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John T. Curtis: Fifty Years of Wisconsin Plant Ecology.

This book was written and edited by 30 academic progeny of John Curtis to document and celebrate their memories of a remarkable scientist and the Plant Ecology Laboratory (PEL) he founded at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The achievements of the "Wisconsin School" of plant ecology during the period of 1942-1992 are chronicled in this highly informative, and surprisingly candid work. Curtis, like his philosophical ally at Cornell, Robert Whittaker, was lost to cancer at the peak of his career. We cannot know what might have transpired had he more than 15 years (1946-1961) in ecology. But what he and co-workers did accomplish is now summarized in one volume.

The book has two parts. Part I has two biographical chapters, six on Curtis' major contributions to the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, sampling, preservation, management, restoration and ordination of plant communities, and to the "community" and "continuum" concepts, and one on the "pedagogical legacy" of Curtis and Wisconsin plant ecology (1947-1992). Part II has eight chapters on applications of Curtisian ideas to contemporary research. The book ends with an excerpt from his 1956 essay on modification of grasslands and forests by man.

In Chapters 1 and 2 (Burgess and Cottam) we learn that Curtis was pure Wisconsin. Born in 1913 in Waukesha, he stayed there for his primary and undergraduate education, graduating from Carroll College in 1934. The college's sole biologist, Ralph Nanz, a plant physiologist-bryologist, and Albert Fuller, curator of botany and orchidologist at the Milwaukee Public Museum, strongly influenced his career goals. Curtis completed his Ph.D. in orchid plant physiology in Botany at Madison in 1937, and immediately accepted an academic post there. During 1942-1946 he worked on the rubber potential and autecology of Cryptostegia in Haiti, and became fascinated with Haitian vegetation. Returning to Wisconsin, he and a platoon of post-WW2 graduate students, aided by Henry Greene (a mycologist colleague who could identify sterile plants!), began an incredibly fruitful study of the plant communities of the state, which culminated in their graduate degrees, numerous journal articles, and his book, "The Vegetation of Wisconsin" (1959. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin), still best-of-kind in North America. During his brief career, Curtis directed 36 Ph.D. students, ably assisted by Cottam, former student, office-mate, and friend, and published 85 refereed papers, most jointly with his students. Like Henry Cowles at the earlier "Chicago School," Curtis was intensely devoted to his students, but he had a smaller menu. Cottam notes that each student met with Curtis one hour weekly, ". . . and none of us would have dared to approach one of these conferences unprepared."

Chapters 2 and 3 (Kline) tell us that the Arboretum played a decisive role in Curtis' professional life. As its first plant research director he enthusiastically implemented Aldo Leopold's vision of a collection of native communities on near-campus cropland. To do this, Curtis spent 12 years (1947-1958) acquiring data on Wisconsin plant communities, then fostered their restoration at the Arboretum. The Curtis Prairie there symbolizes his success as a founder of restoration ecology. Later he and Max Partch conducted experimental burns to favor native grasses; as a result, prescribed fire is, once again, an important grassland management tool.

In Chapter 4 (Howell and Stearns) we see that Curtis was strongly committed to preservation and management of natural areas. He "actively applied the ecological principles he was developing to the practical problems of conservation." Recognizing the need for a balance between woodland and cropland and between natural and cultural vegetation on the Wisconsin landscape, he first chaired the state's Natural Areas Preservation Council (1951-1954). The growing PEL database provided standards for natural area selection. Curtis insisted that preservation focus on communities, not species. As his support for Henry Gleason's "individualistic" concept of community grew, he recognized the need for preserving many varied examples rather than single "type specimens" of communities. Today the state has more than 300 protected natural areas.

Chapter 5 (McCune and Beals) is derived from an interview with Roger Bray in New Zealand. Bray completed his Ph.D. with Curtis and they jointly published a now-classic paper in 1957 (An ordination of the upland forest communities of Southern Wisconsin. Ecological Monographs 27:325-349) in which southern Wisconsin forests (yes, from the PEL database) are plotted in 3-dimensional ordination space, such that similar stands are close together. This quantitative "tool" joined its precursor from the famous 1951 forest continuum paper with McIntosh (An upland forest continuum in the prairie-forest border region of Wisconsin. Ecology 32:476-496), giving Curtis and co-workers an objective base for testing the "integrated unit" community hypothesis of Clements versus the "individualistic" hypothesis of Gleason. Bray said "We wanted to liberate people's thinking about vegetation . . ." And we all know who won, or do we? (see below). The authors note that Bray-Curtis ordination has had a rough ride, but is now enjoying renewed acclaim.

Chapter 6 (Loucks and Curtis [posthumously]) attempts to use late-1950's data to show what direction research might have taken at the PEL had Curtis lived longer. Clearly, he intended to shift gears from extensive surveys of many stands to intensive, long-term studies of a few representative stands, and to re-start his ecophysiological engines. A noble effort by Loucks, but the Curtis touch is sadly lacking.

In Chapter 7, McIntosh, the current high priest of continuum theory from Notre Dame, updates his previous reviews of the subject, and discusses Curtis' influence on theoretical ecology. This chapter is long and bibliographically lush, but McIntosh peppers it with choice quotes and comments (e.g., Goodall "was the first plant ecologist to venture into multidimensional space") and tries to be objective. The focus throughout is on the "eternal debate" between the integrated unit and continuum theories of community organization, and the important role played in the debate by Wisconsin ecologists. It is widely held that Curtis, Whittaker, and co-workers rescued Gleasonian theory and vanquished the Clementsian dragon (but see below). This and the next chapter should be attractive to those interested in community theory; they raise important questions about "emergent properties" of communities and ecosystems.

Chapter 8 (Allen, Mitman, and Hoekstra) is tolerably redundant to Chapter 7 because it gives a bolder depiction of Clements, Gleason, Curtis, and the "community" concept. It includes a dialectical excursion (Hegel, Marx, and Lysenkoist Soviet ecology not cited) in which the "superorganism" thesis of Clements is synthesized with the "mature continuum" antithesis of Curtis and McIntosh to produce a new "dynamical synthesis" thesis of Roberts, the "fuzzy sets" theorist. The authors acknowledge that the quadrat method of Clements and "the Nebraskans" led to recognition of the community level between organism and landscape, just as the ordination method of the Wisconsin School fostered acceptance of the continuum concept. They also concede that, like Rasputin, the integrated unit theory is "resilient." They contend that both Clements and Curtis were environmental determinists, and that Curtis envisioned the communities arrayed along his continua as predictable assemblages based on the physiological potentials of their species responding to physical habitat gradients. Thus, he "went only part of the way with Gleason." They portray Gleason's continuum as chaotic-stochastic and Curtis' continuum as integrated-predictable, and advocate a more inclusive synthesis in which some sets are crisply defined and others are fuzzy.

Part I's last chapter (Mladenoff and Burgess) is a long, lavish, but inevitably dry, archival contribution showing the academic genealogy arising from Curtis. This compilation should please the 300+ Ph.D. members of the Wisconsin School, now dispersed across North America and abroad, and duly impress members of competing "Schools." Their maps show non-random distributions of Curtis' descendants; they seem to avoid high mountain areas, coastlines, and the southeastern USA. This chapter probably had to be done, so it was done well.

Part II was much less rewarding to me, but does have two gem-quality chapters. Included are a study of succession (at last!) using fuzzy set theory (Will-Wolf and Roberts), an excellent review of landscape ecology (Dunn and Stearns), an analysis of old-growth forests along a temporal gradient (Tyrrell and Crow), a nice reanalysis of Wisconsin PEL prairie data (Umbanhowar), comparisons of Ontario and Japanese deciduous forests (Maycock), and a study of mycorrhizal fungi along a vegetational continuum (Anderson and Liberta).

Most intriguing to me was a comparison of ordinations based on "compositionally stable and unstable forest communities" in Kentucky and Tennessee (Fralish et al.) in which spatial patterns of species abundance are quite different; climax trees replace successional trees in ordination space.

Readers will find this book an excellent bibliographic source. Organization, clarity and style of writing and editing are commendable, as is supporting material. Typos are few. The editors say this book was developed to honor Curtis and his legacy. Speaking as a member of another school (Duke) and as a fellow community ecologist, I think they have done themselves proud. Anyone seriously interested in North American plant community ecology will want this book in his/her library. On Wisconsin!

GEORGE H. LA ROI UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA Department of Biological Sciences Edmonton, Alberta, Canada T6G 2E9
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Author:La Roi, George H.
Publication:Ecology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
Words:1503
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