The end of 2011 is coming up fast! This time of year is often a time of reflection where we ponder the past and make plans for the future. In that spirit, today I’d like to tell you all a bit about my childhood and my family, what I believe led to my becoming an entomologist. I’ll get back to the sciencey posts on Science Sunday and into the new year.
My grandfather died just before I turned 6, so I barely remember him, but I do remember a few things. He had a fantastic collection of turtle figurines that I absolutely loved. He would pick up bumblebees without fear, even though he was deathly allergic. (I later learned that he only picked up the non-stinging males, but it was so magical as a kid!) And my grandfather was a birder. A serious birder. Any time my cousins (who are all much older than I am) tell stories about our grandfather, they talk about being outside with him, carrying binoculars and squinting at birds up in the trees, learning about the plants and animals around them. I remember my grandfather telling me about the birds in my Arizona backyard. My grandfather built up an impressive bird life list and passed his love of birds and nature on to his kids and grandkids.
Now I didn’t know my grandfather very well, but my cousins are outdoorsy in various ways. They claim to owe a lot of their nature loving personalities to my grandfather. They hike and learn about the natural history of their areas. They bird and camp and raft and teach their kids how to do everything they learned from my grandfather. I think it’s great to be a part of a family that is so inclined to appreciate the changes of the seasons, who save up money to buy really expensive binoculars, and carry bird books in their back pockets. Even though my cousins were much older than me when I was growing up, I always felt like I got to experience a little of what they experienced with my grandfather through them.
My grandfather’s influence is very apparent in my mother too. She is a birder. She also learned to fish and swim and shoot rifles from my grandfather. Thanks to my mom, I can make a mean campfire and cook an excellent fireside meal, swim quite well, and I’m a good shot. And my mom never cared if my sister and I brought animals into the house when we were kids. We were both little tomboys, so we spent most of every day outside catching lizards and snakes, watching birds, pressing flowers and leaves, and building enormous snow forts in Colorado. My mom may never have picked up a bee, but she was really into nature and allowed her kids to be too. And she barely even cared when the snake got out of its cage and said, “Eh, it will turn up eventually.” I thought that was awesome.
Then there’s my dad. He spent his childhood in the woods in North Carolina. I don’t really know where his interest in nature came from, but I’m pretty sure he developed it on his own. He told my sister and me stories about accidentally releasing snakes in his school and how he was stung many, many times by a swarm of angry wasps when he stepped on their nest. My dad loves birds and enjoys fishing. My dad’s first love, though, is geology. He is obsessed with minerals! When I was very young, he spent nearly every weekend going out to various locations in Arizona to collect, sometime rappelling down into old mines or blasting rocks apart with dynamite. (I’m sure there are laws against the latter now!) When we moved to Colorado, he left the dynamite behind, but the whole family went mineral collecting nearly every weekend. When it was too snowy to get to his favorite collecting spot, or just to change things up occasionally, we’d head to the river instead where my sister and I would swim (the very thought makes me cold as an adult!) or ice skate and spend whole days fishing and playing in the river. We were fascinated when we found a big aquatic insect under a rock one day and screamed bloody murder every time a harmless little garter snake swam past us down the river.
When I headed into my teenage years, I was starting to get a little sick of spending every weekend in the mountains covered in dirt or river water with my dad. But then I started collecting insects. And then I learned that being an entomologist was a real profession. And ten I started photographing things. Suddenly the mountains were a grand place to collect insects or practice with my camera and I actually wanted to go again. I built up a large collection of Rocky Mountain insects and a massive photo collection over 3 or 4 years. It was great! My dad started to get interested in insects too, and sometimes we went to the mountains specifically so I could collect. And my mom still didn’t mind if I brought home jars full of bugs, dead and alive, and spread them all over the dining table. My mom rocks.
I think I am an entomologist today largely due to my family. Nature was important to everyone (even my dad’s parents once they moved to Arizona) and I spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. I learned to appreciate the things around me. More importantly, I was allowed to interact with the natural world. Once I discovered insects, it was all over – there wasn’t a chance that I was ever going to become anything other than an entomologist. I don’t have kids, but I find myself teaching my students the same way I was taught, letting them experiencing things on their own. And I can tell my family had a profound influence on the direction I’m headed in life because my sister has ended up in a similar place, teaching kids and teens about ecology and natural sciences as an Environmental Education Park Ranger. We still run around in the desert together catching lizards and marveling over how amazing the world really is once you get off the beaten path, just like we did as kids. I absolutely love it!
So, a great outdoorsy childhood, nature loving family, and the discovery of insects doomed me to a life as an entomologist. I wouldn’t have it any other way.