Science Heroes

'Ribbon of Green' shows the work of skilled craftsmen who care about the Earth

Willie Nelson sang that his heroes had always been cowboys.

Me--my heroes have always been scientists. At least they were until I read about the nuclear bomb. When concerns cropped up that detonating an atom bomb might create some small risk of incinerating the entire planet, all those brilliant young engineers and physicists did it anyway! All those lame apologists for the bomb who talk about the hypothetical lives saved are basically saying: Hey, it's OK to blow up the world as long as, by gawd, we win that global economic football game.

OK, I'm ranting a little. There's more to the story.

The kind of scientists I grew up admiring were those geeky-nerdy ones who loved the Earth so much that they dedicated their careers to figuring out what makes it all tick. Early on, there were Chucky Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace and Thomas Hunt Morgan and Rachel Carson. You may remember those National Geographic specials with Jane Goodall (a hot babe with brains), or that shelf of books about evolution by Stephen Jay Gould that, while fascinating, seemed to go on and on and really needed a good editor.

There was Cousteau and his merry band of rubber-suited menfish, not exactly hard-core scientists, per se, but early popularizers of marine ecology. And there's the heroic E. O. Wilson, whose scientific career revolved around ants and other social insects, but who ultimately turned human-behavior studies upside down with his ideas about sociobiology. The man actually got a pie in the face for that one, because he questioned the notion that we are somehow more "special" than other creatures.

The book The Ribbon of Green: Change in Riparian Vegetation in the Southwestern United States demonstrates wonderfully that my heroes are still out there, and not all science has been co-opted by either the Dark Side or the Republican agenda. It tries to answer, once and for all, what's been going on with riparian habitat in the Southwest all these years.

It all started in the late '70s, when news reports and various scientific and popular books started waving around the idea that somewhere between 80 and 95 percent of the Southwest's riparian vegetation--that is, trees and other woody plants associated with rivers, streams and drainages--had disappeared. Three scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey--Robert Webb and Stanley Leake (a pair of research hydrologists) and Ray Turner (a now-retired botanist) asked a simple question: Is this troubling statistic really true?

The answer, it turns out, may surprise you.

The key to being a good scientist is learning how not to fool yourself. The authors right away note how some scientists have, in the past, fooled themselves by passing judgment without the data to back themselves up. They make it clear that "a theme of this book is to differentiate what some people think these systems should be from what they were and are."

They carefully laid out the parameters of their study. They asked a focused question, then determined what factors might bias or affect the study and its results. They chose the technique of repeat photography (see the classic studies The Changing Mile and The Changing Mile Revisited) as a tool to see if they could somehow identify and measure changes in woody riparian vegetation over time. Finally, they did their homework and undertook a massive review of just about everything ever written on the history, hydrology, biology and botany of virtually all the major watersheds in the Southwest and many of their tributaries where photographic records existed. The massive bibliography is worth the price alone.

What they found is that the world is a much more complicated place than we'd like it to be. Woody riparian vegetation has, in general, actually increased across the Southwest. While the vegetation mix has changed virtually everywhere, the reasons for all this are subtle and complex, perhaps linked more to climate than to human activity.

There is a great love evident in science done well. Pursuing the truth is on the surface a difficult and thankless task, but in reality, it's a love story about craftsmen--skilled, intelligent people who dedicate everything to getting it right. The knowledge we have about the world was gained thanks to scientists like Webb, Leake and Turner. The elegance of this fine book is surpassed only by the quality of its science.

So, yeah, with apologies to Willie Nelson, my heroes have always been scientists. They still are, it seems.

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