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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.

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