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Puget Sound Voices: Art Kruckeberg

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Art Kruckeberg. Photo courtesy Kruckeberg Botanical Garden.

Dr. Arthur Kruckeberg, Professor Emeritus of Botany at the University of Washington, has seen more than sixty years of science in the Puget Sound region. Since taking a position at the UW in 1950, Kruckeberg taught and influenced generations of Puget Sound area biologists (he retired from teaching in 1989) and has written six books on regional flora in Washington and California. The Natural History of Puget Sound Country is one of his most comprehensive works, and received a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award after its publication in 1991. The book lingers on timeless images of the Sound and devotes careful attention to the continuity of its many ecosystems, reflecting a deep appreciation for the beauty and intricate nature of the local landscape.

The Puget Sound Institute recently caught up with Kruckeberg, who appropriately lives on the grounds of the Kruckeberg Botanic Garden in Shoreline, which he and his wife founded in 1958. At age 92, he still finds time for the garden and its visitors. As part of the Puget Sound Voices series, we asked him about what drew him to his long career, and about his views on past and future conservation of the Puget Sound watershed.

What attracted you to botany?

My innate love of the plant world started when I was a little kid. The Kruckeberg family had a long association with the plant world. My grandfather was a publisher of the first horticultural newspaper in California. He started the Kruckeberg Press, which was a horticultural printing plant. My father took over the shop, and then my brother took over the shop, so there was a three-generation involvement in horticulture, in the science of cultivated plants.

Is the flora of Puget Sound very different from what you’d been studying in California?

Yes, especially the native flora. My first task as a faculty member was to lead a field trip with thirty students all summer. We started in southern Oregon and worked our way up the Cascades to the Wenatchee mountains, and that was a great indoctrination in the flora of Washington. And that got me interested in using native plants as ornamentals, and so my first book was on the culture of native plants for Northwest gardens.

What was your research at the University of Washington?

I was doing two very different kinds of research, one based on the notion that the identity of plant species is in part a product of their chromosome number. So I was doing what’s called cytotaxonomy. But my true love was with the basic question of how geology affects plant life. I’ve written two books on that.

Including one on the natural history of Puget Sound.

That was a great success. Not many places in the world have had a natural history done for them. I got the inspiration from one for all of Europe, and that set me going.

Natural history and science haven’t always gone hand in hand.

Scientists think that natural history is less than science, and I don’t believe that. Take Darwin, he was a natural historian, and yet look what he did. John Muir. Victor Scheffer, who just died recently at the age of 104. There are lots of natural history experts who do good science but are not, shall we say, scientists in the cold, objective manner.

How have you see awareness of Puget Sound ecology develop over time?

Well, I think there were several scientists back in the ‘30s and ‘40s that realized that Puget Sound was not only a body of water, but it was affected by its land-based biological diversity. You can’t have a rich marine flora without runoff from the land contributing nutrients to that body of water.

And how has that influenced conservation efforts?

It’s a valiant effort, but in some instances it may be too late. Take Commencement Bay, down in Tacoma. The polluted sediments just can’t be done away with. Even Elliot Bay is probably too far-gone for repair. But that’s not saying you shouldn’t try. Trying is well worth giving a chance. It will take the effort of everyone concerned with the marine habitat – fishermen, loggers, etc. – to pledge and give voice to wise use of the habitat. And I think that some of that’s happening right now. It’s not just an empty promise.

Did you see those efforts beginning?

Well, I think there were several naturalists that contributed to the turnaround. John Muir visited Puget Sound. Victor Scheffer was a great believer in keeping Puget Sound viable. And then Ruth Kirk! That lady. She and her husband were two of the first natural historians to work on this area. In my book, there are only two people I photographed. One was Ruth Kirk, and the other was Victor Scheffer. They, to me, stand for the epitome of good science in Puget Sound.

How would you describe that?

Good science means reliable information put together in a way that makes a neat story. I respect their judgment. My attitude has been that Puget Sound is more than a body of water. It’s a basin of forest and other land features, AND the body of water, and it needs to be considered in those terms.

Watch an interview with Art Kruckeberg.