“A systematic record of great biological value”

Paul Sears was an early plant ecologist who did a lot of good work at the University of Nebraska and previously at Ohio State, Nebraska being the nexus of American plant ecology in the early 20th century. He was I believe, the first president of the Ecological Society of America. He was also one of the very first ecologists–of what is now a legion–to estimate landscape scale forest taxonomic composition at pre-settlement time, using the bearing/witness tree record contained within the early federal land survey. Here he takes a humorous swipe at the geometric wisdom inherent in the survey design. Ya can’t put a rectangular grid on a round planet fer cryin’ out loud, but hey, thanks for recording all those trees! šŸ™‚

Surveying of Ohio was begun in July, 1786, under The Geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins, employing for the first time his device of sections one mile square. This empirical device was hailed as a great American invention, although the State of Ohio has since been found to possess a curved surface in common with the rest of the earth. All corners which lay within the forest were located with reference to nearby trees, the species of which were noted. These corners becoming permanent, the net result of Hutchins’ plan has been the preservation of a systematic record of such great biological value as to redeem its geometrical shortcomings.

A little background might be useful. Ohio was the first state surveyed under the federal land survey, all previous states being surveyed in all manner of ways by various entities under various authorities and quality control procedures, i.e. without a comprehensive and systematic plan. By law enacted in 1785–the very first congress–a hugely important law affecting how the public domain would be disposed of, all states added to the country from that point forward were to be surveyed under a systematic, regular survey design with very specific instructions regarding how to proceed (Thomas Jefferson being a driving force behind this). Ohio, being the first such state added, in 1803, also served as the test state, where various survey designs were tried out before deciding on the one that, with minor modifications, has been followed the last 200 years in the 30 federal land survey states.

To my knowledge no other branch of ecology has the quality of historic data sets dating to +/- pre-settlement times, i.e. before all the heavy impacts occurred, and most certainly not over such an enormous geographic extent. In fact, I don’t think it’s even close. We’re very lucky in that regard, and we have people like Thomas Jefferson, with his sense of mathematical order and intense interest in all things natural and landscape, for it.

Sears, Paul B. 1925. The Natural Vegetation of Ohio: I, A Map of the Virgin Forest

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