Director’s Note

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

Karen Oberhauser, UW–Madison Arboretum director (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

April 1 was my six-month anniversary as the UW–Madison Arboretum director, and I have answered the question “How’s your new job?” about 1,000 times since October. My answer depends on the conversation length and the asker’s interest. Usually, I say I love my job and share a recent anecdote of Arb life. But if there’s time and someone seems truly curious, I talk about how much I’m learning.

I’m learning how the Arboretum functions as an institution within the University, Madison, and Wisconsin. These lessons are taught by Arb staff, University faculty and staff, and others who support and inform our work—Friends of the Arboretum, volunteers, naturalists, donors, and visitors. I expected a steep and exciting learning curve in these areas because this job involves more management than my former job as a professor.

I’m also delighted by how much science I’m learning. I’ve discovered things that are simply fun to know. On a tour of outlying properties, I learned from our incredibly knowledgeable field staff that:

  • One of the biggest black oaks in Wisconsin grows in Abraham’s Woods
  • There is a native Wisconsin plant called wild coffee and it grows on Pasque Flower Hill
  • Blueberries and Indian pipes are in the same plant family

I’ve learned things that have influenced how I think about my field of conservation biology. For example, during a Winter Enrichment lecture, Dr. Curt Meine quoted Rachel Carson: “The rapidity of change and the speed with which new situations are created follow the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature” (Silent Spring, 1962). Curt then asked thought-provoking questions about big-picture strategies for conservation. Should we even try to predict future consequences of climate change, species composition changes, a growing human population, and rising sea levels using models and knowledge built from conditions that are no longer present? Or do we need to rethink stewardship because current conditions have created novel ecosystems without precedent? Curt argued that Aldo Leopold recognized the need to understand human impacts and incorporate them into the ways we interact with and support wilderness: “Conservation is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and the land” (Wisconsin Wildlife Chronology, 1940).

I’ve been privy to recent findings from UW–Madison researchers. During Dr. Susan Paskewitz’s lecture on ticks in Wisconsin, I learned that a lower proportion of black-legged ticks (aka deer ticks) in the Arboretum carry Lyme disease than in other locations in our state. Susan’s lab is conducting innovative research on controlling ticks in areas with significant human populations (by cleverly using the nesting behavior of mice that host deer ticks). During Susan’s lecture, I also learned that the meat allergies caused by lone star tick bites are a reaction to a sugar transmitted from another mammal to humans via the tick. We produce antibodies to the sugar, which is also found in red meat, and these antibodies cause the allergic reaction. I dug further and learned that this sugar, galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, is not found in Old World primates, which include us—thus, the sugar is novel to our systems.

I know from my previous job the particular thrill of being the first person in the world to know something. I loved pulling together data, making a few graphs, and seeing a pattern that no one else had ever seen. At the Arboretum, I have the privilege of interacting with a diverse and professional staff who work with colleagues at the UW–Madison and other institutions like the Wisconsin DNR and US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as with hundreds of citizen scientists, to generate new knowledge that we can share with the world.

In many ways, my lessons echo what the Arboretum offers all visitors. You might be a regular attendee at Winter Enrichment lectures, the Friends of the Arboretum Luncheon-Lectures, or tours and workshops, or maybe you’re a casual participant in a few of these activities. You might explore or run the trails, read some of the signs, and stop in to see the Visitor Center exhibits. However you enjoy the Arboretum, I hope that you, like me, come away with new knowledge that excites you. Take a minute to reflect on what you’ve learned from your interactions with the people, places, and programs at the Arboretum—fun facts, emerging scientific findings, new ways to think, or the nitty-gritty details of how parts of our world work. I hope some of what you learn here inspires you to dig on your own and learn more. I’d love to hear your stories!

—Karen Oberhauser, Arboretum director