I was thrilled that Anke Jentsch (University of Bayreuth, Germany), with whom I have worked for some 20+ years, contemplated the nature of theory in ecology and published a paper titled “A theory of pulse dynamics and disturbance in ecology” in the Spring.  Theory is not easy to write in ecology, for reasons we discuss. 

In teaching conservation biology, I have cited the reservation of martime oak forests along Southastern coast lines as one of the first instances of the public ownership and conservation (albeit for continuing supply of wood for ship building) of forests in the US.  President John Quincy Adams began live oak forest protection in 1828.  In the Spring, I got to visit one such tract near Pensacola, Florida, that is now part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.  Here are some pictures: 1, 2, 3, 4.  The Navy continued using wooden ships into the late 1800s. “Old Ironsides” was named because of the strength of its live oak construction. 

What makes a good question?  Dean Urban of Duke uses a template with students that I have borrowed (this is my version, I hope it is faithful to the original). Every graduate project has three sections:  1. Houston, We Have A Problem (the statement, context, and general questions addressed); 2. Here’s What We know About The Problem (literature review); and 3. Thank God For Me!  (Here are my questions, how I will answer them, and the implications the answers will have).  But what makes a good question in ecology?  Starting 10+ years ago, I’ve had periodic discussions with colleagues…here is a current statement and comments are welcome. 

The THREADS of conservation biology.  I teach Conservation Biology using this outline: ethics and philosophy of conservation, biodiversity and its threats, foundation paradigms (the description of how biodiversity is distributed through the species-area relation and the distance decay of similarity, the theory of island biogeography), conservation genetics, populations, metapopulations, rarity and endangerment, ex situ conservation, reintroduction, invasives, communities, ecosystems, landscapes, fragmentation and edges, restoration, and ecosystem management.  Over the years I’ve seen that there are threads that run through all these subjects and at the beginning and end of class I tell the students what these threads are.  There have been as many as 18 and as few as 9 over the years.  Currently there are 15 and I’ve linked them here…comments welcome.


Where was Scott’s Hole?  This botanical mystery was inspired by the work of the great botanist Rogers McVaugh. Rogers and his son worked on a project to publish and interpret the botanical notes of Elisha Mitchell (for whom the highest mountain eastern North America, Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina) is named.  Mitchell taught botany at the University of North Carolina in the 1930s and kept a diary.  The long version of the story and our hunt for the location of Scott’s Hole in Chapel Hill is told here.  The short version is that Mitchell puzzled over a plant that was like Lindera benzoin, but different, eventually sending a specimen to Schweinitz who was then at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC.  It was identified as Lindera mellisifolia, a rare plant previously thought restricted to the coastal plain.  We have theories, but no proof, as to the location of Scott’s Hole…and several hunts have failed to turn up any sign of the rare plant, almost 200 years since it was last seen.  See 2008 below for another botanical mystery: Linnaea borealis in Tennessee (Great Smoky Mountains National Park).

The UNC Plant Ecology lab is reducing in size after some 30 years and some 40 PhD students, 38 MS students, some 12 postdocs, many undergraduates and many collaborators.  Bob Peet retired in 2018 and I will following within a year or so. Both of us stopped taking students 3 years ago…Alan Weakley, Director of the UNC Herbarium as part of the North Carolina Botanical Garden continues a strong research program with six current students.


Memories!  I have recorded 3 videos as part of the oral history of the North Carolina Botanical Garden (the Garden is celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2016) and a 4th video based on the lecture I gave at the Pritzlaff Conservation Symposium at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in 2015.  I was also interviewed on my thoughts by Garden staff in 2016…and my thoughts on the Garden were part of two talks I’ve given in the last year or so, the talk I gave at the Pritzlaff Conservation Symposium and the keynote I gave at the first APGA Native Plant Conference at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (both events were in 2015). 

The 4 videos on YouTube are:

1. A 7 minute discussion of the transition we went through from “A Garden of Native Plants” to “A Conservation Garden”:


2. “The Future of Botanical Gardens: The Conservation Garden”: A 20 minute discussion of the Garden’s conservation mission—defining the Conservation Garden and thinking about the future of botanical gardens:


3. “Celebrating 28 Years”: A 30 minute celebration of my memories of the 28 years I served as director of the Garden:


4. “Botanical Garden Futures: Lessons learned, dreams dreamed for the conservation garden” (the Pritzlaff Lecture given in Santa Barbara in 2015—this is a longer version of “Botanical Garden Futures: The Conservation Garden” above):


I also wanted to share my thoughts on the future of Gardens in essay form…I called this “Message in a Bottle: Postscript (the future and identity of gardens)”.  I felt that was what I was doing—l was leaving some thoughts behind as I left the Garden based on what I (and we) learned during those years.  Like a message in a bottle, I have no idea whether anyone will read these thoughts or find them useful.

In addition, I wrote an essay called “Administrative Lessons”—the administrative side of what I learned as director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden.  The American Public Garden Association published a brief reference to this essay and link to the fuller statement in Public Garden, Vol. 31, Issue 2, for May 2016.  For those of you that end up in leadership positions, HERE are my thoughts.  And to keep the workplace fair and open, HERE is an employee bill of rights I posted at the Garden. 

I have just been named to the list of 100 most influential people in the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This list was assembled as part of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and spans individuals from about 1900 to the present from all walks of life who have contributed to the conservation of the Smokies.  I am thrilled!  An overview is linked HERE.  It is easy to fall in love with Great Smoky Mountains National Park—and the National Park Service—and stay that way!  Now up to three medals!  Click HERE to see them. 

Some readers know about my bike lane art project.  It started with lucky coins and seeds in the bike lane (as I commute to UNC and back to Carrboro).  I gave a talk for Garden volunteers called “Botanical Lessons of the Bike Lane” (seeds of Silver Maple, Sycamore, pollen, falling leaves and more).  But there was more (see blurb.com and search for “bike lane art”)…and now I have three photographs in a bike-themed art show, June to October.  Click HERE.


Here I am with my two medals! 

November 6th: I presented a talk on conservation in gardens at a symposium at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, a part of being presented with the Priztlaff Conservation Award. A nice video was shown, linked HERE. 

UNC gave me a very nice recognition on University Day, October 12th: the Edward Kidder Graham Award!  HERE. A picture HERE.  The thank you I gave at the morning breakfast is linked HERE. 


November-December 2014: More awards!  HERE.

This summer, one of the undergraduates (now graduated) from Conservation Biology, BIO 565, has been writing me amazing reports from her internship with the Smithsonian in Panama.  They were infectious, so the Office of Undergraduate Research posted them HERE.

August 14th: My sixth and latest appearance on “Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt”, a show on “Native Intelligence” is linked HERE.

July 11th: The Big News is that I’ve decided to move fully into my 9-month faculty position after 28 amazing years as director of the North Carolina Botanical Garden—I get to enjoy students, academic and intellectual time, teaching, and writing and the Garden gets its first full time director!  The Garden has become a fabulous place with the Platinum Education Center, closing of Laurel Hill Road, the addition of the UNC Herbarium, Battle Park, and Forest Theatre, and the flowering of its conservation, education, and research programs.  Read my letter to staff HERE.

April: I was given the STAR Award by the Center for Plant Conservation, see press release HERE.

Ed Johnson, as editor of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, has invited short essays to present “paper trails”—papers of influence that weave through ecology—to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the society (2015).  I considered papers of Frank Preston that influenced greatly my interest in species richness and beta diversity.  If you haven’t read Preston’s papers, try them out.  They are full of thought experiments and fresh and idiosyncratic writing.  But I ended up settling on Alex Watt’s 1947 paper, Pattern and process in the plant community (the inspiration of the title of the first paper I published, “Pattern, process, and natural disturbance in vegetation”).  My draft essay is linked HERE.  Comments welcome.

Tim Spira, an ecologist at Clemson, is writing a book “Waterfalls and Wildflowers” and asked some colleagues to write 12 line poems for the beginning of each chapter—he asked me to do one for a chapter on communities…so here goes:

Forest and the Trees

Maple, ash, and birch

Hemlock, basswood, beech

What is this assembled crew?

A slow grower, fast grower

A shade lover, sun lover

Some pay birds for travelling seeds

Others send seeds freely on the wind

These trees

Have different personalities

But are they the pieces of a symphony

Or just some random company?

Sit and listen, sit and watch, enjoy the forest’s mysteries.


Two papers on environmental ethics, one with PhD student Julie Tuttle and the other a pretty far out argument about intrinsic value in biodiversity, are now published in Conservation Biology!  They are linked HERE.

I was part of a large group of vegetation ecologists who pooled data to ask whether forest structure mediated the effects of climate warming on the forest floor, with consequences for how the rate of forest harvest effects climate response, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and linked HERE.

I gave “Turn the Poet Out-of-Doors: A Natural History of Robert Frost” at the Garden on March 20th, and was interviewed by the Daily Tarheel, linked HERE. I gave the talk in December at Carol Woods in Chapel Hill.


This November I got my first ever invitation to give a seminar in an English Department—invited by Frost scholar Bob Faggen to give “Turn the Poet Out-of-Doors: a Natural History of Robert Frost” at Claremont McKenna College, a trip that also involved participating in two English Department classes (gardens in literature with Jamaica Kincaid and American poetry with Bob Faggen). 

I was named a Home Town Hero by WCHL for the third time this year!  Credit goes to the Garden staff.


Very very strange: a 2009 paper, linked HERE, cites Nekola and White 1999 in the prediction of the location of Osama bin Laden…this and a paper highlighted on the Colbert Report (see below) certainly boggles the mind!

Late in 2010, we heard that the Education Center HAD been certified as Platinum by the US Green Building Council, the first Platinum building on any UNC campus, the first in state government, the fourth in the State as a whole, and the first that is a public museum.


Interview on North Carolina People with Bill Friday (UNC TV) about the North Carolina Botanical Garden, including the new Education Center, the Coker Arboretum, the Herbarium, and other programs, click HERE and look for May 7th, 2010, in the index.

Beyond Naturalness, Rethinking Park and Wilderness Stewardship in an Era of Rapid Change (Island Press), the product of a group of us that had two great workshops in Montana, is out, click HERE.

Article in Science on Mountain Top Mining published January 8th, 2010, linked HERE and press coverage linked HERE.  The lead author of the paper, Margaret Palmer, was  on the Colbert Report on Monday evening, January 18th!  In the Spring, EPA announced new guidelines for mountain top removal based on environmental impacts.

Tom Earnhardt’s program on Mason Farm Biological Reserve and the North Carolina Botanical Garden debuts on January 28th, 2010: check local listings for public TV.


The North Carolina Botanical Garden’s new Education Center, designed to be the first public building (and first University building) to achieve a Platinum LEED rating opens and is dedicated on October 12th!

Tom Earnhardt’s program on the 75th Anniversary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the ATBI, featuring an interview with me and others, airs statewide on Exploring North Carolina January 15 (8:30 pm), 16 (9:30 pm), and 18 (6 pm) on UNC-TV.


Statement for the Senate Hearing on the ATBI in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (July 21, 2008); Podcast from the State of Things with Frank Stasio (WUNC, 91.5 FM); A powerpoint introduction to the ATBI that I presented at the Highlands Biological Station in 2007 is HERE.

The Search for Linnaea borealis in Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Premise (scroll down to “Looking for Linnaea” by Peter White) and powerpoint reports from May 2006, July 2008 expeditions.

Beyond Naturalness Project, Wilderness Institute, University of Montana, first discussion paper

Visitor Education Center Under Construction at the North Carolina Botanical Garden