Issue 8.2: April/May 2005

From Prussia With Love

story by Lynn Cook
photo by Olivier Koning

GERMANY, 1932. Dieter Mueller-Dombois dreams of trees. Forests of trees. He is a young boy and trees are his passion. He joins a youth group, marches and sings about freedom, but he’s thinking about being a forester like his uncle. Ten years pass. Dieter advances in the youth group and becomes a forestry apprentice deep in the woods of East Prussia. He is happy. But there is a war on and suddenly, he is drafted into service for Hitler’s Third Reich. After officers’ training, he’s sent to the front lines in Holland as an artillery scout. He enters hell and winds up a prisoner of war in an American camp outside Paris. More than half of his youth group class are dead. What he learns, through the fighting and in the camp, is that nothing worse can ever happen to him.

On his release, holding fast to his dream, he finds work as a forest laborer in his hometown. There is no forestry education so he settles for a university degree in agriculture. But there are no jobs. He drives the night shift for the American newspaper, Stars & Stripes, and begins to think about emigrating. By 1952 he is on an Italian ocean liner, headed for British Columbia, with a completely unknown future ahead.

Fifty years later, Dieter Mueller-Dombois is the foremost botanist in the Pacific. He has taught governments about conservation, educated a new generation, saved rainforests—and, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion, solved a great mystery in Hawaii’s ohia forests. He conducts research, presents symposiums, authors seminal articles. Called to Germany recently, he was presented with the only honorary doctoral degree for scientific achievement ever awarded by the prestigious Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus. Looking down the line of mortarboard- and gown-clad dignitaries, he recognized many of his students, now colleagues, who had traveled from the far corners of the world to celebrate his work. Only one or two other educators worldwide have graduated as many young botanists ready to, as Dieter says, "take up the cause and tramp through the forest to find solutions that will take us into the twenty-second century and beyond."

Dieter is also the author, with the late Dr. F. Ray Fosberg, of "the bible" of Pacific plant life, Vegetation of the Tropical Pacific Islands, a book he completed after making a death-bed promise to his beloved colleague. That tome, first published in 1998 and edited by Dieter’s wife Annette, gave birth to PABITRA, the Pacific-Asia Biodiversity Transect, a network that alerts conservationists to "living textbook" sites scattered from New Guinea to the Galapagos. All PABITRA sites are botanical jewels; the one Dieter has embraced is Kahana Valley on Oahu’s Windward side, a place, he says, that even now tells a clear story of Hawaiian ecosystems as they were in 1600 and before. It is a place he hopes will be saved and studied, and for that reason, on the day I accompany him, he is walking through Kahana with colleagues visiting from Okinawa.

At seventy-nine, Dieter is just as agile and enthusiastic as he was decades ago in the forests of Prussia. His arm sweeps around authoritatively. He points high in the valley to the indigenous koa and ohia woodlands, then notes the pandanus forest, the prolific wet taro terraces and the wetland marsh. The botanists walk through the valley and eventually arrive back at the coast, by the ancient Huilua fishpond. There Dieter describes how the broad expanse of this ahupuaa, or sea-to-summit landscape, integrated ecosystems and served Hawaiians as a sustainable system. He talks about the valley’s past: through the mid-1800s, home to a self-contained community; then owned successively by a high chief, Chinese farmers, an agricultural hui and a single individual; used by the military during WWII and then transferred to the state.

"With 119 archaeological sites, and even some ancient rock art petroglyphs, this valley reads like a history book," Dieter says. "When we fully understand its healthy systems, we can export that knowledge worldwide."

As a professor emeritus of the University of Hawaii, Dieter often travels to remote sites to meet botanists and to export—and import—knowledge. One month might find him leaving his comfortable Kailua home to sleep on a mat under Fijian stars for a week. The next month he might be in a small Japanese village presenting a lecture on Hawaiian ecosystems while his wife entertains attendees’ wives with a hula. It’s all a long way from the unemployment line he first encountered back in Canada in 1952 as a young man looking for a new homeland.

"Work for immigrants was scarce," he remembers of that time. "I was offered a job killing chickens. I said no and went back to the unemployment line." He got a job sorting lumber, the closest he could get to forestry. And then the B.C. Forest Service hired him to work as summer help. He lived in a tent, got free meals. For the first time since the days in East Prussia, life was good. And it got better: The educational opportunity he’d dreamed of back in Europe became a reality when he entered the University of British Columbia and got a degree in forestry. Next came an offer for a Ph.D. scholarship in forest ecology. When that was done, he was offered a job in Manitoba. He took it and found himself in a cold wilderness; when the University of Hawaii offered a job as assistant professor of botany, he offered a warm and positive response. He arrived in the Islands in 1963.

Immediately, he began the work that over the decades has created such a powerful legacy in the Pacific region. He instituted a program in plant ecology at the university that is among the foremost in the world. Next, thanks to a slip-up in his visa paperwork, he was forced to leave the country for two years; he spent the time in Sri Lanka, studying monsoon vegetation and elephants for the Smithsonian Institution. On his return to the Islands, he was promoted to full professor and quickly helped garner well over a million dollars to research Hawaiian ecosystems.

When the research began, Dieter was soon drawn into one of the great botanical mysteries of the time: What was causing the dramatic dieback of the Big Island’s ‘öhi‘a forests? It took years, but Dieter proved definitively that the dieback was not due to, as most scientists believed, an invading disease or a foreign insect pest. Instead, Dieter showed, it was a natural life process of the forest. "Simply put," he says, "it was a general turnover. Trees all eventually lose vigor and the next generation of young saplings sprouts to take our place." His findings generated international interest and changed forestry understanding around the world, from Japan to New Zealand to Europe.

Receiving his doctorate in Germany last year, Dieter reflected on the risks that he has taken throughout his life. "I never knew if my plans could be realized properly," he recalled, noting that in the end it was much hard work—and a little luck—that got him where he is today. He thanked the people who have supported his life’s journey, "intellectually, spiritually and professionally." Many of those people are Dieter’s former graduate students, who today comprise the A-list of Pacific botanists. They, in turn, acknowledge the support Dieter has given them. Dr. Robert A. Wright, now the plant ecologist at the Saskatchewan Forest Service, says it is Dieter’s tenacity and intellectual courage that have endeared him to so many. "It is the quality of a person’s character that ultimately matters," says Wright, "and Dieter has quality in spades."    HH