William M. Denevan

William M. Denevan

Winner of the 1998 Robert McC. Netting Award

By Greg Knapp, University of Texas, Austin

© Gregory Knapp, June 1999

Bill Denevan’s career has been remarkable, in terms of publications and scholarly impact, but also in terms of his unique network of students and his impact as a colleague and advisor. His extensive collaborative work with anthropology makes him especially well suited to received the Netting Award.

Bill was born in San Diego, USA in 1931; he began studies at Long Beach City College and transferred to the University of California, Berkeleywhere he obtained his bachelor’s degree in 1953. After a stint in the US Navy, he returned to Berkeley to begin his master’s degree. His initial experiences with the graduate program were problematic.

As he pointed out in a plenary address at the 1998 Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers meetings in Arequipa,

“I was taking courses at Berkeley from the same professors I had studied with as an undergrad – Sauer, Leighly, Kesseli, and Rostlund, but expectations were much higher. I did poorly, so I quit. And in June of 1956 I got a job as a work-a-day (no wages) on the Norwegian freighter S.S.Hardanger out of Los Angeles, heading south along the coast of Mexico and South America, around Cape Horn, and up the coast of Brazil. In Lima I jumped ship and got a job, also unpaid except expenses, with the Peruvian Times. I only had a few hundred dollars, but I spent several months traveling in the Peruvian Andes and Amazon writing articles. Then I was sent by the editor, C.N. Griffis, to La Paz to Santa Cruz to Corumbá to Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, and then to Belem where I caught a paddle wheel steamer up the Amazon to Manaus and then up the Rio Madeira to PortoVelho, over the old Mamore-Madeira railroad to Guajará-Mirim on the Bolivian border, then by plane to La Paz, train to Arica, and finally by bus to Lima. What a trip. What an adventure. The defining event of my life as a geographer. I wish all young geographers could have such an experience. Instead they get grants and are immediately under pressure, not to explore and find themselves, but to gather prescribed data on a predetermined topic.”

At this time, in 1956, very few North American geographers had done fieldwork in the Amazon — Bowman, Platt, James, Crist, and Sterling were about it. Bill has drawn on these experiences of the South American reality for the rest of his life; he has also persisted in the journalists’ concern for precision of language and clarity of argument. The Peruvian experience drew on his long-term love for the deserts (he admired Isaiah Bowman’s work on the Atacama and considered doing fieldwork on that region), but the stint also stimulated his interest in the high Andes and especially the Amazon.

Bill returned to graduate school and developed a thesis project to locate the southernmost limit of the pine tree, under the direction of James J. Parsons and the expert on pines, N. Mirov. He obtained a Fulbright grant to perform his field research in Nicaragua in 1957; his master’s thesis was completed in 1958 and published as The Upland Pine Forests of Nicaragua: A Study in Cultural Plant Geography.

After a year in Washington, Bill again returned to Berkeley. The Foreign Field Research Program (administered by the National Academy of Sciences – National Research Council and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research) funded his doctoral research in Bolivia in 1961-1962. He had seen unusual ridged features in the northern savannas of Bolivia during his 1956 Peruvian Times trips (pictured); his dissertation project on the aboriginal and colonial cultural geography of the Llanos de Mojos would focus on these “raised fields” and help make the study of these features one of the mainstays of both his own research and of cultural ecology in general (view related site here). After his field work in Bolivia, Bill worked for a couple of months as geographer-ecologist for a land use survey in the Brazilian Highlands, gaining experience in that country. He completed his Ph.D. in 1963 under the direction of James J. Parsons; other committee members included Carl O. Sauer and the Peruvianist anthropologist John Rowe. The dissertation was published as The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia.

Upon graduation, Bill immediately obtained a tenure-track position as biogeographer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Henry Sterling was the Geography Department’s Latin Americanist during Bill’s first decade in Madison; upon Sterling’s retirement in 1973 Bill would inherit the role as the department’s expert on Latin America. Bill preferred to teach upper division and graduate courses with an emphasis on culture and environment and the humid tropics. He often focused his graduate seminars on his research and publication agenda of the moment, so students could share in his excitement in a new idea. At Wisconsin, Bill worked with such anthropologists as Frank Salomon, Donald Thompson, and Louisa Stark, as well as developing close contacts with the anthropologists at Illinois.

During his career Bill has supervised 18 Ph.D. students, 13 of whom have pursued academic careers (as of 1999 – more are completing their degrees); there are now a number of fifth generation Denevanites (students of students of students of students of Bill!). Bill’s 22 Master’s students are equally impressive; more than half went on to obtain their Ph.D’s and pursue academic careers in university environments. He also played an important role in the education of other students, especially anthropologists at Wisconsin and Illinois who focused on South America.

Bill’s success in this area was somewhat paradoxical, since he did not actively seek out students and often even attempted to discourage students from pursuing degrees under his direction. Especially in the earlier years of his tenure at Wisconsin, Bill would pursue a “tough love” strategy with his students, with a minimum of “emotional support” and a maximum of challenge to higher achievement. Students seemed to thrive under this coaching, however, which as often as not stimulated them to greater originality and perseverance. As indicated by Bill’s comments at the Arequipameeting, he encouraged students to explore, to find their own voice, and to question the trendy theories and ideas of the day.

Bill’s lair was his office on the fourth floor of the formidable, industrial gothic Science Hall on the Madison campus (pictured). One entered to confront “el jefe” at his desk positioned near to, and facing, the door. Behind the desk was a maze of bookshelves and file cabinets, including a vertical file devoted solely to his collection of thousands of slides. A stairway led to a second floor with map case, more bookshelves with his Amazoniacollection, and a closet/storeroom with hammock and boxes of the personal effects of graduate students “in the field.”

Essential to Bill’s success was his wife Patricia Sue (Susie) — politically committed and savvy to the varieties of human nature. All students had to pass Susie’s assessment of character and (equally important) joie de vivre. Bill and Susie’s hospitality is legendary, and their parties are intellectual and gustatory achievements of the highest order. Perhaps the greatest of all the parties was Bill’s retirement bash at Sea Ranch, California, after the San Francisco AAG meetings in 1994. Sea Ranch cabins and Gualala motels were filled with students, colleagues, and friends; the food, music, dancing, storytelling, and cigars were memorable under the ineffable California night sky within sight of the Pacific coast and its sea lions.

In his career Bill was involved in three major organized, interdisciplinary projects. These were on aboriginal cultivation in Venezuela (1972, funded by the National Science Foundation); on aboriginal agroforestry in Amazonian Peru (1981-1982, with Christine Padoch, funded by the Man and the Biosphere Program); and on terracing in the Colca Valley of Peru (in 1984-1985, funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society). All three projects were driven by intellectual interests as opposed to trendy fashions in research funding, and all three benefited from a remarkable freedom from the usual acrimony among co-participants.

The Venezuela project resulted in the publication of Adaptive Strategies in Karinya Subsistence, Venezuelan Llanos (with Karl H. Schwerin) andCampos Elevados e Historia Cultural Prehispanica en los Llanos Occidentales de Venezuela (with Alberta Zucchi); the Amazonian Peru project produced Indigenous Agroforestry in the Northeast Peruvian Amazon (editor and co-author with John Treacy, Christine Padoch, and Salvador Flores Paitan) and Swidden-Fallow Agroforestry in the Peruvian Amazon (co-editor with Christine Padoch); and the Colca project produced the massive technical report, Cultural Ecology, Archaeology, and History of Terracing and Terrace Abandonment in the Colca Valley of Southern Peruin two edited volumes – Bill authored or co-authored eight chapters. Together these projects provided important new insights into raised field agriculture, the management of shifting cultivation, and the age, functions, and contexts of terracing.

Bill also organized large symposia. Without exception these were at the International Congress of Americanists, the most ancient of all conferences on the New World. Such symposia were organized on the central Peruvian montana, at Lima, Peru, in 1970; on prehispanic intensive agriculture, inVancouver in 1979; on Amazonia, in Manchester, England, in 1982, and on prehispanic agricultural fields in the Andes at Bogotá , Colombia, in 1985. These resulted in several published proceedings: La Montana Central Peruana (co-edited with Stefano Varese), La Agricultura IntensivaPrehispanica, and Pre-Hispanic Agricultural Fields in the Andean Region (two volumes, co-edited with Kent Mathewson and Gregory Knapp).

Bill was also involved in other collaborative projects that did not require fieldwork. Especially notable was his role in editing the volume Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (1977, second edition with a new overview 1992). In this volume and in other articles, Bill established himself as a world authority on aboriginal population, especially of the Amazon basin.

Bill’s generosity is exemplified by his editing a compilation of essays by his dissertation supervisor, James Parsons (Hispanic Lands and Peoples: Selected Writings of James J. Parsons), as well as co-editing a posthumous volume by his student, John Treacy.

His total published legacy consists of twenty authored and edited books, monographs, reports, and proceedings; and more than sixty articles and book chapters. A partial list, to 1983, is available here. In addition to those mentioned above, a few can be singled out as especially important to cultural ecology. His 1967 article “Pre-Columbian Ridged Fields” in Scientific American (co-authored with James Parsons), together with “Aboriginal Drained-Field Cultivation in the Americas” (in Science, 1970) effectively promoted raised field studies in the wider scientific literature, and still frame many of the terms of debate. His 1973 article, “Development and the Imminent Demise of the Amazon Rain Forest” in The Professional Geographer sounded the alarm for a problem that attracted worldwide concern in the 1980s. His essay on “Latin America” in GaryKlee’s World Systems of Traditional Resource Management (1980) remains the best overview of its kind. His short 1983 essay on “Adapation, Variation, and Cultural Geography” in The Professional Geographer is a rare foray into theory, and one which remains a succinct and eloquent statement of principles. And “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492” (Annals of the AAG, 1992) attracted attention both inside and outside geography as an attack on oversimplified “wilderness” models of nature. In addition to these major statements, all of Bill’s writings are worth reading for their freshness, insight, grounding in the literature, and new ideas.

Bill continues to work and to supervise students from his home and office at Sea Ranch. For many years he has been working on an overview of indigenous agriculture in South America, which was published by Oxford University Press. And on October 13, 2001 he was inducted into theAmerican Academy of Arts and Sciences. His integrity, commitment to interdisciplinary research, and support of cultural ecologists and LatinAmericanists around the world remain an inspiration. It is fitting that the Cultural Ecology Specialty group grants him the Netting Award for 1998.

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