Dean’s Message: F&ES History a Guide to Our Way Forward

Dean’s Message: F&ES History a Guide
to Our Way Forward

When I was at Kew Gardens, I had a particular affection for a stately Ginkgo biloba tree that had been brought there in 1762—one of the very first ginkgos to be grown outside of eastern Asia. I admired that tree not only for its muscular beauty, but for its tenacity. It stands today over 100 feet tall, its angular crown, long erratic branches and fan-like leaves lording over the grounds, its deep green leaves turning a beautiful lemon yellow in autumn. Spectacular. That venerable ginkgo differed little from similar trees that grew more than 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period. Groves of ancient ginkgos that inhabited the world of dinosaurs and the very earliest birds would have been almost indistinguishable from similar ones planted today all over the world, from Central Park to the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

Ginkgo, also known as the Maidenhair Tree, almost died out in the climatic extremes of the last glaciation, but it still survives in scattered, remnant populations in central China. For at least the last 500 years, ginkgo has been planted in China, Japan and Korea, especially in association with Buddhist temples, and has persisted through countless catastrophes in the long history of its lineage. It is a botanical survivor. Individual trees are also incredibly resilient, thriving in tough urban environments. One even withstood Hiroshima, just a mile from the blast’s epicenter.

As an evolutionary biologist, whose main academic interest is plants—their origin and fossil history on a global scale—I appreciate the longevity and durability of the ginkgo, because it helps calibrate the speed of current environmental change. As a natural survivor that almost went extinct, it also reminds us what is at stake as we seek to manage today’s rapid environmental change, which has increasingly far-reaching consequences, not just for plants, but also for people. Training new generations of specialists capable of understanding and managing that change is the core mission of our school.

As you can tell by now, I am a peculiar academic hybrid—part plant biologist, part paleontologist and part conservationist. My perspective encompasses millions of years of plant evolution, so I’m used to seeing the big picture in historical context. And I know that history will be a faithful guide as we begin charting the future course of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. W.G. Hoskins in his seminal book, The Making of the English Landscape, put it this way: “Flesh that covers the bones, and the details of the features [of a landscape], are the concern of the historian, whose task it is to show how man has clothed the geological skeleton during the recently comparative past.” One cannot fully appreciate the distinctiveness and excellence of F&ES—its programs, its research, its courses of study, its people—our landscape!—and gain some measure of the possibilities before us without understanding the history through which it came to be. Hoskins made it a point to recognize the details of a landscape, piece by piece, and to know how each came to be there. He was interested in how the individual points made the whole scene.

Since my arrival at the end of August, I have likewise concerned myself primarily with getting to know the faculty, the students and the staff here and throughout Yale, all in an effort to understand what we have, where we came from and how we can formulate a vision that will enhance the school’s important place in the life of this great university and the way we serve our nation and the world.

In the coming months we will be thinking collectively about our vision for the future. I will expand on our conclusions in this space in the next issue of the magazine, but already some key points are clear. We must encourage an increasingly synergistic approach to scholarship, teaching and research that will strengthen collaboration both within F&ES and at Yale more broadly, focused around the most important environmental challenges that we face. Our key responsibility is to ensure that we continue to develop students and scholars who can truly see the forest for the trees and who understand that the environmental whole is more than the sum of its parts. And we must recognize that, too, in ourselves. It is my conviction that building links within and beyond Yale will be crucial to increasing the impact of the work that we do.

My first few weeks here on campus, in our magnificent new home, Kroon Hall, have been exhilarating. I look forward with great anticipation to what we can do together, and I am truly grateful to all of you for the warm welcome and support that you have given me and my family. F&ES has accomplished much over the past hundred years and, especially, over the last decade. We have much to be proud of. Looking forward, through our collective efforts, F&ES, like the indefatigable ginkgo, will not only endure, but soar to new heights.


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