Visiting speaker Frederica Bowcutt finds the OSU Special Collections & Archives Research Center
Visiting speaker Dr. Frederica Bowcutt finds rich material for her next project in OSU’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.

She 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.

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. Stay tuned!

by Anna Dvorak*

Source: Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia on “Wolves and Moose on Isle Royale”

In his lecture “Laws of nature, historical contingency, and the wolves and moose of Isle Royale,” Dr. John A. Vucetich seeks to explain a new approach to the study of ecology that he uses with the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Project, which is the largest, continuously running predator/prey study in the world.  In his study of population dynamics on the island, he believes that unlike other scientific fields, like chemistry or physics, ecology is not strictly law-based.  Instead it is better studied like other historical events.  He refers to this as historical contingency and he defines his process in two parts.  This process explains population dynamics through a series of disparate random events, each of which has a legacy that has effects comparable in length to the waiting time in between these events.  Each candidate event is crucial to understanding the predator/prey relationship on Isle Royale and more specifically the predation rate of the moose.  Such candidate events in his analysis include novel disease, catastrophic winter, genetic rescue by introducing new wolves to the island, and the end of positive effects from the genetic rescue.  Periods in between these candidate events are characterized as either top-down or bottom-up.  It is these individual events that can be quantifiably explained and then compared to the laws of nature. Continue reading

by Joshua McGuffie

McGuffie1 With summer drawing to a close, I took the opportunity to ride the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Albany, Oregon to Union Station in Los Angeles. I’d never taken the train for such a long trip, 28 hours each way. On such a long trip landscapes pass by, fixed in their space but transient in the rider’s experience. Each moment on the train creates a snapshot of the land. Being a rider is significantly different than being a driver on the interstate – not having to worry about truck traffic frees the mind to wander. As my mind wandered, four snapshots of human interaction with the passing terrain leapt out at me.

The trip starts in Albany, Oregon. Seat of Linn County (‘The Grass Seed Capital of the World’), Albany quickly gives way to the rural Willamette Valley. Sheep, hay, and grass seed accompany the rider all the way to Eugene. In Oregon’s third city the tracks turn southeast to climb the Cascades through the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. The transition from an agricultural landscape to a logging landscape is abrupt. Evergreen stands of varying ages blanket the landscape along with clearcuts and a web of logging roads. The Willamette played a part in the bitter spotted owl and old growth forest controversies. But, to a layman’s eyes on the train, the forest looks like a forest, not an historically controversial landscape. In this case, the train delves into the depths of environmental conflict but also shrouds it with the trappings of a scenic landscape. One hundred years ago, Einstein used the train to teach physicists the hidden truths of relativity. Today, as the train runs through the forest, it teaches us the often hidden truth that aesthetic beauty can obscure the extent of human alteration to an ecosystem. Continue reading

by Joshua McGuffie*


What images does wilderness evoke? For many, wilderness means pristine landscapes, scenic vistas, quietude, and wide open spaces. Many Americans may be surprised to know that, legally, wilderness has only been enshrined as a public reality for 50 years. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, surrounded by an unlikely coalition of elected officials and preservationists. To celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary, Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project hosted a panel discussion on 2 May to consider the Act’s genesis, life, and future.

Dr. Jacob Hamblin discussed important environmental moments leading up to the act. He particularly singled out public outcry over the Bureau of Reclamation’s Echo Park Project. The Bureau planned to build a series of dams along the Colorado, including within Grand Canyon National Park. Hamblin argued that potential incursions into ‘protected’ federal lands raised popular environmental consciousness and incentivized politicians to support preservation measures. With this background in mind, he asked the question “Is it possible to have a community of sincerity without common purpose?” That the Wilderness Act passed, with a variety of definitions for ‘wilderness’ built into its text, seems to indicate that such a community did in fact coalesce in the early 1960’s. Continue reading

Congratulations to Ph.D. student Linda Richards, who has published an article in Peace and Change: A Journal of Peace Research!  The title is “Fallout Suits and Human Rights: Disrupting the Technocratic Narrative,” and it challenges the way we think about radiation effects historically.  As she writes, “the topic of radiation exposure is a disputed maze of scientific discrepancy and historical incongruity.”

Linda shows us how we can begin to navigate this maze and frame the story differently: instead of relying solely on  the pronouncements of scientists and government experts, we can try to understand radiation effects as an important lens for seeing the international human rights movement.  The article itself follows the Paulings’ attempts to the sue the U.S. government for radiation effects due to nuclear testing.  Linda shows how these “fallout suits” reveal differences between scientific evidence and government pronouncements.  Like a photograph, she writes, the fallout suits provide a snapshot of a crucial moment in time when protecting against nuclear threats became not just a scientific subject, but a human right issue.

Linda has been able to travel to multiple archives in her dissertation research, including the National Archives, Chemical Heritage Foundation, and even the archives of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.  This paper makes heavy use of archives closer to home, highlighting some of OSU’s valuable collections, especially the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling collections right here on campus.

We are all so delighted that Linda Richards is helping to raise the profile of this topic, these archives, and this university!

by James H. Capshew*

I started reading The Hidden Forest by Jon Luoma in December. Subtitled The Biography of an Ecosystem, the book details the history of the 16,000-acre H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest and the scientists who have worked there, uncovering the roles of soils, organisms, natural events, and human impacts on a complex forest ecosystem. Set aside in 1948 as a living laboratory, Andrews is on the western side of the Cascade Range, and is administered jointly by the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon State University. It became a charter member of the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program in 1980, a network of two-dozen sites around the country.

During the winter break, I made arrangements to stay overnight at the Andrews forest. Although the research facility is open year-round, heavy snowfalls in the winter months close many of the access roads. There was about a foot of accumulated snow on the ground when I went, but the road was clear to facility. When I got out of my car, the sound of rushing water, peaceful yet exciting, filled the air. The music of Lookout Creek was to be my constant companion for my stay. I meet the facilities manager, who checked me into my simple apartment, and the caretaker. When the two of them left at 5:00pm, I was alone in the woods.  I busied myself with some short hikes, cooking soup for my evening meal, and reading The Hidden Forest.

My reading, augmented by my first experience in the Andrews forest, compelled me to write about this wonderful Oregon State treasure. The research done at Andrews Experimental Forest led to some significant insights in forest ecology as well as providing evidence for the revision of timber management policies and practices. The eruption of Mount St. Helens, the spotted owl controversy, and the teeming life in the soil of old-growth forests are among the highlights of this absorbing study. It suggests many paper and dissertation topics.

*James H. Capshew is Gordon/Horning Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Humanities, Oregon State University.

OSU’s History of Science Program congratulates three of our graduate student veterans this term, as they advanced to candidacy during Week 10.  They now have the vaunted status of “ABD,” which either means “all but dissertation” or “anything but dissertation,” depending on how you look at it 🙂  It was a pleasure to be part of the process getting them to this stage, and now all three have launched into intensive research:

Rachel Blake is working on the history of science and medicine, under Prof. Michael A. Osborne.  Her dissertation will be on French and German influences on medical education in Alsace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Barbara Canavan is working on the history of science, disease, and environment, under the supervision of Prof. Anita Guerrini.  Her dissertation will be on the development of virology as a discipline, and on the networks of scientists who attempted to understand avian influenza.

Laura Cray is working on the history of biology and environment, under the supervision of Prof. Michael A. Osborne. Her dissertation will be on entomological research in the United States after the creation of land-grant colleges.

Congrats to all three, and to Professors Osborne and Guerrini, for their hard work in graduate supervision.

by Laura Cray*

On October 14, James Capshew invited his audience at the Autzen House Center for the Humanities to stop and smell the pine cones—or at least contemplate their place in the human understanding of time.  His lecture entitled, “The Fascinations of Age: Bristlecone Pines Between History and Imagination,” explored Capshew’s most recent research into the history of dendrochronology and the lure of the bristle cone pine in the imaginations of scientists and artists alike. Continue reading

H5N1 viruses

by Barbara Canavan*

As I plug away on the prospectus for my doctoral research, I ponder all that I have learned from the history of science and medicine in the past two years. My background and interests have led me to the intersection of history, ecology, virology, climate, infectious disease, and technology. It is humbling to confront the need to bring it all together in a scholarly and unique way. What is the nexus of these diverse topics? All I need to do is to come up with a research question that, when answered, would shed new light on what others have done before…and for that new light to truly have us look at things in a new way.  Easy, right? Not so much. Here is my start and I welcome comments. Continue reading

Ph.D. student Brenda Kellar has been working on the history of honey bee migration along with human beings in the United States.  Her article “Honeybees Across America,” began as a research presentation to the Oregon Beekeepers’ Association, and now has been picked up by the Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association.  She shows how at critical moments of migration in North America, bees and humans enabled each other.  That’s part of a much longer history: “Human cultures for thousands of years have used the honey bee and her products as symbols for industry, social structure, cleanliness, holiness, chastity, and much more,” Kellar writes. “These symbols can be found in all forms of material culture produced by human populations.”  Click here to read more!