First Person

Natural Cycles

By Eric Strauss

The friendship between two scientists goes back decades, winding through life-changing episodes, as their teacher-student relationship evolved toward a career-long collaboration, and, indeed, a shared vocation.

BIOGRAPHY

Eric Strauss is President’s Professor of Biology and executive director of the Center for Urban Resilience at Loyola Marymount University. He is also the director of the Ballona Discovery Center and editor of Cities and the Environment journal. He has written multi-media textbooks in biology and urban ecology, and he has received several National Science foundation grants for the study of urban ecology.

For most of my childhood, I lived in an 18th century New England farmhouse on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, that was nestled beside a pond and wetland that seemed to invite nature inside. I grew up among the many wild and domestic animals that cohabited our yard and environs. I loved the land as the seasons changed, especially the arrival of spring. After the bitter winter, nature released her ice-lock on the land, water flowed as a life-giving liquid, and the glorious green transformation began. Summer ensued with long days, the sun’s energy powering an elaborate collaboration in the natural world —which I see mirrored in my life’s work as a scientist and a most unlikely 40-year friendship with LMU ecologist, Peter Auger. Although we now live in sunny L.A., this story unfolds across the continent on the stormy Atlantic Coast.

I first met Pete in 1976, when I was a senior at Barnstable High School on Cape. Pete had returned to his alma mater to teach, having deferred both a dental school that admitted him and the New York Yankees, who drafted him. He was teaching a science course with the radical title Ecology. There was no textbook, only readings that included Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac” and Henry Beston’s “Outermost House.” We also read original scientific literature and collected data from the local environment as we learned about managing a human-dominated natural landscape.

After school and on weekends, Pete’s course took me and my fellow students to a remote field station on the windswept dunes and scrubby woodlands of the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach. Pete had conducted a 40-day solo retreat there while writing his senior thesis at Amherst College and made the facility a feature of his immersive science class. The site was accessible only by boat, foot or four-wheel drive. Heated by a coal stove, this rustic wooden building nestled next to the giant saltmarsh had no running water or electricity. We carried in everything we needed during our stay. We studied shorebirds, endangered turtles, wetland dynamics and the socio-ecological history of the dunes and marshes. The trips always featured long evening walks through the various habitats, watching the animals as they interacted and journaling our experiences for later analysis. Thus was borne in me the deeply experiential form of teaching and learning that would inspire my work for a lifetime.

 

Pete’s course took me and my fellow students to a remote field station on the windswept dunes and scrubby woodlands of the Sandy Neck Barrier Beach. ... The site was accessible only by boat, foot or four-wheel drive. Heated by a coal stove, this rustic wooden building nestled next to the giant saltmarsh had no running water or electricity.

The course was a radical departure from all my previous high school classes, and it came at a crucial moment in my life. A few years before, in 1973, my mom was permanently disabled in a serious fall. My parents had divorced, so I dropped out of high school in my sophomore year to help her and to work full time at a local motorcycle shop. As our lives stabilized, I returned to school, determined to make up for lost time. The Sandy Neck program, then, was like a renaissance for me, rekindling my love for science. One of the features of the field station was that it attracted the interest of local scientists, who would visit the project and share their knowledge and help direct our efforts. Over time, the program grew, and at the tender age of 18, I felt like a founding partner.

Because of my mother’s health issues, I chose to attend nearby Cape Cod Community College and then Emerson College in Boston, proximity that also allowed me to continue working with Pete at Sandy Neck. When I was a senior, Pete took a leave of absence from teaching high school to enter a Ph.D. program in biology focused on animal behavior and wildlife ecology at Tufts University. These were heady times. E.O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” and Robert Trivers’ “Social Evolution” were revolutionizing the study of wild animal populations. I was invited to join a weekly afternoon research seminar and quickly fell in love with intense, complex conversations about the ideas discussed. In those exchanges, I discovered my passion for research, teaching and a scholarly life.

Two years later, I joined the lab and started my Ph.D. program at Tufts. Pete and I cofounded a nonprofit organization and a wildlife consulting business. Scores of scientists and their students visited and collaborated with us, using my mom’s old farmhouse as a basecamp and the field station as the lab. Pete was back teaching at Barnstable High School, and I was splitting my time between Boston and Cape Cod.

After earning my Ph.D., I taught at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Boston College. Pete became a visiting faculty member at both universities and remained my research colleague, mentor and friend. In fact, Pete and the field station were core elements of several of my early career projects: the Urban Ecology Institute in Boston that I co-founded, my book “Biology: The Web of Life” and my work hosting the video series “Biology Alive!” My vision for doing community science, engaging the public as stakeholders, connecting to the underserved and making science locally relevant was inspired by and kept alive by Pete. In 2010 I accepted a President’s Professor appointment at Loyola Marymount University and moved to L.A. with my wife, Erin. I founded the Center for Urban Resilience, dedicating the work to the same core values of the programs that Pete and I had developed four decades before.

By 2012, Pete and his wife, Maria, chose to follow me, migrating west, where Pete became a senior scientist at our center. For the past few years, Pete has also been conducting field research with LMU students and teaching ecology courses, both at LMU and in Costa Rica, much to the delight of students and colleagues alike. It’s such a reminder of the dynamic world we live in when the teacher gets hired by the student, but that’s exactly what happened.

Last fall, Pete suffered a devastating stroke and, as with my mom, his life changed forever. But, being the mental and physical athlete he is and with the help of his dear wife, Pete has made enormous progress following his surgery. He is working toward recovery, and is, once again, back in the lab. It’s fair to say that I have been most happy this past spring, a season of renewed life, to see Pete setting up and adjusting cameras following hummingbirds and coyotes as part of our field work, advising students, and assisting other professors teaching our courses. Pete is making his way through his life-changing event, and I am so grateful our partnership is once again restored.