Cactus Karma


I won't be angry if you do not believe this story. I promise. It is just so improbable. But it is also entirely true. I promise that, too.

Soon after the establishment of the Carnegie Desert Botanical Laboratory in 1903, a distinguished couple of botanists, Effie and Volney Spalding, knocked on the door and offered their expertise.

The Spaldings had moved to the lab because of Volney's severe arthritis. They came from the University of Michigan, where Volney was the respected, beloved head of Michigan's Dept of Botany. But Ann Arbor hurt his bones; Tucson's warmth and dry air promised him a new lease on life.

Effie Spalding
measuring the distance between saguaro ribs

Effie Spalding focused her work entirely on saguaro cactus. But by 1905, Volney had embarked on research to study all the plant species of Tumamoc as an entire ecological commmunity.

Volney saw a desert landscape that had been badly mauled by domestic grazing and browsing animals — cattle, horses, burros and goats. At the time, a dominant ecological hypothesis said that such a community of plants had a natural balance, a composition that the community would return to if permitted. Spalding wanted very much to test the idea by studying that return as it happened.

So that he could make detailed measurements of the process as it unfolded, Spalding staked out 18 sampling plots in the desert. Each one was a study square of 10x10 meters. He tagged and photographed every single perennial plant in them. He described many of the annuals, too. And then he prepared to do it again and again, year after year.

In order to remove the effects of the domestic animals, Spalding petitioned the Carnegie to erect a fence around the entire 5+ mile perimeter of the laboratory domain. He also got Tumamoc's quarry operations stopped. The result was no less than the birth of the concept and practice of restoration ecology.

To continue his scientific work, Spalding returned to his plots for several years. He tells us in his letters that he realized his project would not be completed for a very long time. He must have known he would not live to see it finished.

The Spaldings & an attendant
at the Loma Linda Sanatarium.

In fact, by 1909, Volney's arthritis overwhelmed him. He and Effie left Tumamoc to take up residence at Loma Linda Sanatarium near Los Angeles. He passed the baton to his young, most worthy successor, Forrest Shreve. Shreve realized right away how important the work was. Not only did he continue it, he extended it with new study plots.

By the time that Volney Spalding died in 1918, Shreve had learned enough to question the basic idea. He saw no evidence of a balance of nature in the Sonoran Desert. What he saw instead was an exciting, dynamic association of extraordinary complexity, an association that never stopped changing. And yet, by 1931, he had to admit that it gave the appearance of wild, pristine Sonoran Desert.

When the US Forest Service took over the land, it showed little interest in research on Tumamoc Hill itself. Spalding's and Shreve's research plots were largely ignored. After The University of Arizona bought much of the laboratory domain in 1960, a few investigators, especially Ray Turner, saw the uniqueness and began to study the plots with their students. Interesting and valuable data began again to accumulate.

Fast forward to yet a third generation of scientists. A young investigator entered the picture to analyze the data and figure out at last what had been happening. Deborah Goldberg was a PhD student in the Dept. of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University. In a magisterial paper (D.E. Goldberg & R.M. Turner, Ecology, 1986), she set out the discoveries made possible by Spalding's visionary, pioneering acts.

1905-1986! It took eighty years to see the patterns hidden by the glacial dynamics of the desert flora. Without Tumamoc's long-term existence, it would have been impossible. Some processes in nature are like that. Let's just call them 'stately' and be grateful for the foresight of dedicated people like Volney Spalding who know they will not live long enough to get answers but are willing to invest their time to make a beginning.

I could quit now. After all, this story of multigenerational persistence is pretty remarkable. But it is not really unbelievable. To reach the status of 'unbelievable,' we have to follow Deborah Goldberg. Dr. Goldberg — who wove the threads of data together to reveal the story first sought by Volney Spalding — Dr. Goldberg is now Professor Goldberg at — believe it! — the University of Michigan, the very place where Volney Spalding had been Department Head. And there is more.

In 2012, Deborah returned to Tucson to give her old department an update on her current research. I asked her about Volney Spalding, who — as far as I was concerned — had proved to be something of an elusive character.

I'd seen his signature on a few of the oldest professional materials in the Tumamoc library. I'd read some of his handwritten correspondence in the archives of the Arizona Historical Society. I'd read his obituary in Michigan Alumnus and in The Plant World. And I'd been asking historians for help in tracking down some clues as to the essence of the human being. Why not? This is the guy who taught the first college forestry course, the guy who invented the idea of restoration ecology, the guy who set out what are now the world's oldest ecological study plots, the guy who, in his time, was a prominent scientist and conservationist of national renown, the guy whose devoted former students paid him tribute in 1909 with a fancy, expensive bronze plaque.

The plaque presented to Spalding on his 60th birthday.
The Latin means: Through the works of nature he shaped a mind of character and excellence.
Photo by Dale Austin

But the historians that I asked could tell me nothing much about him. Effie has a file in the US National Archives, but not Volney. The only trace of Volney is what we read in Effie's file. Will the real Volney Spalding please stand up. Maybe Deborah Goldberg could help?

I asked. She was amazed. She herself had wondered about Volney Spalding. She had wondered because — completely by coincidence — next to her very own office door in Ann Arbor, hangs that mysterious bronze plaque dedicated to him in 1909!

Now that is unbelievable.