David Baker — A Profile of a Hurricane Ecologist
I followed hurricane ecologist David Baker to an inconspicuous heap of parched leaves and branches that, apparently, hid a rare plant. We spent the morning wading through the plot of the forest he manages and studies while talking about everything from white rot fungus to David’s New Orleans upbringing. Once we reached our destination, David cut through the debris and pointed at a tiny cut-leaf grape fern. Seeing David locate something this small within minutes made my head spin.
Yet, maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. David has worked in the forest, owned by the Studio in the Woods, for twenty years. Today, he spends 60% of his working hours measuring and analyzing data on the plot to understand how storms impact the ecosystem.
Interest in and love for plants are one of the few constants in David’s diverse career and life. Growing up in New Orleans, a teenage David would do yard work and plant for his family and others. His godfather noticed his interest in plants early and promised to introduce the young David to ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin on the condition that David gets a degree in botany. Mark Plotkin was working with Yanomami Native Americans to research potential cures for cancer. David was hooked.
“I was like, man, that’s the bomb… who doesn’t want to go to the Amazon to figure out cures for cancer?” David said.
David had an uphill battle ahead of him, though. He didn’t grow up rich and, having attended New Orleans public schools, didn’t have the educational opportunities that the peers he would have to compete with had.
“They had calculus in sixth grade… Meanwhile, I didn’t know how to do math and could barely write. I couldn’t do chemistry or anything like that either, ” David said.
Nevertheless, he got accepted into the LSU botany program. All declared botany majors were assigned to a professor and mentor and the professor David got assigned to was fire ecologist Dr. Bill Platt. At the time, Dr. Bill Platt was setting massive plots of land into fire rotations to measure the fire’s effects on a particular ecosystem. When hurricane Andrew hit the Everglades national park Dr. Bill Platt was studying a fire that hit five hundred thousand acres of the park, which produced a unique research opportunity. One part of the plot was burned, and the other was battered by Andrew.
“Right away, he said we should study the difference between the hurricanes and the fires,” David said.
Even though David never did have the chance to study cures for cancer in the Amazon, he discovered a different, burgeoning field, — hurricane ecology. After graduating from LSU he managed and studied multiple plots of land until he was asked to be the forest manager at the Studio in the Woods, which wasn’t part of the Tulane institution yet.
Twenty years later, David has gotten to know the forest like no one else and has developed his system of studying the effects of storms on the plot. David keeps a spreadsheet where he measures the diameter and brush height of every plant in the forest, inputs observations, and mortality rates, and repeats the process the next year.
“This year, I’m going to measure all this and begin the study of the last twenty years, from Katrina to Ida, which will be a memoir or a manuscript or something huge like that,” David said.
By spending twenty years on one plot, his work has evolved far beyond simple scientific interest. On top of managing the forest, trimming invasive species, and measuring data he also tours the artist residents of the Studio in the Woods, Tulane students, and, sometimes, students from other universities. Decades of working there have also made David’s involvement emotional. It’s no wonder, David has seen the forest’s canopy of sweetgums, pecans, and live oaks thinning from intensifying storms and rot. Hundreds of trees have been lost already.
“It’s completely tragic,” David said.
To keep the forest going, David has been thinking of finding a successor to take over the grueling field work he does every day. It takes a very special kind of individual to do this kind of work, but David hasn’t given up hope just yet.
“Maybe that’s why we’re having this interview,” David said.