Perspectives pour une Géobiologie des Montagnes. By Paul Ozenda. Lausanne, Switzerland: Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes, 2002. 195 pp. €37.40. ISBN 2880744938.
This is a curious little book, and is rather unclassifiable in today's diversified fields of environmental sciences. The book is worthwhile for the useful compiled historical information and ideas that it presents, but is also highly frustrating in form and substance, even for a French reader. Indeed, the primary drawback for many non-French readers will be that the text is primarily in French. Only short, albeit informative, abstracts in English are found at the beginning of each chapter.
The author, Professor Paul Ozenda, now retired, had a distinguished and productive career as a geobotanist, for lack of a better word, spanning over half of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer and leader in the disciplines of plant and vegetation ecology in Europe during that period. It is remarkable that, at an age when some North American ecologists might be content to play golf, Professor Ozenda still exhibits knowledge of and passion for his profession. Indeed, the book is a largely personal reflection on the vast field of mountain biogeography and ecology, in the widest sense of these two terms.
The contributions of this book that may be of interest to today's practitioners fall into three broad categories. First, the book describes the historical development of a particular approach to the study of mountains, their environment, biology, and ecology, which was highly successful and widespread during the past century. It is extremely advantageous to recognize how past advances in this area have led to contemporary approaches to scientific issues. Second, it contains useful information (interpretations, data, maps, citations) that a younger generation of scientists not taught in the fields covered may find difficult to access elsewhere, since many aspects of these materials are no longer part of modern curricula. Third, it contains ideas and concepts that are of use during the present period of large-scale production of maps, monitoring schemes, and interdisciplinary approaches to ecological issues. In essence, the book makes us aware that there is nothing really new in our self-described innovative approaches to ecology and that, successful or not, our predecessors also considered that only integration and synthesis would yield full knowledge and understanding of mountain ecosystems at multiple spatial and temporal scales.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from serious weaknesses. Many portions of the text contain arcane jargon that few modern students of the field will feel enthusiastic about and that, in this reviewer's opinion, has lost its interest and relevance. This is regrettable because the concepts hidden behind the jargon can be interesting and relevant. Furthermore, the author compounds this problem by lengthy discussions of issues that, again in this reviewer's opinion, can be perceived as sterile refinements of obsolete systems of ideas. This is even more unfortunate, because buried under rather unexciting discussions in what seems to be a foreign language (no pun intended), some significant problems are explored: the distributions of species in response to large geologic phenomena, climatic variability over large areas and multiple temporal scales, and the potential responses of mountain ecosystems to climatic and land use changes, among other topics.
The book is well organized to achieve objectives that are clearly formulated in the “Avant-propos” or preamble (pp. V–VII). The ten chapters are articulated in three parts. The first part (chapters 1–3) defines the object of the book, i.e., the mountain systems, their spatial scales, their geographic distributions, and climatic complexity. It also includes a short discussion of the alpine-subalpine ecotone. The second part (chapters 4–6) tackles different dimensions of biodiversity in mountains with a special focus on species richness and within-community diversity. The third part (chapters 7–10) attempts a synthesis through integration to explain the vegetation and its floristic composition in mountain systems all over the world. The author presents a conceptual model of vegetation distributions for the European Alps and endeavors to expand it to the rest of the world. This attempt exemplifies both the contributions and weaknesses noted earlier. On one hand, a tremendous amount of useful information is presented. On the other hand, the lengthy discussion of obscure systems of classification borders on the tedious and the frivolous. The book would have benefited from de-emphasizing the typology of mountain systems and expanding the section on the dynamics of vegetation patterns.
In summary, this is a really difficult book to review fairly. As the reflection of a European scientist who has contributed to his field of study, it has noteworthy dimensions, especially for students of the Alps. It can be used today to provide background information on integrated mountain ecology. However, it is of limited use for generating new ideas. The choice of citations limits its value as a reference book. For example, this reviewer does not understand the rationale for excluding major North American references on the topic (e.g., Daubenmire, Billings, Peet) while other less relevant references are included. This is also true for the omission of important European references. Still, this book provides some remarkable insights into past work that has influenced the field during the mid-twentieth century.