The map that started it all

Blue Mounds, WI

Buried in a dusty tome grandly titled Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth lies a map that changed my life. Granted, my life was already headed in a direction amenable to this map’s wiles, but that lone figure’s influence cannot be understated. It is a simple map, or rather series of maps. Four panels, four dates—from left to right: 1831, 1882, 1902, and 1950. In each successive panel, the dark swaths of ink that represented forest cover in Cadiz Township, Wisconsin, grew successively smaller and more fragmented. In that one figure, John T. Curtis posthumously changed my life.

Cadiz Township, Wisconsin

Growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, I was always peripherally aware that the forest fragments I frequented had not always been mere fragments. But Curtis’s map drove the point home. His fragments were dead ringers for my fragments. His maps were my environmental awakening, but in black-and-white.

Curtis grew up in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the same place my grandfather lives. He attended Carroll College—also in Waukesha—for his AB and then moved 65 miles west to Madison for his PhD. Curtis more or less remained in Madison till his death in 1961, proving that you don’t have to go far to accomplish big things. Curtis is best known within the ecological community for his work with Roger Bray on ordination, a statistical technique that enables botanists to make sense of the distribution, frequency, and abundance of plant species on a plot of land. His Cadiz Township maps are almost an afterthought, a minor footnote in an otherwise sweeping treatise on Wisconsin vegetation.

Unlike Bray-Curtis ordination, the Cadiz Township maps are astonishingly simple. The figure’s earliest frame depicts a wild Wisconsin, untamed by the plow and dominated by a grand deciduous forest the likes of which I sought as a kid. The scene rendered fifty-one years later in the second frame is entirely different. The smooth curve of the prairie-forest border is gone. Inky shards replace the previously continuous forest. In the third map, those bits grow smaller still. In the 1950 frame, the remaining woodlots are barely visible, like the last specks of glass from a broken platter waiting to be swept into a dustpan.

What makes Curtis’s map all the more remarkable was that he recreated the scenes from survey data and his own observations, painstakingly piecing together handwritten records of the six-by-six mile township. To my knowledge, it is one of the first visual reconstructions of fragmentation-as-it-happened, and one of the most influential—at least to me.

Photo by Ron Wiecki.

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  1. I love that book, especially the Marston Bates: “As biologists, we are apt … to try to concentrate on the study of nature as it might be if man were not messing it up. The realization that, in trying to study the effect of man in dispersing other organisms, I was really studying one aspect of the human habitat came as a surprise to me. But, with the realization clear in my mind, I wonder why we do not put more biological effort directly into the study of this pervasive human habitat.”

  2. A very inspiring article. Thanks for the great perspective. I’m writing from South Africa where I think we totally underestimate the ecological changes taking place.

  3. Wonderful post.

    Didn’t someone once write that a squirrel could once go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississipi River without touching the ground.

    Of a reverse nature, in Connecticut, once you get away from the cities and close suburbs, the amount of forested land has increased substantially over the last hundred years, as farming has faded away. Secondary and tertiary forests, but it is good to see them there.

    Thanks for this post and your other fantastic sites.

  4. Did I ever tell you how much I love this post? This book was so important to me too. But I don’t think we ever talked about it. Did we? Anyway, hope all is well.