Bill Freedman: an appreciation

Bill Freedman (1950-2015) was a colleague at Dalhousie University and was also a neighbor down the street from me. I was chair of the committee that recommended him for a position in the Biology Department in 1979 and later Bill became my department chair. We shared many ecological interests and often walked together. So I knew Bill both personally and professionally.

When Bill arrived at Dalhousie University in 1979, he threw himself into intensive field work. His graduate students became well versed in field skills and many have gone on to play key environment-related roles in Nova Scotia and elsewhere. Bill was a superb supervisor.

Bill authored or co-authored over 100 refereed research papers. Collectively they could be described as quantitative descriptions of natural and human-stressed habitats and their associated flora and fauna. Those studies continue to provide invaluable reference or baseline data on the state of a wide range of aquatic and terrestrial sites in a world changing ever more rapidly under the influence of humans. Many of the quantitative examples Bill provides in this book are drawn from those papers.

A lot of Bill’s earliest work focused on effects of acid rain on surface waters and forests and relationships of aquatic plants and amphibians to acidity. He ventured into assessment of carbon storage in forests well before it became an important topic, subject to international agreements related to GHGs, and he was one of the first environmentalists to highlight the potential of protected areas for carbon storage. In later years, he took an interest in urban ecology. He was especially passionate about the Canadian Arctic, Sable Island and birds.

Bill was a collector, intellectually and physically. His intellectual collection was encyclopedic. There was very little on land and in fresh waters world-wide that Bill could not make a comment on or cite his own observations.

Bill and George-Anne’s house, strategically located “half way between the Biology Dept. and the squash courts” as Bill would say, hosted an incredible collection of artifacts including for example, hundreds of old Nova Scotia bottles, probably a hundred or more wooden decoys, animal carvings, stuffed birds (100 years and older) and all manner of sea floats and pieces of old fishing gear; their walls were covered with large bird prints, and bookshelves were replete with old volumes on natural history. Nothing was new; most of the items came from a local flea market which Bill visited regularly.

Bill walked the talk as an environmentalist. He was a vegetarian for his last 30 years or so because of concerns about impacts of livestock on environment. He filled the small spaces around his house with native plants. He had a small Canadian built car. He volunteered for 25 years on the board of the Nature Conservancy of Canada, several as chair and conducted related field work as a volunteer. I frequently think about the story I was told by one NCC board member about the time they all wore horn rimmed glasses with Einstein-like moustaches to one of their meetings, an expression of their strong affection for Bill, who bore more than a little facial resemblance to Einstein.

Bill never took any kind of conventional holiday. His rest and recovery days were spent birdwatching locally or in the jungles of Peru or New Guinea, or as a guide on Adventure-Canada tours including their first NW passage tour, or weeding his native plant garden. He was an inveterate reader and he loved The Blues.

Bill surprised the Biology Dept in 2000 when he volunteered to be chair at a time when no one really wanted to volunteer because we were all ‘busy’ with our own teaching and research. He served as chair until 2007 with aplomb, while barely detracting from his research and teaching activities. I never saw Bill get visibly angry; outraged about some injustice perhaps, but not angry.

As Bill was approaching the retirement days that he looked forward to as more time to pursue his passions, he got the news of a possibly terminal cancer. He treated it as a learning experience to be shared, which he did on Facebook, always with a kind of self-deprecating humour full of “Bill Puns”. He would die within a year.

Bill spent a good three months or more of that last year updating his textbook, also editing a book on Sable Island, both labours of love because he knew there was slim chance he would be around much longer.

Bill believed strongly that people are capable of rational action in relation to environmental issues if given “the facts” and given some options. He was also Canadian to the core. That’s what drove him to write Environmental Sciences, A Canadian Perspective. It was the first Canadian text on Environmental Science, and he updated it 5 times. The 6th edition was headed for publication by a prominent academic press, but delays and miscommunications following his passing led Bill’s spouse, George-Anne, to withdraw it and seek to have it published as a free online text available from Dalhousie. I strongly encouraged that initiative in part because I think no one would be happier about it than Bill.

It is a wonderful gift: 1097 highly readable, referenced, well-illustrated pages organized under five sections and twenty-two chapters. The literature cited goes up to mid-2015. With the information and references given, it would require little effort to assemble the more recent research on any particular topic, e.g., using Google Scholar. I think the book will be widely and well used by Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and thank George-Anne, Dalhousie University and of course my friend and much missed colleague Bill for it being so-available.

David Graham Patriquin
Professor of Biology (retired)
Dalhousie University


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