In a spiral-bound notebook, now yellowed after nearly seven decades, blue ink in a neat hand sprawls across page after page listing plant after plant from grasses to trees. Buried within Washington State University’s Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections lie this and myriad artifacts of WSU botanist Rexford F. Daubenmire’s scientific life. Daubenmire devoted his life’s work to answering one of ecology’s central questions: Did plant communities exist as discrete, predictable entities, or were they more or less random configurations of plants?
A field trip guided by Daubenmire reveals the practice of ecology and the region’s community of science in the middle of the twentieth century. In 1948, shortly after coming to Pullman from the University of Idaho, Daubenmire developed a six-week summer field course that surveyed the northern Rockies. He opened the course to students in botany or forest and range management, as well as inviting professionals from other regions who wanted an intensive ecological introduction to “the finest scenery in North America,” as a course advertisement put it. For $25 tuition and $0.97 per day for food, students received six credits in field ecology in the northern Rockies.
Seven students with various experience from universities in Idaho, Michigan, Montana, and Tennessee joined Daubenmire. His wife, Jean, assisted him as an instructor, part of a lifelong professional partnership that included co-authoring a seminal work in regional ecology published in 1968 through WSU Extension, Forest Vegetation of Eastern Washington and Northern
From July 1 to August 12, the party drove more than 3,000 miles. They first headed west through the Palouse to the rugged scablands of Palouse Falls before venturing north toward Spokane. They then crossed Lookout Pass to Montana where they circled counterclockwise from Missoula toward Billings, to Great Falls, and on to Glacier National Park before returning to Pullman. They often camped in the woods and plains off the beaten path. Most of the six weeks and 3,000 miles passed uneventfully. Rain delayed them on occasion. They forgot supplies once and retraced their path. Another time, a landowner at a dude ranch in Big Timber Canyon, Montana, refused the party passage. And there were casual days, such as August 1, when Dauby recorded: “Sunday—went fishing—successful.”
Throughout their travels, these peripatetic ecologists met other researchers at nurseries and experimental research stations. Part of the larger scientific community, these experts knew the local areas intimately and directed the party toward particular sites to see specific ecological processes. In these often remote locales, Daubenmire and his colleagues found and categorized plants, work that contributed to Daubenmire’s lifelong project.
In the best tradition of the land-grant system, the WSU botanist consistently sought practical applications. Ecologists like Daubenmire believed that if plants existed in communities, experts could predict their behavior better and thus manage forest and range more effectively. So, he and students sought out relatively undisturbed landscapes—climaxes in ecology’s jargon—to study plant associations in natural settings. They gathered and plotted data, hypothesized along the way, and built toward conclusions Daubenmire used in subsequent publications.
Daubenmire’s time in the Palouse corresponded to transformations in ecology and WSU. He arrived during the Great Depression when ecology was but a nascent discipline and left during the post-Earth Day Age of Ecology when Americans hoped university scientists might guide them out of multiplying environmental dilemmas. Daubenmire’s work demonstrates one man’s place in communities—natural and scientific—and shows an abiding concern about the fate of the Northwest’s forest and rangelands, an interest in the practical and theoretical rooted in this place where he traveled wide and deep.
Adam M. Sowards is an environmental historian and professor at the University of Idaho.