the 19th century did, being accountable only to themselves. Without structures of genuine equity, supported by collective guarantees and a system of settling disputes that doesn’t rely primarily on crippling sanctions, threats and force, we will not see much progress towards protecting our earth’s life-support systems.

The current climate talks are a worthy effort to build structures of cooperation; at the same time, the Catholic Church, via a recent Papal encyclical, has urged its communicants to reflect on the issue of the impact of climate change on those least able to protect themselves, as well as our overall relationship to the planet. There has been no discussion of Illich’s views in what I have read about the encyclical, but a quick search of the Internet finds a number of pieces that mention both. There are other positive signs that people are beginning to think about the limitations of a high-energy lifestyle. One is the popularity of car-free days in urban centers. As Illich put it:

Liberation from affluence begins on the traffic islands where the rich run into one another. The well-sped are tossed from one island to the next and are offered but the company of fellow passengers en route to somewhere else. This solitude of plenty would begin to break down as the traffic islands gradually expanded and people began to recover their native power to move around the place where they lived. Thus, the impoverished environment of the traffic island could embody the beginnings of social reconstruction, and the people who now call themselves rich would break with bondage to overefficient transport on the day they came to treasure the horizon of their traffic islands, now fully grown, and to dread frequent shipments from their homes.

Liberation from dependence starts at the other end. It breaks the constraints of village and valley and leads beyond the boredom of narrow horizons and the stifling oppression of a world closed in on itself. To expand life beyond the radius of tradition without scattering it to the winds of acceleration is a goal that any poor country could achieve within a few years, but it is a goal that will be reached only by those who reject the offer of unchecked industrial development made in the name of an ideology of indefinite energy consumption.

I hope that we will begin to hear more discussion starting from ideas like the ones expressed in these articles.

Looking for the logos of life VI: Gaian analysis

Williams, G. R. 1996. The Molecular Biology of Gaia. Columbia University Press. 210 pp.

This is a book I wish I had read when it was first published. Williams lays out so many interesting scientific problems so clearly that I would have expected that it would have considerable influence on subsequent research, somewhat as Schrodinger’s What is Life? the subject of the first post in this series. I was somewhat surprised that Google Scholar only finds a few citations of this book. Perhaps William’s scholarly papers have been more extensively cited.

William’s goal is to see why the famous Gaia hypothesis has attracted so much popular interest, while receiving little positive notice from practicing biologists. He wants to determine whether the hypothesis is actually useful, either as a metaphor or a verifiable model of the function of the biosphere. The central question is whether it can explain why the Earth has remained habitable throughout the several billion-year history of the biosphere. That it has is not in question: all evidence points to the occupation of Earth continuously by the descendants of the first living things, which originated 3.5 billion years ago. This strongly implies that the earth has not frozen or boiled and that life has not otherwise been poisoned or starved during that time. Some factor or factors has kept the conditions on at least some of the Earth within the ranges essential to living organisms of some kind. In fact the conditions have not become intolerable to land plants and metazoans at least for hundreds of millions of years. The concept of the continuity of descent, expressed beautifully by Loren Eisley’s image of each of us trailing a long chain of ghostly ancestors, stretching back to those first living things, is to me one of the most useful ways to imagine what evolution is all about. If there had ever been a break in that chain, you and I would simply not exist.

The Gaia hypothesis states that this stability is the result of homeostasis: the regulation by negative feedback (like a thermostat) of a living super organism, Gaia. In its strongest form, the hypothesis is that life on the planet, the biosphere, regulates itself just as a single organism, whether a single cell or a multicellular individual, does. This idea has an obvious appeal: just as networks of interacting macromolecules make up a cell, which is capable of regulating its internal environment, so do networks of interacting cells make up tissues, organs and whole organisms that are able to regulate their internal environment. At least some organisms, like ants and bees, live in self-regulating colonies. Why shouldn’t all the organisms on earth form a self-regulating system?

Williams answers that for biologists the problem is how such a self-regulated super organism could be put together in the first place. Natural selection can explain how self-replicating systems can evolve, because natural laws can discriminate among multiple variant copies that compete for limited resources. The Earth is not self-replicating. There are no variants among which nature can select. There is only one. This problem led Lynn Margulis to argue that Darwinian evolution was not really that important, and that symbiogenesis was the true explanation. Margulis’s great contribution was the discovery that certain cellular organelles, chloroplasts and mitochondria, were once free-living organisms. More broadly, she showed that evolutionary advances by the incorporation and integration of separate living parts were behind the origin of the eukaryotes and that similar processes continue to operate in the form of horizontal gene transfer. The trouble with claiming that symbiogenesis is a replacement for Darwinian natural selection is that it appears obvious that all such new combinations remain subject to survival of the fittest.

Would it be possible for a Gaia-like system to arise in part of the biosphere and then spread, supplanting the less effective parts? Only if it’s self-regulating effects were confined to where it first existed, as might work for something like the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. It seems less likely where the atmosphere and oceans are involved, since they carry the products all over the planet.

Williams also points out that there is more than one possible explanation for the continuous suitability of the Earth for living things. He lists four: luck, inertia, equilibrium, and homeostasis. He analyzes each possibility in turn, and shows how each may contribute to the persistence of habitable conditions. In the case of homeostasis, he distinguishes between negative feedbacks from purely physical and chemical forces involving the lithosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere and ones that require the biosphere. It is possible that even if there were no life on Earth, the temperature would stay within habitable limits (basically the range where liquid water can exist) just because of feedback among the temperature and the release and sequestration of carbon from air, ocean and rocks.

According to Williams, if you try to assess this possibility, the difficulty is that today the rates of almost all steps in this process, except volcanism, are under catalysis by organisms. We don’t know what an abiotic planet would be like. As of the time he wrote this book, not enough was known about the global chemical cycles at the molecular level to settle the question how much life matters. He gives an example of what was known about the molecular biology of nitrogen to show how complex the regulation of these cycles is likely to be. Nutrients move among four pools: inorganic forms in the lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere; nutrients in forms available for uptake by organisms in the same three spheres and the biosphere itself as accumulated by organisms; nutrients incorporated into living cells and tissues; and bio products, from the cellulose of wood in trees to dead plants and animals to dissolved organic compounds to fossil fuels. All these are connected by flows and many of those flows (mobilization, assimilation, regeneration, sequestration and excretion) are controlled by living organisms, via enzyme-catalyzed, energy-requiring reactions.

I like this book because Williams thinks about Earth and ecology very much as I do. I learned from my professors at Cornell in the early 1970s about five processes of ecology: population dynamics, natural selection, energy flow, nutrient cycling and cultural evolution. These are closely interrelated ways of looking at the overall phenomenon of life on earth, or as I like to define ecology, the structure and function of the biosphere. Is the function of the biosphere to regulate the habitability of the planet, or does the planet have the property of remaining a stable habitat for life without life being involved? You can’t really answer that question with only one habitable planet and one biosphere to study.

I will add that I tried to read another account of the same problem of why the Gaia hypothesis had been largely criticized by biologists while being so well received by non-biologists: The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet by Michael Ruse (University of Chicago Press, 2013) I did not find it helpful, being mostly a historical narrative, with a focus on a wide variety of –isms, such as Platonism, Mechanism, Organicism, Hylozoism (the belief that all matter possesses life) and Paganism. I have never been much interested in –isms or cultural explanations for why people accept of don’t accept given ideas. Williams gives us a scientific way of thinking about the problem.

Assessment and the seeds of learning

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Thoreau

I have taught for forty years at a state institution that started out as a small state college in 1971 and has become, as of 2015, a university, at least in name. For about the past five years, the main thrust of my institution’s curriculum development efforts have been geared towards developing detailed lists of “Essential Learning Outcomes.” These are objectives that are supposed to be evaluated on a three step ordinal scale of “aware, competent, or skilled.” Faculty are being told to develop ELOs for their academic programs and individual courses and to align their assessments to their ELO rubrics (or maybe it’s their assessment rubrics to their ELOs). The goal is to demonstrate that students are learning very specific skills and “competencies” as a direct result of what happened in the classroom, during or immediately after the “activity” took place. This is no way to assess real learning, which is something beyond the reach of techniques based in so-called “learning research.”

The current drive to assess “learning outcomes” is equivalent to demanding that teachers produce fully developed knowledge in the minds of their students immediately. It it like demanding that a gardener show you a fully developed garden of plants, with flowers and fruit, in a day, or at most a few months. Such a garden can only be a hot house full of exotic plants in pots or a heavily tended garden, using every artificial help available. Hothouses and artificial landscapes have no organic connection to the environment in which they are growing. Once the heat, water and fertilizer are are cut off, the plants die.

This botanical metaphor is quite revealing. Just as there are subjects that can be learned quickly and retained if the mind is well prepared (the minds of children are extremely retentive and often not overly cluttered), sometimes the effect of seeding is immediate, and plants take root and begin to grow. More often in teaching, the best that happens is that a few weeds of false opinion are rooted out or at least identified, preparing the mind to receive something true. Teachers of science know that this weeding is essential: students do not understand and retain correct ideas if they continue to harbor false ones that interfere. Most seeds do not germinate right away. Indeed, they often wait years to develop. The teacher must have what Thoreau called “faith in a seed.” In some future circumstance of the student’s life, the environment of the mind may be right for this idea, and then it will develop. Most of the important things we learn in our lives have to develop like natural vegetation, through a process of succession in which different ideas only grow under the circumstances that are suited to them. Because natural communities have a “seed bank,” of dormant seed accumulated over many years, as well as a constant influx of seeds from outside, as one plant dies, another will immediately occupy the spot where it grew. Often many new plants will spring up and compete for the space until one takes over, or a plant that has been waiting, as it were, in the shadow of the current dominant one, will quickly grow up to fill its place.

I the human mind, if it remains active and receptive, old ideas are gradually replaced as the short-lived ones fade and are replaced by those that live longer. These may be new, but more often, I believe the best ones were first encountered earlier in life and have lain dormant, like seeds in the seed bank, or have been waiting in the shadow for us to reject an idea that up to then had been dominant. Gradually, one develops a set of ideas that have stood the test of time and the challenges of surviving in a complex world. If the good ideas are there at the time when circumstances become right for them, they will grow and flourish. All the teacher can do for the minds of his young students is to try to plant ieas of lasting potential value and have faith that they will eventually grow.

I am extremely grateful that I had the benefit of a home and school environment that made me reasonably competent as a reader, a fair master of math up through algebra and geometry, with a little bit of Latin and French, before I went to college. Furthermore, these were taught me in a way that did not kill my enjoyment of learning.

I attended Saint John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as an undergraduate. The core of the all-required curriculum was the seminar, a twice weekly evening class, where for two hours or more around 15-20 students and two tutors discussed a sequence of great books, from Homer and Dante to Darwin and Freud. Discussions began with a question from one of the tutors and then went, slowly or sometimes explosively, around and through the text, following the argument where it led, occasionally being set back on course by the tutors. Some tutors were more active in pushing the question; others preferred to sit back and see what we would come up with. The outcome of a Saint John’s seminar was that, as the etymology of “seminar” implies, seeds would have been planted in the minds of the participants.

Outside of class, we students often wondered what it was we were learning. It was very hard to summarize what any seminar was “about,” and impossible to state in a few words what had been concluded from the reading and discussion. Attrition at Saint John’s was quite high, and a frequent reason was the sense that we were “not getting anywhere.” Math tutorial and laboratories, another major component of the curriculum were subject to similar criticism, as we worked our way through texts like Euclid’s Elements, Newton’s Principia and Maxwell’s Experimental Researches on Electricity. I stayed with the Program to the end and went on to a successful graduate career at Cornell in ecology. I have never regretted my Saint John’s education and still view it as the best undergraduate program in the country.

I did learn a lot of things while at Saint John’s: The rudiments of Greek and some important ideas about geometry and arithmetic, the nature of mathematical proof, etc. I could recollect some of the specific content of the many books I read. But what was really valuable was that the experience made me confident in my ability to understand texts, to dissect arguments and to hold my own in discussion. This preparation of the ground enabled me to breeze through most of what I was required to learn in graduate school and to pass my qualifying exams without difficulty. Even there, though, it was the seeds that were sown, especially while reading many key papers in ecology assigned by my professors, that were most valuable. These came to fruition over my years as a college teacher. There were quite a few subjects, animal physiology for example, which I took and passed with A’s, from which I can recall almost nothing, yet I still have the notebooks and final exams to prove I once knew them very well. I passed the graduate reading exam in German (a particularly dreaded “assessment”) without much sweat. Having, however, no necessity or leisure to read anything in German, I forgot most of it in a matter of months. Short term memory stuffing is easy; long term requires a lot more application, at least for me (and many of my students).

Many of the great books from Saint John’s and benchmark papers from my Cornell years are still part of the courses I teach, both in the Environmental Studies Program and in General Studies. I still lead discussion-based classes. Over the years, I have received some, but not much, support for this approach from colleagues and administrators.

I hear from many of my former students who have gone on to successful careers. Often I am surprised by the places they have ended up. Rarely is the memory I have of how well they did a predictor of how brilliantly they have succeeded. Many an ugly duckling has proved to be a swan. Of course, the love of a subject, if it is a real passion, often grows into a brilliant career, but it is not necessarily the case that those students would have come off well in assessments of their learning at the time. Quite a few were low B and even C students in many of their courses.

Colleges and universities and those that fund them have to learn to deal with the fact that short term assessment is not a good predictor of future success. Changes made in teaching methods and curriculum will not show up until long after the students have gone on. It is far more important to look carefully to the quality of the seed being planted. This can only be done if you have a faculty who are willing to think long and hard about what things are important to include in the curriculum and who are not forced to waste their time developing short term assessments, rubrics and other specious projects that only value pretty but ephemeral flowers.

Naturalists Abroad: Three on the Amazon

Hemming, John. 2015. Naturalists in Paradise: Wallace, Bates and Spruce in the Amazon. Thames & Hudson. [I read the Kindle edition]

There was not a lot paradisiacal about the Amazon basin when three young, lower middle class Englishmen arrived there in the late 1840’s. It was a backwater of the Empire of Brazil, still recovering from a bloody civil war and not yet experiencing the rubber boom. Travel was difficult, often impossible, and living conditions ranged from merely hot and humid to nearly intolerable. No motorboats, no canned food, no bug repellents. Yet the three naturalists, the first from Great Britain to travel extensively and for many years in the Amazon region, could live cheaply and enjoyed the help of both Brazilian and foreign residents. They lived by the sale of the specimens they collected, something not commonly done today, at least by academic scientists, but then it was quite respectable. This was possible, in Henry Walter Bates and Alfred Russel Wallace’s case, because they had a reliable and energetic agent in London, Samuel Stevens, who marketed the exotic animals and plants they supplied to an eager and growing circle of collectors. Thomas Spruce enjoyed the support of George Bentham and William Hooker, director of Kew Gardens. They also accumulated personal collections of great value and volumes of notes, drawings, sketches, and accounts of the rivers, forests and the native peoples, of whose languages and cultures they learned much, to their great advantage, and ours. They relied on the skill of native boatmen and hunters, and procuring their services was a constant preoccupation for all three.

They generally worked alone, each going his own way and following different styles of exploration. Bates was mainly an entomologist and the most sedentary, working intensively in one area for months at a time. Wallace and Spruce ranged more widely, Wallace after birds and all other animals, as well as plants. He also accumulated extensive geological and ethnographic information. Spruce hunted new species of plants, including his favorites, mosses and liverworts. Wallace was accompanied at times by his brother, but Bates and Spruce were out of contact with their own countrymen for long periods.

The adventures described in this account are exciting, inspiring, and frequently hair-raising. The rivers and their falls and rapids were the greatest danger to the explorers and their precious collections, but the everyday toll of hunger and sickness on the men and of wet, mold and insects on their specimens probably did the most damage. Wallace’s brother died of yellow fever before he could return to England. All three had malaria, sometimes very severe, and in 1858 Spruce suffered an unexplained illness that left him crippled for life.

Catastrophe dogged Wallace: heading home in 1852, a shipboard fire destroyed almost all his personal specimens and records, except for the few he managed to grab as he abandoned ship. Still he went on to a successful voyage to the Malay Archipelago (modern Indonesia) during which he worked out the theory of natural selection, which he and Darwin jointly announced in 1858. In the second half of the 1850s, Spruce pushed far into the Andes, where he learned much about the hallucinogenic plants used by the natives, a topic later investigated by Richard Schultes and Wade Davis. He also made vital collections of Chinchona, the source of the antimalarial quinine, contributing to the establishment of plantations in India and the East Indies. He did this despite the hardships of the country, a civil war and his own prostration by that mysterious illness.

Hemming’s account is consistently lively and an excellent companion to reading the naturalists’ own work, like Bates’s wonderful Naturalist on the River Amazons. It has the advantage of weaving their travels together and providing the background of Brazilian history and the development of natural science in Great Britain. Hemming is an anthropologist, historian and geographer, whose own extensive travels in the region add much to the story.

The work accomplished by these three men in their time in the field was phenomenal: thousands of new species of animals and plants along with detailed descriptions of a country largely unknown to the learned world. They are deservedly members of the pantheon of the greatest naturalists in history.