City of Reconciliation

Before “City of Angels,” there was Wim Wender’s exquisite “Wings of Desire.” Set in a beleaguered and divided Berlin, this was a darker film than its American counterpart, though oddly enough, with a brighter ending. 

Whenever I’m away from internet for an extended period, it’s because real life has once again insisted on taking me back into its organic embrace. This is always a good thing.

Over Thanksgiving, I had the great privilege of visiting the city of Berlin, where I stayed for ten days visiting friends (who are nearly family) and attending a workshop in landscape genomics run by Physalia at the Stadt Universität. Upon returning home, I was sucked into the end-of-semester whirlwind of final exams and grading and general holiday merry making. Today is Winter Solstice, and as I look toward the longest night of 2018, I stand in awe of the year that has gone by.

Berlin is an extraordinary city. As many times as I’ve been to Germany, I’ve never had the opportunity to properly explore its torn and healing heart; this historic city that has lived through glory, terror, war, and division to become a modern-day, world-class center for culture, politics, media and science.

The word that kept returning to mind when I was in Berlin was reconciliation. I saw how reconstruction can erase division as I traced the line of the Berlin Wall and moved freely between neighborhoods formerly divided between east and west. I witnessed how the German people have openly confronted the brutal history of the 1930s and 40s through museums and monuments that chronicle the awful consequences of white supremacist ideology and the Nazi machine that enforced it.

Eighty years ago, the powers that ruled this city tried to crush its complexity and diversity. Shortly thereafter, Berlin was bombed to the ground and then torn asunder by communists and capitalists who were allies turned enemies. Now, after undertaking the challenging process of reunification, Berlin lives and breathes again, one hundred percent diversely German and also home to people from all over the world.

Not a day passed when I didn’t hear a new language on the bus or in the streets. Individuals whose grandparents fled this city in fear for their lives have now returned and reclaimed their citizenship, welcomed as honored scholars, happy to consider Berlin their home with its vibrant intellectual life and bustling city center, its museums and theaters, its bustling markets and peaceful neighborhoods.


The word permeated my workshop, as well, though in a different way.

“Landscape genomics” is the study of genetic diversity across complex terrains. It’s a very exciting and emerging field that integrates genetic data with computer mapping technologies, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  I don’t know if my research will eventually extend into landscape genomics, but there are tools from the field that I want to use.

For example, I would like to explore mapping technologies to estimate the likelihood that native bees will be able to travel between habitat patches in urban landscapes. Coupled with this, I would like to use genetic data to determine whether bees from different habitat patches are able to meet and mate with each other.

Both of these questions are important because bees in small, isolated populations are more likely to go extinct. If we can determine to what extent bees are able to move from one suitable habitat to another, this will help us make good management decisions that contribute to bee survival and diversity.

During the workshop, I realized that all the participants, like me, are involved in projects connected to the impact of human activity. For example, one of the participants is studying the long-term impact of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl on mammalian populations; another is trying to get a handle on how to better control the pine bark beetle, which continues to ravage forests of the North American continent; a third is looking at mechanisms of controlling the spread of chagas disease in Central America. Whether the focus is conservation, pest control, or public health, there is an underlying need to restore balance to a situation; to reconcile some difficult aspect of the interface between humans and the natural world.

We all have a tough job ahead of us. We were a good group of biologists at this workshop, but occasionally grim in our outlook for the world. I’ve said this elsewhere, but oh, how the field has changed since I began my professional journey as a graduate student! Back then, we were concerned about protecting natural and pristine environments – and there seemed quite a lot left to protect. Today wilderness continues to dwindle, and while we push to preserve what little is left, we turn our attention increasingly to restoring what we have lost.

Thirty years ago, I would never have considered Kansas City a possible haven for critical bee habitat. Now I know I have see every inch of the planet in this way: As a place where nature and people might live together again.

As a stage that’s been primed for reconciliation.

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