With a new quarter in ENVIR 280 (Natural History of the Puget Sound Region) upon us, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the lives of two giants in the natural history of our region, Bob Paine and Art Kruckeberg, both of whom passed away earlier this year while I was busy teaching the spring version of ENVIR 280. I will not attempt full obituaries here since there are many excellent obituaries available on the internet by people who knew them better than I. Instead I will briefly describe their connection to ENVIR 280 and what my brief interactions with them have meant to me.
I will start with Art Kruckeberg, whom I unfortunately never had the chance to converse with, but whom I had the pleasure to hear from in a graduate student seminar at the University of Washington, probably 15 years ago now. He, of course, waxed poetically about serpentine plants, but I believe the topic of his seminar had more to do with his work on Achillea with the famous botanical triumverate of Clausen, Keck, and Hiesey. I was completely enthralled, not only to learn more about the importance of their seminal study on Achillea ecotypes (work I often talk about now when in the field with students), but to learn more about the logistics, places, and personalities involved; and to hear about it directly from someone who was there (especially from someone who is a legend in his own right) felt like I was immersed in the history of science–a heady experience for a beginning graduate student such as myself.
But my present career has benefited from Art’s legacy in some more tangible ways. It was Art who taught the original “Natural History of the Puget Sound Region” course at the University of Washington. It may have been taught under a slightly different title at the time (and I’m guessing was probably biased towards geo-botany, a field that Art popularized), but when Josh Tewksbury re-invented the course in 2012, it had probably not been taught for over 20 years because the UW (like most major universities) had lost its appetite for general natural history courses. I occasionally meet older folks who were students in UW Botany back in the day, and they rave about their time in the field with Art in this class. The class apparently had field trips to far-flung parts of Washington every weekend (unfortunately our budget and changing times limit us to only three weekend field trips). So, I feel in some way teaching ENVIR 280 today, that I am carrying on a legacy begun by Art. Art’s book, “Natural History of Puget Sound Country”, upon which the curriculum of our course is partially based, is unparalleled in the depth and breadth of its approach to the natural history of this region (ranging from geology, botany, and zoology, to the ecology of first peoples). Indeed, I don’t think there are many regions of the U.S. or world that have a tome quite like Art’s to describe their own natural history. Art, and his commitment to making the general natural history of this region accessible to a wide audience, will be missed. Thankfully he left many students who are carrying on the tradition (including the entire Washington Native Plant Society, which Art helped to found). And I look forward to visiting the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, another legacy left by him and his wife.
The second giant I want to talk about is Bob Paine, a scientist and naturalist whom I had the pleasure of getting to know later in his life, as a fellow participant in the Natural History Network’s workshop on Natural History Education at UW’s Pack Forest (in which he candidly discussed creating an environment in which his children could get dirty and freely explore nature–in this case the creeks and ponds of the UW Aboretum–an idea that I have heeded now that I am a parent myself), and through his participation in ENVIR 280 as a guest lecturer. The photo below, by Benj Drummond, is from the Natural History Network workshop. One of the best outcomes of that workshop was the Natural Histories Project, in which Bob’s voice is immortalized as he holds forth on the longevity of sea anemones: http://naturalhistoriesproject.org/conversations/anemone-like
As a graduate student in UW Biology, I passed Bob’s emeritus office space (more like a small room by the backdoor of the building) almost daily. His door was always open in invitation to students to drop in at any time, even as he worked tirelessly on manuscripts and lectures. He was also a frequent participant in the weekly graduate ecology seminar, which he started long before he retired, and which he attended long into retirement (apparently even emailing his thoughts into the seminar during his final days when he was too sick to attend). Bob was one of those people who seemed “anemone-like” (in reference to the recording linked above). I fully expected him to be in that office forever, holding forth on any manner of ecological or natural history topics with whomever might stop by. For a man of his age, he maintained excellent physical health, and his mind remained as sharp as ever even as his body aged. I was shocked to learn that Bob had been dealing with cancer and that he had passed away relatively suddenly this spring.
It wasn’t until after the Natural History Network workshop that I felt more comfortable just dropping by and chatting with Bob, and I got to know him much better in the process. True, he was a giant in the field of ecology, as many of his obituaries demonstrate, but he was easy to talk to, extremely self-effacing, and willing to mentor anyone (from undergraduate to postdoc) who might wander into his office, with incisive and insightful advice. As an example of his modesty, a student in one of my natural history classes asked him after an engaging guest lecture on his ingenious studies of intertidal ecosystems, whether he had received any accolades for his work. Bob sheepishly replied that he had received a few, but quickly returned the subject to natural history.
As a naturalist, Bob got his start studying birds. At the Natural History Network workshop, I recall the fish biologist, Mary Powers, saying that Bob was able to double her house bird list, just by sitting on her front porch and listening to the songs of birds calling from the vegetation nearby. But, as a biologist, Bob wanted a study system that he could more easily manipulate. At the University of Washington, he settled on the ecology of invertebrates in the rocky intertidal zone of Washington’s outer coast, also the subject of his guest lectures in my class–usually to prepare us for our big spring field trip to rocky intertidal ecosystems.
In the first few iterations, Bob’s guest lectures were done with an old- fashioned slide projector (although I think in the last iteration, he had scanned his old slides into a PPT), as he took us (the audience) on a virtual tour of his beloved Tatoosh Island. Bob was convinced that advances in biology came from careful observation of nature, rather than reading books or papers. More importantly, he taught my class that the best naturalists turn their observations into questions, and then answer those questions by devising simple experiments. He walked us through his thought process on Tatoosh, starting with basic observation of the natural history of common organisms, and then asking questions about what controls their distribution and abundance in the intertidal zone. He encouraged us to always ask ourselves in the field which ecological force(s) (disturbance, predation, herbivory, competition, facilitation, uncertainty or randomness) best accounted for patterns we might be seeing at any given time. He showed us “before and after” photos of winter storm wave action on Tatoosh. He showed us coralline algae growing over a sponge, competing for space. One of my personal favorites was his image of an algae garden maintained indirectly by a black oyster-catcher preying on limpets and other algae grazers–an example of a trophic cascade. And of course, no Paine lecture would be complete without a discussion of ochre sea stars as a keystone species (a term he essentially coined), and its ability to structure and maintain diversity in the system. He described how he tested his ideas using simple, yet ingenious experiments, using supplies from hardware stores and marine supply stores to either enclose or exclude organisms on the rocks, in addition to simple removal experiments. He brought in a veritable museum of beat-up experimental detritus left over from these experiments, explaining that all of these things were acquired cheaply and easily, the only tricky part being finding items that could withstand wave action day in and day out. The takehome message was that these experiments could have been done by anyone who was willing to observe and think–money was not the limiting factor. Of course, being the first person to do the “observe and think” part, was no small task. Perhaps this is just another example of Bob’s humbleness.
In later iterations of Bob’s guest lecture to my class, he became increasingly concerned about human-induced stressors on ecosystems and he was convinced that natural history and experimental ecology might be used to predict future ecosystem structure. For example, if humans over-harvest algae, or grazers such as abalone, an understanding of the effects of herbivory and competition in a given system would be crucial to predicting how the system might react. He had also become increasingly concerned with Seastar Wasting Disease (which is actually probably not directly human induced), which, as a result of his own experimental work, might arguably cause mussels to become more common in their place. But he was quick to point out another new human-induced stressor, ocean acidification, which may simultaneously negatively effect mussels (by inhibiting their ability to grow byssal fibers), particularly in cold waters at higher latitudes.
Bob was convinced that intensive study at one site (in his case, Tatoosh Island) is essential for field ecologists to undertake. While some might criticize the ability to generalize results from only one site to other sites, the depth of knowledge one can obtain by studying a single site for a long period of time is simply unmatched by short studies across many sites. Using one site for a long period of time, one can tease apart complex interactions by really getting to understand the ecology (starting with basic natural history) of many of the players in the system through time. And it is the time component that is most important. Organisms that you think are the major players ecologically in the system today, may not have been in the past, and they may not be in the future. A long time-base allows you to understand natural variation in the system, and it is the only way that you can begin to tease apart natural variation in the system from the many human-induced variations that systems are likely to incur in the future.
For as proud of his experimental ecology work as Bob was, in one of my last interactions with him, he loaned me a book with a section entitled: Food recognition and predation on opistobranchs by Navanax inermis (1963). In this section he essentially follows a single sea slug around the intertidal zone for what must have been days on end recording a careful diary of where it went and what it ate for as long as he could stay with it. This, to me, demonstrates Bob’s dedication to not only experimental natural history and ecological process, but to the most basic kind of natural history observation. This is the kind of work that ordinarily would never make it into a publication in today’s scientific arena, and is thought of as old-fashioned, or even a death-knell to anyone who wants a career in modern biology. In this chapter, Bob unabashedly provided simple documentation of the life of an organism that most people have never heard of, let alone care about, but that deserves to be paid attention to every bit as much as any other organism on the planet.
Bob will be much missed, but his enormous scientific and teaching legacy will live on. I hope that I can do justice to this legacy as I strive to pass on his ideas and wisdom to my students.