Acer rubrum To Zyzyphus jujuba
Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Gadabout and Gadfly
When the Footloose Forester was finally ready to fill in the biographical content for the cover of his third memoir: Acer rubrum to Zyzphus jujuba: Volume II in early 21016, he used the word gadfly as an adjective of self-description pursuant to his purpose in making two separate volumes. Although he more properly might be labeled as a gadabout (one who flits about from place to place, country to country), he deliberately chose the word gadfly to describe in part his mindset regarding his archives of selected memoirs. Yes, his inadvertent work history as a gadabout would fit the pattern of previous stories from Afghanistan to Zambia, Belgium to Botswana, or Madagascar to Malawi; but a personality trait describing him as a gadfly was also appropriate. No doubt, the gadfly label (someone who is regarded as persistently annoying or irritating) was an apt descriptor for a Footloose Forester who kept notes on why things worked or didn't work; and his personal spin on the spin some people put on things that they didn’t want to discuss or put into official reports. There were lots of reports and some of them that were joint reports didn’t always jibe as regards hidden meanings and operational context.
Pointing out flaws in the personality of others is certainly taboo in professional life, but pointing out flaws in the basic concepts in their reports, and hence in the workings of subsequent programs and projects, should not be taboo. Yet, the Footloose Forester was often a gadfly because he couldn’t ignore and dismiss the obvious errors he saw in reports that led to flawed programs and projects. Once in a while the errors were recognized and corrected by others, and sometimes they were not.
Sometimes the errors in concept led to errors in policy implementation and public presentations; and sometimes not. In a few cases the uncorrected errors were inserted into scientific papers that were subsequently published and hence became public information. Once in the public domain, it is difficult to change the level of acceptance regarding the veracity that is being challenged. In general, once a scientific paper has been published, it is all but hopeless to try and get it changed.
There are only a few examples that stand out as reminders about obvious errors that can be verified on sight in publications where the errors themselves are photographs that can be challenged. Indeed, in news magazines like TIME and Newsweek, ordinary subscribers are often the ones who point out the mis-identification of a person in a crowd, or at the scene of a confrontation. Seldom does the person who points out the error in identification also go on to explain how a mis-identification changes the context of the story itself. In the case of faulty photographic evidence in scientific publications, the photo or photos are usually part of the context of the main theme itself, thus the context could be seen differently when the photos don’t support the theme.
Getting down to cases, some years ago (circa 1985) there was short article in a scientific journal about the effects of slope on soil erosion and how planted trees in agroforestry remedies helped to stabilize the soil in steep terrain. The article that was written by a researcher at Auburn University included a photograph of planted trees on moderately steep terrain but stated that the terrain being stabilized had a 40°gradient. Since the publication had already been in print for several years and the article had not been challenged during peer review, it survives today as an example of a misleading observation based on erroneous evidence. When the Footloose Forester discussed those issues with forestry colleagues from Auburn University some years later, he was met with a rather dismissive attitude. His objections were merely based on a suspect photograph that purported to show terrain with a 40°gradient, whereas he initially doubted that the gradient was even 40%. Foresters and others using Abney levels and other slope measuring devices are aware that both percent (%) scales and degree (°) scales are etched on the same internal wheels used to measure slope. A 40°gradient corresponds with 84%.
It was another peer-reviewed scientific article in a different year and in a different journal, and with another color photograph of agroforestry practices in steep terrain that caught the attention of the Footloose Forester, and another instance of playing the role of a gadfly. That one was about Haiti and the Footloose Forester was quite interested to read the article because he was actively engaged in agroforestry research at that time, with Haiti as his base of operations.
The editors of the Swedish journal AMBIO did, at least, acknowledge that they should not have approved the full-page color photo of a Haitian peasant on their cover page, a flashy cover that purportedly showed agroforestry practice on steep ground. Since the context of the article was mostly about the appropriateness of agroforestry in steep terrain, a good photo could have made that point.
contour planting of trees on steep ground helps to control erosion
As depicted, however; on the AMBIO cover, the ground the peasant was standing on was practically level, so the photo was misleading, if not pointless. Furthermore, the article frontispiece stated that the slope was 45%. It was so inaccurate that any layman could see there was nothing steep about the terrain. It did not take a gadfly to point that out.
The moral of this chronicle is about pointing out obvious inaccuracies in scientific papers helps to retain the credibility of agroforestry approaches. Using good photographic evidence helps the general public to understand that agroforestry at the individual farm level helps both the farmer and benefits the environment but; on the other hand, misinformation and weak evidence in the form of inappropriate photos do not earn support for the practical benefits that might be derived from agroforestry. Alas, it will take more than an at-home internet search of archives to come up with the original photos to substantiate the presence of the errors that went undetected decades ago.
Being a gadabout in the Third World was not a qualification for commenting on the benefits of agroforestry, but being a gadfly when it came to giving accurate information in scientific publications was certainly on the agenda.