Karl W. Butzer

Karl W. Butzer

Winner of the 1999 Robert McC. Netting Award

One of my all-time favorite books, Many Mexicos, reminds us that although we typically think of things in a singular context, there are in reality multiple contexts. Just as there are many Mexicos, there are many Karl Butzers, most unknown and under appreciated, all great. It is a genuine pleasure for me to share professional and personal insights about my all-time favorite geographer, colleague, and dear friend, Karl W. Butzer.

The scholar Karl is doubtless the most widely-known persona of this multifacted man. It is fair to state that he exploded on the scholarly scene with the publication of his first book Environment and Archeology: An Introduction to Pleistocene Geography (Chicago: Aldine, 1964). Described by anthropologist Robert F. Heizer as a “classic” almost immediately after it appeared, this book called upon archaeologists to go beyond data gathering and engage in ecological synthesis. Karl boldly hoped “for more archeologists who can think as geographers.” This book was completely revised, greatly expanded to include the Americas, and given a new subtitle—An Ecological Approach to Prehistory—seven years later. The importance of either or both editions of this book can perhaps best be grasped by scanning the shelves in any archaeologist’s office: a copy will be found there, a well-worn copy.

Publishing a classic only seven years after receiving one’s doctorate is an accomplishment of the highest order. But then, receiving a doctorate before one’s 23rd birthday is also impressive, as is publishing no fewer than two monographs and 32 journal articles in the interim. Indeed, Karl accomplished more during the first seven years of his career than most scholars accomplish in a lifetime. He did not stop there, of course, but went on to author or edit another 10 books and 230 articles or chapters, and more are in the works. And, this list does not include any “fluff.” Karl’s vita includes only those items which involved theoretically based empirical research and appeared in major refereed journals and books. It does not include short pieces such as letters and notes, and book reviews.

Although his initial work was in physical geography, particularly geomorphology and climatology, Karl never thought of landscapes and environments without appreciating the human vector. Similarly, as his work became more “human” in its focus, Karl never forgot the importance of physical factors. No one, and I repeat with emphasis, no one, has bridged the natural and social sciences better than he. And, his bridging is not merely being well-read in both, but being an accomplished researcher in both, separately and in concert. To illustrate, Karl authored a physical geography textbook, Geomorphology from the Earth (New York and London: Harper and Row, 1976), edited a reader in human geography,Dimensions of Human Geography: Essays on Some Familiar and Neglected Themes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), and wrote two more classics in cultural ecology, Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976) and Archaeology as Human Ecology: Method and Theory for a Contextual Approach (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

If there is a hallmark to Karl’s scholarship other than being of exceptional quality and quantity, it is fieldwork. As a fieldworker, Karl has no equals. Indeed, everything he has ever published has been based on extensive and intensive first hand field experiences. Now, fieldwork and cultural ecology go hand in hand, to be sure, but no scholar whom I can think of has done as much work in as many places as has Karl. South Africa, Chad,Kenya, Ethiopia, Egypt, Mallorca, the Iberian peninsula, Mexico, the United States, and most recently Turkey and Australia have all been the subject of his endeavors. His experiences in these places permeate his writings. Data are always described in meticulous detail, and analyzed with the greatest of scrutiny, as they should be. But there is more. Karl says as much “between the lines” as he does with the explicit words on the page. One senses in his writings an emotional attachment to people and places as well as to the research itself. This is perhaps no better illustrated than in his articles about irrigation agriculture in eastern Spain. Now, most of us have read about places only to go there and find that reality is somewhat different from what we expected. This was not the case with me when I traveled through the Sierra Espadan a few years ago. Indeed, one of the things that struck me about the place, other than its inherently fascinating qualities, was how well Karl had captured its essence in writing, writing of a decidedly scientific nature. No doubt, Karl’s fluency in multiple languages–German, French, Spanish, and English (and I suspect more than a little knowledge of Italian and Latin)–accounts for his great ability to choose just the right words and phrases to not only describe things, but to bring them to life.

To be in the field with Karl is even more rewarding than reading about Karl’s field work. I have been so honored on numerous occasions, the first time in the spring of 1978. I learned more about travertine in one day by driving Karl to Turner Falls in the Arbuckle Mountains of southernOklahoma, than I could have ever learned in a semester of course work. It was on that trip that I first saw his exceptional powers of observation. Looking down from a cliff at the stream channel below the falls, Karl pointed out not only the ridges of travertine that had formed in the channel perpendicular to the flow–features that I would have never seen had he not pointed them out–but their regular spacing. A closer inspection that involved getting a little wet revealed what Karl had predicted from above; the tops of the ridges were just a few millimeters below the surface and richly capped with algae (an important element in the formation of travertine as I also learned), and that the spacing was a function of stream velocity and vertical turbulence.

Every trip to the field with Karl has resulted in my seeing new things. Many times it involved things that I had “looked at” before, but had not really “seen.” In some of these cases, it even involved places or phenomena that Karl was inspecting for the first time. Traveling with Karl is always a most rewarding experience, and even though one might think that his expertise would be intimidating, rendering one to feeling inadequate, Karl has just the opposite effect. Rather than flaunting his knowledge and skills, he employs his expertise as a springboard for discussion, to elucidate observations and interpretations from his traveling companions. Karl claims that he learns as much from others as others learn from him. Personally, I doubt that he does (There is no way he could have learned as much from me as I’ve learned from him.), but Karl makes the acknowledgement nevertheless, and he does so with genuine sincerity.

Be they in the field or in the classroom, students love Karl. Several years ago, his TA shared with me one of the comments a student had written on the course-instructor survey. It read: “It should be illegal for anyone to know as much as Professor Butzer.” That just about says it all. As a teacher, Karl knows more about the earth, people, and the relationship between the two than anyone; and much of this comes out in class. I’ve never been a student in one of Karl’s classes, but I know many who have, and I’ve paused in the hallway outside the open door of his seminar room as he was teaching. When Karl speaks, students listen intently. Conversely, when students speak, Karl reciprocates with undivided attention. Karl constantly receives some of the highest teaching evaluations in our department, and he outshines us all on the annual exit surveys in which graduates have the opportunity to name the best professor they have had in college.

In addition to being an outstanding teacher in the field and in the classroom, Karl is simply great at being a dissertation advisor. Indeed, as good as he is in the other settings, he may well be best at dealing with graduate students one-on-one. His students’ interests parallel his, of course, but not as closely as some might think. To be sure, there are those whose interests are exclusively with Quaternary environments and physical processes, and there are those who are cultural ecologists in what might be envisaged as a more traditional sense. There are also some students with rather novel interests. One who leaps to mind wrote a dissertation on urban planning as adaptation, another wrote a post-modern dissertation which included the complete transcription of an informant’s dream. Why does Karl entertain such topics and approaches? I suspect it is because his interests are catholic. It is also because he is genuinely concerned about the students themselves, and their creativeness. In many respects he treats them like members of his family.

Karl the person is perhaps the least recognized of the many Karls. He was born in the Rhineland in 1934. Soon thereafter, his father, a Catholic dissident against Nazism, uprooted the family and fled illegally to London. When World War II broke out the family was interned and, in 1941, sent toCanada where Karl eventually became a naturalized citizen. To this day, Karl holds a special place in his heart for the country that offered his family a home. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that he relinquished, and not without some sadness, his Canadian status and became a naturalized UScitizen.

Karl comes from a very close family and maintains strong links with his children and grandchildren, as well as family members still living in theRhineland. At least once a year, he or his wife and constant companion, Elisabeth, return to Germany. Trips to Dallas, Houston, and Oklahoma to visit sons and daughters—all accomplished professionals in their own rights—are frequent. The Butzers reunite in Austin every Christmas for what surely is one of the more festive and loving family reunions in town. To know Karl without knowing his family and what it means to him is to not really know Karl at all. Indeed, I have often thought that his tenacious family ties provides him with insights about group dynamics and interactions that most cultural ecologists fail to fully comprehend. His views of early humans and how they gathered as families around campfires to share food and exchange experiences simply have to be the product of his home life.

Despite his reputation as a world-class scholar, a standing that typically carries with it the stigma of being a less than sensitive person, Karl is a real people person. Perhaps my fondest memory of Karl dealing with people–local, common people–involved an incident in Tula, Mexico several years ago. After dinner one evening, the small group of us traveling together walked around town and came upon a carnival, replete with bumper cars. Our competitive spirits piqued as did our senses of adventure and long-repressed childhoods. When it came our turns, we bolted for the cars and prepared to do damage, albeit more figuratively than literally. But alas, Karl paused and invited a young Mexican boy, who clearly had no money to pay for such fun, to join him in the cockpit. Karl let the boy drive, and a bigger smile could not have appeared on such a small face. This very humane and compassionate side of Karl is one that few members of the academic community know exists.

In many ways, Karl retains his childhood. Even in his most serious and professional of modes, he personally acknowledges youthful experiences. For example, as a boy in Montreal, Karl was an avid reader, and Zane Grey was one of his favorite authors. Karl was especially taken with the western American landscapes portrayed by Grey. On many occasions, and usually after trips to various places featured in these fictional stories, Karl would comment to me on how accurately Grey portrayed the geomorphology, vegetation, and weather patterns of subject locales. Perhaps there is a lesson here for parents and school teachers: good geographers are made young and through some sources not normally associated with geographic pedagogy.

Many geographers like to think of themselves as multidisciplinary scholars even though members of other disciplines might not accept them. Karl’s case is just the opposite. He has always thought of himself as a geographer, and nothing else, while anthropologists and geologists claim him as one of them. The extent of Karl’s multidisciplinary acceptance can be seen in both his editorial status and honors. Karl serves or has served on the editorial boards of the following journals or book series: Geography; Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Geographical Review, Progress in Physical Geography, Physical Geography, Cuadernos de Geografía (Valencia, Spain), Anthropology; Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory; Earth sciences; Paléorient, Palaeoecology of Africa, Stratiagraphic Newsletters, Catena, Quaternaria, and Geomorphology. He also is the North American editor of the Journal of Archaeological Science, and was a co-editor of the book series Prehistoric Archaeology and Ecology. In addition to being elected Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, and has been recognized in three disciplines: Geography; Honors of the Association of American Geographers, Honorary Fellow of the American Geographical Society, the Carl O. Sauer Distinguished Scholarship Award from the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, and the Busk Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, Anthropology; the Fryxell Medal of the Society for American Archaeology, and the Pomerance Medal of the Archaeological Institute of America, Geology; Henry Stopes Medal of the Geologists’ Association of London, and the Archaeological Geology Award of the Geological Society of America. Karl the honoree is doubtless the most multidisciplinary scholar of all. And, given the disciplinary boundaries he transcends—geology and anthropology—he is arguably the most geographic of all geographers.

Karl W. Butzer embodies the interdisciplinary spirit of cultural ecology like no other scholar. He is, in so many ways, like Bob Netting himself. The Cultural Ecology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers proudly honors him with the 1999 Robert McC. Netting Award.

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