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posted on July 22, 2016 | Other
Buzz Holling: Heroes, Masters, and Wizards

Buzz Holling and
Trajectory of Resilience.
Sculpture and photo by Lee Gass.


For my first few
years at UBC my small office was
across the hall from Buzz Holling’s sumptuous
red-carpeted suite of three rooms. Hut B6 itself was
a dilapidated temporary hut from WWII but Holling’s
offices were something else. 
He was away in Austria my
whole first year, but sometime during that year I went
with someone into his inner office, where I got a won-
derful surprise. 
Suspended over his desk was a
small wooden sculpture of a bat.  Buzz him-
self had carved it so even before I had
met the man in person I knew we
had important things
to share.

batBuzz Holling.  1972.  Bat.  Arbutus.

 Here I describe
some of what makes Buzz Holling
an important person in my life. He has
been just as important to many others, and
I will begin by speaking for a friend
who is now deceased.


Buzz Holling
inspires and uplifts

A key football game for
Dunsmuir High School when I
was a senior was with Weaverville, who
trounced us. 
In one play, their star fullback
literally stepped in my face on his way to one of
many touchdowns he made that day, only some of
which were straight through me.
When Holling’s
research group returned from Austria in 1975 I got
to meet the man who did it, Dixon Jones, who be-
came my dearest friend. 
Here is the story of
how the fullback who stepped in my
face came to work with
Buzz Holling.

Not surprisingly
for me to learn, Dixon went to
UC Davis on a football scholarship and
continued to trounce people. 
After a PhD
in Engineering Physics there, he was drafted
into the US Army and sent to Vietnam, where
he had a routine accounting job because of his
math background. 
On the advice of his PhD
prof at Davis, Dixon wrote to Holling
from Vietnam to inquire
about work.

return letter said, in effect,
Wonderful!  Absolutely wonderful!
Thank you!  We really need someone like
you.  When can you start?”
and hired him.

That’s how
Buzz is with everyone. He
determines quickly whether to trust
people, in Dixon’s case on the strength
of a letter from a War Zone,
then trusts them
totally, enthusiastically, and without hesitation
or reservation. 
For small-town country bumpkins
like Dixon Jones and me, receiving such confidence
is a major shock because it leaves no choice but to
live up to it somehow.
On his discharge from the
Army in 1974, Dixon and his wife moved to
Vancouver and reported for work. 

Buzz was away
on one of many long trips,
so the secretary gave him his keys,
showed him his office, and introduced
him to his research team. 
He didn’t know
any biology and had no idea how to could help,
but started talking with his teammates and
reading up on the
spruce budworm system,
which is what they were working on
at the time, but he felt pretty
much useless.

When Holling
returned from his trip, he
and Dixon met briefly, then he
was off again. 
In the meeting, he
repeated his jubilant welcome,
shocking Dixon again, then
said something like
the following.

“I guess you know
we’ve been trying to under-
stand the dynamics of the spruce bud-
worm system in eastern North America.  It
causes periodic widespread defoliation and tree
death and disrupts communities and economies.
Several provinces and states do large scale aerial
pesticide spraying to control budworm.  Activists
are up in arms and
nobody understands what is
Politicians are upset, citizens are
upset, and scientists don’t know enough
to give good advice to managers
and politicians.”

“We built
computer models of the bud-
worm system – trees, budworm, other
things we thought might be important, hoping
to use them in two ways. 
We could use the models
as scientific probes to help us
understand the system.
We could use them as communication tools to help
managers, politicians, citizens,
and other decision
makers make better decisions
and manage
forests more effectively. 
Our models
capture much of the dynamics
of the system, and help
us understand.”

“But the
models are so complex
we can’t even talk
with each
other about them anymore!  
hopeless as communication tools.  Well, I
have to rush off to catch a plane. Will
you simplify those models
for us please?”

If you have
any idea how
complex those
models were, you can imagine how Dixon
must have felt to be given those terms
of reference.
As if that weren’t bad enough, all Buzz gave him was
the objective and nothing at all of how to achieve it.
Dixon felt totally inadequate to the task, even to
understand what the task was.  Fortunately
for everyone, he also felt the power of
Holling’s confidence in him and
responded to it.

The models
tracked populations of
many species of plants and
animals over thousands of square
miles, and tracked events lasting from
a few seconds to many generations of trees,
including weather and climate.  For me, it was
fascinating to see how the team thought about
and talked about things on such different
time scales
and their imaginativeness,
both individually and as a team,
was inspiring.

Before Dixon died
of a massive heart attack at age
34, he had simplified the budworm models
and scientists in many other places were building
similar sets of models, both simple and complex,
to study other systems. 
And just as Holling had
expressed in their first meeting, models like
theirs had become useful management
and communication tools.

By studying
the behaviour of the models
and trying to explain them, Dixon
discovered critical, fundamentally
new aspects of spruce budworm
system biology. 

An engineering
physicist in Vancouver, never
having visited eastern North American
or watched many birds at all, studied
the behaviour of some models of forests, not
the forests themselves,
and discovered whole
new kinds of behaviour by particular kinds of
Those species had been well known
and well studied for centuries by then,
and so had the forest, but no
one had noticed. 

Here’s how he discovered it.

What he
actually discovered was that
a certain quirky behaviour of the models
‘demanded’ certain quirky behaviour by certain
species, only at certain times of year and certain stages
in the budworm cycle.  There was no record of that kind
of behaviour by those kinds of birds in the literature
and none of the experts knew about it. 
But Dixon
described the models’ quirks so clearly that
the experts knew what to look for.
When they looked in the right
place and time, that’s
what they found.

Dixon published several
important papers and part of a book
on the budworm system and other aspects of
mathematics and mathematical biology.
Thanks to
the simplicity and the analytical and synthetic power
he brought to the models, and to the approach he helped
to create, Holling’s group began quickly to use them in
workshops for managers, politicians, scientists, and
citizens on a variety of problems in areas of over-
lap between ecology, society, and economy.
That was an enormous achievement by
the team. 
Today, Buzz says he was
an absolute lifesaver for the
project, the research
group, and the

Dixon told
me more than once that he
owed the satisfaction and success he had
enjoyed in his professional life to Buzz’ enthusiasm,
acknowledgment, and support. 
I know personally
of at least 25 similar stories about Buzz,
all essentially identical.  There
must be hundreds.


Here is one
from my own life.

As I said in
The Notion of3M Currency,
though they hired me at UBC as a
teacher, they would fire me as a scientist
if I didn’t perform. 
Aspects of
that reality were difficult

Few colleagues
openly shared my values about
teaching and learning, for example. 
I never
felt anything but strong, clear, consistent, eager
support from Buzz for it, though, and deep curiosity.
Much more often than I expected at first, he asked
probing questions about challenges he faced in
his teaching, applied suggestions, and
got back to me on
how  they
worked for him. 

It was real,
two-way dialogue about
teaching and learning and I needed it.
It was useful to Buzz, useful to me,
and a huge boost for me

Sometime in the late ’90s,
after I helped develop the interdisciplinary
Science One, Coordinated Sciences, and Integrated
programs at UBC and taught in them
before I had begun to receive much recognition
as an educator, Buzz invited me to speak
about education at the University of
Florida, where he worked
by then. 

Surprisingly to me
at the time, the room was
packed with more than the room
would hold, the talk went well, and the
discussion after was electric with enthusi-
asm and deeply probing questions.
The next
day at Holling’s home in Cedar Key, on the gulf
coast of the peninsula, after we returned from
fishing and Buzz had had his nap, 
we sat
in his living room having a drink
and looking out over the
salt marsh. 

Out of the
blue, with no warning
at all, as if he had only just then
thought of it, he asked “
You really know
what you’re talking about, don’t you?” 
caught me totally by surprise!  I didn’t know
what to say.  I mumbled and stumbled and
paused, then confessed that I might know
a few things about helping people learn.
It had rarely occurred to me before
that moment that I knew
much about anything
at all!

If he hadn’t said “don’t
you?”, I might have been able to
avoid it, but he did.  From one rock of
a rocking chair to the next, I knew it.  He
had me and I couldn’t wiggle out of it, and
the magic of that moment is that I have
known it ever since.  At least about
a few things that make
a difference. 

Self-knowledge is
one thing and self-confidence
is another and
I’m still working on both.
But never since that afternoon at Cedar Key
have I felt compelled to pretend I’m a mumbling,
stumbling idiot about teaching or learning. 
I gladly
speak to hundreds of people at a time, consult with
executives about issues of strategic importance,
talk about issues on radio and TV, and help
create programs that engage students
vitally and encourage them to per-
form beyond ‘reasonable’
norms in learning.

Buzz didn’t
give me any of that.
Of course he didn’t. He couldn’t.
Nobody could. 
But he did something
important to accelerate its development.
Uplifting Dixon Jones and me the
way he did made all
the difference.

But what did
he actually do? 
I think for
both of us he recognized the depth
and breadth of our potential before we did,
then behaved with absolute confidence that
we would grow into it.
What a gift to have
gotten from a colleague! What a gift
to have gotten from a friend.

That same afternoon
in Cedar Key, in the same rocking
chair and on the same gin and tonic, Buzz
said he wanted me to organize and edit a Special
Feature of the then-new electronic journal Ecology
and Society, then called Conservation Ecology, on
innovative approaches to educating for sustain-
ability.  He wanted the Special Feature to show
the worldwide ecological community what
is possible in teaching and learning
and inspire them to achieve it
in their own work.
“Invite whoever
you want.”

from not
knowing I knew
anything at all about anything
to that in a couple of swallows of gin and
tonic seemed a bit much to me. 
But I trusted
Buzz, he trusted me, and everything we talked
about happened.
Here is part of what came out
of it. My introduction to the Special Feature,
Educating for Sustainability, is a window
into it. 
Integration, interaction, and
is about the inter-
disciplinary science

A former student
published  a paper in the same
journal in response to ours
, comparing
the quality of her education in one of those
programs to her experience before immigrating
from Czechoslovakia. 
She found them similar and
highly successful, in contrast to many courses at
UBC she found lacking.
Five papers by other
authors described their experience of
educating for sustainability, in
other settings and from
other perspectives.



Buzz Holling
thinks with his bellybutton
Buzz is a rigorous rational thinker and
a deeply intuitive visionary who has followed
his hunches for a lifetime. 
Over and over again
he has
leaped beyond bounds of current rationality
to discover possibilities that were inaccessible to any-
one without leaping.  After long hard rigorous work,
those fantasies usually turned out to capture
an essence of nature and society
make it accessible to others.

If you’ve spent
much time around Buzz you will
know what I’m talking about here.  Over and
over again it happens and nobody, and that includes
Holling himself
has the slightest clue how it happens.  It
just does. We could explain it away, I suppose, to label
him a genius and he might be.  But that would
just transfer the mystery from one level
to another and do nothing at
all to account for it.

We could pretend it
doesn’t happen but it does.  It
could be a one-shot deal, a flash in
the pan, or a fluke but it’s not 
Or we
can accept that it keeps happening
and wonder about it, as I have
been doing for over
half of my

hear Buzz
describe the process,
it is something that happens
in his bellybutton, through his
bellybutton, as if it were a channel
for insights and ideas
and they
enter him that way.
could he possibly
mean by

Whatever Holling
means by referring to his belly
button in this way, his must be special
since he is so much better than most of us
at seeing and thinking with it. 
He also trusts
that capability and has been practicing for a life-
time to recognize and allow it to develop in himself
and others.
All around him, people learn to
listen through their own bellybuttons,
or whatever metaphor works
for each of us. 

For example,
my students and I learned
to experience life in subalpine meadows
on hummingbird time; it’s life in the fast lane
out there, and that became a powerful metaphor for
us.  It reminded us of what we were learning to see.
Whatever ‘hummingbird time’ was for us, and we
were never quite sure, it worked.  As long as we
entered the space the metaphor created and
observed what happened there,
in our
imagination, in the field, and in
talking with each other,
we kept having
good ideas.

Here is a likeness
of Buzz Holling’s bellybutton,
captured in a rare and insightful moment
by his fellow sculptor
Michelangelo Buonarotti.



Buzz Holling
inspires imaginative,
creative thought in others.

If Buzz Holling
is anything at all he is an
imaginative thinker. 
He dreams
up the most amazingly creative ideas
about all kinds of things, one after the
other, and invites everyone around
him to do the same. 
is an example.

For his PhD,
Holling studied how whole
populations of predator and prey species
relate to each other.  He asked a set of questions.
Can predator populations kill enough prey individuals
to keep prey populations from increasing?
Under what
How does predation function in eco-
systems?  Those questions
led to a series of
studies of how population density
affects predation.

How does the
density of prey individuals
affect how long it takes predator
viduals to find, capture, kill, and con-
sume prey individuals? 
Those measurements are
simple and easy to make, but no one had made them
before, at least in quite that way, for any set of species.
What was new was the question that made the measure-
ments make sense. 
That experimental work, pub-
lished over several years, revealed much
about how real predators and
prey interact. 

More than
that, it provided simple,
powerful ways to think about complex
systems of all kinds. 
Those early studies were
revolutionary.  All of a sudden, biologists had new
ideas to think about, new kinds of questions
to ask, and new tools to answer them
in whatever systems they
happened to study.
That’s huge.

In one study
Buzz timed a blindfolded
secretary, the predator, as she found,
picked up, and stored small disks of paper, her prey,
by tapping with a pencil on a sandpaper-covered surface.
By recording this time with the same secretary and setup
but different densities of disks, Holling derived his
famous “disk equation”, which describes one of
only three fundamentally different ways
predator and prey populations
can interact. 

The disk equation
and its mathematical relatives
apply not just to blindfolded secretaries
but to populations of all kinds of predators and
prey, molecules in solution, and other kinds of systems
that are similar in important ways to those he studied.
There may be thousands of examples by now. His
studies precipitated a whole generation of eco-
logical thought, including new kinds of
questions in population biology,
behaviour, and evolution. 

Not only that, but
they deepened appreciation of
relationships between those natural systems
and economically important managed systems
like fisheries, agriculture, and the spruce budworm
system I described above. 
That revolution included
rigorous new approaches to studying complex
systems in general, several of which had
already determined the course of my
own research long before
I met Holling.

His imagination
and creativity are infectious, as
I showed you, and they seldom fail to excite
While he was still teaching at UBC I urged
my grad students to take his course for just that reason.
I wanted them infected, and most of them caught a bad
case of it. 
Invariably, they returned to the lab after
meetings full of new ideas about their own work
and full of energy for pursuing them and
spun those ideas back into Buzz’
course.  Everyone won.


When my office
was still in Hut B6, across the hall
from Holling’s, it was also next to the mens’
washroom and the drinking fountain.
Hut walls
were thin and essentially transparent to sound, which
made me privy to gossip in the ecological community.
I could hear the buzz, so to speak, and there was
always plenty of it during breaks in Buzz’s
Those students were as engaged
and excited about their own work
as it was possible to be,
in my opinion. 

Also in my opinion, that is the ideal
in education of any sort.  B
ut sadly it is far
from the norm.
Holling’s teaching is
an important exception.


 Buzz Holling is
transparently human

Stories About Stories
describes my typical way of writing
in the early days.
It is embarrassing to say it
this way, but essentially what I did was scribble a
few lines on a piece of paper, then throw it away and
start over, repeatedly, all day long. 
Needless to say,
writing like this was both
frustrating and not very
effective.  But that’s what I did.
One morning in
1975 or 1976, not long after I met Buzz, I
was deeply engaged in throwing
away paper in my office. 

Every half hour
or so, Holling emerged from
his office in his stocking feet, took a
drink from the fountain  outside my door,
and strolled slowly down the hall,
sighing, deep-
breathing from a
cigarette.  He came back past
my door the other way, stopped for another drink,
and disappeared into his office for another
half hour. 
Meanwhile, I kept wasting
time, wasting opportunity,
and wasting paper.

Late in the afternoon,
I arranged to be in the hall as
Buzz returned. I said something inane,
like “
Still at it, eh, Buzz?”  Slowly, Holling re-
turned to earth from a dream-space far away, look-
ed into my eyes with a very sad look on his face and
said. “
Oh. Hi Lee. Yeah, I’m still at it. I don’t know
why I do this but it happens every time. I prom-
ised them a proposal by Monday and I’m
already two days late with it.
I always
do this.  I try to write something
but can’t. I don’t even know
what I’m writing about!
Oh, well.” 

He entered his dream
state again, went back into his office,
and likely produced something
that shook the world. 

I nearly did a
back flip, right there in the hall!
This man, who had published so many of
the best-written, most influential works in my
own field, some of which had set the course of my
own research, found it difficult to write!
What a thrill
to know it!  What a  revelation!
What a release! What a
gift that was, and Buzz had no idea he had given it.
Writing didn’t get any easier after that, but
at least I stopped giving myself
such a hard time about it.

Years later,
when Buzz was preparing his
seminal “lumps”  paper for submission to
Ecological Monographs, he asked me to review
what he called an ‘early draft’. 
We had been talking
about the ideas for a couple of years as he developed them,
but I hadn’t read anything about them. 
More significantly
for me, it was the first time I had reviewed anything
for Buzz before submission for publication.
As far as I know, mine was the only
feedback he asked for on
the lumps paper.

Two things stood
out for me in that experience. 
ideas we had been discussing were all there,
in a very
long, highly technical paperWhile all of
it was there, the draft was still very rough and would
need a lot of work before it would be ready to submit. 
covered it  with comments, criticisms, and suggestions
for improvement and gave it back to him, expecting
to see it again a few times before he sent it off.
The next thing I knew, and it wasn’t very
long, the paper had been accepted
for publication! 

Buzz had
dealt deeply with all of
my comments, which almost never
happens in one go. 
The episode taught me
that even superb writers can produce very rough
drafts, then perfect them by attending carefully to
feedback from readers. 
I applied the lesson about
feedback in my own writing, in working
with graduate and undergraduate
students, and with peers, on
their writing. 

Many years
later, I applied the lesson in
developing a way to help undergrads
teach each other to write effectively. I also
learned through that episode that one of the
greatest scientists in the world had nothing
to lose by allowing others to see
who he really is.


who are artists. 

I said above that it
surprised me in 1974 to dis-
cover a well-designed, well-crafted
work of art by a working scientist in Holling’s
carved bat.
My surprise was actually bigger than
that.  To learn he was a sculptor was only the first
of many similar discoveries about Buzz and other
Seconds after my first surprise, about
the bat, I looked to my left at a picture on the
learned Holling was a painter as
well as \a sculptor
and, delightedly,
was surprised again.

His painting
of cormorants hanging in
their home now was in his office then.

cormorantsBuzz Holling.  Cormorants. 
Acrylic.  About 1972.


Art and science
are much less different and
much more similar than we often think.
I’ve learned that m
any working scientists live
parallel lives as artists of one stripe or another, and
Buzz is exceptional in that but not an exception. 
I want
to show what it has been like for me to
share with Buzz our passion for art, our commitment
to ‘well-made objects’ (
Bill Reid’s term), and our
fascination with how art and science relate
in our work, our daily living, and
our relationship.
Here are
three examples.


The personality machine

in the late 1980s, Buzz and I
wondered how Jung’s
four personality
, if they were real, might be distributed in
human societies and how societies might differ in
that respect. 
As for why we wondered that, or why
anyone would, I’ll just say it started with a discussion of
what distributions of personality types might reveal
about the organization of societies in general.
Wondering about it led us to wonder
how we might measure such
a thing in practice. 

Briefly, the idea
was to generate patterns on a
large visual display with a computer.
People would adjust the pattern with a joystick
and the computer would record everything the stick
It would be a game to find pleasing patterns.  Of a
thousand, ten thousand, or a million people who played
the game, we guessed that if Jung’s personality types
governed the joystick adjustments, nearly everyone
would select, decisively, one of four qualitatively
different patterns out of many thousands
of possibilities and few would
land between them.

We also guessed
that detailed analysis of trajectories
through that parameter space would reveal
something else just as interesting. 
If players came
in cold, naive first-timers who knew  nothing about
the joystick or how it controlled the screen, and just
played, most of them would wander all over the
place, exploring, seeing many patterns and
moving on before they found their
kind of pattern and their
home within it.

None of those details
matter to this story.
Nor does
it matter whether we were stark
raving loony to wonder about those
things at all.  That’s just what
we wondered about. 

Wondering back
and forth like that is a game
scientists play to stay in shape, a form
of exercise. What most matters here are two
things Buzz insisted on from the beginning about
The Personality
Machine.  It must be a beautiful
work of art
in its own right and not look like a
piece of scientific equipment.  I
t must afford
a sense of joy in its use
, and feel every-
thing like a game to play and nothing
like a scientific experiment.
would install it in large
public venues and
simple operation. 

The machine
would run by itself, manage
the interface with its subjects, collect
joystick data, organize them, reduce them
to their essence, and prepare them for analysis.

We considered various kinds of screens, explored
the mathematics of the algorithm, dreamed up
kinds of cabinets and wondered about fund-
Then we forgot about the whole
thing and never discussed it
again except to laugh
at ourselves.


The swan and the alligator

Just before
Buzz and Ilse’s 10th wedding
anniversary, they commissioned me to
carve a mutual gift for each other in stone.  It
delighted all three of us that they were delighted
with it.
Then they moved to Gainesville, Florida,
where Buzz worked until his retirement, and
they took the sculpture with them.

swan.907Lee Gass.   Swan.

On my first visit
to Gainesville
a year or two later
I stayed with Buzz and Ilse.
On the way home
in their car on a warm, dark night, they told me about
the setting of their new home.
In their row of houses along
a small lake it was an everyday occurrence to see an
alligator and that excited me because I’d seen small
caimans in Costa Rica at La Selva Research
, but not alligators
in the wild.

Little did I know!
We parked the car and walked
to the front door and Buzz said  “
Lee, I’m
sorry, but you and your bags will have to stay
on the porch for a few minutes.
There’s something we
have to do inside
and will let you know when you can
come in
and shut the door in my face. It was really
quite pleasant listening to Florida cicadas
and wondering whether alligators
come to the fronts of houses.

Before too many
minutes the door opened and they
welcomed me into their home. The only source
of light in the house, at the end of a hallway, down
few steps across the living room, was the
Swan, the translucent creamy marble
glowed from within.

It illuminated
their entire living room. It
illuminated my life.
On a low plinth,
tight to a pipe with a lighttouched only on
its backside light came throughout the stone
changing colours, and entered the room in all
Though subtle, it was a powerfully
attractive centre of attention that provided
soft light and displayed the best qualities
of the stone and of the sculpture. 
got a really good deal with the
Swan, and it’s more valuable
now! What do you think
of that?

To say the least, I thought it was brilliant.


The manta ray sculpture

For a long time, the
organization and behaviour of
flocks, herds, schools, crowds, and other
aggregations of animals, including humans, has
fascinated Buzz.
Sometimes that interest becomes
In the early 1990s, he developed a composite
wooden sculpture based on a mathematical model
of the schooling behaviour of manta rays.
At the
root of the model was a set of assumptions
about angular relationships among
individuals in schools maintain
with respect to each other.

of the model
Holling carved,
rays swim a lazy spiral
upward and outward from a
starting point.
He carved individual
mantas in wood, painted them, and fixed
them precisely in position in a Plexiglas
box with lines of nearly-invisible
monosfilament .

On one of
his trips to Vancouver, Buzz
brought the wooden mantas with him
and we made a 3D computer model of one of them
on my old, slow computer at home, a primitive 3D
digitizer, an early version of the 3D software
that I use today.
I was in my infancy in 3D modelling and
still am. 
We played for a few hours, then more or less
forgot about the project, as we had done
with the Personality Machine.

Suddenly, many
years later, it occurred to me
that I could crank up the old model
on a fast computer and new software and
give it a whirl.
Here’s some of what I came
up with, based on measurements Buzz and
I made that day. First the final product.


It would be
a mistake to think that our
modeling exercise was mainly about art
or esthetics, though Buzz’ sculpture is beautiful.
So are its fellow manta rays and the way the model
told Buzz to arrange them, and I really like this picture.

and maybe more, it was about the biology.  It was
about how animals make their way in the
world and about how they learn
to do it as they do.

It isn’t that the
art is just an add-on, either.
Buzz’, the art is integral to his science.
kind of integrity relates to what I had to do to
make that image.
The model itself was just
a cloud of points at first, each measured
from the surface of the carving.
From the points, we made
a webwork of curves,
a wireframe, that
sketched out the
surface in 3D.

The wireframe
already suggests manta form
and begins to suggest motion.  But
since it’s just wires, top and bottom surfaces
are visible at the same time, which is confusing.
When I lofted surfaces over the curves as we’d lofted
curves over the points, shone simulated light on the
simulated surfaces, with no points, wireframes, or
environments, it was more like what Buzz
carved in the wood,
especially with
simulated isolines drawn on its
simulated surfaces.


Only when
I coloured and textured
the top and bottom surfaces and
played with lighting and background
did it approach the natural beauty
Buzz expressed not only in that
one manta ray but the
whole school.

I said earlier that my graduate
students and I had to learn to live on
hummingbird time. Buzz lives on manta ray
time when he imagines how they organize their
Why he wonders about rays, why we
would see if we could model
a manta ray
in 3D or why people study predation,
hummingbirds, or anything,
really, are different

If it were
easy to model mantas, we
imagined, easy to model manta motion
and propagate mantas into moving models
of manta ray schools,
then it might be possible
to drive complex models like that with models
of how mantas swim, how they organize
their schools, and blah blah blah….
It doesn’t really matter.

What matters
here is that this kind of thing
happens when Buzz Holling imagines
things with people.
I had the pleasure of a few
hours doing things with Buzz a few more hours on
my computer several years later, remembering, back
with the manta model
and it was a pleasure, once I
admitted to myself, to know how much I’d
underestimated my own 3D
modeling skills.


of Resilience

In August 2006 a
group of colleagues and former
students gathered at McGill University in
Montreal for a day-long “
Buzzschrift” to honour
Buzz Holling.
Rather than show how he influenced
my research career, as most of the contributors did, I
decided to highlight our shared love of sculpture and
I showed how I created a granite sculpture,
Trajectory of Resilience, which I carved with Buzz
and his ideas in mind just before leaving for
The story of the creation of
the sculpture, and Holling’s belly
button, were my contri
butions to the


In an editorial in a
scientific journal, Holling poin-
ted to one of the great challenges in
communicating the essence of complex sys-
tems of all kinds, large and small, whether they
are e
cosystems, economies, or societies.  Most chal-
lenging, he argued, is to convey what these systems
respond to, and how quickly.
According to him,
our descriptions must be “just complex
for understanding,
simple enough for

we saw that
Dixon Jones’ scientific
challenge was to simplify the
budworm models for communication.
My challenge in carving Trajectory of
Resilience was to carve a whole theory
of the behaviour of complex systems,
and carve the creation of the
theory into a granite
boulder and make
it work.

Could I make it simple enough
to come across?

In resilience
, which Buzz introduced
in 1973, the idea of adaptive cycles shows
the challenge of achieving that balance between
simplicity and complexity that he wrote about later.
Simple 2D graphs like figure-8 diagrams help, especially
for scientists, but they tend usually to sacrifice the action
and behaviour of the system,
sacrifice action – – how
changes unfold. 
A graph Nicole-Ann Boyer
published in her blog, based directly
on a graph Holling published,
is a good example.


It illustrates
major phases and features
of adaptive cycles and suggests aspects
of their dynamics, especially in its labeling.
In the main, though, it misses how suddenly
systems can erupt into change – – wildfires,
hurricanes, disappearing fisheries, a
melting arctic, rising sea levels.
Collapses of economies
and societies.

As we are seeing
now with global warming,
this volatility can make systems
difficult to predict and impossible to
In contrast with how slowly
those same systems mature, develop
structure, interconnectedness and
resilience, then lose them, the
suddenness of collapse
can be surprising.

Graphs like
Buzz’ and Nicole’s help us
understand, but we need to understand
How does the ‘creative destruction’ of
budworm outbreaks, forest fires, and economic
crashes turn crises into opportunities?
How best to
take advantage of the opportunities?
Here is
another ‘simple’ 2D representations of a 3D
graph, this in a 2007 publication
by Holling himself.


In attempting
to express the simple dynamics
of the cycle, he added complexity to the
already complex graph above.
and though
illustrations as helping us grasp the text, but
graph would be difficult to understand without
deeply understanding text.
It’s a tall order
to make some things simple.
3D graphs
make it easier and 3D graphs
that move are better yet.

There is a
wonderful example in
the documentary video produced for
Volvo Environment Prize ceremony
in Stockholm.
The steady motion of that 3D animation
is an ideal metro
nome for Holling’s eloquent speech, and
for the examples added by the producers, it is not intended
to “graph” anything in a technical sense, or to represent
any thing in any kind of detail.
It is more a symbol
of a contribution than a description
of it, and for that it is

Note that
the video portrays the
3D model coming out of Holling’s
forehead, the traditional locus of creativity,
lightbulbs & thought bubbles.
That body of work
may come out of Holling’s forehead, but I hope
to have convinced you earlier that the model
itself, the idea of it, must have come
into him through his

The ideas
themselves are conveyed
not by the animation but by what Holling
says about complex systems and by how he says
it, by his choice of terms, the quality and cadence of
his voice, his body language, and his sense of timing.
They are conveyed by tight editing integrating clips
of a variety of real systems with footage of Buzz
and others speaking.
The Figure-8 diagram
is less a graph there than a suggestion.

I wanted my sculpture
to suggest those ideas without spelling
them out, to stimulate reflection and further
thought about them, and provide a screen on
which to project scenarios, stories, and analyses
of complex systems.
In short, I wanted it to be
a conversation piece. Something to point to
when discussing things too difficult
to capture in words.

I wanted it to
hold its own as a centre of
attention but not demand it, and
wanted it
to be beautiful in its own right.  Mainly,
I wanted it to honour Buzz Holling.

The night
before Lu and I opened the
Lee Gass Gallery in Vancouver, which
is no longer open, we received an ’emergency’
message from Buzz.
While we were welcome to
show Trajectory of Resilience in our gallery,
he said, but it must be with a big red dot.
He wanted to purchase it with his
Volvo Environment Prize!

Holling’s notion
of ideas entering him through his
bellybutton is obviously a metaphor. But
it is fitting and close to the bone anatomically,
so to speak.   For Eugene Gendlin in
Focusing, for
example, the entire body is a source of insight.  In
Engagement is Visceral, I suggested that vital
aspects of learning are “in the meat”,
in our bodies and our experience
of being alive.

Edited January 2019

7 thoughts on “Buzz Holling: Heroes, Masters, and Wizards

  1. It takes a Hero, Master and Whizard to know one. You are one of them. Thank you for this tribute, Ilse

    1. It takes a Hero, Master and Whizard to know one. You are one of them. Thank you for this tribute, Ilse

      1. What a wonderful thing to hear, Ilse! Thank you for being so close for so long. We look forward to your next visit with us here.

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