Ecology Sir Arthur Tansley
by
Laura J. Cameron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0094

Introduction

Arthur George Tansley (b. 1871–d. 1955) was one of the most eminent ecologists of the 20th century and was key to the discipline’s professionalization. Knighted in 1950, Sir Arthur was known to friends as “A. G.” His networking acumen led to the creation of pathbreaking institutions, such as the world’s first ecological organization, the British Ecological Society (BES; founded 1913) and the Nature Conservancy (founded 1949) of which he was the first chairman. He served as the first president of the BES and, in addition to editing the New Phytologist, a journal he founded in 1902, he acted as editor of the BES’s Journal of Ecology from 1917 to 1938. Tansley’s deepening interest in psychoanalysis during World War I led him to write a highly regarded bestseller entitled The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life and he became an important popularizer of Freudian psychoanalysis. He resigned his Cambridge lectureship in order to pursue his professional interest in psychology though he continued to research and publish on ecological matters. In 1927, Tansley accepted the Sherardian Chair of Botany at Oxford. Besides completing in 1939 his magnum opus, The British Islands and Their Vegetation, he would continue to write for many audiences: most notably, educating students on the active study of ecology and urging the wider public to conserve Britain’s landscapes. Tansley, often described as a mixture of idealist and materialist, was a lucid contributor to debates on ecological and psychological terminology. In 1935, he introduced what would become one of his science’s most fundamental and influential terms, the “ecosystem.” Godwin 1977 (cited under Biographies and Obituaries) relates that Tansley, when asked to name the person who “would prove to have had the most lasting influence upon the world, unhesitatingly chose Freud.”

General Overviews

Besides Ayres 2012 (cited under Biographies and Obituaries), there is a dearth of comprehensive studies of Tansley’s life and work. Rather, Tansley features in a range of contextual overviews with different emphases, all scholarly and accessible. McIntosh 1985 is an informed introduction to Tansley in a broad history of ecological science. Sheail 1987 relates his key role in the creation of the British Ecological Society; Bocking 1997 gives a portrait of his scientific and political work on behalf of the Nature Conservancy. Boney 1991 illuminates Tansley’s struggle to reform the university botany curriculum. Hagen 1992 and Golley 1993 (cited under Correspondence) provide contrasting narratives on the history of the “ecosystem” concept, a term introduced by Tansley. Forrester and Cameron 2017 and Cameron and Forrester 2000 detail his relationship to Freud and trace his psychoanalytical networks. Anker 2001 gives Tansley a leading role in the establishment of ecology as a powerful tool in the making of the British Empire’s social order.

  • Anker, Peder. 2001. Imperial ecology: Environmental order in the British Empire, 1895–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    A volume that is well grounded in the social studies of science. Tansley figures as one of a handful of select British imperialists, characterized as a mechanist in tension with the idealist and ultimately racist ecology of South African ecologists inspired by Jan Smuts.

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  • Bocking, Stephen. 1997. Ecologists and environmental politics: A history of contemporary ecology. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    Part 1 focuses on Great Britain and the origins of the Nature Conservancy.

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  • Boney, Arthur. 1991. The “Tansley Manifesto” affair. New Phytologist 118:3–21.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.1991.tb00561.xSave Citation »Export Citation »

    A thorough examination of the milieu in which suggested curriculum reform was labeled “Botanical Bolshevism.”

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  • Cameron, Laura, and John Forrester. 2000. Tansley’s psychoanalytic network: An episode out of the early history of psychoanalysis in England. Psychoanalysis and History 2.2: 189–256.

    DOI: 10.3366/pah.2000.2.2.189Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Psychoanalytical networks made up of eminent scientists formed around Tansley ranging from philosopher Frank Ramsey to the geophysicist Harold Jeffreys.

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  • Forrester, John, and Laura Cameron. 2017. Freud in Cambridge. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781139020862Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Containing a detailed account of the influence of a dream on the course of his life, Tansley emerges as a key instigator when a wave of psychoanalytic enthusiasm hits Cambridge in the 1910s and 1920s.

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  • Hagen, Joel. 1992. An entangled bank: The origins of ecosystem ecology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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    Tansley’s proposal to refer to plant communities as “ecosystems” rather than as “organisms” is contextualized here in relation to the concept’s reception and development in American ecology.

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  • McIntosh, Robert P. 1985. The background of ecology: Concept and theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511608537Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Wide-ranging and critical guide to the emergence of ecology as a science.

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  • Sheail, John. 1987. Seventy-five years in ecology: The British Ecological Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

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    Useful institutional history. Tansley’s place at the forefront of terrestrial plant ecology is highlighted along with his founding role in the British Ecological Society.

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Biographies and Obituaries

Ayres 2012 capably fills a vacuum as the first book-length biography of Tansley. Tansley’s colleague and former student Harry Godwin wrote a series of intimate and authoritative memoirs in Godwin 1957 and Godwin 1977. Other former students, including John Hope-Simpson (Hope-Simpson 2004), and international contemporaries, such as William Cooper (Cooper 1957), paid tribute. Armstrong 1991 situates Tansley in the botanical and geographical tradition; Cameron 2008 highlights Tansley’s contributions to the new psychology as well as ecology.

Primary Works

Tansley’s major contributions include works in both Ecology and Psychology.

Ecology

Although his specific studies on botanical and ecological subjects were published widely in scientific journals, including those he edited, the New Phytologist and the Journal of Ecology, Tansley had a particular talent for synthesis and clear expression. He wrote significant books for varied audiences that included fellow scientists, such as Tansley 1911 and Tansley 1965, but also promoted his vision for conservation among the wider public in Tansley 1945, Tansley 1952, and Tansley 1968. He worked to educate students in the study of botany and ecology in Tansley 1922, Tansley 1946, and Tansley 1952. He introduced the term “ecosystem” in the American journal Ecology (Tansley 1935).

  • Tansley, A. G., ed. 1911. Types of British vegetation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Created for the members of the International Phytogeographical Excursion (IPE) held first in the British Isles. The first systematic description of Britain’s vegetation.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1922. Elements of plant biology. London: Allen and Unwin.

    DOI: 10.5962/bhl.title.31637Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Based on the lecture course Tansley gave to first-year medical students.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1935. The use and abuse of vegetational concepts and terms. Ecology 16.3: 284–307.

    DOI: 10.2307/1930070Save Citation »Export Citation »

    The classic paper introducing the “ecosystem” concept as a reply to John Phillips, a South African ecologist who was advocating Clementsian organismic concepts as well as the holistic philosophy of South Africa’s elder statesman, General Jan Smuts.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1945. Our heritage of wild nature: A plea for organized nature conservation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Slim and beautifully illustrated volume. Tansley paints his vision for postwar nature management in Britain.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1946. An introduction to plant ecology. London: Allen and Unwin.

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    This textbook is recognized as being the first and most influential in advancing the introduction of ecology into schools. Originally published in 1923. Rewritten version of Practical Plant Ecology: For Beginners in Field Study of Plant Communities. (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1932).

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1952. Oaks and oak woods. London: Methuen.

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    Tansley was president of the Council for the Promotion of Field Studies from 1947 to 1953 and this book was designed especially for users of the field centers.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1965. The British islands and their vegetation. 4th ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The first major book to employ his “ecosystem” concept, this profusely illustrated standard reference summarizes the work of a generation of researchers and won the Linnean Gold Medal. Originally published in 1939.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1968. Britain’s green mantle: Past, present, and future. 2d ed. London: Allen and Unwin.

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    A classic published the year Tansley became the first chairman of the Nature Conservancy. Originally published in 1949.

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Psychology

Tansley long nursed a deep interest in psychology. A dream he had and analyzed himself during World War I spurred him to read the works of Freud and write what would be reprinted eleven times as one of the best introductions to the “new psychology” of his time (Tansley 1929). Leaving his lectureship in the Cambridge Botany School to study with Freud in Vienna, he contributed to psychological debates (Tansley 1922 and Tansley 1926) and would compose Freud’s obituary for the Royal Society (Tansley 1939). He found psychology relevant to his work for scientific freedom (Tansley 1952b) and his final work, Tansley 1952a, was an overarching synthesis of the two central preoccupations of his life. On connections between his psychology and ecology, see Ayres 2012 (cited under Biographies and Obituaries).

  • Tansley, A. G. 1922. The relations of complex and sentiment. British Journal of Psychology 13:113–122.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1922.tb00085.xSave Citation »Export Citation »

    Contrasting the positions taken by W. H. R. Rivers and Alexander Shand, Tansley argued that “complex” was a key connecting term for normal and abnormal psychology and should not be limited to the latter field.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1926. Critical notice. British Journal of Medical Psychology 6.3: 228–235.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8341.1926.tb00638.xSave Citation »Export Citation »

    A critical comparison of Eugen Bleuler’s Die Psychoide als Prinzip der organischen Entweicklung (Berlin: J. Springer, 1925) with Pierre Jean’s La psychologie organique (Paris: Éditions Corréa, 1937).

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1929. The new psychology and its relation to life. London: Allen and Unwin.

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    One of the most celebrated surveys of the “new psychology” published in the 1920s. Tansley’s attempt to illuminate for a general readership the biological view of the mind with the concepts taken from the work of “the great modern psychopathologists, Professor Freud and Dr. Jung.” Originally published in 1920. This is the eleventh impression (of the revised 2d edition). The original 1920 version was reprinted London: Nabu, 2010.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1939. Sigmund Freud, 1856–1939. Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society 3.9: 246–275.

    DOI: 10.1098/rsbm.1941.0002Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Perceptive and graceful portrait of Freud as a scientist.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1952a. Mind and life: An essay in simplification. London: Allen and Unwin.

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    Eloquent return to themes identified in his 1896 unpublished essay on evolution: the nature in man and man in nature.

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  • Tansley, A. G. 1952b. The psychological connexion of two basic principles of the Society for Freedom in Science. Society for Freedom in Science, Occasional Pamphlet 12. Oxford: Potter.

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    As joint leader of another of the organizations that he helped to found, Tansley brings to bear his views on psychology.

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Correspondence

Tansley’s voluminous correspondence has gone largely unpublished. Exceptions include a letter from Sigmund Freud to Tansley (Forrester and Cameron 1999) and excerpts from Tansley’s correspondence with Frederic Clements (Golley 1993).

  • Forrester, John, and Laura Cameron. 1999. “A cure with a defect”: A previously unpublished letter by Freud concerning “Anna O.” International Journal of Psychoanalysis 80:929–942.

    DOI: 10.1516/0020757991599160Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Addresses the text of a previously unpublished 1932 letter by Freud to Tansley concerning the treatment and later life of “Anna O.,” the first psychoanalytic patient.

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  • Golley, Frank Benjamin. 1993. A history of the ecosystem concept in ecology: More than a sum of the parts. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

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    A scientist’s perspective giving particular attention to Tansley’s reasoning in formulating the concept. The “Notes” (pp. 208–210) contain excerpts from correspondence between Tansley and Frederic Clements.

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Collaborations

Tansley collaborated on numerous studies and projects throughout his life. Notable among them are studies with his wife-to-be Edith Chick, for instance Chick and Tansley 1903. In 1903 they married and her independent scientific career ended. He joined with others (Blackman, et al. 1917) to advance curriculum reform. He produced many papers with younger colleagues on various ways vegetation is influenced by human and animal activities: Tansley and Adamson 1925, Godwin and Tansley 1929, and Tansley and Watt 1932. He also worked with the assistant director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, to edit an influential book, Tansley and Chipp 1926, defining ecological methods for imperial management, and with a teacher to create a book (Tansley and Price Evans 1946) that would interest children in practical ecology.

  • Blackman, F. F., V. H. Blackman, F. Keeble, F. W. Oliver, and A. G. Tansley. 1917. The reconstruction of elementary botanical teaching. New Phytologist 16.10: 241–252.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.1917.tb07226.xSave Citation »Export Citation »

    First volley in heated debate in which Tansley et al. plea for a vitalized curriculum to be based on plant physiology and ecology and not subordinate to morphology.

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  • Chick, E., and A. G. Tansley. 1903. On the structure of Schizaea malacanna. Annals of Botany 17:493–510.

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    Fern study with Tansley’s future wife as senior author.

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  • Godwin, H., and A. G. Tansley. 1929. The vegetation of Wicken Fen. In The natural history of Wicken Fen. Vol. 5. Edited by Stanley Gardiner, 387–446. Cambridge, UK: Bowes & Bowes.

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    Results of research undertaken on the effects of crop-taking in the National Trust reserve of Wicken Fen.

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  • Tansley, A. G., and R. S. Adamson. 1925. Studies of the vegetation of the English chalk: III. The chalk grasslands of Hampshire-Sussex border. Journal of Ecology 13:177–223.

    DOI: 10.2307/2255283Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Demonstration that without the attacks of rabbits and pasturing, the chalk grassland would become forest.

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  • Tansley, A. G., and T. F. Chipp, eds. 1926. Aims and methods in the study of vegetation. London: British Empire Vegetation Committee.

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    Published by the British Empire Vegetation Committee and the Crown Agents for the Colonies, both interested in making an inventory of the British Empire’s vegetational “resources.” Edited with the assistant director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

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  • Tansley, A. G., and E. Price Evans. 1946. Plant ecology and the school. London: Allen and Unwin.

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    Written with a practicing teacher, the emphasis is on ecology as a “practical” study.

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  • Tansley, A. G., and A. S. Watt. 1932. British beechwoods. Die Buchenwälder Europas: Verüffentlichungen des Geobotanischen Institutes Rübel in Zürich 3:294–361.

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    Overview study with former Cambridge graduate student.

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Reception

Both of Tansley’s major works, The New Psychology and Its Relation to Life (Tansley 1929, cited under Psychology) and The British Islands and Their Vegetation (Tansley 1965, cited under Ecology), received generally admiring reviews from eminent commentators in several countries, including, in reference to the former, Hall 1922 and Jones 1920, and, to the latter, Salisbury 1939 and Olmsted 1939.

Legacy

Tansley’s legacy remains vital. His classic paper “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms” has been reprinted with commentary in Kingsolver and Paine 1991. A previously unpublished paper containing hints as to relations between his understanding of nature and the human mind appears for the first time in the journal Ecosystems with an introduction by Peder Anker (Anker 2002) and Tansley is featured in the film Curtis 2012. The Journal of Ecology honored Tansley’s enduring vision in its 2012 centenary issue, Hutchings, et al. 2012, keeping the memory of its founder alive with a highly informative website, the New Phytologist Trust. The British Ecological Society supports the Tansley Lecture in his name. In fields beyond ecology, the Network in Canadian History and Environment has given attention to his work as founder of the International Phytogeographical Excursion and Progress in Physical Geography has revisited his classic paper “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms” (Trudgill 2007).

  • Anker, Peder. 2002. The context of ecosystem theory. Ecosystems 5.7: 611–613.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10021-002-0106-8Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Brief philosophical background for “The Temporal Genetic Series as a Means of Approach to Philosophy,” a previously unpublished paper that Tansley delivered to the Magdalen Philosophy Club of Oxford University, 5 May 1932. The full text of Tansley’s paper follows (pp. 614–624).

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  • Curtis, Adam, dir. 2012. The use and abuse of vegetational concepts: Ecology, technology and society. Part 2 of All watched over by machines of loving grace. DVD. New York: Films for the Humanities & Sciences.

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    A BBC documentary series, written by Adam Curtis and directed by Adam Curtis. Aired 30 May 2011. The film highlights Tansley’s dream (see Forrester and Cameron 1999, cited under Correspondence) and makes connections between his psychology and ecology in the creation of the ecosystem concept and alleges its support of a “balance of nature.” Note that Tansley emphasized the dynamic and unstable nature of ecosystems, also recognizing that such concepts were constructs necessarily imposed upon nature.

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  • Hutchings, Michael, David Gibson, Richard Bardgett, et al. 2012. Tansley’s vision for Journal of Ecology, and a centenary celebration. Journal of Ecology 100.1: 1–5.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2011.01927.xSave Citation »Export Citation »

    The one-hundredth volume of the Journal of Ecology was published in 2012. The editorial for this centenary issue argues that Tansley’s vision for the Journal, which he articulated in its first volume in 1913, retains its relevance because he identified areas of plant ecology that remain fundamental to the advancement of the subject.

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  • Kingsolver, Joel G., and Robert T. Paine. 1991. Part three: Theses, antitheses, and syntheses; Conversational biology and ecological debate. In Foundations of ecology: Classic papers with commentaries. Edited by Leslie Real and James Brown, 309–317. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    The importance of Tansley’s paper that introduces the “ecosystem” concept cannot be overstated (see Tansley 1935, cited under Primary Works: Ecology). Kingsolver and Paine comment on the legacy of Tansley’s key concept as well as his methodological approach in their essay contextualizing Tansley’s classic paper, reprinted in this collection.

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  • Sir Arthur George Tansley, 1871–1955. New Phytologist Trust.

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    Features photographs, four interpretative essays, and a full list of his publications.

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  • The Tansley Lecture. British Ecological Society.

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    Since 1975 and beginning with Sir Harry Godwin, “an eminent ecologist is chosen every two years to address the British Ecological Society at the Tansley Lecture during the annual meeting. Those who are invited to speak may pick any ecological subject and may publish their papers in one of the society’s journals.”

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  • Transnational Ecologies: Visual Materials. Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE).

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    In cooperation with the British Ecological Society and Library of Congress, NiCHE makes available some of the rare images of the 1911 and 1913 International Phytogeographical Excursions.

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  • Trudgill, S. T. 2007. Classics revisited: Tansley, A.G. 1935: The use and abuse of vegetational concepts and terms. Ecology 16:284–307.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309133307083297Save Citation »Export Citation »

    Critical engagement highlighting Tansley’s lasting influence due, in part, to his careful and self-reflexive qualification of terminology (see Progress in Physical Geography 31.5: 501–507).

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