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Botany on an Endangered Planet

Barbara Goodrich Phillips
On Science (November 2022)
Healing the World

I have spent my whole life learning about the natural world. I am a professional botanist whose career was focused for fifty-plus years on trying to use science to understand and “save” specific unusual components of our earth’s ecosystems. I have learned a lot about climate change over the many years since Al Gore published Earth in the Balance in 1992, which my life partner, Dr. Charles Avery, used as a textbook in his Northern Arizona University conservation classes.  However, in recent decades, I have become increasingly sad, frustrated, angry, and sometimes depressed that humans in general, and climate-change-deniers in particular, are threatening the health of our whole earth.

My life-long fascination with the outdoors started in childhood on our fruit farm in Western New York, where we had a creek running through our eastern deciduous woods and orchards, winding its way toward Lake Ontario. My father, John G. Goodrich, grew up in New Hampshire and got his Masters in Pomology at Cornell University in 1929. Pomology is the branch of botany that studies fruit and its cultivation. My father was a Niagara County Agent for fifteen years during the Great Depression and World War II. He was an expert in how to grow choice apples, peaches, pears, and cherries, using the most up-to date scientific expertise from Cornell and the Geneva (New York) Experiment Station. By 1944, my folks had saved enough money to buy our farm, specifically with lakefront property, so we could swim. Our parents also said they bought at that location because our township of Wilson had the best school system in the county, and they strongly supported us kids to expand our horizons through advanced education in whatever fields held our interest.

During the War, German war prisoners worked on our farm, since young Americans were fighting elsewhere. According to my sister Jean, she and my brother Phil mingled with the young men until our mother found the Germans teaching my siblings to say, “Heil Hitler!”

Dad kept in close contact with his former professors and after the war, he started receiving young farm trainees from various countries, mostly from northern Europe, who wanted to learn about American fruit growing practices. My folks said, “We can’t afford time or money to travel, but we can bring the world to us.” Each trainee lived with us in our large family home, eating all their meals with us, and greatly adding to our childhood awareness of history, culture, and the biogeography of many different homelands. It probably helped that my mother was educated as a history teacher – and that she was a night-owl. After supper, my mother would sit talking at the kitchen table with each trainee, often until the wee hours of the morning. I would listen quietly until it was time for bed. My siblings and I have traveled extensively as adults, embracing the human and biological diversity of the world, and sharing our enthusiasm with our families and friends.

We were a Methodist family in a small village community. I think I acquired most of my character standards from the way my parents interacted with us as a family and with all the people who lived and worked on our farm while we were growing up. We kids worked on the farm after school, like most farm kids. Months when the fruit stand was open, everyone worked hard every day, including Sundays. I planted and tended our family vegetable garden for about eight years as an independent 4-H member. My brother drove the tractors with spray rigs, dusters, and trailers. He won the New York State Tractor Driver’s contest, taught me how to drive, and also became a good mechanic (and later an Agricultural Engineering professor at University of Minnesota). My sister and I thinned peaches, loaded the ripe fruit on trailers, and hauled the loads to the packing house and cold storage, where we also worked. We were paid by the hour.

Dad made sure the hired men treated Mom with respect. He said, “Marion is a co-owner of this farm, and you do as she says when I’m not here and she is in charge.” Dad and Mom expected high standards of moral conduct from the workers (no alcohol, no fighting, no “foul” language), but in return, they provided “the help” with a furnished old house for single men and bunkhouses in good condition for married couples. In fact, my brother would take his showers in the workers’ shower house since we had only a tub in our house.

Pots and pans, silverware, bedding and towels all went from our house out to the bunkhouses in the summertime, and came back to our family in the winter when most of our help returned south. We welcomed back many of the same migrant workers from Florida year after year, who stayed with us from May to October. The men caught wild animals that lived on the property. I have fond memories of sharing fish from the lake, highly spiced possum, woodchuck, and other unusual delicacies. 

Following a BS degree in Botany from Cornell University in 1967, I entered the PhD program in Botany there. Two years later, however, I moved west with my new husband, Arthur M. Phillips, III, and we continued our graduate studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. After obtaining Masters and Ph.Ds in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, we became associates of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, where we held various botanical positions between 1976 and 1990. We investigated the impacts of feral burros on vegetation and the impacts of humans on Colorado River beaches, backcountry trails, and river campsites in the Grand Canyon. We took many working river trips – in all seasons – over fifteen years, and we hiked into many side canyons, putting in repeatable vegetation transects (a technique for documenting changes in a specific location over time), taking photos and collecting plants to document the current flora each time. The culmination of this early work was a map of the riparian vegetation of Grand Canyon National Park and the Annotated Checklist of vascular plants of Grand Canyon National Park (Phillips, B. G. et al, 1977; Phillips, B. G. et al, 1987).

Art and I, with assistants, also surveyed potential habitat for threatened, endangered, and rare plants all over Arizona and into northern Mexico under numerous grants and contracts from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies. We prepared comprehensive status assessment reports for 140 species, produced recovery plans for Threatened and Endangered plant species, and wherever we traveled, we collected thousands of plant specimens for several herbaria. In 1985, Art and I established a long-term monitoring study (currently in its thirty-seventh year) on an Endangered Pediocactus. Initially, Chuck was a co-principal investigator on this project, providing expertise on weather data collection and interpretation that has been instrumental for tracking effects of climate change on this very impacted taxon. In 1990, I became Zone Botanist on Coconino, Kaibab, and Prescott National Forests, looking after the well-being of all the understory species on these forests for over twenty-two years.

In “retirement,” I have continued to document the flora of the Colorado Plateau. For many years, our monitoring showed variations in population numbers and structure due to normal weather and ecosystem changes, and different forest management practices. However, in recent years, each time I go out with colleagues to survey previously known locations, we note losses of populations or drastic alterations in the supporting habitat. These changes decrease the habitats’ suitability for plant life, which are reflected by declines in numbers or health of plants, and increases of competitors, often non-native invasive species. As noted by scientists elsewhere, impacts are developing beyond the ability of rare and non-rare plant ecosystems to adjust. Increased temperatures, long-term drought, increased frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfires, flooding, erosion, etc., are all too extreme for these plant ecosystems to respond successfully.

I have learned a lot about climate change since Al Gore published Earth in the Balance in 1992. Humans are causing horrific collapses in the complexity that provides for life on earth. Sometimes I find it’s hard for me to stay the course and believe that the Light will become manifest to humans sufficiently and in time to avert total chaos. 

To get myself out of this pessimistic and dispirited condition, I look for patterns and examples of hope in others. First among these are my parents, who raised our family with values admired by Friends – community, integrity, and equality being high among them. They taught us children a peaceful way to view the world by “bringing the world to us.” We lived a simple life, in daily synchronicity with the natural world around us, producing our own food and sharing it among ourselves and with others.

Next, I look to the community of botanists – myself among them – who have promoted stewardship and sustainability for decades, working on plants and their ecosystems. This work has been my life’s prime motivation.

Finally, I am now exploring new and emerging resources. I’m enlightening myself about positive scientific and social justice ways to address climate change, which others are leading. I found that my alma mater Cornell University is an excellent place to start. Co-founded by Quaker Ezra Cornell, it is one of the foremost universities in the world working toward innovative and practical solutions to climate change. “The Atkinson Center for Sustainability brings together Cornell’s interdisciplinary experts and emerging scholars with external partners to discover and implement tomorrow’s sustainability solutions with swift knowledge-to-impact approaches.” Knowing this lifts my spirit a lot. ~~~

Barbara Goodrich Phillips enjoys hiking, birding, and cross-country skiing with her lovely Rez Rescue dog, Nikki (named after Nyctaginaceae, the plant Family of her dissertation species). Barbara also plays clarinet in the Flagstaff Community Band and is a member of Flagstaff Friends Meeting (IMYM).

Botany extinction Climate change

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