I Threw Away Some History

Lowell L. Getz

Today, I threw away some history. It was only an old eight foot square piece of heavy gray canvas, with a slit in the middle. But, this old piece of canvas was witness to and a part of the very beginnings of the field of ecology in North America. And, for me, held fond memories associated with what started me on a life-long career in ecology.

During the early days of development of the basic principles of ecology, field methodology was very simple. Gathering data necessary to test basic concepts in those days did not require the use of sophisticated equipment. Thus, early ecologists relied on what we now view as primitive and unsophisticated field devices and protocols. But, it was from these "primitive" methods that data were obtained from which many of the basic tenants of ecology were developed. A number of these basic concepts were formulated at the University of Illinois by the "Founding Father" of the field of animal ecology in North America, Victor E. Shelford.

This old piece of canvas, referred to as a "tree cloth", had been used to acquire data from which the fauna occupying shrubs and small trees was characterized, and the association of the fauna with food resources provided by different species of shrubs and trees. These data helped describe faunal differences among habitat types, including changes through the various stages of ecological succession.

The protocol of using the tree cloth was for 13 researchers (normally students), with three to each side, holding the cloth chest-high, with a slight sag in the middle. The other researcher would slide the trunk of the shrub or small tree into the slit such that the tree cloth formed a "catch basin" under the tree. The person at the trunk would shake the shrub or tree vigorously and hit the trunk sharply in an attempt to shake out or jar off all of the invertebrates (mainly adult and immature insects and spiders), which would be caught in the tree cloth. The workers holding up the cloth would then slowly roll up each side towards the center. They would read off to a recorder each of the invertebrates they found (either preserving them for formal identification later or simply tossing them away from the tree cloth). By this manner, the species of invertebrates present, larval or adult, and the numbers of each were recorded. These data provided a rough estimate of the diversity and abundance of invertebrates utilizing each species of shrub and tree in a given habitat type or successional stage.

This tree cloth had been used in Dr. Shelford's early studies that defined some of the basic concepts of ecology, especially as related to successional changes in the fauna from early shrub and young tree stages through those in the understory of the final, climax stage. Later, he used the tree cloth on ecology class field trips to demonstrate these principles. Still later, after Dr. Shelford had retired from teaching, his successor, Dr. S. Charles Kendeigh, also used the tree cloth in demonstrating the differences in tree and shrub faunas among habitats and successional stages. In addition to weekend ecology class field trips in the vicinity of Urbana, this tree cloth accompanied Drs. Shelford and Kendeigh on Easter break field trips to Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, from the 1920s through the early 1950s. From the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s Dr. Shelford and his students used the tree cloth on his "North American Biome" summer-long field trips.

Thus, this old piece of canvas not only was a part of the development of the early principles of ecology, but was instrumental in the training of generations of ecologists. Because of this, one would think the tree cloth should have a place in some sort of an ecological museum. However, even if such a museum were to exist, which it does not, other than the students who were privileged to use the tree cloth as a part of their understanding of some of the basic principles of ecology, no one would really have such a sense of nostalgia or comprehend the role this inanimate object had in the development of their field. Students who have used the tree cloth are almost all gone now. Current ecologists have moved beyond consideration of the origins of many of the basic principles, which they now take for granted. Their interests concentrate on sophisticated model building requiring detailed field data to test their models. The world has moved on, with little time for nostalgia.

This old piece of canvas also played a personal role in my having a career in ecology. During my sophomore year (1950-1951) at the University of Illinois, I was planning on majoring in basic Zoology, most likely something involving comparative anatomy and evolutionary morphology. During the fall of 1950 I began dating a girl "back home." We went out almost every night of the vacation periods. During the semester break in January 1951, she felt we were getting a little too intense and should "cool it" for awhile and see others. That, we both did, but I still felt enough for her that I did not want to go home for Easter break. I knew I would be depressed being close and not be able to go out with her. Instead, I talked my way into being allowed to go along, as a non-registered student, on the graduate level Easter break course that spent two weeks studying ecological phenomena in and around Reelfoot Lake. The course was taught by Dr. Kendeigh. In those days we did not do the "fun in the southlands" thing during spring breaks.

Most of the students in the course were graduate students, many of them veterans of WW II. We worked hard during the day acquiring data to demonstrate a number of ecological phenomena. I was exposed to and became familiar with many of the basic ecological concepts of the time. Then, at night, it was "party time" in the dining hall of the rustic resort at which we stayed. Students did "party" during spring break, we just did not drive all the way to Key West or South Padre Island to do so. The fun lasted well into the morning, but this was old stuff to the veterans. They and the rest of us (trying to keep up) were up and in the field with the collecting equipment early in the mornings.

My assigned piece of equipment was the old canvas tree cloth. We would put the cloth in place, shake the shrub or tree, and count and record the "critters" shaken out. Then, the others simply would drop the tree cloth and head out to the next "station", leaving me to fold up the awkward, heavy tree cloth. By the time I had it folded so that I could carry it, the rest of the students were far ahead of me. It seemed that most of the day I was running with the heavy tree cloth to catch up with the class. As a result I became "bonded" with the tree cloth.

The combination of fascination with new-found information and ideas, and the fun of doing such studies changed my career goals from basic zoology to field ecology. I continued that career until I retired 46 years later and through the 15 years, to date, of my retirement. When I think back on my career, the association of the tree cloth with what I became always pops into mind.

When I returned to the University of Illinois fall semester 1969, this time to join the faculty of the Zoology Department, to replace Dr. Kendeigh, I was assigned his office in the Vivarium Building. One of the first things I was tasked to do was clear out the attic room in the Vivarium so we could move in freezers for our research. The attic was filled to the eaves with old field equipment and gadgets that had been used in research by Drs. Shelford and Kendeigh and their graduate students. While tossing the accumulation of nostalgia into a load lugger, I found the old tree cloth wadded up in a corner.

Seeing once again the old tree cloth brought back a flood of memories of my sophomore year at the University of Illinois and the field trip that peaked my interest in ecology. When I saw the tree cloth, my first instinct was to toss it along with all the other obsolete gadgets and equipment in the attic. The more I thought of what it represented to ecology and to me, however, the more I could not toss it in the load lugger to end up in a land fill. Since I had a lot of painting to do around our new house, I decided to take it home to use as a drop cloth. Perhaps, not a fitting "occupation" for so historic a piece of canvas, but better than the alternative.

And so, the old tree cloth was used over the years. I have done no painting during the past 20 years, and have no prospects of doing any more. Also, it is only a matter of time, most likely one to two years at most, until we will have to move to a retirement facility. In anticipation of such a move, I slowly have been cleaning our garage of things no longer of use to us. Today I came upon the old tree cloth in a box on a shelf. I faced the same dilemma of 43 years ago. This time, I could see no alternative. So, with somewhat of a nostalgia regret, I carefully placed the folded cloth in our garbage cart for the pick-up the next morning. As I did so, I envisioned Dr. Shelford and all the students who had gained their initial exposure to ecology while counting insects and spiders on the tree cloth, looking down as the lid of the garbage cart slowly closed over the old piece of canvas and the history it represented. With the closing of the lid a piece of history was gone. And, with it the memories of a skinny sophomore who, wanting an excuse to avoid seeing his hoped to be girl friend, found instead a life-long career path.

The girl friend? We soon decided we had tried others long enough. We are now closing in on our 60th year together.