Around the Pier: Excerpt from "The Grounding of a Marine Biologist"


Excerpt: “The Grounding of a Marine Biologist”

Paul Dayton describes formative experiences in new collection of nature writing

Scripps marine ecologist Paul Dayton is a contributor to The Way of Natural History, a new collection of stories and poems that “call for a renewal of natural history and provide models for personal interactions with nature,” according to publisher Trinity University Press. Dayton shares personal stories of his development as an ecologist and a compassionate human being—tales from a childhood in desert storms and Northwest logging camps, to hikes in the Sierras with grown children:

“How do these vignettes of personal history relate to the science of ecology? In my day job I am a marine ecologist and have done my own research in very different habitats than these extreme terrestrial habitats—much of it under water. But ecosystems are complex and dynamic, and the fortunes of the species wax and wane on vast scales of space and time—from microhabitats of a few centimeters to large regional patterns of many kilometers, and from days to months, centuries, or even millennia.

My own research has focused on the coastal ecology of several rather different habitats, among them rocky coasts, kelp forests, and Antarctic sea bottoms. My most important insights have come from efforts to consider the dynamics of plant and animal communities at many different scales of space and time, and from many years of observing organisms in the field. Good community ecologists can identify the important or strong interactions in an ecosystem and focus on studying those relationships. But such insights depend on a genuine sensitivity to the large-scale natural history, the really big-picture understanding that is a product of integrating many types of knowledge—especially history, climate patterns, and life history biology. Whatever the habitat, one must not only assimilate a wide range of historical and scientific literature, but also invest a great deal of time in the field in order to acquire a meaningful feel for the system, the sense of place so essential to any good ecological understanding.

In my own case an early familiarity with the regional archaeology and the Tohono O’odham and their relationship to the Sonoran Desert helps me picture the early human impacts, from hunting to farming. My lifelong respect for the spectacular programs of the Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson have given me some hints about the Holocene history of this system. But mostly my sense of place simply reflects a great deal of time spent with the plants and animals and people of the Sonoran Desert. Similarly, early experiences in Oregon logging camps and wilderness areas preadapted me to respect and understand the alpine habitats of the Sierra Nevada. At the same time, an understanding of this area has to be built on some knowledge of history, especially the mining history of the late 1800s.

But this is not enough: I believe one must actually see, feel, and contemplate ancient but still living bristlecone or foxtail pine trees to truly appreciate their tenacity for life. And to appreciate the dual nature of their physiological resilience as well as their extreme vulnerability to human-related disturbances, one needs to be with their babies, the small seedlings and saplings over a couple decades during which they are buried under snow for consecutive years, to measure the very slow growth rates of these small trees and to see some die. There is simply no substitute for actually experiencing nature, to see, smell, and listen to the integrated pattern that nature offers an open mind.

The tales I’ve shared are my own, but I suspect that all successful community ecologists have similar personal histories in which they have developed that special feel or sense of place for a particular system. It is clear that this sense of place is critical to their scientific success.

My concern is that the modern trends in both families and education are to eliminate these experiences in nature. Families no longer spend quality time outdoors, and the educational systems from kindergarten through graduate school have not only eliminated field experiences from instruction in all levels of natural history but also even eliminated respect for those biologists who study classical biological material. There is a strong trend to bring parts of plants and animals into the laboratory and to model rather than actually experience and respect nature itself. Today young scholars are asked to study ecology without any sense of place, any understanding of the actual organisms living in real environments characterized by their important histories. An intuitive sense of place so necessary for an integrated understanding of living systems must come from personal experience—smelling, feeling, and seeing the important relationships.”

Excerpted from “The Grounding of a Marine Biologist,” The Way of Natural History, edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner, published by Trinity University Press, 2011,

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