Dave Watson is one of those people that wander into your life, mess around with your head and leave you very much the better for it.

Associate Professor Dave Watson
Associate Professor Dave Watson

I first met Dave when I was a student at the Charles Sturt University’s wonderful Ornithology post-graduate courses a few years back and he was responsible for much of the delivery of that course.

Dave was – and thankfully still is – an engaging sort of guy – you might disagree with him but you just can’t ignore him.

Dave’s interests – as you’ll see range far and wide – from hard rock and psychobilly on a Sunday morning to musing on the long-term effects of industrial-scale agricultural practices to designing a full-back tattoo that reflects not only his relationships and fascination with one genus of birds but also with the love of his life.

Dave’s website at Charles Sturt University reveals the depth and breadth of his research interests:

Most of Dave’s research is centred around a deceptively simple question: “Why are there more species in some areas than others?” This issue is at the centre of community ecology, and he have addressed it in a number of ways—detailed community-level field studies in Australia and Latin America, species-specific studies of distribution and abundance, theoretical advances, empirical studies based on previously published data, and synthetic reviews consolidating existing information and proposing new hypotheses to guide future research. Most of this work has been conducted in fragmented landscapes—both anthropogenic and natural—and he has stressed the importance of temporal scale in sculpting observed patterns. He has complemented this community-level distributional approach with a resource-based approach, treating mistletoe as a model system. While representing a different approach to scholarship, involving experimental methods and inter-disciplinary collaboration, the fundamental goal remains the same—resolving the unequal distribution of organismal diversity on the planet. While some of Dave’s research is theoretical, most is applied and has a direct influence on improving our understanding of natural systems and enhancing their management. His work has informed conservation and management policy in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Mexico and the “Standardized Search” approach to conducting bird surveys he developed has gained international prominence.

I caught up with Dave at the recent Australasian Ornithological Conference at Armidale, New South Wales, where Dave gave a presentation on one of his long-term research projects – the productivity, and nature of our dwindling remnant woodlands.

Here is Part One of our interview. Part Two to follow in a couple of days.

I’m a biologist and I give a damn

The Northern Myth: Dave, can you tell us a little about yourself and what greases your wheels?

Dave Watson: I’m a biologist and I think a lot about a whole range of issues – both pure and applied. I work on a bunch of projects where I try to increase my understanding of a whole lot of things.

I’m a biologist and I give a damn.

TNM: So what do you sing in the shower?

DW: Mostly hard rock – I’m more of a whistler in the shower. And psychobilly – I’m a big Cramps fan…

TNM: What is your favourite Sunday morning music?

DW: Sunday morning? Well, on Saturday morning I watch Rage on ABC TV. Sunday morning? Oh, the stuff I’m listening to at the minute – it’s been called the “Greatest Australian Song Ever Written” – which is a big, big call that I wouldn’t make.

It is from a band called The Drones and the song is called “Shark Fin Blues” – it has lyrics that Bob Dylan would be proud of and music that is a bit like early Rolling Stones crossed with Neil Young crossed with…well…name any good eighties punk band. “Shark Fin Blues” – it might just change your world-view!

It is two clicks away on the web…

Dave’s spirit familiar – the two-headed Raven

TNM: The other day you talked about the tattoo you are going to have put on your back – you said that this particular bird was your totem – I’m wondering where that comes from. Do you have a particular association with people in the Pacific northwest?

DW: No, I don’t – the bird, Corvus corax – the Northern Raven. The big guy, they are enormous. They are a big-ass bird with a big-ass beak.

It found me.

I have a lot of time for a lot of Australian birds, they get me all hot and bothered. Cassowaries are a primeval beast.

But for me the formative experience happened to occur, like so many in my life, in Mexico.

I’d just met the love of my life, we’d just met and I went down to Mexico for three months. I proposed to her the week after I got back.

We corresponded, and connected through that correspondence. All the guards were down. This was the real deal.

And routinely, when I’d be writing to her, out there in the middle of freaking nowhere, two and a half thousand metres up in cloud forest in southern Mexico, a Raven would appear and fly over, calling “Roooaark”. And I’d think “Ah, its my girl, just checking up on me.

Every now and then I’d see two Ravens together. It was like this was meant to be.

And just recently, in May this year – we were all in Scotland. I was invited to give a talk at a big plant conference in Aberdeen.  I’d not been to Scotland before so we decided to take the whole family over there and look around, spent a couple of weeks up there and in the Cairngorms.

So there we all were walking around in the middle of nowhere – real Red Grouse country. We came across a trap with a Raven caught in it. So I checked him out to see if he was okay and we let him go.

Just looking after my familiar.

TNM: You’ll get a full back tattoo soon of a two-headed Raven. Will that be you and your beloved?

DW: Yes – and one will have a white eye – the Australian species in the genus Corvus all have white eyes and one will have a black eye, to represent the northern hemisphere birds.

TNM: Tell me something you’ve never told anyone else.

DW: Something I haven’t told anyone? Can I have a minute with this? Okay – “I feel very optimistic about the future!”

Of science birds, plants, invertebrates, rhizomes, Pliny the Elder & Aristotle

DW: I use birds as a tool to address a lot of the questions that I come across. But I’m not restricted to birds, I play with plants just as comfortably and I’ve been known to dabble with things reptilian and, even with the invertebrate world.

TNM: That is important isn’t it? A lot of people just focus on birds. As you said the other day, you have to have broad horizons. There is a lot of material out there in other disciplines that is relevant to birds.

DW: Yes, and it is that sort of reductionism that western science is always on about. The focus is always on “narrow, narrow, narrow”.

I think that a lot of the pressing issues facing humanity now – about water, about fundamental inequality, distribution of wealth, the collapse of fisheries worldwide – we’re never going to solve those by narrow reductionist science. It has to be through broad, inclusive learning from history and trans-disciplinary research that cuts across those divisions.

So what I tried to do in my talk [Dave’s plenary presentation to the AOC entitled “A Productivity-based Explanation for Woodland Bird Decline: Poorer Soils Yield Less Food”, presented to the Australasian Ornithological Conference 1 December 2009] the other day is to tie threads together.

I read a lot and I read widely, and I read journals that most ornithologists don’t even know about. And as I read I see the same things cropping up again and again in different disciplines. They just use different word and different languages for the same ideas.

Limnologists have been looking at what they call “eutrophication” – a stagnant water body is said to be “eutrophic” and that’s what I was talking about in my paper. About woodlands getting overloaded with nutrients – the wheels just falling off the system.

TNM: You said the other day that the world – or modern scientific research – didn’t start at 1989, when the Internet started. Science itself is a relatively new thing – the enlightenment was only a couple of hundred years ago and science as we know it today is only a couple of hundred years old. A lot of people forget – or don’t know – that there are other worlds and regimes that have been perhaps viewed as having equal validity in their time but have dropped away and passed on…

DW: For all I know it might be a phase we are going through – I’m not nearly as well versed in a lot of the early work as I should be but my science has benefitted from reading people like Aristotle and Pliny the Elder – who was a naturalist before the word even existed.

Cloud forests – and a bad neck

TNM: You’ve spent a lot of time in forests, in cloud forests in particular. Have you got a favourite forest – and why?

DW: Oh, well I’m definitely a forest man. That is the habitat where I feel most comfortable. And strangely the forests where I’ve had the most pithy and momentous epiphanies, aren’t Australian forests.

Because of all the work that I’ve done in forests my neck is fundamentally stuffed-up from looking up at little bloody birds in the tops of big bloody trees. I’ve been bitten by a lot of different things and had a lot of different diseases.

Production agriculture & woodland restoration – “the good stuff, it’s gone”

TNM: You talked the other day about the damage that production agriculture has done to Australian woodlands and what we need to do to address this damage. Is there a need to raise political awareness and develop a greater political will? How do you get to that? And capacity on the ground – how do we get enough people on the ground to actually do the physical work involved?

DW: Undoubtedly the capacity is there – look at the energy in these rooms at this conference and the tremendous expertise and willingness to roll-up your sleeves and put in a hard day’s work.

David Freudenberger, the Director of Science and Major Projects at Greening Australia makes a beautiful analogy.

He says “Look at the technology used in production agriculture. You can laser-level sites of tens of thousands of square metres to within a millimeter. You can get it super-straight, GPS-tracked – boom-boom-boom – and convert it into, well, name your crop.”

He says that we have the hardware to restore habitats on a broad-acre scale, we have the know-how to do it, and the people and the seed-banks are there.

I think that probably the single most dramatic revelation I had in putting together the paper I spoke to on Tuesday arose from the work I’ve been doing on degrading processes and what has been happening in remnants of the woodland habitat that we’ve left behind.

We’ve fundamentally stuffed-up the flows of nutrients and water in our landscapes and we are now seeing the higher-level ramifications of that. It is not just a bird thing – it is a whole-of food-web thing.

What I didn’t really appreciate until I put all of that stuff together, and this is taken straight from the plant ecology literature, is the deceptively simple sentence that I put up on the screen: “Most remaining woodlands habitat were originally marginal country for most woodland species.”

TNM: And now we consider those patches as high-value…

DW: When we close our eyes and think about a woodland, we think about a rocky, scrappy, dry place. And that’s not what our woodlands used to look like.

The good stuff – it’s gone. There are little chunks on railway sidings and in cemeteries and all the rest of it – but the broad acre woodlands, rolling for kilometre after kilometre – they are a distant memory.

So, that is all for now – as I said above I’ll post the rest of this fascinating interview in a few days.

If you know Dave, particularly if you have been a student of his or spent time in the field with him, I’d love to hear your stories about hi and the work he and his research partners do.