The last stop on my tour of labs and conferences was a very short visit with Prof. Rob Henegeveld in his small home town of Randwijk. Though we only had two days together I have been guided by Rob’s work since I started my PhD. So, visiting him in person was a joy from the beginning. As a reflection on my time with him here is a little ode to Rob in the guise of a summary of our time together.
Power of local knowledge
From the moment I met Rob I was immersed in local knowledge. Knowledge about the landscape, about how it shaped history and how history shaped the city and country as we see it today. About the last glacial maximum in Europe and how it shifted the course of the Rijn (the Rhine river) and the physical geology of the Netherlands and of northern Europe in general. About the glacial moraines and how they are evidence today of this time, and of the different assemblages of plants – those that dispersed into the glacial areas once it melted away and those that are still stuck in the area outside of the glacier.
But also about PEOPLE. About the Roman defensive line along the line of the Rijn and the remaining towns. About the history of Utrecht as an ancient site of importance, a Roman site of fortification, a catholic site of the past bureaucracy, a relic of the Reformation and the changes to cathedrals and finally as a modern centre of thought, art and living in Holland. About the area he now lives between the Rijn and the Waal as a river flood plain characterised by fertile soils with a history of food production that has now shifted to the opulent production of ornamental foreign tree-stock for nurseries.
Rob’s amazing insights into so many aspects of the world around him, close to him, are a product of his continued learning. Sharing that knowledge gives a visitor an instant insight into a landscape that otherwise would be Oak trees and canals (neither of which are part of the landscapes history). It helped a visitor like me to see through the modern skin that sits over the landscape and start to read its history, the history of the people that walked that land before me and of the plants and animals that lived there for eons before that. It helped me to realise that really getting to know a place (or knowing a place) and sharing it’s stories with someone who wants to learn is the greatest gift you can give. And is the best thing you can receive as a visitor. I think, in Australia, we need to realise this more and open our ears to those who know the landscapes they live on, its histories and their histories and thus the changes that created the world we see today. Only then can we embrace the full story of our country and not just the history we have invented as city-dwelling white colonists in the last 200 years.
Rob is also very good at adding into normal conversation stories of his life that have lessons laced into their fabric. He told me a story of when he started his PhD and the subtle guidance he received from his supervisor. At first, he went to the collection of beetles he was to study. His mentor found him and asked “But Rob, why are you here? What are you doing?” and Rob said “trying to understand the species and the specimens”. His supervisor shook his head and said “this is not the way to learn”. So instead he went to books to learn all there was to know about his subject. And his mentor found him again, and asked “Why are you reading?”. To which, Rob could only answer “In order to learn what we already know”. His supervisor shook his head again and said “this isn’t the way to start”. Rob told me, it wasn’t until he went into nature, found the organism, looked for the patterns HE SAW that he realised what these frustrating “but why…?” questions of his mentor meant.
By going first to books and specimens we are imprinted with someone else’s preconceived notions about a system and fail to make your own judgements. Instead we need to look for your own patterns. Look in a way no one else is looking. Eventually he looked for himself, and discovered that this really diverse bunch of beetles – the Carabids or ground beetles – which were thought to be detritivorous actually voracious predators – some of ants some of snails. And each group is specialised to its own food type. And he only realised this by looking in ways no one else had. Following leads that HE thought were interesting. Letting them dictate his mode of enquiry rather than re-enforcing the ideas of someone that came before him.
Never look to the symptoms, always to the cause
Of the few people I have talked to about Rob, most comment on his ability to get to the root of a problem. And spending time with him helped me to realise why he has this skill. He always looks at the world and thinks hard about what is the PATTERN and what is the PROCESS, what is the SYMPTOM and what is the CAUSE. This seems like a simple thing that anyone can do. It is not until you meet someone who is really skilled at this kind of mechanistic thinking and applies it to everything they do do you realise how hard it is.
For example, on this trip Rob told me about a bird conservation group that are very concerned for a population of Oyster Catchers that occupy some islands off the coast. On these islands their numbers are dwindling and they seem to have moved to a new breeding colony on the mainland. Many measures and discussions are in place to remedy the situation of declining populations on the island. But if you see the situation through the Henegeveld lens this decline on the islands is not so much of a concern. The bird in question has a broad range that is centered on the Steppes. This island population is on the range limit. Thus, the bird as a species is secure – the population decline is a local phenomenon that is already in a mobile part of the range. The birds are CHOOSING their environment, they are moving their colony to a location that is more desirable to them, and thus again this local decline is not something to be alarmed about.
This little case study epitomises some of my favourite ideas in Robs work  – that of a species range as physiological responses to environmental variation. The trend in the dominant paradigm in ecology is to fixate on a locality and explain the persistence of species within that locality. But species don’t exist at a locality – they exist across their entire range. Their distribution is not the same across all of that range – in some places the intensity of occupation is higher than in others. What dictates this pattern is the process of the organism “choosing” its environment in accordance with its requirements. As environmental conditions change, the range of an organism can change and it changes depending on the requirements of the species. Fixed distribution maps and ideas of a species having ALWAYS been in one place then are not particularly useful. We always have to look to the species and of spatio-temporal trends in their distribution as a product of the process that they determine.
By taking such a mechanistic approach Rob has also been part of a body of work in collaboration with my supervisor Gimme Walter that questions many of the assumptions about process that exist in the dominant ecological paradigm . Discussions with Rob and Gimme about the distinction between demographic ecology and autecology have been some of the most formative parts of my PhD. By looking straight to the processes and questioning whether the patterns we see can be explained by those posited by demographic ecological theory Gimme and Rob (as well as all their autecological forerunners) again an alternative way to view ecology emerges. For more on autecology see another post (to come).
Don’t get pigeonholed
Something that you will notice from looking at Rob’s list of writings is that he has traversed a range of subjects. From the ecology of ground beetles, to theory in ecology, to the origins of life on earth and the consequences of human behaviour on earth systems. This is not a sign of a lack of focus – it is a manifestation of his view to processes. In each case, the goes to the heart of the matter in very mechanistic terms and lays out the way he sees the world.
From speaking with him in person I learned that the threads of thought that seeded each of these types of enquiry are not new. Each of them took root, and were left to grow over whatever time they needed. In some cases, Rob described how a line of enquiry hit a dead end, at which time he kept it running in the background and returned to it at a time that he had learned something new or developed a way forward.
I feel having been to so many conferences lately that there is this tendency for us to pigeonhole ourselves. I often find it hard to explain that I simultaneously work on outback springs, seagrass snails, ecological theory and science outreach. And often find such a seemingly disparate body of work is perceived as a sign of a lack of focus. I cannot thank Rob enough for reminding me that at the end of the day, we are ecologists. Ecology as a discipline is multifaceted and has many strings to its bow. And for reminding me that the core of all these enquiries remains the same – a questioning of the core principles of ecology and how they apply to our understanding of how the world works.
By applying his very mechanistic style of thinking, Rob also has a lot to say about the state of affairs we as humans have found ourselves in . In particular, he puts very simply that the human race relies on energy. By harnessing the power of fossil fuels humans allowed exponential population growth. But the resources that allowed this growth will soon run out and we are left with options that, in most cases, require more energy to construct that they return. This will not only have dire consequences for that trajectory of growth, but in particular for that time in the not so distant future where we have outstripped our energy needs but the population is still unsustainably large.
These issues are obviously pertinent to our generation. Whilst Rob and I’s conversation about this erred more on the side of the problem than the solution, I think you can look to Robs way of life for a little inspiration. And I think his mode of presenting the problem and not his ideas of the solution leaves the ball very much in our court for taking action.
So, with that I thank Rob as an author of works I find guiding and as a human being I now have the pleasure of knowing for being such an inspiration.
1. Here there are a lot of works by Rob and colleagues. See: R Hengeveld & J Haeck (1982) ‘The distribution of abundance. I. Measurements.’ Journal of Biogeography, 303-316 available here; R Hengeveld (1993) ‘Ecological Biogeography’ Processes in Physical Geography, 17 (4), 448-460; and R Hengeveld (1992) ‘Dynamic biogeography.’ Cambridge University Press.
2. Again, there are numerous works here, see: R Hengeveld & GH Walter (1999) ‘The two coexisting ecological paradigms.’ Acta Biotheoretica, 47(2), 141-170; GH Walter & R Hengeveld (2014). ‘Autecology: Organisms, interactions and environmental dynamics.’ CRC Press.
3. R Hengeveld (2012). ‘Wasted World: How Our Consumption Challenges the Planet.’ University of Chicago Press.