It is likely that most ecologists have their own stories regarding the annual meetings of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), the world’s largest organization of professional ecologists. Some revere it, whereas others may criticize it. There is, however, truth in numbers—growth in attendance has been seemingly exponential since my first meeting in the early 1980’s. So, it is without debate that the annual ESA meeting remains an integral part of the professional life of many ecologists throughout the world.
My first ESA meeting was at the Pennsylvania State University (note: we were small enough to meet on college campuses then) in 1982 while still a Ph.D. student at Duke University working with Norm Christensen on herb-layer dynamics of pine forests of the southeastern United States. I was understandably wide-eyed at seeing the actual human forms of ecologists walking around, giving talks, drinking beer—all of whom had only been names on papers and books I had read as I was writing my dissertation. Despite logistical errors regarding my talk (the projectionist insisted on placing my slides in the tray, rather than allowing me to do so; then promptly put them in backwards), my first ESA was an unmitigated success, allowing me to meet folks who would become lifelong friends and colleagues. Small surprise that I not only attended the next year, but have attended all meetings since then, save two—1991, when I could not afford to travel to Hawaii, and 2012, when my son was entering the United States Naval Academy.
Although I still recall high points of virtually all meetings through the years, the ones that stand out the most for me are those when I collaborated to organize symposia. There have been three of these: 1993 (University of Wisconsin—Madison), 1998 (Baltimore, Maryland), and 2006 (Savannah, Georgia). Although they were of somewhat contrasting themes, I took the same approach to all of them—I always thought that topics/presentations worthy of an ESA meeting were also worthy of some type of formal publication, whether in a peer-reviewed journal or a book.
My old Duke office mate/best friend/collaborator, Mark Roberts, and I organized a symposium on the effects of disturbance on plant diversity of forests for the 1993 meeting. Highly successful at the meeting, with very high attendance and vigorous question/answer periods following each talk, this symposium resulted in the publication of a Special Feature in Ecological Applications in 1995.
Mark and I used that first symposium as a kind of template for the one which was part of the 1998 meeting, well into the period where the number of attendees had outgrown college campuses, relegating ESA to convention centers. The 1998 symposium was on the ecology of herbaceous layer communities of contrasting forests of eastern North America. We had assembled what we felt was a very good group, including the late Fakhri Bazzaz, who was actually the first person I had contacted prior to writing the proposal for the Program Committee, also very successful in terms of attendance and questions. We were also pleased with our efforts on this topic following the symposium.
For the 2006 meeting, another friend and colleague of mine, Bill Platt, and I organized a symposium on the ecology of longleaf pine ecosystems. This experience was especially rewarding in that it was so closely connected with both the meeting theme of that Savannah (Uplands to Lowlands: Coastal Processes in a Time of Global Change), and the meeting’s geographic location in the main region of natural longleaf pine—the Coastal Plain of the southeastern United States. We published these talks in a Special Feature in Applied Vegetation Science.
Oh, there was another high point for me—one not related to symposia. It was with great pride that I accepted the nomination to become the Program Chair for the 2010 Annual Meeting of ESA in Pittsburgh, PA. I chose the following for the scientific theme: Global Warming: the Legacy of Our Past, the Challenge for Our Future. At a time when eastern US venues were not nearly as popular for attendance as were western ones, attendance at this meeting was surprisingly high. I was especially pleased to be able to thank the Society publicly and collectively when I addressed them at the beginning of the meeting.
Since my arrival in 1990 here at Marshall University—a public school small state (West Virginia ranks 38th among the 50 United States) and with limited direct access to colleagues doing similar research—annual ESA meetings have provided me a lifeline, if you will, connecting me with ecologists, especially biogeochemists and vegetation scientists, from throughout North America and, indeed, the world. Most of my contributions to the field of ecology, including peer-reviewed publications, book chapters, and books, have been products of this event that has not only become an annual summer tradition of mine, but also has been invaluable to my career as a plant ecologist.
It’s 2014, folks—see you in Sacramento!
Frank S. Gilliam is a professor of biological sciences, teaching courses in ecology and plant ecology, at Marshall University. He is also the editor of the second edition of The Herbaceous Layer in Forests of Eastern North America.