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How has he transformed the scene?

An internationally recognized glacial geologist and Regents Professor of Geology, Ecology and Botany at the University of Minnesota, Wright has explored the world's continents as a scholarly sleuth of sorts, gathering evidence of evolving environmental conditions over the millennia. His research data and analyses—embodied in over 200 publications in the scientific literature—have not only transformed the scene in his diverse fields of academic endeavor. Rather, they have illuminated the very patterns by which the earth itself is transformed through the interplay of climate, life and landform. Professor Wright and the legions of students whose work he mentored have provided critical context for the development of civilization, garnering insights for the future of a human society that—however advanced—is still reliant upon ecological systems.

What a wonder it must be to see a landscape through the eyes of Dr. Herb Wright!

By all accounts, his body of work has been a grand adventure in the making. Wright has used fossilized pollen to tell the story of changing vegetation in the Chuska Mountains of western New Mexico. He has studied terraces of the Mediterranean Sea in coastal Lebanon, gathering evidence to determine the age of cave deposits excavated by archaeologists from an ancient rock shelter north of Beruit. He has taken sediment cores from Iran's Lake Zeribar—a natural archive representing 40,000+ years of history—to establish the environmental setting for the origins of the region's agriculture. He has studied lakes and glaciers in the Peruvian high Andes; investigated the relationship between fire, caribou and native hunters in Labrador; documented the landforms, vegetation and lakes at the "stagnant toe of a surging glacier" in the Yukon's St. Elias Mountains; tracked the development of forests and landforms in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia; and sought clues for the climate of the Late Bronze Age in the landscapes of southern Greece. Closer to home, he has criss-crossed Minnesota's prairies, forests and peatlands to develop an unparalleled record of glacial history in the state—part of a long-range effort to create, in his words, "a framework of climatic change, fire history, and human activities since the last glaciation more than 10,000 years ago."

Such adventures are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg in a career that has spanned six decades and continues to roll, some 20+ years into Wright's "retirement." So far-ranging have been Wright's travels to conduct field work that at least one former University of Minnesota student has been driven to compose poetry about the impossibility of finding a place on the globe to investigate that Wright himself has not already explored:

"I went to the west, far into Alaska
Where an old timer said with delight,
"If you're coring lakes, I think I should ask ya –
"How is my old friend, Herb Wright?"

I went to the south, to far Patagonia
To regions not given a name
Then to shy cloistered corners in old Catalonia,
But the answer was always the same.

To Egypt, to Sweden, to tiny Swaziland,
To the southernmost tip of Tasmania,
To Greenland, to Iceland, and then to New Zealand –
I madly continued my mania!

I traveled by camel to outer Mongolia,
To plains that the wind had laid bare.
To find once again, just like I have told ya,
That Herb had been already there."

Excerpted from Where Herb Has Not Yet Gone Before by Jim Almendinger, Senior Scientist, St. Croix Watershed Research Station

Born in Massachusetts, Wright has been associated with the University of Minnesota since he joined the faculty of its Geology Department in 1947. Although he earned his Masters and Ph.D. in geology (Harvard, '41, '43) and ranks among the world's foremost glacial geologists, Wright might best be described as an environmental historian. His distinguished career has focused on events of the Quaternary: essentially the modern era of glaciation originating approximately 2.6 million years ago and continuing to the present.

Among colleagues worldwide, Wright has set the standard for an interdisciplinary approach to Quaternary studies. His writings and edited volumes are acclaimed for their brilliant synthesis of insights across multiple disciplines; and it's a Wright trademark to assemble research teams integrating scientists of varied specialties. Ask him what he considers to be his field, he answers, "Depends on what room I'm in." He is equally at home among—and respected by—glaciologists, paleoecologists, palynologists, paleolimnologists, paleoclimatologists, geologists, botanists, and archaeologists. Former U of MN colleague professor Charles Matsch, a respected Quaternary geologist and geo-morphologist in his own right, puts it succinctly: "Herb Wright's stature as a scientist is towering."

Many of Wright's initiatives have involved the art and science of "reconstruction," in which the aim is to discern and articulate a description of past conditions (such as climate, landforms, soils/geology, vegetation, or other manifestations of climate such as glaciers) and to place these in their proper relationship, if any. The central organizing principle of research conducted under this expansive topical umbrella is time. A chronology provides opportunity to study sequence, pattern, process, even cause and effect: what Wright would call "working out the environmental history" of a landscape.

Fortunately for Wright, early in his career there occurred a revolution in the scientific methodology for telling time in dynamic pre-history environments through the use of carbon in samples of organic material. He was part of the first generation of scientists worldwide able to capitalize on the 1950s introduction of radiocarbon dating, for which Willard Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize. While not infallible, the technique (which relies upon the decay rate of the isotope carbon-14) provided unprecedented opportunity to date materials deposited over the course of the past 40,000 years. Lakebed sediment—with its layers of organic material and its repository of fossilized pollen—became a major focus of Wright's attention, in large part because of the clues it held to past climate.

Throughout the ensuing half-century, Wright continued to embrace and advance the increasingly sophisticated methods by which 'paleo' researchers mine their data for answers in the laboratory setting. He has served both as practitioner and catalyst, in his various roles of researcher, author, professor, and founder/director of University facilities such as the Pollen Lab and Limnological Research Center. Yet, he has shown by example that such technologies are best used to support, rather than supplant, a scientist's own careful contemplation of the evidence. He remains a champion of field work and the merits of direct observation with feet on the ground (actually, feet wherever the situation warrants), together with a broad-based, exacting review of the existing literature. "You know about high tech?," Wright asks, "Well, I'm low-tech."

In the foreword to Quaternary Landscapes (University of Minnesota Press, 1991), Drs. Linda Shane and Edward Cushing write: "We have learned from (Herb Wright) again and again that new technology such as isotopic dating techniques and computerized data manipulation provides only tools, not final answers; that scientific research is clearly and specifically founded in the most basic disciplines of orderly thought, constant questioning, and being sure of what one understands before moving toward speculation."

It is this sensibility that Wright has brought to bear on his life's work, through initiatives too numerous to detail. Selected highlights would include:

• Established and guided development of the Pollen laboratory (1958) and Limnological Research Center (1960) at the University of Minnesota. Led these facilities to international prominence by implementing research programs, supporting the development of methodology and technology, and building relationships among scientists worldwide.

• Authored 180+ journal articles and edited or co-edited14 books, including the seminal volume "The Quaternary of the United States."

• Through field work and the study of topographic maps and aerial photographs over most of Minnesota, mapped the sequence of advances and retreats of the several glacial lobes coming from the Laurentide ice sheet during the last 20,000 years that produced the famous 10,000 lakes and countless wetlands. Major intervals of erosion and deposition in the Minnesota and Mississippi River valleys caused by the subsequent melting of the ice sheet are recorded by terraces as well as by the formation of Lake Pepin and the course of its subsequent shortening by sedimentation at its head.

• Summarized the post-glacial history of the vegetation of the Minnesota area on the basis of 50 or so completed pollen diagrams that document the change from conifer forest to deciduous forest to prairie and back to the modern forest types, providing one of the best regional evidences for relatively warm and dry climate in the middle of the postglacial period in response to the changing patterns of solar heating. The record serves as a model for anticipating vegetational changes in the future as climate changes by whatever processes.

• Studied the patterns of oriented pools and ridges on peatlands in northern Minnesota, as well as in Labrador, Sweden, and Ireland, to relate them to the movement of water through accumulated peat as well as to decomposition of peat under standing water.

• Presented evidence from pollen studies in the Near East that the plant domestication inferred from archeological studies was first developed there during the climatic changes that followed the period of continental glaciation, a hypothesis long ago developed but until recently rejected on anthropological grounds. It is now supported by the recent studies of the course of climatic and vegetational changes in the context of an improved chronology.

• Co-instigator of the Cooperative Holocene Mapping Project (COHMAP), in which a multi-institution, interdisciplinary team worked collaboratively for over a decade to create an overall time-space perspective of the climatic and environmental changes of the past 18,000 years.

• Supervised more than 70 theses completed by Masters and Ph.D. students at the University of Minnesota, in some cases assisted by about 15 post-doctoral researchers (mostly from Europe), providing outstanding mentorship in support of student advancement toward successful careers in the sciences.

Throughout his career, he has never failed to acknowledge the "wise and kindly counsel" he received as a young man from Kirk Bryan, the geo-morphologist and inspired teacher who served as Wright's advisor when a student at Harvard. Wright has clearly followed in his mentor's footsteps, similarly dedicating himself to generations of students at the University of Minnesota. Many of these former students are now leading scientists in their respective fields, scattered across the globe in some of the most prestigious academic institutions and centers of research. Their letters were among the many written in support of Wright's 1992 selection for a Distinguished Career Award from the Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division of the Geological Society of America: letters which fairly ring with appreciation, admiration, and affection. (See In the Words of Others for selected excerpts of these letters).

There is, of course, a story behind the story. Scattered throughout the many written tributes to Wright are winking references to certain, well, character-building opportunities experienced by his former students and colleagues while accompanying Wright on research expeditions. A former bomber pilot in WWII, Wright himself has a reputation for being "unrattleable" in the most adverse of conditions, whether beset by clouds of black flies, collecting data with eyebrows and beard draped in icicles, getting his vehicle pulled out of a mud pit by Navajo men on horseback, wandering the Peruvian Andes after missing a rendezvous with companions, suffering ill effects from a sheik's breakfast offer of "eggs floating in sheep oil," or waking in the morning at a field camp on the Iran/Iraq border to find that the soldiers assigned to guard the research team against bandits have left their posts in the night and taken shelter from mosquitoes by sleeping in the jeep, inadvertently breaking prized sediment cores under their feet. Among the many other lessons learned, Wright's students will never take it for granted that a bush pilot who drops one off in a remote area of Labrador will return to pick one up on the appointed departure day. Nor will they underestimate how many wild blueberries are required to make three days of meals. Suffice it to day: if one should wonder whether a career in science would lack for excitement, send them post haste to Herb Wright.

"Ah, the fun and hazards of winter field work."

H.E. Wright, 2001

Professor Wright's influence will only expand over time with every new discovery that builds upon his research, along with that of the students he mentored and the institutions he founded. The factual record built by his field work will become all the more relevant as society wrestles with the challenges of the coming era, whether food production for a growing world population or the many implications of global climate change. Here in Minnesota, Herb Wright has enabled us all to fully appreciate the forces that have shaped the landscapes we call home, and at the same time to marvel at the influence that one person of impeccable integrity, intellect and dedication can have in positively shaping the lives of so many others.