Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2003

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Seeing the Forest and the Trees

Seeing the Forest and the Trees
David R. Foster ´77

When David Foster ´77 told Marianne Jorgensen ´78 that he planned to build a cabin in the woods, she suggested it might be worth his while to take a botany course to learn about trees.


That practical advice from the woman who was to become his wife launched him into a career that has led him into forests all over the world. Not that this was much of a leap for Foster, who grew up in a house in the middle of an ancient apple orchard surrounded, he says, “by large, gnarly, wonderful trees.” He also spent summers with his family in the deep woods of Vermont. Those summers planted the cabin idea in his head but didn´t initially steer him into the field of natural science. In fact, he entered the University of Pennsylvania intending to major in philosophy and religious studies.

Penn´s urban setting was a far cry from Foster´s boyhood environment. His distance from two loves — nature and, well, Jorgensen — spurred his transfer to Connecticut College. Old Testament scholar Frank Johnson fueled his continued interest in religious studies, but he was hooked on botany by professors Richard Goodwin and William Niering. He also indulged his love of nature by exploring the wilds of Connecticut College Arboretum, including long walks and discussions on Thoreau with a close friend.

Both the walks and the talks were signs of things to come. After earning an M.S. and a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Minnesota, Foster joined the faculty of Harvard University´s department of organismic and evolutionary biology. In 1990 he became the director of Harvard Forest, a 3,000-acre research and educational site in Petersham, Mass. The Thoreau connection resurfaced with his book Thoreau´s Country: Journey through a Transformed Landscape (1999, Harvard University Press), which addresses the speed of changes in the New England landscape. Today, he explains, forests once again replace much of the farmland that existed in Thoreau´s time, yet wildlife continues to migrate into New Englanders´ backyards. Not just in Maine do drivers slow down for moose, but now also as far south as central Massachusetts and Connecticut. In those same areas, people remove their bird feeders in April so hungry bears emerging from hibernation won´t pull them down. “These changes are not due to anything we´re doing today,” stresses Foster, “but because of what we did 150 years ago.”

In both his writing and his lectures, Foster underscores the importance of drawing on humanistic and scientific disciplines to study ecology. “To know what an area was in the past or how it might change in the future, you need to know who was there and what they did,” he explains. He mirrors that philosophy in his research by collaborating heavily with archeologists, historians and social scientists. He is working on a new book, due out in early 2004, which takes a broader view of continuing changes in the New England landscape. He is also studying the impact of human intervention on forest ecosystems on the Yucatan Peninsula and in Patagonia.

And the cabin in the woods? It´s still there, out in the middle of nowhere. A few times a year Foster, his wife, and their children, ages 9 and 15, make the trek: a mile hike through the woods, a canoe trip across a lake, and a climb up a hill. What do they do when they get there? “Rest. Listen. And take stock.”


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