Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dr. Teska: A Beloved Mentor

Some guy ruining a great picture of Dr. Teska & me and two Sigmodon hispidus (cotton rats) in 1994.  

It has been over 22 years ago since I had a class at Furman University with my undergraduate mentor, Dr. William R. Teska—Bill Teska to many, but beloved Dr. Teska to me.  I have four folders in my file cabinet at work from the two classes I took with him, Ecology and Field Zoology.  Nearly everything else from that time has been parted with—I am not a big saver—but those classes and the professor were precious to me.  What is interesting to me, as I look through those folders, is all the information that was in my notes, about how much he taught us so long ago that I still use in my work and in my classes.  I was expecting to see notes where I wrote the funny sayings he had about doing things “for funsies” or how we should be “quick like a bunny” or advising us not “to stand around with our teeth in our mouths.” Or his famous advice that “you only go around once,” a mantra that I have reminded myself over the years when feeling particularly cautious.  But the folders are full of good, solid information—and what is lost in my notes is the magic that I remember him creating in telling about the Nile Perch or the distribution of ecosystems from global circulation patterns or the global amphibian crisis, back in 19 and 93 and 19 and 94. Turns out I didn’t need to write down the magic—that I have remembered.

His death at the end of June has been laying heavily on me.  I would hear from him maybe only once a year or so, but I placed great value in knowing that I would and that he was out there, now at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, continuing to teach and inspire undergraduates and develop innovative classes.  That he was there if I ever needed a bit of advice or thoughts on teaching.  That I would hear, eventually, of his tropical adventures leading students or discovering a new species of mammal in his summer research.  That he was an email away if I ever needed to tell someone I saw a Sigmodon hispidus, the adorable species of cotton rat that he studied for his graduate work at Savannah River Ecology Lab in Aiken, SC.  (“Any day you see a mammal is a good day to be alive.” Indeed. ) 

When I started college, I knew I wanted to be involved in conservation work, but I did not know how to get from the point of having a vague idea for future employment to having a career.  Dr. Teska provided a road map.  He helped me get an internship with the US Forest Service (where I also met my future husband) and then at Savannah River Ecology Lab where Dr. Teska had worked and where I had some of the best research experiences I could hope for (and where I also met my graduate advisor).  (Meeting both the future husband and graduate advisor were very good things.)  He may have been the faculty member that took me on my first class camping trip.  He helped me see that I could be a scientist—and that it could be wonderful (no lab coats or goggles necessary).  And, later, when I had a job here at Miami U, he sent me one of my very best students.  In faculty jobs, especially when universities are squeezing the life blood out of you, it is easy to forget that many of the students do not quite know how to make the leap from student to scientist.  I am so grateful that he took the time to help me find a path through the forest.  I hope I can always remember to be as generous to the students as he was to me; it is much easier not to be that generous, but he was generous and one should be as Dr. Teska was.

The world has lost a wonderful laugh—as well as a serious biologist and educator.  It is a laugh that I will remember until the day I die.  His lessons, all of them, I will cherish.  I will hope to be half the mammal he was.  Well, maybe we are both equally mammals, but perhaps you know what I mean.  He was the very best.  Rest in peace, Dr. Teska—until we meet again, at which point I will want the scoop over a nice camp fire and a bag of M&Ms, while the heavenly Sigmodon hispidus run through the grasses, free from worry of being caught in a Sherman (or worse, snap) trap. 
P.S. If you would like to help to rebuild a walkway at the OTS' La Selva Biological Station to be named after Dr. Teska--follow this link: A great way to have him remembered in a place he loved.  

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Ecology of Fear: Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Coates’ Between the World and Me

                I rarely read two books at once, but I have been doing so while rereading a book with my Conservation Biology class (A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold) and reading a new book with my book club (Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates). These really different books have started talking to each other and having a conversation of their own about the ecology of fear.  One of the most poignant moments to me in A Sand County Almanac is from “Thinking like a Mountain” where Leopold is having lunch on the mountain top when he and his companions see a wolf and her pups and they begin “pumping lead into the pack” (p 130).  They “reach the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes” (p 130).  This is his road to Damascus moment where his life changes and where he sees that the path he is on is headed in the wrong direction. And he converts—he changes, although state after state continues to eliminate the predator from its boundaries. While both the deer and human may have “a mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer.”  So many of the myths of our culture focus around predators and their danger, instead of focusing on or envisioning, say, their role and majesty in the ecosystem.  What we do, perhaps as a result, is tame the world around us by cutting forests and eliminating the animals that may do us harm in a short-term attempt for safety. 
                In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes a letter to his son about the experiences that have shaped him and about his fears for his son—it is a personal response to the diversity of color and how it shapes and defines (and sometimes destroys) lives in America. He talks of negotiating the streets of Baltimore while walking to school—how it required constant assessment to get there safely and that one false move could result in getting shot or stabbed. He talks of parents so afraid and concerned for their youth that they disciplined them in ways that seemed cruel. He talks of a whole culture and city driven by fear of one another and of their individual futures. He talks about taming that fear so that his son can have a life that is not oppressed by or motivated by fear—he remembers “how [his son’s] eyes lit up like candles…That look was all that I lived for.”

Coates’ book is fascinating and disturbing and thought-provoking in so many respects (it is rich in ways that I am not discussing).  It also has me thinking about fear and Leopold on the mountain top. Do we think we can create a world without fear?  Fear is useful in many respects—it can guide us to safety, whether it is through a forest or a street.  It is when it begins to dominate our lives and our ability to function that it becomes problematic. The hunters eliminating the predators, they have not eliminated fear.  They have just created new problems.  In a sense, we have tamed the environment to an extent that there are no predators in our midst.  Except ourselves.  We are our own worst enemy—and as Coates’ points out, some are more the enemy than others.  In this sense, perhaps, maybe it is Coates who has it figured out—we fear one another most and certainly we can cause the most widespread harm to one another.  We think (in America at least) that we can solve all problems with weapons—that we can eliminate what we fear.  But instead, we create new monsters.