Near Encounters With A Southern Sage

When I was a graduate student at the University of Georgia in the late 1990’s, I took a population ecology class taught at the University’s School of Ecology, now named for pioneering ecologist, Eugene Odum. By this time, Dr. Odum had retired but he still kept an office there, where he continued to study and write as Emeritus Professor.

               As a Biology major during my undergraduate years, I had a strong bent toward ecology, so I knew who Odum was. He was a living legend known as the “Father of Modern Ecology”. Before Rachel Carson, before Earth Day, before the commercialization of environmentalism, Odum was there collecting the data to show that the way in which we lived on this planet, our relationship to it, our role in nature mattered. Along the way, he also showed us that nature’s pattern was a good reflection of human society.

               On my daily walks to and from class across the lush, tree-lined UGA campus in spring of 1998, I traversed a regular route through South Campus from the Biological Sciences Building, where most of my classes where held, to the Ecology building. I would enter the building, leaving the pungent aroma of spring trees and blooming flowers, walk past the bronze bust of Eugene Odum staring out at the students passing by, hang a left and find myself walking by the glass-walled office of the man himself.

               There were many days I would see him, an elderly man, perpetually clad in a sweater, plaid shirt, and khakis, puttering away in his office, reading, writing, or talking to other faculty and students. He was like some folksy, scientific preacher. A southern sage. It was like encountering Darwin or Newton. This was a man who had almost single-handedly created a new branch of science, or at least a new way of looking at the world. Yet, each day I simply walked by, gawking through the large pane glass.

               Eugene Odum was born into a wellspring of southern enlightenment that was far ahead of its time. His father, Howard W. Odum, was a pioneering sociologist, a professor and Dean at UNC Chapel Hill, and a distinguished scholar in his own right who published extensively on southern regionalism, social justice, and racial equality. He developed a broad approach to social planning which included folklore, race relations, arts, and literature, combining each of these fields to better understand the south as a whole. His obituary in the New York Times stated “No man in our time then had done more than Odum to help the understanding of the South in the South, and of the South in the nation, too”.

               As a scientist, Eugene Odum, was a generalist. He used his broad interests to show how the field of ecology encompassed everything that takes place on this planet. Like his father, Eugene Odum’s grasp of the value of the whole was fueled by his intense interest in the pieces composing nature’s puzzle. He had a life-long interest in birds, the study of which helped to earn him a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois where he began his career as a scientist studying the physiology and behavior of birds.

               Upon his hiring onto the faculty of the University of Georgia in 1940, Odum’s bird studies broadened to include studies of mammals, coral reefs, the effects of nuclear waste on the environment, salt marshes, plants, insects, energy flow in nature, nutrient cycles, forests, fields, and agriculture. In 1953, he published a groundbreaking new book entiled, “The Fundamentals of Ecology”, which would become the first textbook devoted to the field of ecology.

               Odum’s road to becoming a legendary scientist was rough. Many of his academic colleagues shunned his ideas and refused his request to make Ecology a required class for Biology majors.  Academics can be petty like that. But, with his father’s encouragement Eugene Odum changed ecology from the simple study of natural history to a science whose principles took a longer view and were based at the ecosystem level, at which energy became the currency linking living things to the physical world around them.

               Eugene’s brother Howard T. Odum, Director of Marine Science at the University of Texas  worked closely with him on the writing of Fundamentals of Ecology—a reflection of the Odum principle of cooperation, a foundation of his ecological theory. He proposed that the value of cooperation in nature was underestimated and that stability is found only in inter-dependence. The theory itself took on an almost spiritual tone, which put off many of Odum’s scientific colleagues.

               As an undergraduate, I was assigned the reading of one of Eugene Odum’s papers, “The Strategy of Ecosystem Development”. It was a landmark paper that used the idea of ecological succession—that a natural community—a forest, for example, would develop in one fairly predictable direction and that the parts of the community would direct its change. Odum boldly went even further and suggested in this regard that there are many parallels between natural and human communities.

               My life’s work has been in the field of agriculture as both a scientist and a farmer. Agriculture is the most direct link between human beings and nature. It affects each one of us. It allows the human species to manipulate the living and physical world for our own benefit. There is great power in that but as is so often said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

               Perhaps no place in our country has born witness to so much pain as the South. Amid this region’s lush beauty, man’s inhumanity to man–in the form of Native American removal, slavery, lynching and Jim Crow laws– has been matched only by man’s cruelty to the land itself. Agriculture has been directly and indirectly responsible for much of this abuse as cotton became king and currency across the southern landscape in the 1800s. The crop was propped up by an economic system that deprived the region’s people, black and white alike, and promoted spoilage of the land. The subsequent struggles between black and white, rich and poor, that have lingered are represented by the scars that remain on the land. The most striking example of that being Providence Canyon State Park in Southwest Georgia. A “little Grand Canyon” complete with vivid red, orange and yellow horizons in the soil profiles upon its walls, exposed entirely by erosion from the misuse of the land.

               I would like to think that the savagery inflicted upon this landscape and its people years ago were simply the growing pains of a poorly developed society and that we have matured beyond such actions. In Odum’s view of nature early pioneering communities are marked by rapid growth, high birth rates, high productivity, and exploitation. But growth and exploitation can only last so long. In order for the community or system to survive in-tact, a stability must be reached. This can only happen through cooperation. In nature this means that interactions among species become more complex. No longer is a community simply made up of plants that are fed upon by a rabbit, which is fed upon by a hawk in a simple linear food chain. As the diversity of a community increases with maturity, these simple food chains become food webs and species interact at various levels. They become more dependent upon one another. In short, they must learn to adapt and find a way to live together in a changing world in order to bring stability to the system.

               Society, Odum taught, responded in a similar manner, shifting from a simple society based on an economy in which a few thrive off the exploitation of others and the resources around them to a more complex society. One in which people live complex lives of interaction through law and order, education, responsibility, the acknowledgement of basic rights, and culture. But, have we done this?

The final section of that landmark paper I read as an undergraduate provides Odum’s answer to this question: “A balance between youth and maturity…is the basic goal that must be achieved if man as a species is to successfully pass through the present rapid growth stage, to which he is clearly well adapted, to the ultimate equilibrium density stage, of which he, as yet, shows little understanding and to which he now shows little tendency to adapt”.

               That was written in 1969, 50 years ago. We’ve improved in some areas but I’m not sure we’ve made much progress. Some would say that in the past we didn’t have the knowledge or understanding that we do now, that we weren’t enlightened enough. Today, we don’t have that excuse and I’m not so sure it was a good one to begin with.

               Eugene Odum passed away in 2002 while tending his garden in Athens, Georgia. I still regret that I was too shy and intimidated to engage Dr. Odum in conversation. By all accounts he loved talking with students and sharing ideas. I can’t help but wonder how he would feel about the place we’ve arrived at today. As for the south, we’re still searching for that stability Odum spoke of. Its all about give and take. Its about respecting each other enough to acknowledge that we have differences. Its  about our willingness to work together through those differences, sharing and compromising and still treating each other with kindness and empathy. That’s how we heal the wounds we’ve inflicted upon one another and upon our southern landscape. No, we can’t say we don’t know how to heal the rifts in this world today. Cooperation, That’s the answer. We just have to choose it.

©2019 Lenny Wells

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