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Was van Gogh a Plant Ecologist?
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Swirling, shimmering, seemingly alive on the canvas, the landscapes of van Gogh are unmistakable in the history of art. In the late 19th century he saw our rural land in a new way, the antithesis of the placid, still images that defined a “pastoral” world. Just as his images of the star-filled night astonished the world, his paintings of the fields around Saint-Rémy in southern France were a new interpretation of landscape.

Were these new, dynamic images of grasslands just an expression of a troubled mind, of a man who would soon take his own life? Or were they prescient, van Gogh seeing a truth in nature that our scientific world did not reveal until late in the next century? If restoration ecology has as its target a re-creation of natural processes, van Gogh’s work may be an accurate description of our living world, not a fanciful impression.

The constant changes in grassland communities have been studied for many years. From the perspective of ecological succession, the progression from a recently abandoned field to the appearance of perennial herbs and then the eventual growth in many places of woody species that will dominate the site has been studied for many years (Begon et al. 2006). But it was not until the 1960s that demographic and evolutionary processes became a center of grassland research (Harper 1967, 1977). Then the perceptional dam burst, and the plant ecology world became consumed with the processes and small-scale mechanisms of change in grasslands, now a major theater for ecological analyses.

We became consumed with birth rates, death rates, the fate of seedlings emerging and destroyed, the cataloging of the causes of death that attacked each life history stage. Was death caused by nutrient limiting factors, genetic incompatibilities, competition from near neighbors, predation, parasitism, physiological response, flowering, or the host of accidents and habitat changes that accompany human dominated landscapes? The study of grasslands became a frantic dance of habitat factors appearing, interacting, retreating, and intruding on the fate of populations of each species present on the land.

The landscape surrounding the study site added another layer of ecological complexity. What are the dispersal rates of seed by wind, water, or animal into the grassland? Can the species’ mutualists, whether they are flying or moving closer from within the soil, change the community structure over time? The rapid intrusion of non-native species, plant and insect, has become yet another new dynamic influencing grassland fate and keeping restoration ecologists up at night. Our nights are not starry, as in van Gogh’s world, but clouded with new and unwanted problems. We wonder what the next aggressive intruder will be, what remedy must be brought to bear to safeguard the grassland targets. We are aware of the forces from both within the restored site and the ever-changing landscape mosaic around the site that keep the grassland in constant flux.

What happened to the pastoral nature of these meadows that have been enjoyed as romantic settings of quiet beauty and repose? They are now seen by the scientific world as arenas of ecological conflict and change, with living and physical forces jostling, challenging our ability to define a specific landscape look that serves aesthetics and ecological function.

Knowledge of grassland ecology has caused us to replace the pacific view of this habitat type with the more honest judgment that these habitats are constant battles among species in the face of often rapid environmental change. Even throughout one region, comparisons among grasslands and meadows yield various outcomes from these ecological tensions (for example, Pywell 2003). Choosing a target for a restoration program is more difficult for grasslands than for late successional habitats where the ecological changes apparently move more slowly (Begon et al. 2006). No one now agrees to begin a pasture restoration thinking it’s going to be a picnic, or even eventually the site for an actual picnic. This makes the work much more interesting, albeit much more difficult.

So we turn back to van Gogh and his vision, with astonishment. The art world has long seen the dynamism in his renderings:

“During that year at...

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