National parks are great places for encountering our shared natural and cultural heritage. They give us stories about ancient glaciers that carved the land, plants and animals that built ecosystems, battles and migrations that shaped our social history, triumphs and tragedies that constitute the complexities of human life. The National Park Service (NPS) tells these stories well.
Many parks also contain stories about science – about people figuring out how the world works. And some of those stories are about how research in a park long ago changed the way scientists think and work, or led to new technologies that affect us all. Those parks played an important role in some corner of the history of science. But their stories are hidden. The more we tell them, the more we realize that parks are also great places for encountering our shared intellectual heritage.
Thanks to the Chesapeake Watershed CESU, I’ve collaborated with faculty and graduate students to highlight untold stories about parks that shaped the history of science. The outcome to date is 14 articles and videos published on an NPS website. The diverse topics include the optical physics of air pollution, the biogeography of plant communities, the use of tree rings to understand the past, and the discovery of a bacterium that has enabled a trillion-dollar industry of DNA biotechnology. And the parks are equally diverse – ranging from Boston Harbor Islands to Mesa Verde, Yellowstone to Dry Tortugas.
In the 1890s, a botany graduate student from the University of Chicago named Henry Cowles conducted research on dunes at the southern end of Lake Michigan. The dunes extend in a series of parallel waves from the water’s edge for a little over a mile to the southeast. Over that stretch they are covered in turn with dune grass, then shrubs, conifers and oaks, and ultimately a diverse deciduous forest. The last dune, with its dark soil and deep shade and chirping birds, could not feel more different than the first dune where sand gets in your shoes. But it’s a dune, nonetheless.
Cowles wondered if there was some regular pattern by which plant communities were arrayed and, if so, what processes determined that pattern. He knew that species were adapted to particular conditions of sand, soil, water, and wind but he came to realize that plants change their environment in ways that allow other types of plants to establish and take over. The roots of dune grass, for example, stabilize the shifting sand and add organic matter, which allows other grasses and shrubs to grow and outcompete the dune grass. And so on with shrubs changing the environment further and being replaced by trees.
The dunes allowed Cowles to see that the changes over space, from young fore dunes to old back dunes, are what happens in one place over time. Thus was born the idea of plant succession – habitats are what they are in part because plant communities go through somewhat predictable sequential changes. When the sequence is interrupted or re-set to an earlier stage by disturbances like tornadoes, fires, or people with lawnmowers, the land ends up with a lot of habitats. Nature is patchy and dynamic.
As Cowles and his colleagues pursued their research, they saw the need to protect the dunes from encroaching industrialization. Thanks in large part to their science and their advocacy, today the dunes are protected for everyone by the NPS.
Because it helps explain the distribution and abundance of species, succession became one of the central concepts in ecology. Cowles’s studies are regarded as part of the genesis of the entire discipline. Simply put, Indiana Dunes National Park is one of the places where the modern science of ecology began.
As an ecologist, I’ve long known the historic importance of Indiana’s dunes to my discipline. I figured there must be other parks where I could ask the question, “How did research here shape the history of science?” But there was no way I could find and tell those stories alone. I needed collaborators with time, science knowledge, and storytelling chops. And I wasn’t going to issue a contract to some expert because contracts don’t allow collaboration. Fortunately, I was confident that I could fund a CW CESU partner with the capacity and expertise to do something the NPS had never done before.
In early 2017, Katia Engelhardt at the UMCES Appalachian Lab responded to my project proposal. She planned to teach a graduate seminar in the foundations of ecology, with students delving into classic papers in their field. Her idea was to make historically influential park research a core part of the class. I agreed, and we were off to a promising start!
Early in the semester I visited Katia’s class in Frostburg and made the case that there are interesting stories out there. An NPS digital editor provided some basic training and pointers on writing for the web. Katia identified possible subjects and parks and pulled together original scientific articles. The students picked their preferred topics and spent the semester digging into the history. Over the months, I provided feedback on their multiple drafts and connected them to key staff at the associated parks.
We finished the semester with a symposium at NPS headquarters in Washington, which was attended by staff and leaders from NPS, other Federal land management agencies, and the Dept. of the Interior. The students presented fascinating stories about studies that subsequently shaped major lines of research in ecology – how species can co-occur when theory says they shouldn’t, why species on rocky shorelines occupy discrete zones, how nutrients flow through an ecosystem, and how wildfires create patchy forest structure across an entire landscape. With a few final edits, the students published their stories on the NPS website.
Katia kept the energy going a year and half later, long after the funds were spent. She organized a session about parks and science history at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Her students attended (for some, their first scientific conference) and presented their stories to a room filled with professional ecologists. The lively conversation confirmed that people are really interested in park science history, and even turned up a few additional stories to track down.
Following the success with Katia and her students, I wanted to keep the project going in a new medium. Years ago I produced climate change videos with a student from American University. I was itching to get back into that work, and I wanted to reach audiences in a different way than articles can. Again thanks to the CW CESU I was able to go straight to AU’s Center for Environmental Filmmaking (led at the time by Chris Palmer, and now by Maggie Stogner) and start working with them and their graduate student filmmakers.
The first student I collaborated with was Robert Boyd, and we produced videos at Everglades (about a famous field experiment in biogeography) and Indiana Dunes (about Cowles and succession). Beyond the novel subject matter, what felt truly unique – and frankly, scary – was that Robert and I appear on camera, as co-hosts. We hoped that being on screen with a scientist, discovering things together, would invite the viewer into a shared learning process better than a typical talking-head documentary. And of course, once I established myself as a host in the first video, I had to continue for all subsequent ones.
Robert finished up and graduated, so for the next round I found a great partner in Marissa Woods. The pandemic arrived, and like everyone else we had to experiment with adapting. Marissa and Maggie and I hatched a plan to do everything online, with videos that incorporated Zoom interviews, historic footage from National Geographic, and field photos from generous colleagues in parks. We stepped away from ecology and got into the physical sciences with one video on the origin of radiocarbon dating (at Tule Springs Fossil Beds) and another on the origin of tree ring analysis to understand the past. For that latter one, a travel window opened, and Marissa and I finally got to meet in person as we explored and filmed in Mesa Verde, Aztec Ruins, Chaco Culture, and the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research.
As the final year of the agreement with AU approached, Maggie and I decided to bring in a few more students to produce two final videos. Emme Watkins (we have some on-screen jokes about our shared name) and I tell the story of how atmospheric physicists figured out how to measure visibility, which was required under a new law passed by Congress in the 1970s. The scientists did that work in the Grand Canyon – a place where views really matter to people. Their research is now the basis for monitoring visibility and air quality all around the U.S. and other parts of the world.
The final video was suggested by my officemate: America’s first tropical marine science laboratory, which operated in the Dry Tortugas early in the 20th Century. The scientists who passed through there made huge contributions to fields as diverse as marine food webs, the geology of coral reefs, and the chemical events of fertilization. Graduate filmmaker Hyatt Mamoun pulled me completely out of my shell and dialed up the energy of our on-camera hosting to a level I’d never contemplated. We built a complex but successful narrative about the history of science, today’s current science and scientists, the natural and cultural resources of the park, and our adventures discovering the park and the past.
The result of all this is a set of digital stories, available to everyone worldwide, that the NPS has never told before. The NPS and individual parks benefit because the public benefits – we all know more about our intellectual heritage, and we understand new things about these special places. As one YouTube commenter on the Grand Canyon visibility video said: “This is something I never even thought about being a science but it’s cool that people are researching it. And what better place to do it than our beautiful National Parks?” I could not describe or justify this project more succinctly than that.
But I have a special place in my heart for how the graduate students have benefitted. They have lit up with unbridled joy when learning and writing about a hot spring bacterium in Yellowstone that changed the world. They have found their confident place among ecologists when they present to an attentive audience at a national scientific conference. They have won a National Geographic/Fulbright fellowship to make conservation films, based in part on their videos about the history of ecology in parks. They have visited faraway parks with challenging terrain like cliff dwellings and canyons and concluded they belong there because parks and science are for everyone. They have proudly held up their master’s thesis marine science video and said it’s the best thing they’ve ever produced.
As one interview subject, Laurie Stephens, put it, “Ultimately, it comes down to people connecting. Connecting with the past, connecting with ancestors, connecting with other cultures. Learning, learning about the human experience.”
(also on YouTube)
Authored by Tim Watkins, Science Access & Engagement Coordinator, National Park Service
Dr. Watkins and his projects were recently featured in the Fall 2023 Watershed Moments Community Learning Series at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Appalachian Laboratory on November 30, 2023. You can watch the recording of the presentation on YouTube.