A serendipitous sort of scientist – Dan Smiley
The year was 1931, and anyone who caught a glimpse of Dan Smiley probably thought he was some kind of nut. Wherever he went, Smiley, a young engineer, carried a little kit for testing acidity, the type a college freshman might use in a Chem 101 experiment. The kit had come with a new refrigeration system Smiley had just installed at his family’s resort, Lake Mohonk Mountain House, 90 miles north of New York City. Anyone else would have put the kit away once the job was done, and gone about his business.
But because the resort was having trouble with its chlorination system, Dan Smiley started taking acidity readings everywhere. He took measurements in bathtubs of hot and cold water. He gauged the acidity of a leak from a sewer, and from a hydrant near the baggage storage area. Then, for some reason–probably just plain curiosity–he took readings in Rhododendron Swamp, Mossy Brook Spring, Mohonk Lake, Lake Awosting, and two other nearby bodies of water. He noted the measurements on the backs of old Mountain House menus–he hated to waste paper–and saved them.
Pretty soon Smiley noticed something odd. The readings were veryacidic, a 4.5 pH, instead of a normal level of more than 6. So on Oct. 27, 1931 he mailed four water samples to a chemist friend, who had a lab full of fancy pH-measuring equipment. On Nov. 2, 1931, the chemist wrote back with his findings: they were identical to Smiley’s. ”I am curious,” the chemist wrote. ”Why is the pH so low?”
Smiley replied by return mail: ”I do not know why the pH is so low. I wish I did.” Stumped, he put the correspondence and the old menus in a manila folder, which stayed filed away for forty years. Then, in the 1970s, when environmentalists began being concerned about acid rain, Smiley remembered the file, pulled it out–it was right where it was supposed to be– and looked up his old pH readings. He then finished writing up the research he’d started when Herbert Hoover was president, and mailed it to Michael Oppenheimer, a physicist with the Environmental Defense Fund.
”I find this incredible,” says Oppenheimer of Smiley and his methods. ”His acid rain re- search is absolutely invaluable, and he didn’t have a good reason to have it, other than that it’s good to have information.”
Smiley, 79, is pleased when people say things like that, but notastonished. That’s exactly the way his research system is supposed to work. No piece of information about the woods he lives in is too trivial; everything gets put down on a file card. What seemed to have no meaning when written on a card in the 1930s, say, has in time often taken on enormous consequence. ”Estab- lished science fails to take into account serendipity,” he says.
”Serendipity, of course!” says Vincent Schaefer, the founder of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center of the State University of New York at Albany. ”Serendipity is the guts of the whole business, and Dan Smiley understands that.” And over the past sixty years, Smiley has put to- gether a research system that’s ready whenever and wherever serendipity may strike.
People who think Smiley’s system is merely quaint may be too immersed in the modern scientific method to appreciate what he’s up to. ”He’s one of the top natural scientists in the world,” says Schaefer, who invented cloud-seeding. ”He’s one of a vanishing breed. Everything interests him, especially something he doesn’t understand.”
In an era when scientists leapfrog around the country from university to university and grant to grant, Smiley has chosen to stay in one place and learn as much as he can about it. For a long time now, he has been surprising and delighting environmentalists, archaeologists, geologists, linguists, entomologists, historians, foresters, et al. by pulling out of his files information they never knew existed.
There are nearly 2,000 acres of forest at Lake Mohonk Mountain House, and an adjacent 6,000 acres, encompassing the Mohonk Preserve, which Smiley’s forebears established in 1963 as a forever- wild sanctuary, and the Virginia Smiley Preserve. Except for four years in Pennsylvania, at Haverford College, Smiley has spent his entire life there, running the family resort from 1930 to 1971 and doing his science all those years and ever since. In the grand tradition of nineteenth-century amateur naturalists, he has had enough time and money to do the research his way, without having to worry about writing grant proposals, meeting specific research goals, or getting exciting, immediate results.
If you watch Smiley in his lab and in his woods, it takes a while to figure out exactly what he’s up to. His work seems so random and scattered that it’s easy to dismiss him as little more than a pack rat.
For example, for many years he went around his resort collectingparasitic wasps in a jelly jar. He gathered specimens of 64 species, including two previously unknown to science, which now bear his name,
Homotherus smileyi and Bar- ichneumon danieli. And every day for 48 years Smiley has taken the air temperature at a nearby weather station; twice a day he goes to Mohonk Lake to record water temperature and acidity. If on the way to the lake he sees a chipmunk, he writes that down on a scrap of paper. He’ll keep the paper in a basket with other chipmunk notes, so that at any time he can add up the running total. Then in his files he’ll write something like ”Twelve chipmunks seen, May 1986.” Now, what’s that about?
And what’s that stuffed beaver doing in his drawer? And why for decades has he collected the fleas from mice and rats he has found in the woods? Open another drawer in his lab, and there’s a preserved, tagged, 433-mm-long wood rat, with a hind foot 46 mm long, caught Oct. 31, 1958, that had six fleas.
Fleas on rats? ”No significance,” says Smiley. ”Not yet.”
Not yet. That’s the clue. Smiley knows that twenty, or fifty, ora hundred years from now someone may catch a wood rat in those woods with hundreds of fleas, or no fleas; or find there are no wood rats; or find there are wood rats, and that every one has six fleas. Each possibility would say something about the environment. Smiley is willing to wait as long as it takes for a piece of random information on one of his cards to take on meaning.
As a young man in these woods, Smiley found 8,000- year-old Indian arrowheads and spear points. Today, archaeologists from the State University of New York College at New Paltz borrow them to help in their study of Indians in the Hudson River Valley. In 1957, after the federal government sprayed his woods with DDT to control gypsy moths, Smiley began collaborating on studies of the moths and their predators. By the 1970s his research on controlling the gypsy moth through natural means, rather than pesticides, was being widly quoted in environmental debates, town meetings, and the press.
Nor are his interests restricted to nature. Through the years hehas written down idioms that he thought might be unique to his region. For example, on Aug. 13, 1940 he recorded on a file card titled ”Local expressions”: ”One morning a rather mangy-looking hound dog wandered past. Os- car Coddington remarked that it looked like a ‘soon’ dog. I asked them what they meant. They said: ‘He would as soon sit as hunt.’ ” A few years back Smiley mailed 150 of these expressions to editors at the Dictionary of American Regional English, who have incorporated some of them into their five- volume compendium.
Historians at New Paltz are using Smiley’s research on nineteenth-century industries in his area; he’s studying the remains of a gunpowder factory. ”It’s just something I got into that interested me,” he says.
Smiley understands how little most men know about what goes on right under their noses. There’s still so much that baffles him about his own woods. In his files is a note made in 1939 that says the mountain laurel came into bloom on June 13 that year. Another of his file cards indicates that
in 1929 the mountain laurel didn’t blossom until June 24. ”You ask me why they bloom earlier one year,” he says. ”I’m smiling, because we’d like to know exactly what triggers the flowering.” Is it temperature differences? Differences in the amount of sunlight? The number of days above 50 degrees? ”We’re puzzled,” says Smiley.
Several years back, Schaefer began pestering Smiley to build a fireproof vault to protect his notes, and urged him to write up his information. Smi ley added a fireproof concrete- block laboratory to his house and equipped it with a sophisticated halon gas fire-extinguishing system. He has also written up a good part of his research, although not in scientific journals. ”It takes too long, I’m too old, and there’s too much to be done,” he says. Instead, he writes papers and mails them to a list of two dozen environmentalists, academics, and researchers he knows.
Nothing better points up Smiley’s special blend of undirected data collection, focused research, and serendipity than his work on acid rain over the past decade. The national acid rain debate got him thinking about Lake Awosting again. He dug out his 1931 pH tests (blessed serendipity) and took new readings. Just as it had been four decades earlier, the pH was too acidic for fish life.
Yet Smiley knew from talking to old-timers that there had once been fish in Lake Awost ing; that meant that the lake hadn’t always been so acidic. He knew, too, from family records that there had never been any pollution pouring directly into that isolated body of water. He asked himself, What if the fish disappeared from Lake Awosting at the same time the region was industrialized in the late 1800s? Could it be that the lake was the victim of local nineteenth-century acid rain, long before tall smokestacks were developed to disperse stack gases? He decided to find out when the fish had disappeared.
He came across an account by one of his relatives that in dicated that his great-uncles Edward and George Smiley caught fish in the lake in 1878. Through interviews and checking property records, he was able to determine that until 1889 a John McElhone made his living harvesting ice and catching fish in Lake Awosting.
In his files Smiley found a note from the 1930s, based on an interview with a resort worker who had spent his boyhood near the lake and remembered men dynamiting the ice for fish in the early 1900s.
Smiley also found that by 1915 the fish seemed to have disappeared. A long-time friend, Donald Slingerland, recalled that when he attended camp near the lake as a boy in the summer of 1915 the campers tried long and hard, but none caught any fish.
Smiley also uncovered in old correspondence the fact that his Uncle Francis had stocked the lake in the 1950s, but within two weeks all the fish were dead. Notes on a 1953 field trip to the lake reported algae that thrive in acidic water on the surface.
From all these data Smiley deduced that there had been fish lifein Lake Awosting until about 1910, and that from then on the water had been too acidic. He began investigating the industrial history of the area, and found that by the 1870s railroads and tanneries were common. From a previous research project he also knew that beginning in the 1850s there had been smelting plants that produced lead and zinc bars. In the hotel ledgers he discovered that the resort had bought its axes from a local manufacturer during the 1880s; that meant that someone in the neighborhood was forging iron.
”This is what I pieced together from all these places,” Smileysays: sulphur from factory smokestacks and trains began affecting the acidity of Lake Awosting in the late 1800s; fish survived and were caught into the early 1900s; but because of the increase in acidity, the remaining fish lost their ability to reproduce and by 1915 were gone.
He mailed his information and hypotheses to Oppenheimer, who hascome to consider Smiley’s work extremely valuable because there’s such a limited record of North American water quality in the early 1900s. ”It’s important, because critics of acid rain theory might say there was industrial- ization a hundred years ago, so why wasn’t acid rain a problem then?” he says. Smiley’s research demonstrates that even in the late 1800s industrial emissions could produce pollution pockets. ”This man,” Oppenheimer adds, ”is really a very important resource.”
It’s 4:45 on a very cold, very black winter’s morning. The sky is still full of stars, but Smi- ley, as usual, is already in his lab, starting his day’s work. If, to make conversation at this ungodly hour, you casually say to him, ”We had a lot of snow in the city. Did you get much here?” he’ll say, ”Eight and a quarter inches.” If you ask when Mohonk Lake usually freezes, he’ll say, ”December 20, on the average.” If you ask when it’s safe for skating, he’ll explain that there’s a long- standing dispute among the Smileys on this matter, one faction claiming that four and
a half inches of ice is safe, the other holding out for six.
He starts the morning by heating up a saucepan of last night’s coffee. On Sundays he buys the New York Times, and when he has finished reading it he sends it to his brother, Albert, who lives near by. Buying a second Times would be wasteful. It wouldn’t enter Smiley’s mind that, as a co- owner of this handsome 300- room resort–where a night’s stay including meals costs about $150–his brother could afford his own Sunday paper. Dan Smiley’s wife, Jane Rittenhouse Smiley, even makes soap from leftover cooking grease.
Smiley’s first job of the morning is to record in the laboratorylog the temperature and water acidity readings made the day before. Smiley is proud that all his record-keeping is done by hand, without the aid of a computer. He has nothing kind to say about computers. The computer’s worst sin, to his way of thinking, is that it reduces the chances for serendipitous observation. In fact, though he has hired a research assistant, Smiley keeps certain records himself, because he feels that handling numbers and seeing statistical patterns ay in and day out improves the chances for happy coincidence.
His weather records are legendary in the area. Insurance companies call him to see if road conditions in an accident claim match Smiley’s records for
that day. Public works departments call to see if a subcontractor’s billings for snow plowing are consistent with Smiley’s snowfall records.
For a person with so much faith in serendipity, Smiley is a man of astounding order and habit, as well as a Quaker who neither smokes nor drinks. Ask what time he wakes up in the morning, and he says, ”Four twenty-two.” Every morning? ”Yes.” That’s the time his cat, Miss Black, jumped up and woke him each day for 19 years. (Ask why the cat woke at 4:22, and he just says, ”Serendipity.”) He and Jane have breakfast promptly at seven, after saying grace. Lunch is at noon; there’s a 15-minute nap after lunch and a 15-minute nap after supper, which is generally served at 6 o’clock. As he lowers plastic bottles into Mo honk Lake for his twice-daily water samples, he uses a simp- le wooden crank he built in 1940. In winter he often has to break newly formed ice over the hole cut in the frozen lake.
At five in the afternoon Smiley and his assistant, Paul Huth, a botanist, have tea. They’re working on a ton of projects at once, including, to name a few: the effects of a January thaw on spring plant growth, variations in the activities of predators in the surrounding woods, and the effect of acid rain on lichen and salamanders. Because Smiley has built an extraordinary data base on the area, he attracts scientists from all over the region–Jim White, a geologist from Columbia University, was a recent visitor–who use his files as a jumping-off point for their own specialties. At last count, 420 research pro jects had been done on the Smiley woods, with another 50 in the works.
Every night at seven the Times Herald-Record in Middletown callsto get his weather readings. In the evening he catches up on his reading–70 periodicals, mostly science and nature journals but also a few Quaker publications and some on local history. By ten he’s
His days were once mainly spent running the Mountain House, the 116-year- old mountaintop resort that reflects the Smiley family’s Quaker philosophy. It has always been operated with the environment in mind: in winter, guests are encouraged to skate and cross-country ski, in summer to swim in Mohonk Lake and hike. For Smiley an indoor pool is as hateful as a computer. Nor, for that matter, are there television sets in the hotel rooms. Men must wear jackets at dinner, and for many years no alcohol was served. In 1971 the resort board–family members and long-time patrons–voted to get a liquor license. Rather than go along with the new policy, Dan Smiley resigned from active management of the hotel and turned his full attention to science.
This sort of independence marks Dan Smiley as a man in the mold of his grandfather, also a Dan Smiley. The grandfather too kept a written schedule that accounted for every hour of the day: an hour and a half for thinking, four and a half hours for outside work, seven for desk work, one and a half for meals, an hour for recreation, and eight and a half for sleeping. (The grandson has saved the schedules, naturally).
His grandfather’s copious 100-year-old letters and records are the basis for Smi ley’s extraordinary data collection. It’s by referring to his grandfather’s records that he knows that, for example, in the past 90 years the earliest date for a frost in the woods is Sept. 20, 1920; the latest is Nov. 15, 1946.
Smiley can look in his grandfather’s files and find a note from Sept. 6, 1912 relating that the chestnut trees are drying up in large numbers–”not positive that it is not simply on account of dry weather.” And another, from June 6, 1913, indicating that the chestnut trees are dying in great numbers, clearly from disease. The trees got progressively worse, and by 1920 most were dead.
From those files Smiley can see how things that appeared to be scientific certainties one year seemed less certain a few years later. He can see how a clear upward trend was really only part of an up-and- down cycle. This has made him very cautious and given him an enormous sense of man’s fallibility.
It has taught Smiley to take nothing for granted, and to measureeach action to see if it’s consistent with nature’s way. He has spent much time worrying about whether it’s all right to have a pet cat. One recent morning, at 5:30, with no provocation, he spent ten minutes justifying to a visitor the place a house pet has in the ecosystem. He said (in part): ”There are some people who say we can’t spare food for pets, that we should send this food to starving people in Africa. I’ve come to feel that pets have a very important place in the ecosystem. I’m not talking about goldfish. I mean things that you can show affection and they respond. Pets have a function for couples like us, whose children are grown or who have no children. They’re something to talk about, something to care about, something that responds differently to each person.”
It quickly became clear that he was saying a pet elicits love, and that love has its place in the eco-chain. Next, he explained that Miss Black, the cat that had wakened him at 4:22 for 19 years, had died a few weeks earlier. ”I just plain miss her,” he said softly, and for a while he sat quietly, sipping his reheated coffee.
Smiley fears that modern scientific research is so busy marchingforward that the work of a previous generation of scientists is being trampled and forgotten. His nightmare is that after he dies his files will be regarded as junk, his laboratory dismantled, his life’s work thrown away.
Every spring for the past thirty years Smiley has taken his flashlight and gone out into the night to watch salamanders mate in vernal pools. ”As I visit the pools each spring, I find there are fewer,” he says. He notes that in recent years the leaves have been shriveling on the flower- ing dogwood, and no seedlings have been sprouting from the seeds that fall from the trees, which have been infected by a fungus. Scientists all along the East Coast tell him they see the same thing. Will the dogwood go the way of the chestnut trees?
Beside Smiley’s lab window is a wild cherry tree, and during thespring he inspects it for tent caterpillars daily. Four springs ago the tree was crawling with them; in 1984 there were not nearly so many; last and this year there were fewer still. ”And I’ve seen almost no bats in recent years,” Smiley says. ”A friend said he missed the bats in his yard. This is all written down. I haven’t seen an American toad in three or four years. Normally, I’d hear an owl. I think the records show I haven’t heard an owl in three or four years. I’m very concerned.”
He doesn’t know exactly what, if anything, has gone wrong, but he’s fearful. ”I feel there’s no hope for humanity,” he says. ”I think we’re stretching the environment beyond its capacity to support us.”
Yet if the environmentalist in him fears that man is doomed, theQuaker in him says that man must press on– and he does, beginning at 4:22 every day. There’s still so much to do. In one corner of his lab is the limb of an apple tree brought in by a neighbor. Though the limb grw four feet from the ground, it appears to have been gnawed by a beaver. ”That’s very odd,” says Smiley. ”Beavers don’t normally climb trees. It may be nothing, but it may be a point of interest. It may go on a card.”
This spring he returned to the vernal pools to look for salamanders, and once again counted the tent caterpillars on the wild cherry tree. And, of course, he took notes on all he saw, whether or not he could make any sense of it.
”We need more like him,” says Nash Castro, executive director of the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, which oversees 80,000 acres of public land in the region. ”Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can replicate a Dan Smiley.” Perhaps not. Or perhaps this is just a bad period for self- educated naturalists, the downward dip in a normal cycle. Perhaps serendipity will make a comeback. Perhaps there will be a time when the Dan Smileys are again on the rise.
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