COMPARATIVE WOOD ANATOMY
THE BOOK COMPARATIVE WOOD ANATOMY
The 1980s were a time of feverish activity in wood anatomy for me. Traveling had given way to intense publication activities, including development of the above conceptual advances. Nobody in wood anatomy seemed to be noticing my papers much. Of course, wood anatomy is a small field, but the workers within wood anatomy should have been noticing. I hadn’t presented all of the above ideas at national or international meetings, but scientists read what is published, don’t they? Actually, they don’t at first, and probably ten years after a paper has appeared, it is assumed to be old news and therefore no longer of any importance. One way to get one’s work noticed is by giving talks about it at national meetings. That’s OK, but it takes a lot of time and in a small field, reaches very few people—especially when the people in a field like wood anatomy are scattered around the world. There is another method of promoting one’s work, one that doesn’t get talked about very much. Citing one’s work repeatedly in relevant papers, so often that the cited papers can’t be ignored. And how about citing one’s work in a book? Yes. To be sure, a book is an enormous amount of work. But I decided I’d do a book on comparative wood anatomy, because Springer Verlag invited me to do it. Yes, I probably did the book in part as a way to escape from neglect of my work. But also, I thought I could present some new syntheses. And in fact, in the years just before I wrote the book, I wrote a series of papers in which I took on some major topics in wood evolution. Then I spent the summers of 1985, 1986, and 1987 sitting in my house working on the book and doing very little else. Books don’t get done unless one does something like that. Stacks of reprints littered the floor (my computer was on a coffee table and I sat on a cushion on the floor). (Crazy, but from the 1950s until 1990, I always liked to work this way). Was the book recognized by workers in the field? Well, some gracious workers (Brian Butterfield, notably) gave it good reviews. Others didn’t seem to notice—but nobody cares about a book more than its author. The book is gradually taking its place, however. Hardcover books are hard to ignore. A second edition (which contains more revision and inclusion of newer work than reviewers appreciated) appeared in 2003.
I didn’t expect anyone to hail the book—there are too many books demanding notice from the scientific public at any one time. But I didn’t expect leading workers to notice it as little as they appeared to…… Does good science require good salesmanship? If somebody wants to ignore a book like “Comparative Wood Anatomy” in contexts where it is relevant, I think they are saying more about themselves as scholars than about my work. “Comparative Wood Anatomy” is designed as a guide not merely to wood features for purposes of identification, but to their biological significance. I regard any particular wood as a product of a phylogenetic history, and a structure whose design matches function under particular ecological conditions. Woods are telling us evolutionary stories. Wood is by far the most complicated tissue in a plant, because its complex of functions—mechanical strength, storage, conductive efficiency, conductive safety—must all be accomplished within one tissue. There are many fascinating tradeoffs in wood anatomical features so that these goals can be accomplished, and no two plants have precisely the same structural solutions to living in a given environment. “Comparative Wood Anatomy” regards wood as a structure that evolves, that functions, rather than merely something to be identified. And in this, the book merely follows the major contributors to understanding of wood structure. “Comparative Wood Anatomy” uses terminology that reflects the understandings of those workers, and the desire of leading workers to have a terminology that accurately reflects evolution and biological function as well as visual recognition cues useful in wood identification.
The 1989 IAWA glossary of wood features says that it’s designed for those who computerize wood data. A reasonable premise. However, by doing that, and by using smaller numbers of character expressions (presumably to make wood identification easier), it departs from the tradition of terminology in wood anatomy, as represented by the 1933 and the 1964 IAWA glossaries. I have carefully followed those glossaries, as well as usages by leading workers in the field. For example, my definition of vasicentric tracheids is exactly that of Metcalfe and Chalk (1950), whereas IAWA (1989) presents a definition different from theirs without giving a reason. My distinctions between tracheid, fiber-tracheid, and libriform fibers are those of I. W. Bailey and his students and of Metcalfe and Chalk (“fibres with fully bordered pits,”) etc. In the case of both vasicentric tracheids and the other imperforate tracheary elements, my definitions accord with function, as demonstrated by Braun (1970), Rosell et al. (2007) and others besides myself. And they accord with vessel absence from latewood (e.g., Ephedra, Myrica, Ericaceae, Rosaceae) and with whether vessels are solitary or grouped [ PDF ]. IAWA (1989) recognizes upright cells and procumbent cells in rays: this works for nonjuvenilistic rays but not for rays in woody plants whose rays have prolonged or permanent juvenilistic structure. The existence of rays with prolonged juvenilism is not mentioned by IAWA (1989). The departure of IAWA (1989) from traditions based on function, form, and evolutionary significance leaves those whose interests transcend wood identification in an awkward position.
“Comparative Wood Anatomy” is indeed expensive. But it’s worth the cost! It’s the only form-function-phylogeny synthesis of wood anatomy available. I doubt that any one person will write another such book any time soon. Too much work! But more importantly, such a synthesis is probably best done by a team of people. Those who study wood physiology seem to have a good grounding in the facts of wood anatomy, but they cannot make time to master the full diversity of wood structure (can anyone?). Those who study comparative wood anatomy likewise are unlikely to follow the literature in wood physiology as actively as those working in plant physiology. I have always hoped for a bridge between the two fields, a disappearance of the limits. I don’t think that the problem is really an unwillingness on the part of anyone concerned to achieve this. However, there are limits to what any one individual in science, that ever-expanding human endeavor, can master. When a field is stretched beyond the limits of what one individual can manage and still stay focused on an area of research, a field tends to fracture. Perhaps wood anatomy is in such a period of fracture now: wood physiology, wood mechanics, wood evolution, wood identification. (Other subfields could be mentioned). The evolution of a field in science is the product of which subfields expand and how much any one individual can comprehend. Scientific meetings at which various subfields are brought together may not promote a common base of knowledge. Rather, such meetings may illustrate the diversity of enterprise. Auditors may listen courteously and take away a few facts from the talks, but they may be daunted to the point of retreating more into their subfields rather than broadening their outlooks.