Oration | Address to Convocation
Dr. William O. Pruitt Jr., currently a professor and senior scholar in the University of Manitoba's Department of Zoology, lived and worked in Newfoundland from 1965-1969 as an associate professor of biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
Dr. Pruitt's baseline research played a major role in the establishment of Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, his research serves as an important reference for biologists working on the Great Northern Peninsula.
His subsequent work in environmental assessment of the proposed NATO flight training in Labrador and eastern Quebec in the 1980s has been recognized as an important contribution to the development of environmental impact assessment methodology in the North.
Throughout his career, he has been recognized internationally for his contributions to the understanding of winter ecology of northern animal life.
Dr. Pruitt is perhaps best known for his dedication and insistence on the highest ethical standards in both teaching and research. As a young scientist at the University of Alaska, he opposed plans to blast northern seaports on the Alaska coast with nuclear weapons, a plan favoured by the US military and senior university officials. The idea was to create an artificial harbour near Point Hope, Alaska using "atomic engineering." Dr. Pruitt's research showed that the blasts would cause widespread damage to northern food chains and native people.
He is a prolific author, both of scientific and popular literature, having published 67 scientific papers, 42 popular articles, 28 technical papers and two books on boreal ecology. He has also produced three films.
Dr. Pruitt has been named a Fellow of the Explorers Club, and has been awarded the Seton Medal (Manitoba Naturalists Society), the University of Manitoba Outreach Award, the Centenary Medal (Government ofCanada Northern Science Award) and the Vilhjalmur Stefansson Award by the University of Manitoba Northern Studies Committee.
Dr. Pruitt will receive an honorary doctor of science degree at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College's convocation ceremonies on May 11 at 10 a.m.
Oration honouring Dr. W. O. Pruitt
Dr. Holly Pike, University Orator
Biological taxonomy categorizes organisms according to similarities in basic structures and behaviours. Thus, the caribou, Rangifer tarandus, of the kingdom Animalia, phylum chordata, subphylum vertebrata, class mammalia, order artiodactyla, family cervidae, subfamily odocoileinae, can be distinguished from other related species. The system, however, is far from perfect, and over time, as knowledge increases, species may be reclassified. For instance, can we assume that mammologist is a species of the genus zoologist, family biologist, order academic? Or should the species designation be based on behaviours such as environmental protectionism, making the species name protectionist and the genus zoologist? Should classification be based on whether or not the zoologist teaches or conducts field research, or on external markings, such as awards and honours received?
Let us consider the individual William Obadiah Pruitt, zoologist and professor. His natural habitat includes both the boreal forest and the university classroom. In fact, he appears to be perfectly adapted to both habitats by his curiosity and communicativeness, and exhibits similar behaviours in both, living symbiotically with students and colleagues. His range is vast, covering most of the northern half of North America. To classify him as a zoologist, we note that after completing his undergraduate education in his native state of Maryland, Bill Pruitt began his migration northward by completing his MA and PhD at the University of Michigan. Instead of adapting to that balmy region, he sought a more boreal range, roaming to the University of Alaska, where he found a niche, but only a temporary one. While there, he was faced with the possibility of environmental change on a catastrophic scale, when the government proposed building an artificial harbour using atomic weapons. Although he accepted that all environments change over time, Bill Pruitt recognized that change generated by nuclear power would be destructive not just immediately, but for generations to come.
So he, with a group of other scientists, abandoned the protective coloration of the university professor, and successfully fought the proposal, an action that cost him his job and forced him to migrate again. In this defense of the habitat, we see environmentalist behaviour superseding that of the zoologist, a change for which the University of Alaska was not prepared. The natural enemies who drove him from Alaska pursued him until he reached the relative isolation of Memorial University in 1965. There he lived in a mutualistic relationship with his students, many of whom to this day remember his lessons about the adaptations of mammals and the importance of preserving a variety of habitats; the peculiar adaptation that allowed him to draw bilaterally symmetrical structures on the blackboard using both hands at once; and the adventure of field trips in all weather conditions. The environmentalist aspects of Bill Pruitt's behaviour were nowhere clearer than in his role in the establishment of Gros Morne National Park. In the initial boundary studies, he tried to establish a zone that would protect the ranges of as many species as possible, not just provide temporary range for humans seeking a "natural" experience.
Seeking fresh intellectual forage, Bill Pruitt expanded his range by moving to the University of Manitoba in 1969, adding builder and user of tools to his characteristics by almost single-handedly creating the Taiga Biological Station, the research site that established him as perhaps the foremost Canadian expert on the boreal forest. There he earned the Seton Medal, the Northern Science, Stefansson, and Manning Awards, and an Award of Merit for his film Techniques in Boreal Ecology, the honours that distinguish him from other zoologists.
One attempt has already been made to classify William Pruitt. In 1993, the University of Alaska reclaimed him as one of their own by awarding him an honorary degree, and the legislature of that hitherto inhospitable region gave him a formal apology. However, the data above, rather than making easier the classification of Bill Pruitt, suggest that precise classification is impossible. Rather than regarding him as an individual of a known species, we must regard him as sui generis, and for that reason, I present for the degree of doctor of science, honoris causa, William Obadiah Pruitt.
Address to convocation
by Dr. William O. Pruitt, Jr.
You folks are at the completion of your formal education. You have been immersed in textbooks for periods of three, maybe four, maybe even five years. You have been isolated from the real world of nature outside.
This is a common problem today. Too many people become caught up in artificial stimulators and explanations of nature. This is what we call "keyboard ecology." Remember, all the information you read and studied in your textbooks originally had to be observed, counted and filtered through the eyes, brains and experiences of real-time field scientists.
For example: I recall a new faculty member excitedly telling me about a new bit of software that would display wolf ecology. There, on the computer screen, was a video of cartoon wolves moving between cartoon trees, stalking cartoon prey and cartoon interacting. I pointed out that my students at Taiga Biological station could, with a bit of luck and skill, observe the real thing instead of a cartoon. More importantly, that he should realize that the cartoons originally required real-time observation by a real-time biologist in the field in order to become known. It is now time for you to begin to contribute to this store of knowledge.
This is not a new problem. In 1571, a Danish professor, Peder Sorenson (later Latinized to Petrus Severinus) wrote:
"Go my sons, burn your books,
Buy yourselves stout shoes,
Get away to the mountains, the deserts,
And the deepest recesses of the earth.
In this way and no other
Will you gain a true knowledge of things
And of their properties."
(With the prices of textbooks being what they are, I don't think you should take that "burning" bit too seriously).
But the part about stout shoes, the mountains, the deserts and the deepest recesses of the earth holds true today.
Consider: "Gain a true knowledge of things and of their properties:"
Rainfall. Listen to a rain shower on bare, smooth glaciated granite.
Listen to a rain shower on a birch forest with a floor of dead leaves.
Each sounds different. Why?
Consider: a snow cover. Over most of Canada the snow cover undergoes constant metamorphosis because of the difference in temperature between the warm earth and the dry, very cold air above. A snow crystal next to the earth is relatively warm, say at minus-5 degrees Celsius. The crystal above is a bit colder, and the one above it colder still. Now the bottom-most crystal is warmer because its atoms are moving, vibrating. Occasionally, a molecule of water spins off and attaches itself to the next older object, which is the crystal above it. Over time, the bottom-most layer is eroded away and the molecules are attached to the next higher layer. They do not attach haphazardly but in a precise order. The end result is that the base of the snow cover metamorphoses into a series of vertical columns, each composed of a number of little scrolled pyramids of ice looking as if they are made of tiny glass logs.
This lattice-like structure of the basal part of the snow cover is properly termed "pukak". Now, pukak is of extreme importance to the small mammals (mice, voles and shrews) and winter-active invertebrates as well. In fact, my researches have told me that without the winter snow cover and the conditions that cause pukak to form, small mammals would be unable to over-winter in the Canadian boreal forest. Small mammals are the base of the carnivore food chains and loss of them would cause effects to resound through the food web.
We all know that there is only one species of small mammal native to the island of Newfoundland: the Meadow Vole or "Microtus". The standard explanation is that the Strait of Belle Isle has acted as a barrier and this one species has happened to cross the strait successfully.
During my years in Newfoundland, I dug many, many pits in the snow cover down to the earth and recorded the thickness, temperature, hardness and density of each layer. In all my researches in Newfoundland I never found any pukak layer. The snow cover rested directly on the forest floor. Why was this?
Remember that the reason pukak forms is a constant flow of heat from the earth to the cold, dry air above the snow cover. Now, cold, dry air does not occur very often or for very long periods in Newfoundland. So, heat periodically flows downward as well as upward through the snow cover.
I interpret the reason that there is one species of small mammal in Newfoundland is not the failure of other species to cross the Strait of Belle Isle, but the lack of a pukak layer. The animals would have to spend too much energy digging through the dense, heavy maritime snow cover to survive on this island.
All hypotheses are derived in order to be tested. Maybe some day I will have the opportunity to test this one.
But the important point I want to make is that this hypothesis has been derived not from comparing knowledge filtered through books and computer screens but from "stout shoes" (actually, in my case, Finnish farmers' winter boots) and digging down to the deepest recesses of the snow cover and learning the "true knowledge of things and of their properties."
If I may, I will leave this copy of Severinus' precept with your President. Perhaps he will frame it and hang it for future students to read and absorb.
I wish you good luck and good health in your careers and I thank you for all your kind attention.
© Copyright 2002 Memorial University of Newfoundland