Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Listen to the Music

Although Charlie Manson was, and remains, certifiably nuts, he once uttered some profound and prophetic words. In an interview nearly 40 years ago, Charlie told the reporter covering him to "Listen to the music. It talks to you every day."

That little quip of Charlie's made me think recently about how a single song was instrumental in changing the course of my life and my career.

In June 1958, while hiking with my maternal grandfather through the patch of woods at the south edge of my grandparents farm, we came upon a pile of dead trees stacked up against my grandparents fence line. The land owner to the south of them had bulldozed a road into the east side of Desair Lake with the intention of eventually subdividing the land and building houses there.

I remember the scene like it was yesterday. The dead trees lay like fallen soldiers against the earth and a huge scar was placed on the land by a bulldozer. I became visibly upset when I saw what had happened to those trees and, like it was yesterday, said to my grandpa that if people kept killing trees like that one day when I was his age there would no longer be any trees. My grandpa consoled me as best as he could and assured me that there would always be trees. I remember thinking then, fifty three years ago, that I was going to make sure that my grandfather was never proven wrong. I think it was then that I decided to become a biologist one day if and when I grew up.

Through my formative years I focused most of my attention on learning about the earth. I picked up road kills and looked at them. I dissected anything that no longer moved to figure out how it worked. I read books and watched television shows and learned how to read the landscape. When I was 9 years old I found a dead duck laying under a powerline near my grandparents farm. The bird possessed a band on one of its legs. I removed the band and sent it to the address written on it. A few months later I received a certificate of appreciation from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The certificate told me what species of duck it was (already knew it was a Mallard) and its gender (already knew it was a female). I also learned where it had been banded (northwestern Ohio) and when (four years earlier).

I became intrigued that an organization was out there that put bands on bird legs so at age 9 I wrote my first letter to a member of Congress. In it I asked Alvin O'Konski to tell me more about this Fish and Wildlife Service that puts bands on bird legs.

Several weeks later our mailbox was filled with brochures and pamphlets about this mysterious agency that banded birds. After reading every word on every scrap of paper I was provided I decided at age 9 that one day when I was grown up I would be a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It was my entire focus from that point on.

At 12 years old I taught myself how to trap muskrats with a few mink and raccoons thrown in by accident. That first year, 1964, I caught five muskrats and a mink and sold this haul to Sam Parker for $6.25. I was a rich 8th grader! As time and experience went on I learned how to catch more and more muskrats. Later I taught myself how to catch red fox and beavers and even caught a river otter once. However I felt so badly after seeing that magnificent animal laying dead in a trap that I never set another one that could catch a river otter.

When I went to college I paid for every bit of my undergraduate degree by selling the furs of the hundreds of muskrats, and tens of mink, and raccoons I would catch in the fall. These funds were supplemented by hundreds of beavers and a few red foxes caught during the winter. I literally became a trapping machine by the start of my undergraduate years.

During winter quarter of my freshman year I took an elective course called Introduction to Geology 101. It was taught by Mr Owen, a retired petroleum geologist with 30 years of experience as a petroleum geologist with Phillips Petroleum. Mr Own had just a bachelors degree but with his 30 years of experience actually doing geology he was able to make the earth come alive to me.

I took Geology 101 and its lab Geology 102 during winter quarter in northern Wisconsin. The class met daily at 8:00 a.m. (in winter no less!) and I never missed a class. Not once.

At the conclusion of Mr. Owens' Geology 101 class I darted over to the registrar's office and declared a double major. There was no way I was not going to take more Geology and I thought I might as well get some credit for the extra classes I took.

So I became a double major. In fact Geology was my first major and Biology my second. If you look at my diploma it says "Bachelor of Science in Earth Science." To get the geology degree I had to take a lot of Physics and in order to understand Physics you need a lot of Math. After all Physics is simply Math in motion.

Through all of the Geology courses I took I developed a special fondness for Invertebrate Paleontology.

My special love became Ordovician age (450 million years old) trilobites. Sam Huffman used to take us on regular weekend fossil trips to the Crawfordsville bioherm near Crawfordsville Indiana. It was there that I learned a great deal about trilobites and about ancient marine environments.

Near the conclusion of my bachelors degree days I was faced with a perplexing decision. Although I loved Biology and especially birds, I was totally immersed in and loved Geology. I simply could not get enough of Geology and especially Invertebrate Paleontology.

Back in the early 1970s about all you needed to get a job was a Bachelors Degree. Having a Masters Degree was like frosting on a cake. Now of course all a Bachelors Degree is good for is getting you the basics needed for Graduate school and a Masters. And now all a Masters is any good for is a stepping stone to a PhD.

At the time however I would have been more than happy with a Masters degree.

Utah State University had an excellent Invertebrate Paleontology program and there was a professor there whose specialty was trilobite ecology. As I read papers this man had written I started to think that I should go to Utah State for at least a Masters degree and to do it in Invertebrate Paleontology.

During the summer of 1971 and 1972 I spent time on Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior. While backpacking across the island and avoiding direct collisions with moose, I developed quite a kinship for the island and its nearly intact forest community.

At the time there was a professor at Michigan State University in Houghton, Michigan, who was doing research on the ecology of plant and bird communities on Isle Royale. In correspondence with him I learned that he was interested in taking me on as a graduate student. His plan was for me to get a Masters degree in plant ecology under him and once that degree was finished I would stay on to get a PhD in avian ecology. The plan was to use the botanical data as a base to compare the bird data for my PhD. He had an assistantship that was there for the asking.

I applied to Michigan Tech for a Masters and PhD. However it was still gnawing at me how much I loved Geology and especially the ecology of 450 million year old trilobites. To quench that thirst I applied to the graduate school at Utah State University to get a Masters in invertebrate paleontology. My biggest misgiving about this was that I'd be surrounded by Mormons but I figured I could stomach it for a few years.

On almost the same day I sent my application off to the Utah State University Graduate School I sent another one off to the Michigan Tech University Graduate School. I figured one of them would probably select me.

However on almost the same day several months later I received a letter from Utah State informing me that I had been selected to receive an assistantship for a Masters in invertebrate paleontology. In a separate envelope a couple of days later was a letter of acceptance from the Graduate School at Michigan Tech University informing me that I was selected for a Masters program in Plant Ecology and that the option remained open for me to stay there to work on a PhD in Avian Ecology if I wanted to.

If I wanted to? Who in hell were these people trying to kid?

Now that I had what I wanted I had to make a choice. I'd wanted to be a biologist since almost the time I could walk yet I loved unraveling the mystery of how animals lived millions of years before humans started to trash the earth. Would I be happy doing either? What about those Mormons in Utah? Isn't there a hell of a lot of snow for 10 months of the year in Houghton Michigan?

There were more questions than answers and I wasn't sure how to figure out what I was going to do.

During the 1973 muskrat trapping season I was once again heavily invested in the marshes along Spring Creek east of Rice Lake

I probably learned more about biology along Spring Creek east of Rice Lake Wisconsin than any 10 other places I have ever been.
One morning right after the start of trapping season I was paddling around in Spring Creek checking my traps and trying to decide what to do with my life. Moving to either college town would be a huge break from living just 90 miles down the road in River Falls Wisconsin and at the time that was a daunting possibility. However there was something even more important to decide.

Which career path would do the most good for the earth? I could make tons of money working as a paleontologist with an oil company and at the time oil companies were picking up geologists by the handful. At the same time biologists were not nearly in as much demand although the recent birth of Earth Day helped focus people's attention on biological issues more than they had been for a long time.

What to do? What to do?

On that morning when all these thoughts were passing through my head I started playing John Denver's smash hit single "Rocky Mountain High" in my mind. I couldn't seem to get the lyrics out of my head. I'd loved that song since it first came out and for some reason that morning its lyrics would not leave me alone.

The song begins with:
He was born in the summer of his 27th year
Comin' home to a place he'd never been before
He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again
You might say he found a key for every door

And quite surprisingly I was born again in the summer of my 27th year - 1978 - when I spent two months traipsing across the prairie with Hal Kantrud at the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center conducting research on the ecology of grassland breeding birds. However that was in the future. In early November 1973 while paddling a 13 foot canoe around Spring Creek, these words by John Denver are what really got to me:
Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear
Of a simple thing he cannot comprehend
Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more
More people, more scars upon the land

When I heard John Denver singing in my mind about trying to tear the mountain down to bring more scars upon the land, I knew that if I became a geologist that is exactly what I would do. I'd be working for a company raping the earth to extract more oil or coal and leaving huge scars on the land. Those scars would be left to facilitate corporate profits at the expense of the earth and its creatures. I simply could not be a party to that and the following Monday I contacted Utah State University and told them thanks but no thanks. I was going to stay with my biological roots.

Later that same day I contacted Michigan Tech and accepted their offer of a scholarship to get my Masters in plant taxonomy and later on my PhD in Avian Ecology. In early March 1974, just befoere the scholarships were to be formally announced Michigan had a cut back in state funding and my once "for certain" scholarship was now unfunded. Michigan Tech had to call me to tell me that they could not bring me on as promised and my plans for a Masters and a PhD went down the drain.

With summers on Isle Royale now but a fleeting fantasy, I stayed at my alma mater the University of Wisconsin at River Falls and worked on a bird project for my Masters degree. At about the same time I met and fell in love with a redhead whom I married a couple of months later. For me I had gotten the best of both worlds - a Masters degree project and married to my best friend.

Later, after receiving my Masters degree from UW River Falls I was hired by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and spent the next 31 years of my life trying to make sure that my grandfather was never proven wrong about those trees.

Still, had it not been for some heavy thought while checking muskrat traps with the words to John Denver's song streaming through my mind that November day, I might have chosen a different path and a different career where I would have wound up harming the earth instead of trying to protect it.

Charlie Manson's words in that interview seem to have been proven prophetic.

Except for rap "music" I still listen to the words of the music every day and still let it help me make decisions. Maybe if more of us did that there would be a lot less confusion in the world.