Nurtured by Nature: The Education of a Biologist


One warm summer afternoon I rode horseback while leading a single pack mule in the remote backcountry of Yosemite National Park. The trail crossed a small creek. There was a fair slope, going down to the creek and up the other side, but it wasn’t too steep. I had recently completed a National Park Service horseback riding course that provided training on packing and leading mules. I considered myself a good student and worked hard to remember the lessons they taught. In this situation I was to lightly spur the horse to get it to move forward and at the same time nudge back on the reins so it doesn’t jump. I’m to hold the mules lead rope away from my saddle and my body so I don’t get tangled in it. The mule’s lead rope was not to be coiled around my fingers but laid so if the mule reared back the rope would slide through my fingers without cinching around my hand. I had this. I gently spurred the horse forward expecting him to walk across the creek. He jumped. I also expected the mule to follow. He didn’t. Oh, one more lesson: don’t ever let go of the mule’s lead rope. I found myself strung out horizontally across the creek as tight as a woman’s pantyhose. I held reins in one hand and the mule’s lead rope in the other, and neither animal was willing to move. I hung there for an eternity plus a couple of minutes; unable to recall a lesson on what to do next. That experience proved useful later in life as I taught leadership and the importance of making sure everyone clearly understood team objectives, the direction of movement, and the timing of execution.

Things I learned outdoors, from animals, plants, and the weather, always excited me. Undergraduate classes in invertebrate zoology, plant identification, and ornithology all widened my horizons and helped me recognize and explore nature in its many environments. Tide pooling along ocean shores became a much richer experience when I recognized sea anemones and hermit crabs. Trees became more familiar and memorable when I learned to identify them and applied a name to each one as I hiked mountain trails. I envisioned images of dinosaurs when I heard the prehistoric call of sandhill cranes, that tall, lanky bird standing in the marsh. The ubiquitous song of a white-crowned sparrow, the small seed-eater with two racing stripes on its head, announced his arrival each spring. Although my undergraduate and graduate school courses in zoology and wildlife biology engaged and enlightened me, my real education took place outdoors. My years in the field as a wildlife biologist in graduate school, and as a scientist in both Yosemite and Denali National Parks ramped up my education.

With nature as my schoolmaster and passion as my grading system, I thrived. Early one spring in Island Park, Idaho, I recorded the arrival of migrating birds and watched their behavior as the snow melted and patches of grass emerged and slowly turned green. A large buteo soaring overhead caught my attention, a Swainson’s hawk. Similar in size to the common red-tailed hawk, I expected similar eating habits. I anticipated watching them hover in the air, or perch on fence posts in search of ground squirrels. But when I saw hawk after hawk walking on the ground in early spring, I began to wonder. I had never seen hawks walking on the ground. A quick check in my bird books taught me that Swainson’s hawks also eat grasshoppers and locusts. I scoured the snow-free patches of ground and found not a single insect. The hawks walked on moistened soil where snow had recently melted, so I focused attention there. Finally, I saw one lift its head, and hanging from its curved beak wiggled a long, fat, juicy worm. Swainson’s hawks, in east Idaho, eat worms, and lots of them. I learned that Swainson’s hawks are opportunistic, and will take advantage of novel abundant food sources, even if unrecognized by the authors of bird books. It might be good for humans to not get to set in our own ways, and be willing to look for novel opportunities as well.

Deeper lessons came with extended time in nature. Studying grizzly bears in Denali National Park I watched females produce cubs year after year, only to have two-thirds of the young die during either their first or second summer. I needed to know why. Monitoring female physical condition, I learned that most were unable to store enough body fat before winter denning to successfully raise twin cubs. Slow cub growth may have been equally hampered by limited access to protein sources. Adult male grizzly bears dominated the few caribou and moose carcasses, limiting access to them by females and their young. It was then that I pondered the delicate interplay of bears with caribou, wolves, and climate. I considered how the bear population may have fared 50 years prior when the caribou herd exceeded 20,000 animals, over 10 times its size, than during my study. Ten times as many wolf kills and caribou carcasses may have been more than male bears could control, allowing better nutrition for females and their growing offspring. The various elements of nature, inextricably linked, affected each other in significant ways. And isn’t that true about our lives? I used to think I led two separate lives, one at work and one at home. I finally realized I was the same person at both places and what happened at one affected the other. I learned to consider the well-being of employees’ families when building a strong, productive workforce.

In my early 40s, I struggled with public speaking and remember one excruciating experience that became a turning point for me. Scheduled to speak in Church I had prepared to the teeth, every word of my talk carefully typed, important points highlighted so I could easily keep track of my presentation. As I stood at the pulpit and glanced at the small congregation, all friends and acquaintances, my autonomic nervous system kicked into high gear and left me cringing in the dust. Small beads of perspiration on my forehead merged into small rivulets, that in turn merged into larger streams and finally great rivers of sweat cascading down my face. Sweat dripped from my forehead in monsoonal proportions and saturated the pages of my Bible. The congregation stared in wonder; I shrunk in humiliation. After several sleepless nights reliving the horror of that day, I decided I needed a different approach, and began telling bear stories in Church, and relating them to important gospel principles. Later in life I noticed our children telling their children my bear stories. It was then I decided I needed to write them down.

I wrote this book for anyone with even the slightest interest in the outdoors. I hope you’ll find my experiences engaging and entertaining, a relaxing read in front of a warm fire on a blustery day. You’ll read about grizzly bear ecology, the stealthy habits of long-billed curlews, and how to sleep dry in a rainstorm. Along the way you’ll learn about the tools of a wildlife biologist, not only expanding your hobby as an outdoors-person, but perhaps stimulating a career path. Most of the stories teach life lessons that could be used as metaphors to help bring life into focus. I hope these experiences will inspire deeper reflection, reflection about life and priorities, reflection about the role of the natural world in human society, reflection about how we can make a difference in the world.

Thank you for joining my grand adventure.