Book: Exploring a Desert

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Walter G. Whitford
Professor Emeritus, New Mexico State University
Collaborating Scientist, USDA-ARS Jornada Experimental Range
Several students suggested that I write a book summarizing what I had learned about the workings of our desert in southern New Mexico. After retiring from the Environmental Protection Agency, I spent the better part of two years writing a hard science book with a global perspective on the ecology of desert ecqsystems. After continuing research for the next ten years on topics and issues of interest for students of the Chihuahuan Desert, I began book that summarizes much of what we have learned about the biota of the Chihuahuan Desert. Working on that book brought back lots of memories of the many students with whom I worked and from whom I learned to see the Chihuahuan Desert through their unique perspectives. It is important to say that I frequently learned as much or more from students than they learned from me, especially from students who worked with me as their graduate advisor. Also, I learned a great deal by serving on graduate committees of students, accompanying them to their field sites and learning about their research. To them I owe a debt that I hope can partially be repaid by summarizing some of their studies in addition to my own that provided fascinating insights into the workings of our local desert environments. My forays into the fascinating world of interactions among animals, plants and soil were frequently in response to questions or suggestions of students. Working with students has allowed me to remain a student for more than 50 years and I hope to be able to continue that association into the future.
My daily interactions with post-doctoral students, graduate students and undergraduate students were largely due to two “big science” programs funded by the National Science Foundation: The International Bological Program’s Desert Biome and the Long Term Ecological Research Program, plus grants from the National Science Foundation and other federal and state agencies. Funds from these programs and agencies supported the educational costs of a large number of undergraduates and graduate students and several graduate students working with other professors who did not have funds to support the students. Students frequently asked for summer jobs or work in the laboratory. Some students were known to say that working with Dr. Whitford often required intimate knowledge of the business end of a shovel. One graduate student commenting on our work said that “honest science” involved lots of digging and hammering. Many of the students who worked with me over the years were not listed as authors on research papers because their contributions consisted of trenching plots, building rain-out shelters, exclosures, etc. However their contributions were important and credited in acknowledgements.
In this book I try to convey my fascination with the natural history of many of the organisms that populate the desert environment with the hope that the reader will be enabled to share some of that fascination. Also there are descriptions of field experiments that provided insights into biological – physical environment interactions that could only be discerned by experimental approaches.