F Stuart (Terry) Chapin III
Listening and learning from the boreal forest
My primary inspiration for this project has come from collaboration with artists, writers, and scientists via “In a Time of Change” beginning in 2008. It has been a steep learning curve. When I taught Ecosystem Ecology in the 1990s at the University of California Berkeley, I learned that English language skills were a better predictor of grades than were intelligence or training. Communication was crucial, so I vowed to learn to communicate as simply and effectively as possible with the audiences I cared about.
I was a terrible writer when I began my career as an ecologist. My wife Mimi Chapin helped me immensely by being brutally honest in commenting on my writing and by laughing with me about my run-on sentences. Roger Ruess, Dave McGuire, Keith Van Cleve, and many other scientists and students taught me a lot about boreal science. Teresa Hollingsworth, Carolyn Kremers, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Dan O’Neill helped me escape from my academic straitjacket as I tried to write for general audiences. Mary Beth Leigh, Robin Kimmerer, and Fred Swanson introduced me to the beauty and delight of art-science collaborations. AlexAnna Salmon welcomed me to indigenous perspectives on the science, wisdom, and joy of living in the boreal forest.
I’ve studied the ecology of the boreal forest for about 50 years and have gradually expanded the scope of these studies. They began with experiments on individual roots of a few species of wetland plants and gradually extended to studies of a diversity of plants, their assembly in ecosystems, and the interactions of these ecosystems with climate and society. At each step along this path, I learned that my initial perspective was too narrow and that I wanted to broaden it. This came home to me not so much because of what I had learned but because the stories I wanted to tell required a broader context. Stories that I learned from the boreal forest have taught me new ways to do science. These stories have informed my science just as much as science has informed the stories. Every paper or book I write or class that I teach is framed primarily by stories, rather than by facts and figures. This essay, “Listening and Learning from the Boreal Forest,” outlines that journey.
Terry Chapin is an Alaskan ecologist who has written leading textbooks in ecosystem stewardship, ecosystem ecology, and plant physiological ecology. He was awarded the 2019 Volvo Environment Prize for his stewardship work, and he wrote the book Grassroots Stewardship: Sustainability Within Our Reach to explore stewardship with a general audience. His essay “Listening and Learning from the Boreal Forest” describes the evolution of this work. Chapin’s research addresses the effects of changes in climate and wildfire on Alaskan ecology and rural communities. He explores ways that communities and agencies can increase sustainability of ecosystems and human communities despite these changes.