23 December 2010


In the fall of 1977, while attending the University of Arizona, I was privileged to be included in the Environmental Education class led by Dr. Paul S. Martin. A geoscientist by training, Paul's work also spanned the fields of ecology, anthropology, and paleontology. He was the author of the controversial theory that an early wave of humans migrated to North America 10,000-13,000 years ago, and were responsible for the mass extinction through over-hunting of native megafauna, including giant ground sloths, mammoths, camels and mastadons. Paul possessed a keen intellect, a grand sense of humor, and genuinely cared not only about his studies, but about his students. He was, in the best sense of the phrase, a Renaissance man.

The class was held in the evening at the UA's Desert Lab on Tumamoc Hill, on the west edge of Tucson. Paul's teaching methods were innovative, inviting critical and lateral thinking in considering environmental issues. The class included numerous field trips throughout southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico -- the most sought-after trip being a trek along sandy single-track roads to the beaches near Puerto Libertad, Sonora, a fishing village located where the desert meets the sea, north of Tiburon Island on the Sea of Cortez (see image above, click to enlarge), in a surreal landscape populated by cardon cactus and boojum trees. The coast features both sandy and rocky beaches, an ideal outdoor laboratory for learning about this unique habitat interface.

One evening, Paul posed a question to the class -- what is the minimum amount of money you need in your life? My answer was an infinite amount, to be used to buy up every available square mile of the American West (and other wilderness areas around the world), in order to preserve the landscape and its natural inhabitants from human depredations. Paul, ever the informed networker, suggested that I look into The Nature Conservancy, whose mission is precisely "to preserve the plants, animals, and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive."

Little did I know that night, how profoundly my life would be changed by Paul's suggestion. A subsequent field trip included a visit to a Nature Conservancy preserve, Canelo Hills Cienega, an upland marsh (elevation 5000 feet) considered relict, i.e. an ecosystem which originally ranged over a large expanse, but is now narrowly confined. In talking to the caretakers, I learned that they were planning on leaving soon, and my eyes lit up. I applied to TNC for the position, was interviewed, and selected. Thus began four of the most vivid years imaginable, living in the on-grounds two-story adobe ranch house, greeting visitors, working with visiting researchers, patrolling against poachers, keeping up the buildings and fences, doing outreach to neighboring ranchers, monitoring natural events, and generally having the time of my life. Ultimately I left Canelo to return to the UA to complete my degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. But I still dream at night of those amazing years spent living on a nature preserve.

Sadly, Paul Martin passed away in September of this year. He was only 82 years old -- old enough to be my father, young enough to be my friend, involved enough to be my mentor. Along with hundreds of former students, colleagues and friends, I miss him deeply, truly, permanently.

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