Piecing Together History


The Historical Ecology Handbook. A Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems. Egan, D., and E. A. Howell , editors . 2001 . Island Press (Shearwater Books) , Washington, D.C . 457 pp. $55.00 (hardcover) . ISBN 1-55963-745-6 . $30.00 (paperback). ISBN 1-55963-746-3.

The Historical Ecology Handbook: a Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems bridges the gap between historical ecology and ecological restoration by integrating research perspectives and interests. Egan and Howell have compiled important works in both of these fields of research so that the reader may “[ Learn] how to rediscover the past and bring it forward into the present—to determine what needs to be restored, why it is lost, and how best to make it live again” ( p. 1). The introduction, written by the editors, establishes the basis for historical ecology and ecosystem restoration as individual fields and as partner disciplines with the same goal. The book focuses on contemporary issues to familiarize the reader with current methods and findings from the field, laboratories, libraries, and historical archives. The 17 chapters, written by restoration ecologists and historical ecologists, offer an array of information that illuminates the relationships among culture, vegetation, fauna, climate, and environment as they occurred historically and exist today.

The chapters are organized into three sections, each with a short introduction. The first two invite the reader to play the role of detective to interpret the historical landscape. The initial section explores methods of identifying historic conditions through cultural evidence, which takes the forms of documents, maps, photographs, oral histories, and land-management practices. It is especially refreshing to see the recognition of the importance of traditional ecological knowledge in historical and restoration ecology, as described by Anderson in the second chapter. Anderson argues that “… the restoration of an historic ecosystem, in order to be authentic, must take into account the rich knowledge of regional native cultures” (  p. 55 ). She is thorough in presenting and explaining the importance of ethnographic methodologies, including oral interviews, participant observation, field experiments, ethnographic literature, and artifact analysis. The remainder of this section develops ideas mentioned in Anderson's work. For example, Edmonds (chapter 3 ) examines “The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Written Records” and Fogerty ( chapter 4  ) discusses the importance of oral history to historical ecology. Other chapters focus on archaeology and paleoecosystems (chapter 1, O'Brien ), maps and photographs (chapter 5, Reithmaier ) and early land surveys, including the Government Land Office Survey ( chapter 6, Whitney and DeCant ).

Section two, entitled “Biological Evidence,” is a compilation of seven chapters focused on discovering and reconstructing historic ecosystems through clues found not only among the current and past flora and fauna, but in the land as well. This section examines evidence found on levels ranging in size from a wooded landscape (chapter 7, Marks and Gardescu; chapter 8, Kipfmueller and Swetnam) to pollen (chapter 9, Davis) and phytoliths (chapter 13, Fredlund) and ranging in ecosystems from desert to aquatic. Rhode (chapter 10) collects clues in an arid landscape, in the form of packrat middens, and describes in detail the methodologies used in their collection and analysis. Trimble (chapter 12) describes gathering information about geomorphology, hydrology, and soils that could be applicable to the restoration of aquatic ecosystems.

The third and final section of the book integrates the methods described in the first two sections. It provides the reader with four case studies that establish reference conditions through the collection and analysis of historical ecology data. Each of the studies does a wonderful job of integrating and referencing methods described throughout the text. For example, Dunwiddie's restoration work conducted on Nantucket Island (chapter 14) entailed palynology, written historical accounts, and repeat photography as sources of information on historical vegetation. Concerning this synthesis of methodology, Dunwiddie explains that each approach “… offers a perspective on past vegetation with a different degree of spatial, temporal, and taxonomic resolution” (p. 396). His work allows the reader to travel in time to understand changes that have occurred over the past 13,000 years within Nantucket's ecosystems. Cole (chapter 15), Alcoze and Hurteau (chapter 16), and Grossinger (chapter 17) offer the remaining case studies in this section.

The Historical Ecology Handbook would be important to students in many areas, including applied ecology, botany, wildlife biology, evolutionary biology, ethnobiology, geography, paleoecology, and environmental history. It is limited, however, by the fact that it is bound to paper and ink. Many of the topics discussed in the book are difficult to comprehend fully without field or laboratory experience. Although figures throughout the text provide essential guidelines for the research scientist, they pale in comparison to the experience of piecing the evidence together first-hand in the field. Upon completing the book, a reader with no prior experience with historical or restoration ecology would find it difficult to design and carry out an historical ecology study. For this book to be of value in an introductory course it should be supplemented with field excursions and laboratory exercises.

For the experienced restorationist, this book provides a collection of past works that offer ideas and techniques for the development of future projects. For the new student of restoration or historical ecology, the book serves as an informative introduction to the various approaches used to piece together a picture of a past landscape. Overall, the Historical Ecology Handbook is informative and well written and would serve well as a reference for the professional and as a text or supplementary reading for courses in a number of academic areas.