Acorns to Climate Change: Bowcutt lecture brings together science and humanities

Frederica at SCARC 2016

Dr. Bowcutt finding material for her next project in Oregon State University’s Special Collections & Archives Research Center.

It’s been over a month ago now but I wanted to share some reflections on an interdisciplinary, interdepartmental talk that was organized by graduate students in the College of Forestry and in School of History, Philosophy, and Religion here at OSU. In Jacob Hamblin’s Environmental History seminar last year, I (Tamara Caulkins, PhD candidate, History of Science) had the good fortune to meet forestry PhD candidate Jesse Engebretson. He became involved in a new OSU student group called “Diverse Perspectives in Forestry Group” under the dynamic leadership of Randi Shaw, and a new lecture series was born.

This series aims to bring to the table underrepresented views to the practice of Forestry. Bowcutt’s talk was part of this series which was also sponsored by The OSU College of Liberal Arts “Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative,” under the direction of Prof. Jacob Hamblin.

Our speaker, Frederica Bowcutt, botanist and author of The Tanoak Tree: An Environmental History of a Pacific Coast Hardwood, gave a well-attended lecture in Richardson Hall on May 20, 2016 at noon. Professor Bowcutt spoke about the many ways the tanoak has figured in the history of southwest Oregon and northern California from the use of its acorns by Amerindian tribes for food to the tanning of leather for saddles by sixteenth century Spanish colonists to a complicated role in twentieth century logging. As a historian of science, I get very excited about how what goes in to the making of knowledge – or “scientia” as science was called in the early modern period that I study – so I was thrilled with Dr. Bowcutt’s use of a wide variety of primary sources such as a medieval book of hours that pointed to the European disdain for acorns as a food source even before they encountered Amerindians (these early miniatures showed that only pigs or cavemen ate acorns) or a mid-twentieth century poster advocating mechanical processing of timber that read “you don’t have to pay the man who isn’t there.”

Bowcutt holds degrees in botany from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California at Davis (UCD). She worked for five years as an ecologist for the California Department of Parks and Recreation before returning to earn her PhD in ecology from UC Davis – a degree she designed to include substantial study in the arts and humanities.


On a hike with students before the talk.

Frederica has also worked as an environmental consultant doing rare plant surveys and ecological restoration. Since 1996, Dr. Bowcutt has taught botany in interdisciplinary programs at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA. She specializes in floristics, field plant ecology, and plant-centric environmental history. A sample of some of the classes she has taught will give you a sense of the wide range of her interests: Plants, Fungi, and People, European Ethnobotany and Art, and Field Plant Taxonomy and Conservation. Students in Dr. Bowcutt’s course “Picturing Plants” designed and constructed numerous signs across the Evergreen campus, providing historical and taxonomic information on local plants.

Dr. Bowcutt is an extraordinary scholar not only for the rigor of her scientific work but for the way she has honored the knowledge of indigenous peoples, loggers, citizen scientists, wood-working craftsmen, and wood products manufacturers. These diverse perspectives are woven throughout her talk on the many aspects of the tanoak tree – considered in different periods as a “beautiful” tree, a “weed” and “trash tree” which audience members more deeply appreciated by the end of her talk. Climate change has affected this tree through increasingly erratic weather which favors the spread of the pathogen P. ramorum. Although the tanoak is not as commercially valuable as other species such as Douglas-fir, the spread of the disease does affect the forest ecosystem more generally. Bringing out these complicated connections is a primary goal of the “Diverse Perspectives in Forestry Group” and offers an excellent example of how schools of science and of humanities collaborating across the OSU campus can enrich our understanding. Bowcutt’s penetrating analysis of timber practices and their consequences for ecological systems in southern Oregon and northern California sparked a lively discussion after the talk.

Bowcutt published her book on the tanoak in 2015 with the University of Washington Press. She has also published multiple floras on state parks in the North Coast Range and Central Valley of California. Her essays have appeared in a variety of journals including Environmental History and Human Ecology  as well as an anthology compiled by Carolyn Merchant entitled Green Versus Gold: Sources in California’s Environmental History. She has taught for over twenty years at Evergreen State College addressing such topics as the interactions between plants and people, European Ethnobotany and Art, and Field Plant Taxonomy and Conservation.

The “Diverse Perspectives in Forestry Group” will be continuing their speaker series. I will be staying tuned!

Do we still need professors?

Books on my shelves

The job market for PhDs, especially in the Humanities, is not good. My advisor told me it was the worst she’d ever seen…and that was several years ago when I first begin my PhD studies. My own professional association, the History of Science Society, has made a concerted effort to identify jobs outside of academia for graduates and, importantly, to promote those positions as “not failures.” Further, a number of books and articles have advocated for alternative careers  for PhDs (a recent example is discussed here) while others rightly bemoan the state of the business-model university.

However, we should not lose sight of the larger picture. Income inequity for everyone has grown enormously over the past four decades. The financial crash of 2008 has further battered our economy. Job prospects are not just bad for academics; they are discouraging for everyone. So the push to value other careers – which could translate to other low paying, unstable jobs as an alternative to the low pay and tenuous employment status of adjuncts – seems misguided. My sense is that most PhDs would be happy to use their skills in other settings if they were compensated at a decent rate and with reasonable job security.

Carla lecturing at a museum cropped

But we still need good professors. In the stories that followed the defeat of the Harvard debating team by the Bard College-trained debate team from the Eastern New York prison, the expertise of the professors who worked with them did not receive nearly as much press as the fact that the Bard students in prison had to study with restricted access to materials and no use of the internet. Indeed, the work ethic of the students and their intellectual aptitude deserves to be celebrated. Nevertheless, it is also worth recognizing the key role that professors played in preparing these students to think clearly and argue effectively.

It is a real loss when a retiring professor is not replaced in favor of doubling the class size or employing less expensive (i.e. “contingent”) faculty. This has become an accepted scenario in the current climate of higher education. It is not just jobs that are at stake. Employment shapes our daily lives in important ways: as a source of income and sense of achievement and community. The loss of tenured positions, which in secondary education has meant tenable positions, is a real loss for new PhDs and the work force at large.

But we should also keep in sight what is lost in the bigger picture when that not-replaced professor is not there. The future world with its increasingly-global-scale complexity needs people who are thoughtful, energized, and well-educated. Professors challenge, support, and prepare those kinds of people. Education is not a collection of facts but an engagement of mind and body, a traversing of what is known and not-yet-understood. Professors serve as skilled guides and seasoned fellow travelers.

The current dearth of decent jobs in academia should not make us lose sight of what universities have achieved nor of what role they could play in the future. Equal opportunities in education have been in many ways America’s great promise. We live in the best of times and the worst of times – a time when our universities still are among the most excellent institutions of higher learning in the world, and a time when those institutions are under the most virulent attack.

The recent success of the Bard college prison debate team has made visible persistent racism and a U.S. prison industry that has grown exponentially over the same decades that have seen the sharp decline in academic positions. The United States with only 5% of the world’s population incarcerates nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners. Instead of funding one of the world’s largest prison systems, we could do a better job of funding higher education. The success of the Bard college debate team could be a catalyst for more deeply appreciating what professors do and for not giving up on the professorial vocation without a fight.