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Director's Cut - January 2018


Hello friends & fellow Itascans,

It is such a pleasure to be writing this from the Itasca Bio Station, where there is fresh powder on the ground and a couple of new ski tracks out to Schoolcraft Island. The path ahead in 2018 looks bright! I was not shy in visiting Itasca in 2017 as the Director-elect, and the outgoing Director Biesboer has had the welcome mat out for me to come make Itasca something of my own. I now have the Director’s hat on my head, and it has been a wonderful transition to this point. I have had support from those sending me off and from those welcoming me into their worlds, and that has meant a lot. Thank you.

The timing for Itasca is plumb. I have cut my own path to get here, and the terrain has already shifted behind me. Itasca is a junction for me — a moment of reorientation, with a whiff of adventure to come. The Itasca Station was made for such moments. It is not an outpost — it is an inroads. It is a small volume campus with high surface area for interaction beyond the Station borders, with nature and with people. I think our future depends on these interactions and that the University’s future depends on places like Itasca. For this reason, I am motivated to dig into the natural and human histories at this Station, and to share these ‘discoveries’ with the communities here and back in the Twin Cities.

I wanted to start, however, by sharing a bit of history, how I got here, my career, and motivations. I promise this won’t be the trend where I focus on me, but I know some of you are wondering what the new Director ‘is like.’ I wanted to share this in a couple of ways. First, I am sharing the Vision Statement that I wrote to get this job. It was not a hollow pitch. It was written as a working document, flavored of course to convince a search committee. I reread it frequently to help me ground truth my ideas, and it still works. Second, I am sharing, below, career and personal aspects that shaped my interest in this job and will likely shape my approach in the future. I am always most interested in the essence of a place and its people, so here is a bit of my own, concentrated around a few key drivers.

Science

A key advantage I saw in this job was the potential to consolidate some of my field research on forest fungi in a north woods forest with old growth. Itasca, its old growth forests, its diversity of habitats, and its situation at the transition of three Biomes is a perfect set-up for me, and I’m not the first to see this value. Itasca has been a draw for other mycologists (those studying fungi) since the very beginning, for over 100 years. A mycological tradition started just a couple of years after the Station was made official in 1909, when experimental mycology was spreading from Europe into the U.S and when Edward Cheyney invited Arthur G. Ruggles and Edward M. Freeman up to some newlyerected cabins on faculty row at Itasca in 1911. Both professors studied plant diseases caused by fungi, one in American Chestnut and the other in cereal grains, and I bet they enjoyed their time in the woods teaching the newest crop of forestry students and hunting for mushrooms. Clyde Christensen and David French also made the pilgrimage to Itasca a regular thing, as focus at the Station shifted toward biology and began to include more women. These men and women learned field mushroom identification at Itasca from mycologists that also included visitors, including Robert Gilbertson from the University of Arizona and Don Pfister from Harvard. These are all big names in the field of mycology – an impressive honor roll at a Station geared primarily for training foresters over the years.

In a world where ‘microbes’ are assumed to be ephemeral, all of these esteemed mycologists probably took a sample at some point of the same red-banded shelf fungus (Fomitopsis pinicola) that fruits each Fall on Bear Paw Point. You can reliably find a conk (the ‘mushroom’ part) from this fungus on an old spruce next to the boulder dedicated to Samuel Green, the ‘pioneer forester.’ This is one individual fungus that was likely thriving on Bear Paw Point long before Dr. Green died in 1910, exploiting its chances here and there to eat some spruce deadwood. For at least the past few thousand years, it would have had spruce to sustain it there, and we now know from DNA-based assessments that these wood decay fungi can live for centuries, ‘oozing’ back and forth across the forest floor, stump to stump. How cool to think of it there all along, watching all of these scientists re-discover it.

This kind of pairing of human and natural history has lately begun to capture my interests, particularly as I take on the duty as Director. It is not, however, the underlying reason that I became a fungal biologist or that I would be out sampling a mushroom on a spruce tree. I was a transplant from the Appalachians who came to Minnesota from Maine in 2006 with little knowledge of the Midwest and a tenure-track faculty job (plus family and kids) to keep my focus for many years on the present and future, not on the past. Legacies are not what catapulted me along a successful path of research, grants, and advising students, and I was never drawn by the promise of notoriety – otherwise, I’d have chosen the wrong profession. The thing that has driven me, and I think many dedicated scientists, has been an innate love of science as a process, the joy of discovery, and a fundamental enjoyment sharing both of these things with other people. For me, this was particularly true of biological sciences that allowed me to see the ‘character’ of organisms I knew in the field in a more intimate way. What fun it is to think of a collected mushroom as something with a personality instead of as a lifeless specimen.

Itasca_1Knowing the character of these fungi has proven useful in ways that I did not anticipate in my early years working on single-strain model fungi. There is a particular need right now for bridging intimate details of biology to the field of ecology, using characteristics as ‘traits’ to explain larger patterns in nature. This is a logical direction for growth for me, but it involves breaking out of a biologist’s comfort zone and treading in the territory of other disciplines. I am sure I will cross from one culture of scientists into another, clumsily following my nose. To me, that’s part of the fun. If I cramp someone’s style, I have a solid justification. Fungal biologists pale in number compared to plant biologists, and we are outnumbered by bacterial- and viral-focused microbiologists. Even fewer focus their efforts outside of the human dimensions of health and agriculture.

This leaves fungi like the red-banded fungus on Bear Paw Point holding secrets. I knew very early in my career that unlocking those secrets had farreaching implications in nature that were being overlooked, particularly in the low-diversity boreal (taiga) biome. This is Earth’s largest terrestrial biome. Ask any Scandinavian mycologist about the red-banded shelf fungus - they will know it. Ditto in Russia, Alaska, Canada, and back again to Europe. If a handful of fungi like this one have such global abundance, what happens if you lose one? We don’t know the answer because we have not advanced our understanding of fungi far enough into the complexities of their natural habitats. As a species, however, humans are pushing their habitats in stressful new directions by altering global climate, and there will be consequences.

This clear gap in understanding begs for targeted long-term research in the right location. There is no place as prone to shifting than at the southern edges of the boreal forests, and Itasca is sitting right on the margin, facing west across a thin strip of hardwoods onto the Great Plains. It is a logical place to invest some bellweather science to track these dynamics, and I have been shifting the focus in my lab beyond the microcosm and into the forests. It is good timing. I have already pushed my research program into high gear on the biology side. I was awarded three early-career grants in my start-up days, including a large U.S. Department of Energy grant that paid some solid research dividends. My group has published higher-tier papers, including one in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2016 on the biochemistry of wood-degrading fungi. My students have been excellent (and happy), and they have gone on to do wonderful things within and beyond academia. But it is time, I think, to place this work in context – to stretch beyond the microcosm and invest in a long-term effort to study these long-lived fungi. This demands place-based research, and Itasca is the perfect place for me to do this.

Engagement

Despite having this clear vision for how my research fits at Itasca, it still doesn’t explain why I would apply to run the Station as the Director. I could have just applied for research permits and booked a cabin on faculty row. I also made this transition on the cusp of ‘mid-career.’ Most of my friends and colleagues saw a clear fit for me in this job, but I was hesitant about taking on administrative duties, and my most trusted colleagues could see my logic in hesitating. I have been here 12 years as faculty in the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences, with probably 20-25 years left until retirement. With my research cranking, and I would argue the quality of the ‘fruit’ as ripe as it gets for someone focusing on wood decay, why take on this responsibility?

Along with the appeal of consolidating a research effort in the forests of Itasca, there were a few key reasons I went for it. First, my family was gangbusters for a north woods summer option, where my wife on a 9-month appointment could do some dragonfly research in the abundance of pothole ponds, I could be in the woods every day, and the kids could have the run of a forest kingdom. The set-up for Papa Schilling looked sweet. Second, I knew the College and my new Dean would be behind me continuing to invest in research, and that they would work with me to keep some supports in place. This includes supporting and enabling the experienced staff at the Station. But third and most important in my deeper considerations, I recognized that I have feelings of purpose and that Itasca was a logical outlet, particularly in engagement about science and conservation – and I have come to trust my timing.

This purpose in my career was, I’m sure, seeded to some degree by my father, a Presbyterian minister by way of Yale Forestry School and later Yale Divinity. Dad left Yale with his Masters of Forestry to go work the forests of Virginia in the 1950s, and he always had a place in his heart for the woods. He also had a clear purpose in the social aspects of his forestry job and about community building, in general. He found his outlet in the ministry, and his purpose was never far below the surface. I grew up in a West Virginia coal mining town amidst a job drain in the industrial mechanization of the 1970s – this was his mid-career move and it was my childhood, one that I cherish. Dad’s purpose was, I’m equally sure, seeded in part by his mother Lillian Siler Schilling. In 1942, Lillian worked with the Garden Club of America to found a camp on National Forest land near Vesuvius, Virginia for postelementary age kids. This camp is aptly named ‘Nature Camp,’ and it is still going strong. Imagine that – a woman in the early 40s founding and directing a multi-week camp focused on hands-on nature education. To me, at this point in my life, this looks radical and it must have left a deep impression on my father in terms of an interplay between community-building, ethics, and progress.

It was my mother, however, from whom I suspect I inherited some of my analytical tendencies and a love of art and writing. I grew up watching her help write sermons and church plays on yellow legal pads, sitting at the same cherry table that now resides in my Saint Anthony Park dining room. Mom was, like many ministers’ wives of those days, behind the scenes pulling strings on many initiatives. I, like many ministers’ kids, was prone to heading in my own directions, sometimes mischievous directions, but mostly in earnest to get outside and share adventures. She was my champion. We talked regularly on the phone as I began working at a non-profit foundation focused on nature education in my college years. She was online to share my experiences as I was teaching during graduate school, and she always stoked my teaching and outreach efforts. She would engage me ‘in the weeds’ about my teaching and its political and community contexts for hours. She was never the first to tap out of a conversation, and ultimately, my mom provided me a model of what it looks like to care. She cared.

All of this has shaped my own sense of purpose, enabled by many other selfless promoters along the way. I have always assumed that this is the stuff you must pay forward. It doesn’t mean that I’m aiming to start a congregation to shepherd through the dining hall at Itasca. It doesn’t mean I’m going to use my position to emulate Thoreau or to start a political revolution. To me, however, Itasca has been waiting for me in this moment to carry forward a legacy that speaks to me and that was already there at the Station regarding science and conservation. Somehow, our country is losing sight of science as an essential practice to make progress. I think this is due, in part, to our innate tendencies to rely on trust and to make decisions based on familiarity rather than facts. We like people we trust. Scientists have lost some of the trust of the public, in many cases thanks to deliberate attacks on science by media-makers that harness these superficial divisions, creating their own news and eroding environmental protection to the benefit of tycoon types. But I also think we, as scientists, are also to blame in how we carry ourselves. We need to stop working so hard to impress each other. It is insulating us. This is about scientists, not science. It is an issue that those who promoted me along the way would have agreed is something you fix with dialog, not streamlined powerpoint presentations or breakout sessions at a conference. This needed dialog is going to happen outside of our comfort zones.

For this purpose, Itasca fits. It is a small volume campus with a large surface area for public interface, and it is a long way from the academic ‘bubble’ in the Twin Cities. It has potential to build research that would be happening in plain sight of a half million annual visitors to Itasca State Park. Twenty percent of these people are overnighting — it is a committed crowd of Harley Davidson riders, urban hipsters, and run-of-the-mill Americans from towns you have to describe in proximity to other towns you barely know. The Station is tucked in there as a gathering place for academics and students from all backgrounds, with a local staff that is willing to give you their opinions, too. It is a place to go do research or hike the trails, and then to engage each other on common ground — and why not? What else are you going to do? Eventually, you are going to end up at the dining table with people like me asking you where you’re from and if you saw anything cool on your hike. To me, this kind of common ground is an immense resource to the University, one that could grow as long as we can drop our airs and talk to each other. Doing this fits me. This kind of purpose spoke to a part of me that quietly waited there all along during my 12 years studying fungi in an engineering department. It has unleashed itself this past year, and I am very excited to feed these ideas in the context of Itasca.

Wilderness

Finally, it goes without saying that a huge lure for me coming to Itasca is the wilderness — not only the sanctuary of forests and lakes inside the State Park, but also the miles of dirt roads and paths permeating the surrounding forests. These are my kinds of places. I am a little bit like Br’er Rabbit — born and bred in a briar patch. I spent my childhood in the rhododendron along the creeks of the Allegheny plateau, the fourth of four kids given the longest leash in the litter. My photo (below) gives a little flavor of that — Sunday clothes, coal dust on my shoes, a sleeve rolled up, on the edge of a trough full of tadpoles. Nature, for me, has never been about conquering the wilderness and has never been about the gear involved with outdoor travel. I don’t go outside just to have my picture taken there. I have my gear system, sure, and if you come on a trip with me, I will have already memorized the map in anticipation. But nature is primarily a place I go to be in the moment — the map is my key to going ‘off script.’ As Sigurd Olson said, if the adventurous spirit begins to fade, the ‘latent glow can be fanned to flame again by awareness and an open mind.’ This is what wilderness brings.

itasca_2I have had no shortage of trips to fan those flames of awareness, and my kids have been along for the ride over the years. Among these trips, many have been jaw-droppers in terms of scenery and notoriety. I have backpacked and paddled on six continents in bucket list territory. The Drakensburg escarpment in Africa, the alpine puna of Argentina, the forests of New Zealand’s South Island, the Gates of the Arctic in Alaska and the Lost Coast in California. But I have spent at least as many days tucked in the tent in decidedly unknown places, doing trips that involve no peak bagging - nothing worthy of social media - finding the ‘blank spot on the map’ that Aldo Leopold promised. These are my favorites, and I have done many on my own as solo traveler.

My best example of these kinds of trips was hiking the Appalachian Trail, known as ‘the AT’ – I hiked the AT back in 1996, over twenty years ago. The trail is over 2000 miles long and I hiked the whole thing over 6 months, solo, when I was 23 years old. This might sound like a trip you’d brag about over beers, and there are certainly challenges to overcome to complete it. For those fellow hikers that did not drop out in the first 200 miles, many got worn out by the long Virginia stretch, or ground to bits by the tedious rocks of Pennsylvania. But the reason people quit hiking and went home was rarely due to gear malfunctions, weather, or a lack of physical strength – it was due to the day-to-day discomforts of living outside. The grit, sweat, and soggy realities of that much repeated exposure. You can’t through-hike the AT if you don’t like being outdoors. There is no moment of glory on a summit that is worth that much time grinding it out through the bushes. For me, the AT was just an excuse to abandon my job, take to the trail, and sleep outside every night.

These kinds of trips (which I will point out are still a luxury) are valuable endeavors for the sake of going somewhere to just be for a while – and they have motivated my interests in conservation. Traveling outdoors, and the exhaustion these trips bring, has a way of stripping things down to an essence. There is something special about being worn down, physically, and looking up to see what is around you. This is when a chickadee inspecting a tree or when a mole surfaces for a moment before submerging into the leaf litter become high theater. It is when you’re almost back to the trailhead, and you pause on a cliff face to see streetlights turning on and hear dogs barking 2000 feet below in a valley. I have had many of these moments where I felt like an ex-patriot of civilization. These moments of high awareness were never moments that I captured — these moments captured me, and this has set like concrete my affinity for wild places.

As an adult, I have come to know nature as a scientist and academic, but it all started with this kind of appreciation that was not about categorization or quantification. It started with the high theater of nature. With this as my backdrop, I have found that there are two complementary ways to view the same wild places - one is to dissect the parts that create the sum and the other is to view the sum of the parts as something grand, perhaps beyond understanding. It is a core delineator between science and faith. It is also, with less drama, the difference between scientists on a quest for predictive understanding and non-scientists who aren’t so over-analytical about dissecting their surroundings. Our affinity to associate ourselves with culture, particularly in my mind rural and urban cultures, has bundled this same appreciation for nature into different value systems with superficial ways to ‘brand’ ourselves. This has entangled things in divided politics that has a tendency to rope a shared interest in the ‘great outdoors’ to larger political horses, leaving nature to be drawn and quartered. This would be a tragic road for conservation, and I don’t mean the conservation movement – I mean the practice of conservation. The Itasca Station is steeped in this history of practicing conservation, coming on the scene in the wake of Gifford Pinchot to teach foresters the best management practices of the time. It has always used a ‘place-based’ model. It has always been common ground, literally, as a place to study, reflect, and share. In my mind, the road ahead for conservation efforts will go through places like Itasca, and I am banking on that aspect of this job. Things will happen there that simply can’t here on campus in the cities.