Who was it?
Who first rocked your boat, flipped your lid, pushed your button, turned you on?
(Intellectually, of course).
Were you shaken by the medium (a sassy speaker) or the message (a call to arms)?
Either way, someone special influenced many of us, igniting our passions.
One of my pet fascinations – and professional preoccupations – is how ecosystems change over time. As I wrote in an earlier blog, I’m always puzzling over whether ‘the patterns that we see were created by natural forces…or by a hidden mosaic of past disturbances’. So what catalyzed this interest? Who rocked my boat? In the olde days (pre-PCs), information and inspiration weren’t so easy to come by. TV, seminars, books, and photocopies of photocopies did the trick. Luckily, my Honours supervisor, Bob Parsons, subscribed to an obscure journal from the USA. The word ‘journal’ is a bit grandiose, as early editions consisted of stapled foolscap pages. It had a low-key title, Restoration & Management Notes (R&MN), and described restoration activities across the USA. Back then, nothing like it existed in Australia.
One afternoon, nearly 25 years ago, I stumbled across the paper that rocked my boat, that made ecology click. It was written by someone called Steve Packard, and it’s title was pretty low-key too: Just a few oddball species: restoration and the rediscovery of the tallgrass savanna.
The paper described the trail that Packard and colleagues blazed to rewrite the ecology of the Illinois savanna. They set out to restore a degraded ecosystem, and ended up by totally re-defining it: what it contained, how it worked, and how to save it.
So what was it that rocked my boat, that flipped my lid? Looking back, it’s easy to romanticize ideas that I may not have noticed at the time. Nevertheless, the article combined great field observations, a landscape vision, a superb sense of history, and an appreciation of the pivotal role of disturbances. Equally important, it involved people. This wasn’t an ecology for the wilderness, it was an ecology for vegetation in landscapes dominated by people, both in the past (through fire) and the future (through restoration and community engagement). It also sounded like it was written by a pretty smart guy, who wasn’t afraid to splatter a few sacred cows.
25 years ago, none of this was on my radar. Back then, Australian landscape ecologists studied spatial patterns and ignored history. Most disturbance ecologists worked in ‘intact’ forests and avoided small remnants. Few restorationists had grappled with disturbance regimes. And hardly anyone put people in the picture.
Looking back, Steve Packard’s article struck a big chord simply because it was so far ahead of its time. Believe it or not, a few weeks ago I went to the first national workshop on ‘ecological thinning’ in Australia – nearly 25 years after Packard’s paper put the topic on the table.
In the USA, the paper may not have been all that revelatory, building as it did on 50 years of prairie restoration. But it triggered a little epiphany for me, and made sense of lots of field observations that I’d long puzzled over. And, for better or worse, that epiphany kick-started a research career that’s lasted over 25 years and generated 70-odd papers, many addressing Packard’s themes. Fueled with Packard-power, we’ve documented how Australian ecosystems changed since European colonization, how human disturbances (and their absences) altered threatened ecosystems, and how managers can manipulate disturbances to restore degraded systems.
A few years ago I co-wrote a big ideas paper on landscape history and conservation in fragmented landscapes. Like all researchers keen to get our manuscript published, we claimed it provided a “novel, innovative, exciting, integrative – and gobsmackingly awesome – global conceptual framework, etc, etc, etc”. But looking back, every idea drank from the well that Packard’s paper watered.
Most papers don’t age well. Joe Connell’s classic paper on the intermediate disturbance regime, Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs, has been cited 1000s of times, but if you read it now, you’re likely to wonder, ‘why on earth did this make such a splash?’
For the first time in two decades, I re-read Packard’s paper so I could write this blog. I surprised myself by repeatedly putting it aside. I didn’t want to destroy my memories, I guess. When I did get into it, I found it said lots I didn’t remember, and didn’t say a few things I did remember. You can put this down to my fading faculties if you like. But I think it signifies something bigger.
Great influences – in art and science, music and life – transcend literal renditions and re-readings. Their legacy lies not in their content, but in the ideas they inspire, the actions they nourish, and the futures they generate.
A small article in a small magazine, written by someone across the globe who I’ve never met, helped guide my career. And, along the way, it helped improve the conservation of threatened ecosystems here in Australia. I’m sure the author never imagined his ideas would extend that far.
I began this blog by asking, who first rocked your boat? Perhaps a better question is – whose boat will you rock?
You may never know it, but the things you do for the environment and conservation – no matter how small – do inspire others, regardless of their immediate outcome. And for earth’s sake, we all need to aspire to inspire.
Stephen Packard was my Steve Jobs.
Who’s yours? And whose Stev(i)e will you be?
The ‘obscure journal’, Restoration & Management Notes, grew remarkably over the years. It evolved into the journal Ecological Restoration and provided the inspiration for the Australian journal, Ecological Management & Restoration (EMR).
If you’ve read this far, make sure you read the comments below, they’re awesome.
- Packard, S. (1988) Just a few oddball species: restoration and the rediscovery of the tallgrass savanna. Restoration & Management Notes 6(1), 13-22.
- Connell, J.H. (1978). Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199 (4335): 1302–1310.