I was a guest professor at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Vienna for the first half of 2008. Together with my husband and two young daughters, we moved into a flat in Grinzing, learned a little German, managed to dance the Viennese waltz, and developed a family identity as multi-cultural enthusiasts. Personally, it was a fantastic experience. We have returned almost every two years to keep up friendships, traditions, and reconnect as a family. Professionally, I gained insight and collaborations that have lasted nearly a decade.
While at the BOKU, I participated in discussions and meetings for a pan-European project linking fish communities, in-stream conditions, and the surrounding landscape. We asked questions such as, “How does the road density in a watershed affect physical conditions in the stream, e.g. the distribution of sediment? And, how do those physical conditions influence which species of fish are present?” Through the project, I came to see the link between politics and landscapes. The distribution of, for example, small dams in Austria is very different from that in Germany because of their contrasting nuclear energy policies. Landscape features that are correlated with one another under one government might not demonstrate the same patterns under another government. And so, I also grew to understand that there are consistent shifts in the structure of riverine landscapes as they flow from the mountains to the sea. These insights fed directly into two papers. In a review of landscape-scale riverine research (Steel et al. 2010, http://lrlr.landscapeonline.de/Articles/lrlr-2010-1/) with Austrian and American co-authors, we included an in-depth section on the spatio-temporal structure of human impacts, encouraging researchers to explore this topic more broadly. Bringing these ideas back to the USA, I continued to study the phenomena and eventually published a paper, “Untangling human development and natural gradients: Implications of underlying correlation structure for linking landscapes and riverine ecosystems” explaining the issue and offering guidance for moving the science of riverine landscapes forward (Lucero et al. 2011, River Systems). Beyond these two papers, ideas formed at the BOKU will continue to influence my work on the distribution of salmon and trout across the Pacific Northwest indefinitely.
Happily, our work led to more than published papers. We also submitted a successful grant that brought two of the students I had taught at the BOKU to Seattle for several months each. Working on this puzzle, how landscapes influence rivers and fish, together in Seattle built bonds not only between scientists but also across our families. In the USA, we visited wild rivers on the west and east sides of the Cascade Mountains, attended a real American rodeo, and watched “A Sound of Music” in our basement to understand what most Americans know about Austria. It is these very students, now graduated of course, their BOKU mentors, and their families whom we return to visit and with whom we continue to exchange ideas about human impacts to rivers and the value of multiculturalism.
Ashley Steel was a US Fulbright Scholar at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) in 2008–09. She is a Statistician/Quantitative Ecologist with the US National Forest Service. Photos courtesy of Ashley Steel.