The Master Gardeners

Thoughts on Reaching 100

Bill Meredith

“…getting’ cards and letters from people I don’t even know….” Glenn Campbell, “Rhinestone Cowboy.”

“I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend with my life your right to say it.” Voltaire

The year 2008 has been a year of 5x anniversaries. A 75th birthday came and went this year. Fifty years ago I had just completed my first year of teaching at Mount St. Mary’s; the fact that I survived was a minor miracle. (If we last another couple of weeks, my wife and I will reach our 53rd wedding anniversary—not a multiple of 5, but a miracle of somewhat larger proportions.) Forty years ago we bought our house here in town. Ten years ago I ended my teaching career and became a retired ecologist instead of a real one; and this issue of the Dispatch contains the 100th article to appear under my byline.

Like everything else in my life, writing for the Dispatch seems to have happened by accident. It was the first week of September, 1995, when someone named Bo Cadle called my office at the college for an appointment. I should have recognized the name, for his father had been our family doctor for many years, but I was very busy with the details of getting the semester started, and I just assumed he was a parent with a problem or a salesman of some kind. It turned out that he was selling something; he was in the process of starting a monthly newspaper that was to be called the Emmitsburg Dispatch, and he wanted me to write a column in it.

I don’t know why Bo came to me, for I was not a writer. Like all college professors, I had published a few articles in my field and written a few pieces in college publications over the years; but journalism involves a different kind of writing, and I had never done it. I thought starting a newspaper was a nice idea, though a bit Quixotic, but I was too busy to get involved, so I was evasive; and Bo was persistent. Over the next two years I wrote a few occasional pieces, and when I retired the pressure to start a regular column increased.

Selecting the column’s title and topic was easy. I had always admired the definition composed in 1957 by Amyan Macfadyen, an English ecologist (in spite of the Scottish name) who is now nearly 90 and a beloved elder statesman in the field. He wrote:

“An ecologist is something of a chartered libertine. He roams at will over the legitimate preserves of the plant and animal biologist, the taxonomist, the physiologist, the behaviourist, the meteorologist, the geologist, the physicist, the chemist, and even the sociologist; he poaches from all these and from other established and respected disciplines. It is indeed a major problem for the ecologist, in his own interest, to set bounds to his divigations.”

This definition sums up why I became an ecologist: I always enjoyed all branches of science, and this field gave me the freedom to dabble in all of them. And who could resist a definition that ended with such a lovely word as “divigations?” It is not even in American dictionaries; it is literally an English word that means “to wander or stray.” That is exactly what my mind likes to do best, and writing this column provided the opportunity.

One of the best comments about writing I have heard was by the syndicated columnist, Roger Rosenblatt, who said, “Writing teaches you what you think.” When each month’s deadline approaches I decide on a topic, but when the writing is finished the final product invariably turns out to be different than what I had originally planned. Fuzzy ideas, inaccurate facts and bad logic cannot survive a careful writing process; putting words down on paper forces you to think clearly about what you’ve said and how you said it. (The fact that most politicians do not write their own speeches may account for a lot of the trouble they cause!) But I learned early in my teaching career that even the most logically reasoned facts can be boring, so I consciously adopted the style of storyteller in both teaching and writing. It may be a sneaky way to go about presenting ecology to an audience, but it does hold their attention. And it tempers the arrogance scientists can fall into so easily. As Garrison Keillor said, “You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories.”

Among the themes that keep coming up in this column are the nature of science and the distinction between ecology and environmentalism. Ecology is a branch of science which searches for knowledge and understanding of the environment; to practice it you have to have some background in the other sciences listed in Macfadyen’s definition. Environmentalism, on the other hand, is an appreciation of the importance of the environment and the desire to preserve it by private actions and public policy. Being an ecologist does not automatically make you an environmentalist, and vice versa. Some ecologists have no interest in public policy; and while some environmentalists are well informed about ecology, others are driven more by emotion than knowledge. This distinction is not widely understood by the public, and is regularly exploited by politicians and other policy makers who value economic or other interests above the environment.

Ecologists are bound by the limitations of the Scientific Method. We use data to establish theories and computer models which can predict the probability that something may happen, but we cannot say with certainty if or when it will occur. When ecologists warn that problems exist, the public often responds like a teenager with a new driver’s license… “Sure, accidents happen, but not to me.” For example, such models predicted years ago that it was almost 100% certain that a major hurricane would hit New Orleans, but they were ignored by policy makers who said the required changes in levees and building restrictions would be too expensive. Incredibly, even after Katrina, policy makers are encouraging people to move back and rebuild in the same area. Global climate change is an even better example; ecologists were predicting as long ago as1950 that greenhouse gases would cause polar ice melting, sea level rise and changes in world climate, all of which are occurring now, yet an amazing number of people still believe we should not make policy changes because “scientists aren’t certain” and “it would hurt the economy.”

Writing to a mixed audience like the readers of a newspaper is the most challenging aspect of this column. Like Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy, since starting the column I have received lots of comments. Most are complimentary, even flattering; some are critical, even derogatory, but they are the ones I learn the most from. If I grumble that people whose minds are made up are not easily persuaded by facts and logic, my wife always comes to the rescue and reminds me that I should think of Voltaire and be grateful for them. They have contributed to my continuing education.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith