The More We Circle Back, The More We Circle Back — TRI At 30

The More We Circle Back, The More We Circle Back — TRI At 30

William R. Burch, Jr.

Emeritus Hixon Professor of Natural Resource Management, Senior Research Fellow—FES Yale University


Time markers are one of the most ancient and significant ways by which humans force order upon an ever changing world. In 2014 the Tropical Resources Institute (TRI) will mark its 30th year of service. Like other social institutions it cautiously approaches the middle of its life cycle wondering what the past might tell us about its future. Certainly it is a convenient point to recover and emphasize the legends about its origins. Like our families, religious organizations, educational corporations, sports teams and other organizations that we live within we want a consistent narrative that tells us about how our social commons came to be. We want a back story that gives us lessons learned from the mistakes made, hopes lost, visions won, legacies sustained. Like most extended families we have our jokes and anecdotes and stories we tell the next generation so it can follow or re-direct the next phase of the family legend. The stories we share give substance to our identity and strengthen the power of our efforts because they are joined in common interest. All communities whether family or scholarly need legends to sustain their bond and to resist the tendencies, internal or external, seeking their demise.

The narrative about the TRI start-up is certainly one part of its legend. There is no question that your individual work is attributable to your particular wit and wisdom and hard struggle. However, it is wise to remember the Hindu tree of learning where all the many people who have contributed to your effort surround you and up near the canopy are all the people who will be dependent upon the work you leave behind. It is that humble fact that informs the TRI legend. As Mercatante (1988:17) notes:

Legend, derived from the Latin word for ‘to gather, select, read,’ and similar to the Greek word for ‘to gather,’ is often confused with myth. As with myth, a legend is an anonymous traditional story passed on from one generation to another. But whereas a myth has gods and goddesses as its main characters, a legend has historical personages, such as Charlemagne, El Cid, Muhammad, St Francis of Assisi, or Billy the Kid.

He notes later that tellers of myths believe them to be absolutely true while a legend is not necessarily true. So our journey here is not the stuff of myth but one part of an ongoing legend to which the present and future will amend and refer to and feel ownership and even a push of pride.


As the first faculty director of the Institute I have one perspective on the origins, hopes, structures and contributors in its evolution. My part of the legend begins in the late 1970s and ends in the early 1990s. To me it is less a story of particular individuals but rather a coming together of many to form a community dedicated to serving local people in their tropical environment and the training of future natural resource professionals to carry out their practice. I will try to note many of the ideas and persons who made this venture possible and some of the trials and tricks of survival it followed. If I have forgotten some persons or events it is not intentional but more the slide of time passing through an opaque vision filtered by the rear view mirror.

The legend originates with student demand for the School to be a major force in challenging global trends in natural resource conservation. This demand was powered by an angry ecologist, two activist deans and a troop of Peace Corps vets and other revolutionary students that moved a modest School of Forestry fully onto a global stage. My role was as a translator and cheer leader of these several voices.

Ecologist Herb Bormann along with Gene Likens and other colleagues at the Hubbard Brook Long Term Ecosystem study project were demonstrating the global linkages of insults to the earth. They determined that Acid Rain killing lakes in northeastern forests came from energy plants in the Midwest. They saw the biogeochemical impact of many timber cutting practices as non-sustainable and connected this to the high rates of deforestation in tropical forests with critical global consequences. They made ecology an experimental science serving complex human ecosystems. Herb wanted to have more attention given to the tropics and along with Tom Siccama organized student field trips to Puerto Rico over Spring Break to raise awareness and give some empirical base for understanding such ecosystems.

Dean Francois Mergen had been working on forest genetics in tropical forests for some time. In 1969 he led a multidisciplinary team to work with the Bombay Natural History Society on research needs for sustaining the habitat of the last refuge for the Asian lion in the Gir Forest, Gujarat, India. He organized a major conference on Tropical Forestry in 1981 that brought leaders in the field from all over the world. He guided the School toward a broader outlook in changing its name to School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. The idea of environmental studies was to open the participation of students in humanities, arts and social sciences as equal and necessary parts of international ecosystem management efforts.

Dean John Gordon expanded upon the prior efforts and gained a substantial grant in 1983 from the Mellon Foundation to start TRI. He encouraged the recruitment of students from tropical countries and supported our bidding on a major USAID project in Nepal. He encouraged the faculty to appoint experts in tropical ecology from abroad and within the US to spend time on campus. He bypassed the usual faculty dissembling as to why such broadening of the program might not work. He listened, questioned and made things happen. TRI was established.

Drawing upon the prior work of Bormann and Siccama and the good connections in the El Yunque National Forest, the Institute followed the usual colonial approach—establish a headquarters, buy vehicles and equipment and set up shop for faculty and students in Puerto Rico. However, I had been working with the USAID in ways to have more use of social science theory and methods in tropical forest conservation and development projects. Further the student Peace Corps vets back from the frontlines of the tropical countries thought the Puerto Rico venue and the work planned for the TRI was more like a Club Med for rich kids. We both felt that the developing world was a better venue for training future professionals and connecting with the realities of their future work environments.

I delivered our ideas with some passion to Dean Gordon. He then used his usual tactic of ‘turn the whine into doing the time’ and appointed me the first faculty director. With his help we moved the whole operation of TRI back to the School, saving a great deal of money. We then went about creating a truly global TRI program with an international advisory committee, linkages to other international programs, improved course offerings from experts in tropical affairs and a whole turning of the effort toward conservation and development that included the skills and needs of local tropical forest communities. There was ample room for pure science but the central tendency of the program was on conserving of the people and forests in the tropics.

This may not seem like a big shift to folk in 2014. However, it was a major change and seemed a threat to traditional practices of foresters and botanists working in tropical forest ecosystems in the 1980s. As Dean Gordon noted (1989:2):

Another important dimension of the Institute’s purpose is the theoretically coequal role of social science and policy analysis with biological and physical science in equipping professionals to work effectively in the tropics (or anywhere else)….there was at the outset fairly strong pressure to equate ‘tropical resources’ with ‘tropical botany’ or radically, with ‘tropical botany, zoology and geography.’ We resisted and even named a social scientist as our first Faculty Director.

We should underline the significance of appointing a social scientist as the first Faculty Director which was perceived both in and out of Yale as very radical, indeed. Thus the TRI legend had its birth in very revolutionary and creative challenges to received wisdom as it tried to follow a new and less frequently taken road in training new professionals.

Street ‘Cred’

The major challenge was to demonstrate our street ‘cred’ for the Institute and our graduates from the program. We encouraged students to attend Dr. Harold Conklin’s courses that included anthropological insights on swidden agriculture and the role of villagers in maintaining their forests. We made arrangements for scientists, such as Brian Boom, from The New York Botanical Garden to present courses on tropical botany and soils. Ram Guha, author of “The Unquiet Woods,” was appointed a visiting scholar teaching social ecology. Mark Ashton’s father provided us with a course on tropical ecology. We encouraged a distinguished group of tropical experts to be part of our Board of Advisors (see Appendix for the names). A faculty group served as in house advisors and I had an informal student advisory group who provided regular reality tests on our policies and plans. We signed Memoranda of Understanding with 28 institutions to develop a network of access between our faculty and students with those in tropical programs such as CATIE (Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza) in Costa Rica and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Nepal.

I think the boldest move was our bid on and the winning of a contract with USAID to work with the Institute of Forestry [IOF] in Pokhara, Nepal to help them restructure their curricula to be more effective with local forest communities. It was the first ever such bid by a Yale Department and was resisted by the grants people as not a ‘proper’ activity for Yale. It was a five year 8 million dollar effort and has been continued with several renewals since then. I was able to use the Finland Forest Master Plan for Nepal as a course assignment for my social ecology class. They did a most professional critique and the Dean of the IOF used their report in a demanding challenge to the producers of the plan for their failure to understand certain Nepali realities. Realities such as we did not need to produce more graduates, as the plan required, until the recent ones had jobs. Several US Land Grant natural resource departments tried to keep us out of the project claiming Yale did not have the necessary expertise. We won all of those battles and demonstrated the competence of our program and graduates.


A graduate of FES, Bob Clausi, was the IOF project manager and found ways for us to bring IOF faculty to Yale and other US institutions for Masters Degrees. Other critical support in the early development stage of the Institute came from our Assistant Directors, Peggy R. King and Katherine A. Snyder. Both were creative and demanding leaders who believed in our mission. In 1989 Betsy McGean was Assistant to the Director, and along with other staff—Sonia Varley, Jeff Bopp, Alicia Grimes, and Jimmy Grogan—led in the expansion of the program. They along with many of our alums solidified the uniqueness of the Institute and its value in conservation of tropical human ecosystems (including trees, wildlife, water and other life forms). The late Joe Miller, School Librarian, organized an expansion of holdings in journals and books on tropical matters. At that time the only larger collection was the Commonwealth Forestry Institute at Oxford University.

The early support of the Institute came from a variety of sources. There was the initial Mellon grant and its renewal. An alumnus made a large anonymous gift to support TRI interns working in tropical countries. We gained a grant from the Tinker Foundation for work in Latin America. A program in underground forest microbiology was developed with support from the Mellon Foundation. The Pew Charitable Trusts funded a program for Continuing Education for Natural Resource Professionals. Short courses were developed for wildlife policy management in the tropics.

One side benefit of the TRI was that its work in Asia and Latin America provided a base for discussion about bringing these lessons learned back home. Our Urban Resources Initiative began when Dr. Ralph Jones, newly appointed Director of Baltimore’s Department of Recreation and Parks and Burch were part of a Park Service review group. I was telling him about our work in Asia and he said, “How come you are not doing that here in our cities?” And we did under the guidance of John Gordon. Many of our tropical resources students like Erin Hughes, Bhisma Subedi and J.J. Jiler worked in Baltimore and returned to Asia as leaders of a new vision for connecting people to their natural systems. There are many other stories we could tell but that is for another time around another campfire. The legend is organic and will continue to grow though probably by persons other than ‘Billy the Kid’.

Talking the Past, Thinking the Future

I want to draw upon some lessons learned from my work with TRI and URI [the Urban Resources Initiative] to provide some suggestions for future, post middle age TRI activities that the present participants might consider. The first suggests we give some thought on how to build more cumulative learning from the work of TRI interns and other researchers. The second is a consideration of accepting a wider array of report strategies and a logic of inquiry other than the present emphasis upon a pure science model. This latter suggestion will take longer to tell as my intent is to have us build a locally based, expanding population of ecosystem stewards who force a large vision upward rather than waiting for some top down abstractions from planners and policy makers to trickle in with even more abstractions that are disconnected from the daily lives of ordinary people.

I have read and listened to the excellent and hard won nuggets of knowledge our TRI interns have gained over the years. And like so much in academia this probable wisdom often enters some intellectual niche of forgotten good thoughts. Part of the problem is that there is no means of cumulative learning. This person’s effort is dutifully reported and this person’s effort is dutifully reported and yet there is little connecting thread that joins them together over time and place that results in a unified base of lessons learned. The Urban Resources Initiative has avoided some of that by remaining in the same venue and addressing similar issues over the years. If TRI had a few basic themes so that each unique effort could be joined to another and over time there would be an empirical base for coherent conclusions as to what works and what does not and how come. Presently, we seem to have excellent reports but they seem to begin and end with one specific fragment rather than combining to provide some general principles. In this sense we are like most development activities—grand ideas run for three years and then it is off to the next project with little or no connection to other interventions that were similar and whose failures and successes might help the next effort. Like the fabled wise people trying to describe the elephant we only concentrate on our own particular fragment. The elephant is only the trunk or the tail or the foot but what we need in human ecosystem policy and management are lessons about the whole elephant, of the whole ecosystem we are working with. Well it is a thought from the past that might help us to build a better future.

The second issue is not accepting the constraint of always pretending we are dependent upon the model of science and that no other will do. I do believe that science in theory and method is necessary for identifying basic mechanisms, however, it does not have sufficient heft for resolving the larger environmental and natural resource issues of this century. There is daily evidence that most of our most important decisions are not based upon the rational choice model. We do important things in certain ways because we are emotionally connected, and that trumps rationality most of the time. So why not be open to other modes of proof and presentation? Of course, some will remain with the science model but others of us might do an even more effective job with a model from disciplines of faith or law or poetry or painting or drama or essays. Suppose 10 or 20 percent of our interns say I do not trust or feel I capture the meaning of what I have learned by simply following the usual science-like way. And we could say, fine lets go for a photo essay or a video story or a series of poems or a play about gathering water at the low caste village water spigot or planting trees on a common land near the village school. Or work with a local scientist and translate what that person does into the larger consequences or meanings for village life.

If we are to be students, policy analysts, planners or managers of human ecosystems our challenge is often greater than simply adopting the practices of reductive analysis found in physics and chemistry. Much as we might like to we are unlikely to have the same certainty for resolving the complexity of human ecosystems and getting it into a form that motivates persons within the reality of our political environment. Richie Havens who died in April, 2013 was a good friend of the School, he gave a concert in Sage Hall to help us raise money and to support his Natural Guard program for young kids to get contact with nature. He said “I am not an entertainer I am a communicator.” He is a better model for many of our ecosystem professionals who need to be not just enumerators but communicators about sharing the enchantments of nature that they feel and why it is so very important for all to share in that enchantment.

Think of all the high level conferences, papers, meetings on global climate change—Kyoto, Rio, Bali, Copenhagen, South Africa and so on and the majority of the world’s population remain unmoved or uncertain as to what they can do. Think of the regular reports by climate scientists and the ‘inconvenient truth’ about how little they have moved our attention. About 92 per cent of the research has been on establishing the biophysical measures of change and the possible causes of these changes. For the most part they have said the causes are human and their continued actions will cause great pain for humans. Yet only the remaining 8 per cent of research funds have been invested in human studies on necessary responses to these change forecasts. It is as if a bunch of guys in white coats got on an iceberg leaving Greenland with varieties of expensive instruments to measure change. As they head towards the Gulf Current they have excited arguments about so many parts per millimeter of up or down. Meanwhile the iceberg continues to melt. As they drift past New Jersey people on the shore are shouting ‘your iceberg is melting, your science is not helping us. What do we do about our homes and communities in these new realities, how do we prepare to meet them and should we not stop air and water pollution just as a sensible practice?’ Meanwhile the iceberg and attendant scientists melt into the warmer seas. And we still do not know what specific actions we can actually do in solving these environmental challenges within our frame of capability. The hard evidence suggests that our climate scientists are good calculators but not very good communicators. And that is a loss for all of us.

Our work in Baltimore, New Haven and village Nepal has tried to bring back enchantment with nature. Here our guide and monitor has been an association with artists who can expand our angle of vision and mix it with the depth of street wisdom from our colleagues in local communities. We ask different questions in different ways and give systematic legitimacy to these alternative and complementary sets of proof and data.

There are many examples where art and science complement and enhance our vision of the natural world. For example John Steinbeck goes out of Monterey to the Gulf of Mexico with his friends, marine biologists, on a research cruise where he is a most interested ‘gofer’ and chronicler of the voyage. In one aside Steinbeck is talking about the genetic imprint of the moon and tides upon our behavioral rhythms and puts them within a context unique to our species. He says (1941:30):

The imprint lies heavily on our dreams and on the delicate threads of our nerves, and if this seems to come a long way from sea-serpents and the Old Man of the Sea, actually it has not come far at all. The harvest of symbols in our minds seems to have been planted in the soft rich soil of our pre-humanity. Symbol, the serpent, the sea, and the moon might well be only the signal light that the psycho-physiologic warp exists.

This book, along with Rachel Carson’s, “Silent Spring” and “The Sea Around Us” and Gifford Pinchot’s 1900 “A Primer of Forestry” are other important examples of keeping the science but reaching beyond its fine metrics and rational structure to its larger meaning—a point within our enduring enchantment with the diversity, the beauty, the wonder of nature including our own. Carson (1962:261-2) closes her detailed examination of the unintended consequences of a narrow use of science in the development of pesticide and chemical additions to our ecosystems. She says:

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

Steinbeck closes his wondrous science field trip with this note (1941:223):

What was the shape and size and color and tone of this little expedition? We slipped into a new frame and grew to be part of it, related in some subtle way to the reefs and beaches, related to the little animals, to the stirring waters and the warm brackish lagoons. This trip had dimension and tone. It was a thing whose boundaries seeped through itself and beyond into some time and space that was more than all the Gulf and more than all our lives. Our fingers turned over the stones and we saw life that was like our life.

In the forest ecosystem management professions we have wilderness and timber people with rhetorical positions that assume an absolute division of values between them. Yet, it is more one of different poetic visions of the forest ecosystem. Though John Muir and Gifford Pinchot could not agree about wilderness they saw the forest ecosystem as something very different from those who only saw it as a commodity waiting to be fully exploited. Pinchot’s utilitarian call of “greatest good, for the greatest number, in the long run” is a means for ensuring the perpetuation of wildlands that is different from a regulatory enactment. As for poetry, Pinchot’s “A Primer of Forestry” might seem hard edged and technical yet it is replete with poetic visions of the whole forest. He notes (1900:7-8):

The forest is the most highly organized portion of the vegetable world. It takes its importance less from the individual trees which help to form it than from the qualities which belong to it as a whole. Although it is composed of trees, the forest is far more that a collection of trees standing in one place. It has a population of animals and plants peculiar to itself, a soil largely of its own making, and a climate different in many ways from that of the open country.

He goes on to tally the many uses the forest provides to a progressive social and economic life from water to timber to fuel. Then says,

The forest is as beautiful as it is useful….No one can really know the forest without feeling the gentle influence of one of the kindliest and strongest parts of nature. From every point of view it is one of the most helpful friends of man. Perhaps no other natural agent has done so much for the human race and has been so recklessly used and so little understood.

The tropical forest ecosystems see something of their future in the older urban forests in the United States. Here we see a landscape that is part wilderness, part playground, part community neighborhood, part recreation expressions, part large and dying trees with no understory and a necessary and imposed trend of poor management for both beauty and human benefit. This reflects the fact that conservation agencies are usually the first agency to have funds cut and the last to have funds restored. It is also a confused vision of what these spaces should be. Clearly these systems have been more the domain of horticulture (or the management of single trees) and recreation or tourism planners rather than one of ecosystem management. A consequence of neglect and despair mixes with great love and changing values brought by new migrant populations at the edges and within these forests.

For the essayist trying to understand and report on the future of tropical ecosystems these urban ecosystems provide a forward moving frame where an ever increasing human population with ever expanding expectations rests upon a very finite land base. The fluttering plastic bags caught in debris in a stream in rural Indonesia or Peru find an empirical base for tracking the meaning of future tropical systems with their cousins found in temperate urban ecosystems. These are not scientific proofs but rather metaphors that extend beyond the reach of science. The essayist’s systematic method is the weaving of metaphors that give structure and process to a seemingly confounding richness of data.

Paul Ehrlich’s wonderful book on “Human Natures, Genes, Cultures, and The Human Prospect” (2000:45) notes:

We know why biodiversity is disappearing—the primary reason is that homo sapiens is destroying natural habitats, and our capability of so doing…is largely due to our cultural evolution. Knowing how a vast array of species, including our own, evolved and how these species shaped one another and their environments may help us to staunch the flow of extinction and even to regenerate some of our lost biological heritage.

The novelist, Cathleen Shine (1999:196) takes these ideas of evolution to a more personal level. She has her central character, Jane, pondering the characteristics of her own evolution and that of her relationship with her long time friend while on a trip in the Galapagos that includes a visit to the Darwin research center. She says to her friend, Martha:

The research center was a touching, deeply human place. I, of course, saw it as a metaphor for all human endeavor. Martha, of course, objected strenuously to such an interpretation. But what else can you say about a place in which people devote their lives to breeding endangered tortoises other people have spent centuries endangering?…There was a slide show in the visitors’ center about the threat of feral dogs to baby iguanas and the threat of feral goats and donkeys to the vegetation the tortoises needed to survive. Mrs. Tommaso was visibly distressed by this presentation. ‘the poor’…she stopped, unable to decide which species to worry about first—the iguanas? the dogs? And those sweet-looking donkeys!—stunned by cognitive dissonance as by an electric shock.

We need these different angles of vision if we hope to understand and to work with the eternal complexity of ecosystems. When we first began our work in Baltimore we sought out a local artist who might work with us to both direct and to monitor our work. We were lucky to find Stephie Graham, a photographic artist, who became more and more enthusiastic with her mission and gave us both hope and deeper understanding about our work. She saw the enchantment and the despair and why we could replace some of the latter with much of the former. By the third year of our work in the neighborhoods she had enough material where we hosted in the Mayor’s administrative building foyer her photos of our interns and the kids from the neighborhoods and projects. We found money for transport and brought the kids and parents to this showing. The mayor even appeared and shook hands. Reflections upon reflections that gave purpose and meaning to our data and our work and gave the kids and their families a great sense of real worth. We were not chopping up the system but were part of it. I think such a vision nicely fits the next cycle of the TRI legend.


Thanks to the Boething family and the Department of Conservation Biology at Stanford University for stimulating my thoughts on what we have learned and how we might make our enchantment with nature a means for incorporating a world of environmental stewards.


Carson, Rachel, 1961. The Sea Around Us. New York: Signet Science Library.

Carson, Rachel, 1962. Silent Spring. New York: Fawcett World Library.

Ehrlich, Paul, 2000. Human Natures, Genes, Culture and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press

Gordon, John, 1989. “Message from the Dean.” TRI News 7, 1-2.

Mercatante, Anthony S., 1988. World Mythology and Legend. New York: Facts on File Encyclopedia.

Pinchot, Gifford, 1900. A Primer of Forestry—Part 1, The Forest. Bulletin 24. US Department of Agriculture.

Schine, Cathleen, 1999. The Evolution of Jane. New York: Plume Books.

Steinbeck, John, 1941/1951. The Log from the Sea of Cortez. New York: Penguin. The narrative portion from the Sea of Cortez by John Stenbeck and E.F. Ricketts.


William R. Burch, Jr. 2013-2014. The More We Circle Back, The More We Circle Back — TRI At 30. Tropical Resources Bulletin 32-33, 1–9.

Appendix 1. TRI Advisory Board

Robert Blake, World Resources Institute; Gerado Budowski, United Nations Peace University; Jefferey Burley, Oxford Forestry Institute ; Mason Carter, Lousiana State University; David Challinor, Smithsonian Institution; Hilda Diaz-Soletero, Conservation International Foundation; Marc Dourojeanmi, World Bank; John E. Earhart, Tropical Forestry Program, World Wildlife Fund and Chairman of TRI’s Advisory Board; Louise Fortmann, University of California—Berkeley; Victor Gonzalez, Celta Agencies, Inc.; David Harcharik, USDA Forest Service; Peter Huxley, International Council for Research in Agro-forestry; John Michael Kramer, International Resources Group; Thomas Lovejoy, World Wildlife Fund-US; Ariel Lugo, Institute of Tropical Forestry, Ghillean Prance, Kew Gardens; John Sullivan, USAID.

Appendix 2. Tropical Studies Committee (FES Faculty)

Michael Balick, Steven Beissinger, Grame Berlyn, Clark Binkley, Herbert Bormann, Stephen Broker, William Burch, Stephen Kellert, Betsy McGean, Joseph Miller, Florencia Montagnini, Thomas Siccama, Kristina Vogt, John Wargo