Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"To Restore One's Faith in the Subject We Profess": The Geography of David R. Stoddart (1937-2014)

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"To Restore One's Faith in the Subject We Profess": The Geography of David R. Stoddart (1937-2014)

Article excerpt

David Ross Stoddart, the tropical geographer who saved the giant tortoises of Aldabra and for that was awarded an OBE, has died in Berkeley, California, age 77. A scholar-scientist, he was more besides: a medalist recognized by a half-dozen scholarly societies, including the American Geographical Society; an editor of renown; a capable and worldly infighter when politics were required to preserve landscapes and features he thought worthy; a prankster whose "tee-hees" could unwind into vivid stories. A careful yet boisterous author, his writing on geographical thought was ever a reminder of just how truly important the traditions are of exploration, discovery, data-acquisition, fieldwork, and of how useful, nay, "essential" are the resources of archives and botanical gardens and long-term ecological field sites. On occasion, he sank expedition vessels and righted them; he trained generations of Cambridge and University of California, Berkeley, graduate students (and undergraduates), who were schooled by a figure who was in many ways bigger than life, and in that regard, rather apt to tread on toes. While there are aspects of the sunbaked nineteenth-century scientific explorer in Stoddart's visage, he was a quintessentially twenty-first-century figure: more interested in doing than being, in experiencing not speculating, in good work and its concrete results. He fought hard against the brutalities of imperial droit-de-seigneur, didn't always win in battles for places and their inhabitants, but gave it a go. Few in geographical practice were his equal.

In 2001, David Stoddart was presented with a medal of the American Geographical Society. The award was strikingly appropriate, coming just at the point when he stepped down as a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley. That the award bestowed was the George Davidson Medal was itself significant and in no small way symbolic. George Davidson spent thirty years as a geodesist at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. A scrupulous problem solver, Davidson surveyed, and fixed, borders in the American Southwest and up and down the entire Pacific Coast. In 1895, Davidson was named Professor of Geography at the University of California. Stoddart very well knew, as one link in a chain of Berkeley geographers, that it fell to him to attempt to sustain the tradition of care that was a part of Davidson's legacy. (1)

Through fifty years of pioneering research, Stoddart led major expeditions across many of the world's oceans and seas--the Indian, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean. Almost unimaginably eclectic, his topics ranged from myth and ceremonies among the Tunebo Indians of eastern Colombia to reef theory and disaster recovery in Belize and its cays. Formal systematic inquiries, totaling literally hundreds in number, delved into terrestrial ecology, mangroves, salt marshes, coral atoll formation, hurricane effects (Figure 1). Broadly, his writings paved inroads into topics from coastal geomorphology to geographic thought in its every conceivable stripe. And his heroes, known personally from an engrained habit of trolling deep archival waters, were figures so immediately recognizable that we know them by single names: Darwin, Lyell, Humboldt, Huxley. Most of all, Stoddart happily "professed" about these expeditions, these researches, these paramount figures, in universities at Cambridge, at Berkeley, at Nanjing, at the Smithsonian Institution, and left in his wake a corps of devoted students, colleagues, and acolytes.

A raconteur of the first order, a field scientist of legend, an expert on island research themes, on geographic thought, and the farthest thing from a shrinking violet, Stoddart left Cambridge in 1987 after a twenty-five year career to teach at University of California, Berkeley. That step was nearly as impetuous as the vessel-to-vessel jumps he habitually made on research trips to island environments around the world--often as expedition leader. …

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