Science - November 4, 2009

Schaminée on the miracle of life

People say it is a good job Joop Schaminée ended up in education. Through his books and lectures he spreads respect and love for our fellow creatures. And for this he received the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds prize yesterday.

You are a phytosociologist. What do plants have to do with sociology?
Phytosociology is another term for vegetation science, which starts from the idea that plants have an impact on each other, and shows connections. The idea is that you can distinguish clear groups and can therefore talk of plant communities. The use of the term sociology points to the fact that it's about communities. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. Plants help each other, hinder each other, and build up an organization. They need each other too. In fact, it's entirely analogous to human sociology.
It makes them sound almost human. But surely they are just plants?
Yes, but they are part of creation too. I think it's important to have respect for the life around you. I don't ascribe human qualities to plants, but I do concern myself with the life of plants. Just like that of animals and people. In that sense I am a true biologist. Life fascinates me, the incredible complexity of life. And the more you engage with it, the more you get to see how miraculous it is. 
Is there a religious belief behind your respect for life?
Like a lot of people, I think there is more to life than the brief moment that we are alive. It is an almost intolerable thought that this brief life on earth is all there is. I think there is a complexity and a unity overarching the present and the impermanent. And that has a lot to do with the phenomenon of life. I think that everything is, as it were, inspired. There is a 'spirit' in plants and animals too. We are all part of an ancient cycle. But I don't believe that there's a wise old bearded man on a throne behind it all.
Is that 'somethingism'?
It's closest to Buddhism, I think. Respect and love for fellow beings. Having compassion and trying to behave well towards those around you and the life around you. For me that's a very important basic principle. Although like anyone else, I often fall short of the mark. Nature is comforting too. When you're sitting in a meadow somewhere with lovely flowers around you. That's just utterly beautiful.
Is beauty something universal? For example, is an orchid more beautiful than a dandelion?
Personally I think orchids are pretty ugly, bombastic plants. So that's rather an unfortunate example. Most orchids are not very subtle. I find plants with a touch of tenderness to them more beautiful. Often they are also the rarest plants. Incidentally, there seems to be a simple biological principle behind this. Rare species often live in marginal environments that have little to offer. They are ascetics. As a result, they are more delicately built that their big brothers that live off the fat of the land. When you take pairs of similar plants, the rarer species will always be the more beautiful. Think for example of the dog rose and the sweetbriar, or wall barley and sea barley. And in this society, the refined is more highly valued aesthetically than the crude and the bombastic.
'Through knowledge, reality is changed', you wrote in your speech. Isn't your sense of beauty different to that of all those others who know so much less about it?
No, I don't think so. Of course, everyone has preferences. And the funny thing is that they can change. As a child I thought freesias, dahlias, montbretias and marigolds were all dull flowers. The dahlia especially - I thought that was an ugly flower. But that idea has changed. I see it differently now.
The context plays a role in this. My favourite flower is the field carnation, as I call it. In Dutch it's called the bolderik, but I don't like that name. It's a pink flower [corncockle in English] that grows in the corn. It became my favourite flower because it reminds me of my aunt Ietje. She was almost blind and she lived with us. She looked after us because my mother was seriously ill. She told me that in her youth there was a plant that grew in the cornfields. She described it, but I didn't know which plant she meant. Later I realized that it was the bolderik.
When did the young Joop first develop a love of plants?
It was always in me, though I must admit I was more of a bird man originally. At secondary school I set up a birdwatchers' club, which even had its own magazine. We went on excursions to count birds and inventoried breeding pairs. But I didn't have very good eyes and I'm not very good at distinguishing sounds. So I couldn't inventory breeding birds properly. I heard them but I didn't know what they were. It was out of frustration that I started working on plants. Actually I'm a failed birdwatcher.
And then you studied biology?
I think I could have done very different things with my life. Biology was my real passion, though. When I studied biology there was still a quota limiting entry. If I hadn't got in, I would have studied psychology or Dutch language and literature. I think that would have worked out fine too. What I really always wanted to do was be a professional footballer. I was good at football, small and nifty, a typical striker. When I was at secondary school people said, he'll go to Roda, he'll make it. But it didn't work out.
Joop can really inspire and motivate people, say those who know you well. They say it is a good job that you ended up in education. Is that right?
Yes, I think that's right. I certainly enjoy it. I love working with people. I'm definitely a social animal. And it is fantastic to hand on knowledge. It was a conscious choice to become a professor when I was offered the chance. From the start, my idea was: I want to inspire young people; I want to work with young researchers and set up courses on a subject area that has been a bit neglected. A subject area that I think is important. That's why I am also very happy with the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds prize. It is a recognition of my work and a recognition of the vegetation research. 
You'll be getting 50,000 euros from the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds. Do you already know what you'll do with it?
I have to spend three quarters of the money on projects. I would like to spend that money in Africa. I've got a PhD student in Egypt who is working on research on the vegetation in the Sinai desert. You're laughing, and I can see you thinking, 'one big sandpit'. But if there is one ecosystem in the world that is truly diverse, it's the desert. That young man is keen to do the research but he's got no funding at all. I've also got two projects in South Africa that I'd like to give a bit of support to. In principle, the money from the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds has to be spent in Holland, but I hope my proposal will be accepted. After all, Prince Bernhard himself did a lot in Africa, and the money goes much further and is needed more there than in Holland.
You wrote The Vegetation of the Netherlands, the Atlas of Plant communities, the Natura-2000 series. You set up the national vegetation databank and the SynBioSys information system which makes all that information available digitally, among other things. What is there left to do?
There is so much left to do! I want to promote the use of SynBioSys in further education at vocational and applied science institutions. We're taking that step at the moment. Students in 'green' education can benefit from it: they can see how you can link knowledge about species, biological communities and landscapes. New layers and modules are being added to SynBioSys. It's really great to work on that. The next step will be data-mining. You can browse through all that information in all sorts of ways, and make that huge mass of data speak to you. If you just take some time for it, you have thought up a new project in no time. It's there for the asking.
My international work is another challenge. I get asked to give lectures and talks, to give guidance or help set up an information system or a book series. This month we were approached for the development of a SynBioSys Qinling in China, in the habitat of the giant panda.
Books again...
I love books. Writing books on my subject, what could be better. And I think I can claim to be good at it. I write a lot, and it comes quite easily to me. But I built that up gradually. My coach Victor Westhoff drilled me in it. He was an incredible stickler for correct writing. Almost fanatical. I got my first manuscript back with the comment: Good work, Joop, there are only 87 mistakes. And he meant it! At the same time he knew I could take it. Something else I love is writing fiction. In 2007 I got the prize for the best debut in the province of Gelderland. Short stories are what I like best. I think my style is expressionist and on the melancholy side.
Schaminée 's career
Schaminée was born in 1957 in the Limburg village of Wessem. He studied in Nijmegen and graduated cum laude in biology. Since 1987, he's been working at Alterra and its predecessor, the National institute for nature management. Schaminée has written several weighty standard works on vegetation, including The Vegetation of the Netherlands, the Atlas of plant communities in the Netherlands, and European Nature in the Netherlands. As a hobby, he also writes fiction. In 2007, he won the province of Gelderland's prize for the best literary debut, for his short story 'The cabbage and the goat'. Joop Schaminée is chair of the Dutch Phytosociology Society, which he helped launch, and vice chair of the International Association for Vegetation Science. In 2006, he was appointed to the Westhoff double chair in Wageningen and Nijmegen. Schaminée is 'very happily' married to Mariken Goris, and is the father of 'two beautiful daughters', Esther (14) and Sarah (12).