Author Interviews/Features

       

Meet Sharman Apt Russell

Sharman Apt Russell    Sharman Apt Russell lives in the Gila River Valley of southwestern New Mexico and teaches writing at Western New Mexico University and Antioch University in Los Angeles. Her many books include Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist and Anatomy of a Rose: The Secret Life of Flowers. Her work has been widely anthologized and translated into nine languages. Her work includes a Rockefeller Fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. Visit her website.

Read Susan J. Tweit's review of Diary of a Citizen Scientist for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.

Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 01/31/2015

"I have always wanted to be a field biologist," you write in the beginning of Diary of a Citizen Scientist. Later you say, "Sometimes in the middle of the street, in the middle of my life as a teacher and writer and wife and mother in southwestern New Mexico, I have stopped to wonder: Why didn't I do that? Why didn't I go to Africa [like Jane Goodall]? It's a sorrow. My heart actually feels pierced." When did you realize that citizen science could give you that "window into the unknown"?

Starting in 2004, I helped band birds for three years with MAPS (Monitoring Avian Populations Survey), my first real citizen science program. I wanted to get to know the birds in my area, and I enjoyed the company of my neighbors and other local birders. Every week or so, we set up eight nets by the Gila River, caught songbirds throughout the morning, and then sexed, aged, banded, and released them. My job was to untangle the birds from the netting and bring them to the bird-banding table. I remember holding a yellow-breasted chat in my hand—so tiny, with that beautiful, powerful yellow color. And I could feel the rapid beating of its heart. I believed I could feel its fear and anxiety. This is a fairly common bird along the river in the summer, fast-moving, flitting in the bushes and leaves, usually hidden by those bushes and leaves, not a big flier, not a species I had noticed much before. But there in my hand, the bird was so warm and so real, and I did feel that a kind of window had opened for me. I felt an intimacy.

In describing why you wanted to be a field biologist, you write, "I imagine, like so many others before me, a kind of rapture in nature and loss of ego." Did you find that rapture in nature and loss of ego in the actual practice of studying tiger beetles?

Well...yes! But not in any extended way—the way I might have romanticized. I didn't wander for hours like I imagine Thoreau wandered about Walden Pond. Looking for tiger beetles along the banks of the Gila River, I was outside in a wild and very beautiful place, and I wasn't there to move quickly through that beautiful place, hiking or running from Point A to Point B: my job was to look around. So, definitely, I would be suddenly raptured by the hypnotizing movement of water on rock, by the prehistoric charisma of a dragonfly, by the clouds building up to a thunderstorm. But only for a moment. Then my ego reasserted itself. And then later there would be another moment of rapture and gratitude because, after all, I was surrounded by this myriad of extraordinary and beautiful phenomena. Just one beautiful thing after another. The moments accumulated, strung together like beads, to create a very good day.

The majority of citizen scientists participate by observation, whether they are counting species and individuals at the feeders for The Great Backyard Bird Count or recording a plant's growth cycle for Project Budburst. You went much deeper. Did you imagine when you began that you would get so involved in the lives of these insects?

I don't think I did quite imagine what would be involved. For example, I ended up dissecting the ovaries of female tiger beetles, looking at how many eggs and what sizes of eggs were in these ovaries, and I certainly never expected to get that detailed or intimate with this species. I didn't quite realize how much we still don't know about these insects in particular and about so many insects in general and how detailed a scientific study has to be.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist is more than a journal of two years of studying another species, as absorbing as that can be. It feels like a journey: as you learn more about tiger beetles and their world, you learn more about Sharman too. In a way, the quest to find out more about these common but so little-known beetles seems as if you, too, are transformed along the way. Did you feel that as you dove into the science and the study?

I did want to be transformed—into someone more connected, more informed, more curious, more pure, more passionate, more of my idealized image of a scientist. And all that happened to some degree. I wanted to fall more in love with the world, which is always a goal I have, and that certainly happened. I added tiger beetles to my life! Their ferocity, their resilience, their complexity. They just make you fall more in love with the world. But at the same time I also learned about why I didn't choose to become a scientist in my professional life, about the personal qualities you need, the challenges of detail work and precision and making charts and taking really good notes. I saw my limitations and ended up accepting them. As it turns out, I am just as happy being a citizen scientist rather than a full time scientist. I am happy being a generalist rather than a specialist or expert. I really like the renaissance and interdisciplinary nature of citizen science. Rather than transforming myself, I learned more about who I am and I built on that—which was also pretty satisfying.

The arc of the book extends over the two years of your life that you spent studying tiger beetles, and each section is chronological, like a field journal. But the essays range from Burroughs and nature ecstasy to environmental issues, and from teaching third graders to prehistoric agriculture. Where you surprised by the places studying tiger beetles took you and the questions they inspired?

For me, studying tiger beetles can't be separated from writing about them. That's who I really am, someone who uses writing to engage more fully in life. For me, as with most writers, I think, writing generates thought and deepens feeling. And I am always surprised and pleased as to where writing can take us. The scientific idea that the world is interconnected and interdependent is something we experience firsthand in the act of writing—how we start with the study of the Western red-bellied tiger beetle and then explore the need to kill that beetle as part of a particular experiment and then think about Jainism and other religious and philosophical ideas about death and life and then plunge into the memory of our grandmother singing in church...how we experience and see how all these ideas are interconnected...and how we work to make sense of those connections and to write something that is unified and organic and complex and that resonates with the unity and complexity of the universe we live in. I think writing can imitate or actually be an act of mysticism, just as I think that science can imitate or be an act of mysticism. The All in One, the One in All. Of course, the larger subject of this particular book—citizen science—is also such a rich and big subject, ranging far and wide from the study of tiger beetles to the classification of galaxies, inclusive of third-graders and accountants and lepidopterists and auto mechanics, and that also allowed me as a writer to range far and wide as well, to be as inclusive and as democratic and as large.

When you signed up for the citizen science project with Western red-bellied tiger beetles, did you have a book in mind? If not, when did you know you wanted to share this journey?

I did have a book in mind, probably because I almost always do, because I know that the writing will be my entrance into the subject. I didn't have a publisher, though, or any assurance of publication. I knew I was writing this without that kind of support or validation. I just really wanted to write about the renaissance and revolution of citizen science, and I wanted to follow something that an entomologist had once told me: "You could spend a week studying some obscure insect, and you would then know more than anyone else on the planet." That sentence called to me. It had such a jaunty and cheerful air of discovery and the unknown. Then when I emailed David Pearson, a well-known advocate of the citizen scientist, he emailed right back—suggesting I go over to the Rio Grande and start studying the Rio Grande tiger beetle as soon as possible. This happens so often with a book. You jump in the river and the currents carry you away. There is so much serendipity. Suddenly I was holding a big collecting net and wading in rivers all around New Mexico and then I was focused on a particular tiger beetle in my back yard—for whom "the larval biology in the wild" was still unknown. Suddenly I was feeding mini-mealworms to ferocious little Western red-bellied tiger beetle larvae and dissecting beetle ovaries. At the same time I was fingering the male catkins of the four-winged saltbush for the citizen science program Nature's Notebook and looking at images from the bottom of the sea floor for Zooniverse and monitoring archaeological sites for the New Mexico Site Steward Program. I was in the middle of things pretty quickly.

Are you still studying tiger beetles?

Yes, I am still looking for their larval burrow holes in the wild. That puzzle is still unsolved. Where do the females go to lay their eggs? I was able to rear up the instars and my mentor Barry Knisley, co-author of Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada, described them for the scientific literature. We had a hypothesis about when in the season the females would go lay their eggs—which we tested and which proved to be completely wrong. And that was a great moment for me, to have a testable hypothesis and prove it wrong. I know what the burrow holes look like from my terrariums and I have an idea as to what kind of soil the females prefer. But I haven't been able to actually find them out in the forest or along the river bank. This is pretty mysterious to me and to Barry since the species is so abundant in June and July, literally thousands of beetles swarming along the edges of the Gila River. Where do they come from? Last summer I sent Barry some larval specimens to identify that I had collected but, as we both suspected, these turned out to be the ocellated tiger beetle. So this late spring, I'll have my "search engine" revved for those small, nearly perfectly circular burrow holes in the ground, and I'll do that again later in the summer after the Western red-bellied tiger beetle has emerged and has begun to lay eggs—somewhere in the three million acre Gila National Forest near my house.

Other than tiger beetles, what are you working on now?

I am returning now to the topic of a previous book called Hunger: An Unnatural History. In that book, I talk with a famine expert who has a vision of how to end global chronic childhood malnutrition in our lifetime. A quarter of the world's children are malnourished. Most of these children do not die but go on to lead diminished lives—continuing the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, overpopulation, inequity, etc. A recent innovation in food aid involves ready-to-use-food (RUF) or packets of a high-caloric, peanut-buttery paste that doesn't require water or cooking and that contains all the micronutrients needed to both cure and prevent malnutrition. These packets are now made in the developed countries and sold to humanitarian organizations who give them away to the extreme poor. But what if that food-medicine was made locally in developing countries, from local ingredients, and then made available in the commercial market—available and affordable in village shops and urban streets to the one billion poor in the world who buy food? Some iconoclasts are proposing that a combination of capitalism and snack food may be the answer to a problem that too often seems overwhelming and intractable. I want to follow this hopeful idea and see where it goes. This process of building on previous books is natural to writers, I think. Diary of a Citizen Scientist came out of earlier published books like Standing in the Light: My Life as a Pantheist (a year of bird banding) and An Obsession with Butterflies: Our Long Love Affair with a Singular Insect. My Young Adult novel Teresa of the New World is being published this spring and the roots of that can be traced to a previous book When the Land was Young: Reflections on American Archaeology, as well as a novel about pre-historic life in the Southwest, The Last Matriarch. I have a science-fiction novel Knocking on Heaven's Door being released in the fall which also is rooted in pantheism and Paleolithic thought and natural history. All these different themes are connected for me, connected in my life and in my writing.

       

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