Bob Petty's gentle way of providing support and encouragement will always be with me. I have met few individuals over the years who possess the combination of skills that Bob possessed. He had a passion for nature that was obvious and his ability to communicate that passion in poetry was wonderful.

From time to time I still pull out and read his words in the small book that he co-authored about deciduous forests.

 

 

 

 

 

Most people continue to view humans as being apart from the rest of nature. Until that attitude changes, environmental degradation will continue globally even though we will continue to work on problems and fix a few of them.    

 


Magazine
Fall/Winter 1999

Dr. Dennis Whigham ’66
ecologist
The Smithsonian Institution


What is the most significant event that has occurred in your profession or field of study during the 20th century? What lesson do you take away from that event?

I don't believe that there has been any single event in the field of Ecology that I could identify as having provided the impetus for the current interest in issues related to the environment. Unlike most other fields that had their origins in biology, ecology is a discipline that came onto the scene later in the century.  There were a number of pioneers in the field but the ones who influenced me the most were the Odum brothers, Eugene and Howard. Eugene published his now famous ecology text in the 1960's and his influence was soaring during the years that I was in graduate school.

Eugene Odum's text contained a number of thought provoking principles that served as the focal points for discussion and research for subsequent generations of ecologists. 

Howard's influence was more direct. He was on my Ph.D. committee at the University of North Carolina. Not only was he an intellectual giant but he infused students with an enthusiasm and sense of purpose that remain with many of us today. 

I specifically remember one evening when I was working late and Howard came into my office. We began a discussion about my research that lasted for several hours. I was well into my thesis research at the time and had things rather well organized in my mind. In other words, I knew where I was going with the project. But Howard saw complexities and possibilities in everything that most of us could not imagine. That discussion, more than any other, played a key role in forming the open and explorative approach to my work that persists today.  The wide range of research interests that I pursue can be directly traced to the diversity of interests pursued by the Odums.   

Personally, what's the most meaningful life lesson you've taken from you vocation or avocation?  

The biosphere is incredibly complex and the more we can do to understand the relationships between organisms, especially humans, and the abiotic world, the greater our chances of finding solutions to the problems that we have generated because of man's ignorance and greed.  

What person(s) or mentor(s) have had the most significant impact on your life?  

I have noted the influence of the Odum brothers but before I knew anything about them, I was molded by my years at Wabash. I still have wonderful memories of my times at Wabash and I am sure that my life would be very different had I not decided to travel from Western Pennsylvania to Crawfordsville. The individuals at Wabash who most strongly influenced me were Bob Mitchum, Dean Norman Moore, and Bob Petty.

I loved the enthusiasm for life that Mitch had and will always have wonderful memories of my years in the Glee Club.

Dean Moore told me 'like it was' which meant that I was a guy with enough intelligence to get along but not enough to get there easily. He infused a sense of personal drive in me that had its roots as much in 'I will show you' as much as anything else.

Of the three, however, Bob Petty had the greatest influence. He introduced me to the field that I ultimately chose and his gentle way of providing support and encouragement will always be with me. I have met few individuals over the years who possess the combination of skills that Bob possessed. He had a passion for nature that was obvious and his ability to communicate that passion in poetry was wonderful. From time to time I still pull out and read his words in the small book that he co-authored about deciduous forests.   

In your experience, what is the greatest misconception the public has about your vocation (or field of study) or the people in that vocation?  

Misconception 1: We are not all 'tree huggers' or 'card carrying members of Green Peace'.  

Misconception 2: Humans stand apart from the rest of nature. There is an enormous amount of ignorance among the public regarding the role that humans need to play in maintaining a livable and sustainable biosphere. Most people continue to view humans as being apart from the rest of nature. Until that attitude changes, environmental degradation will continue globally even though we will continue to work on problems and fix a few of them. Ultimately, however, the quality of life that future generations will experience will depend primarily on the ability of the human species to control its populations growth and temper our passion for growth (i.e., consumption).Without future checks and balances on population growth and more efficient uses of natures resources there will be few opportunities for us, and the other organisms on the planet, to live in a sustainble way that includes a reasonably high standard of living and quality of life.      

Return to the table of contents