Life happens while you are working on your lifework! Notes from a Field Scientist

By Ronin Research Scholar Candace Gossen, on her Ronin Public Seminar on Feb 12, 2021:

I am very grateful to the Ronin Institute for offering the opportunity to talk about my life work on Rapa Nui (Easter Island). My PhD field work and research began on the island in 2002 as I was looking for answers as to whether rainfall diminishes when a forest is cut.  The story of Easter Island has always been told that the islanders cut down all of their forests and caused their own collapse. I challenged that story, and asked a simple question “What Really Happened to the Trees?” Hence the title of my seminar with the Ronin Institute. In brief, 15 years of work on the island, uncovering 15,000 years of collected data, I was able to look at long term climate change with repeating cycles of extreme events, and identify 40 extinct plants and 17 trees along with 4 new palms including the giant palm Jubaea. Collectively coring the crater lakes of Rano Kao has created a new story to be told, and moving forward with hope of planting thousands of new trees. 

My presentation talked about the science and people of the island, but one topic that continues to resurface is how life happens while you are working on your lifework! Pre-pandemic the most common question I would get when I presented my research was always about aliens, it never failed there was always an alien question that popped up, but perhaps it is the time (pandemic) and a new generation that is asking us as scholars and leaders how to shine a way forward. Life stories are not easy, but they are full and rich, and I am glad to share how my life has been formed, and formed by me like an entangled mess of roots and branches of the tree of life, my life, my lifework on Rapa Nui.

As a young girl, Rapa Nui was not a place I knew growing up in the bayous of Louisiana. My world was rich spending all of my time with nature. Climbing trees, listening, watching the lightning bugs, my world was full and it was a saving grace from the poverty, racism and bigotry that I grew up in. As a voracious reader, Bulfinch’s Mythology, Atlantis and the Guinness Book of World Records were always on my mind. This set the precedent which would unfold along my life path with my foot in the ancient cultures of the past, my climbing in the present, and eyes toward the future of saving trees.  

Life stories are not easy, but they are full and rich, and I am glad to share how my life has been formed, and formed by me like an entangled mess of roots and branches of the tree of life, my life, my lifework on Rapa Nui.

At 16, I started college as an artist who had been told I could not make art my job, therefore I had to pick a profession. Looking through the college catalog, I picked Architecture because it had the most art classes, but I loved design, and found my way as an activist fighting to save trees, so my architecture molded into ecological design, finding other materials and solutions to building practices and looking at all the embodied energy we use to make these things. Things just had to be more simple and then I was introduced to Bucky Fuller and it rocked my world. When we started the 5 year Professional degree in Architecture, the Dean told us to look around the theatre that had 250 people in it and said “look around; only 25 of you will make it, who is it going to be?” Of course I counted myself in. I was told constantly that girls should be Interior Designers, not Architects. After all, we were in the deep south. That however, raised my grit and I am happy to say that I was the only girl of 22 that graduated in my class and I received the Alpha Rho Chi Medal of Service and Leadership. I guess they knew something big was coming!

As an architect, the world of practice is nothing like school where you get to design freely with high hope. In the real world it is practical, cheap and no thought about nature. I found myself wanting so much more, and then one day I was fired for being pregnant, that was when there were no laws to protect women from these things. As a single mother with a 2 year old I picked up and moved West and that opened my world. I went to Arizona State, to the Architecture Dept., seeking to learn about solar architecture and buildings of earth. It seemed there were crazy pioneers hanging out in the desert, and there was much to learn from the ancestors at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. Me and the kid made it, even though many of my projects included crayon drawings in the mix. I wanted to teach and the masters degree was my first step in that direction.

As an architect, the world of practice is nothing like school where you get to design freely with high hope. In the real world it is practical, cheap and no thought about nature. I found myself wanting so much more, and then one day I was fired for being pregnant, that was when there were no laws to protect women from these things. As a single mother with a 2 year old I picked up and moved West and that opened my world.

Multi-tasking included building adobe houses with the old adobe builders, smashing straw bales into frames, digging mastodon bones in trenches (I also have a dual education in anthropology/archaeology), growing a beautiful strong son, and being a competitive climber.  The life path extended to Portland, Oregon, where the world was ripe with pioneers in the 90s, testing the field for alternatives in architecture and I began teaching design and building ecological designs. Teaching as an adjunct professor was a struggle to meet basic needs of my single mother life. I thought those that were getting the University jobs had PhD’s, so why not me? Then, finally then, I would have a contract, at least. 

Looking around, being place bound, raising my son who was now in school, I ended up at Portland State Univ. teaching as an adjunct professor and it was an easy way to earn tuition remission, a sliding of money across paper. Except that the Anthropology Dept. didn’t have a PhD program, but I happened upon the door of a Physics professor who was teaching a class on Trees in the Env. Science Dept. He became my advisor and I entered the Environmental Science PhD program, except I was the rogue student, meaning I wasn’t under someone’s grant money, I had to scrap to pay for my research myself. Indeed it wasn’t easy but it was done. 

This leads me to the mantra that life happens when you are working on your life work. Every PhD student has a story, this is how mine unfolded. I had to pick a place to do my field work, after all I am a Field Scientist. I have been digging in the dirt for a long time, one of my favorite places, so it wasn’t strange when an Earthwatch catalog directed me to Easter Island on a digging adventure. It was there that the Archaeologist made the suggestion “I know what you should do for your dissertation, you should core the crater lakes here on the island.” More dirt, ok! But this time it was in a huge volcanic crater that blew up a million years ago, and had black water that was 12.5 meters deep before I even got to the sediment, oh and there was a floating mat of plants on the surface, a quagmire. 

I have been digging in the dirt for a long time, one of my favorite places, so it wasn’t strange when an Earthwatch catalog directed me to Easter Island on a digging adventure. It was there that the Archaeologist made the suggestion “I know what you should do for your dissertation, you should core the crater lakes here on the island.”

I didn’t learn how to core lakes in school, but I learned from professionals that I gathered together while I was in school. The core lab in Minnesota, a pollen lab in New Zealand, a radiocarbon lab in California, an anthropology dept in Australia, there were so many places and people far away. I often felt alone in the process, constantly writing small grants to get just $2,500 to buy a ticket to the island. My first adventure as an archaeologist on the island came with a little twist: 5 days before I left, my partner threw me a surprise birthday party that included a surprise wedding. Being handed a box, a present, while 50 people sat silent watching me open the present, there was a card inside and it said “Everyone here thinks they are here for your birthday, but if you will marry me pick up the flowers and I will know, it is all taken care of, and if not, we will just have a party.”  I got married 5 days before I left for Easter Island, with 40 final essays to grade! Three years later I got my first cores from the lake Rano Kao, but when I returned 3 months later the house was empty, with only divorce papers waiting on my desk. 

One of those important people that stood side by side while slogging up those meter cores of sediment was John Flenley. Professor Flenley was the first to core Rano Kao in the 80s and there he was, curious as ever on my coring expedition. I am forever grateful for his guidance and allowance for me to dig deeper into what we knew so little of. John is now gone but his support is eternally embedded in all of my work. 

The details of coring a crater lake, hand carrying equipment in, and then all of the sediment cores out, while you are walking on a floating mat of plants is almost as equal to my archaeology work digging trenches in a rainforest. Hot, sweaty, wet, muddy, messy, with lots of bugs! The lab work, processing samples with chemicals, machines, seeds, carbon, smear slides and water samples, took 3 years to get any data results. By that time I had another adventure heading back to core the floating mat that kept the last 1,000 years of data in those plants. It was tough, took a different type of corer and was really hard to sample. These cores however changed the game, but I wasn’t able to find out for another 6 years. However what I did uncover more quickly was a Malaria-like infection that nearly killed me. By this time, the boyfriend turned husband was gone, his destined affair was not on my path. My son was now graduated and off to school, and I fought with an enlarged heart, lesions on my brain, a spleen that nearly collapsed while it tried to process toxins from a pathogen that no one could identify. Eight western doctors all told me some version or another that I was dying. The exotic disease doctor told me that in no way he could identify fungi or bacteria that i may have picked up from the 15,000 year old cores,  and if he tried to treat me it would make me sicker.  His other thought, Was it Chagas that had been secretly shredding my heart muscle all these years?! Was it a true to life mummy’s curse from the depths of Rano Kao or a pissed off Aku? I will save that story for later. I healed, it took time, and I was introduced to the world of Chinese Medicine, nature’s medicine that I understood, and all of those plants began to make me whole again.

However what I did uncover more quickly was a Malaria-like infection that nearly killed me…I fought with an enlarged heart, lesions on my brain, a spleen that nearly collapsed while it tried to process toxins from a pathogen that no one could identify. Eight western doctors all told me some version or another that I was dying.

In 2008, I had the thrill of bringing my son with me on my expedition along with two other students from California and New Zealand. Again all of this being paid by small grants, and working in the labs myself to pay for the samples to be processed. By 2011, I was finished, the edited version of my dissertation was now in print and I had my PhD in Environmental Science and I was known to the world as an Environmental Archaeologist, the saver of trees, the one that uncovered forty extinct plants including five giant palms, and seventeen other tree species that had once lived on the island, and of course, I had identified the cause of their demise. Becoming a climate scientist, using oxygen isotopes from the aquatic plants was a new technology, and with the help of another kind soul Brent Wolfe and all of his graduate students at Wilfrid Laurier in Canada, they were eager to process my samples and in exchange for allowing them two years to get results, they processed the samples for free. These results however were the key to answering the question “What Really Happened to the Trees?” It is the story of the trees that I want to tell, rather than a typical western science explanation of a tree as wood, and a resource to be exploited. The forest of the ancient world of Rapa Nui tells so much more about relationships, value, care, survival and adaptation with all life, humans included.

The forest of the ancient world of Rapa Nui tells so much more about relationships, value, care, survival and adaptation with all life, humans included.

Heading back to the island six years later in 2014, with the German Archaeological Institute, we uncovered a place for collecting water, plazas and intentional palm trunk pits in the rock. Had we uncovered the last stand of palm trees left on the island, a last ditch effort to keep them alive? 

As an independent scholar, with periodic teaching gigs, it is tough and inconsistent. There is rent to pay, trucks to fix, and so you do what you need to, and when you get lucky with a term to teach you are grateful. There are hundreds and hundreds of dead applications for teaching jobs in my past and one interview with a Chair of the Dept. that said to me “Candace, honestly, you would have a better chance with finding a husband than a job in Academia.”  That was the beginning of the end, now knowing that the patriarchy and the system was not kind with age nor female scientists. However, I am still the girl that likes to dig in the dirt and climb trees, so I keep trying. I found my way to the Ronin Institute by way of hoping it was a home, a community of other rogue independent scholars that I could find a place with, find funding, expand my network and form a new path to keep going in my life work. 


Dr. Candace Gossen is a teacher, author, environmental archaeologist, and acupuncturist. She is a lover of trees and dirt digging. She is currently working on a book titled Ancient Plants of Rapa Nui.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.