Have a Love Affair (With Nature)

The children of UC Davis Professor Andrew Latimer run down a hill in 2007
The children of UC Davis Professor Andrew Latimer run down a hill he describes in his nature “first love” story. The photo was taken in 2007, during one of his last visits. (Courtesy Andrew Latimer)

I believe that direct experience with the natural world, particularly as young people, can be a climate action in itself, and can instill a desire to protect those places we love and the creatures who rely on them — including us!

That’s why, for each day during Valentines’ Day week, we’ve been posting on this page nature “first love” stories from scientists whose early love for the natural world helped shape their career paths, starting with the most recent entry first.

Love Story No. 5

By Sarah Yarnell

Sarah Yarnell is an associate project scientist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

I had been on river trips before with my parents. They were very outdoorsy people. We camped all the time. But on those river trips, we were always passengers in a boat. This trip, on the Green River in 1986, was the first trip where I was old enough and big enough to row my own boat. I had to pack and rig my own boat every morning. I had to learn how to get myself down the river. I’d never done that before.

Girl in boat with man in background

A young Sarah Yarnell, not having it, on her first trip down the Green River. Her great uncle is in the background. (Courtesy Sarah Yarnell)

I thought it was going to be very easy.

On the first day, everyone got in their boats, and I was all excited. Then I realized I couldn’t make the boat work. Whatever I did, the river would take me and I’d end up in an eddy.

Within half an hour, the rest of the group had moved on. My dad and my Great Uncle Jim were also on this trip. My dad told one of the guides, Norm, “Teach her how to row.”

So poor Norm got stuck with a 13-year-old-girl throwing a hissy fit. We showed up to camp three hours later, and I was saying “I hate this!”

My dad brought over a drink for Norm.

The next morning, I thought, “Well, I’m not going to do this. Someone else needs to row the boat.” But they said, “There’s no choice, you have to do this. You’re going to row the boat.”

I got back in, and it started out as another miserable day – I had blisters on my palms from rowing. I expended so much energy going nowhere.

But then halfway through the day, all of the sudden it clicked. My brain thought, “Oh, this is how to make the boat go.” And Norm, now that I’d calmed down enough, started teaching me …. “Do you see the current? Follow the bubble line…”

Then I was like “I got this.” By the second night, it was like, “This is amazing!”

For the rest of the trip, Norm and I became good buds. I don’t know how he tolerated me. But the guides and I ended up being the only people who didn’t flip our boat on that trip.

That experience did two things for me: It instilled in me this love of a river and learning how to read the river and work with the river. And for a 13-year-old, it was a big confidence boost. It went from “Forget it, I’m going to hike out,” to “I can totally do this.”

Then I came to California and thought, “Wow, people do this in California? They do this at UC Davis? Sign me up!”

Love Story No. 4

By Steven Sadro

Sadro is an assistant professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Science and Policy. He studies how climate and other environmental changes affect mountain lakes and other aquatic ecosystems.

In 2002, my wife and I quit our jobs and hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. We walked from Mexico to Canada over the course of five months. We had both backpacked a lot throughout the Sierra Nevada, but we had never taken a long trek across an entire region like we did on the PCT.

Woman gives man piggyback ride with winter lake and mountain background.

Steven Sadro and his wife on their through-hike on the Pacific Coast Trail in 2002. (Courtesy Steven Sadro)

We walked about 25 miles a day, a pace fast enough to watch the landscape change around us. Over the course of a day or two, we might traverse a 7,000-foot elevation gradient.

Oak forests were replaced by pine and fir. Trees yielded to shrub, and shrub to grass. Meadows finally succumbed to rock and snow. At that pace, we saw firsthand how those landscape changes affected things.

It grew colder as we climbed to higher elevations. Suddenly there was frost on our sleeping bags in the morning. The water we drank from lakes and streams tasted different. The animals we saw changed. Or sometimes it was the same animal but they were a different color. Lakes looked different, too. Different shapes or sizes, or a different color of water.

I’m an aquatic person by nature, and armed with my bachelor’s degree in biology, I was on the lookout for what all these landscape changes meant for the lakes and the critters that lived in them.

There’s also something liberating about living for five months with everything you need to survive on your back. A simplification that unburdens the spirit.

I had been on the fence about going to graduate school for a long time, but by the time we finished our trip, my path seemed clear. I realized there was a way for me to do what I loved in one of the places I loved most.

Love Story No. 3

By Kate Scow

girl on horse, California

Now soil scientist Kate Scow as a child on a horse in California. (Courtesy Kate Scow)

Kate Scow is a professor of Soil Science and Microbial Ecology at UC Davis and director of Russell Ranch Sustainable Agricultural Facility. She investigates the role soil microbial communities play in helping agriculture, pollution and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

It wasn’t anywhere exotic where I first connected with soil. It was on my hands and knees in my own backyard, crawling on needle-coated loam, under scrub pines at my Maryland home. My big concern then was not about soil, but that I was never going to own a horse. So I channeled my thwarted desire into escorting large herds of tiny plastic horses to run wild in the vast micro-landscape of my yard and mind.

What I loved about our soil was the diversity of tiny hills and valleys, lakes and streams, thickets and bushes, that crisscrossed the landscape of my 2-inch tall protagonists. Some relief was natural, carved out by erosion caused by rain and slope. Other features I created to diversify the environment: glades and grasslands and boulders. Tribes of horses inhabited different regions: the well-drained forest floor with its giant twigs and pinecones, the swampy lowlands of the drainage ditch.

This soil is also where I buried many a “rescued” bird and hid mercury from a busted thermometer. It provided the dirt floor for forts and corrals carved out in the woods. And it refused to grow the lawn that my parents tried so hard to establish. I came to know this quarter acre of soil like the back of my hand. My toys were probes, assaying slopes and texture and density and moisture content, and my games were protocols, giving me reason to be there on the ground and a means for connection.

I didn’t think about soil for years after I left home for college. I frankly never thought much about it when I played on it. But I am convinced that something back then seeped into the palms of my young hands, lodged itself inside me, incubated over the years, to finally emerge as my unquenchable passion for soil.

plastic horse in garden

One of Scow’s toy horses, reminiscent of those she played with as a child. She named it DDT, thinking it meant “TNT,” as in dynamite—something powerful and explosive. No one bothered to correct her. She considers it a premonition of her research with microbes and contaminants. (Courtesy Kate Scow)

Love Story No. 2

By Laci Gerhart-Barley

Gerhart-Barley is a Lecturer in the UC Davis Department of Evolution and Ecology

When I was young, nearly all of our family vacations were outdoor adventures. We played in the surf in the Texas Gulf, hiked trails through the Ozarks, rode an open-top, narrow-gauge train through the Rockies, roughed it in a cabin overlooking the Potomac, and played tag on horseback in a Colorado meadow.

My favorite of these trips was to Devil’s Den State Park in Arkansas the summer of my 9th birthday. We stayed in a cabin with no TV and no phone—and, of course, no computer because this was the early 1990s. We cooked our meals on the barbecue grill on the patio, attracting a massive raccoon on our first night. It meticulously licked every drop of barbecue sauce off each utensil while we watched nervously from the window hoping he wouldn’t also eat our burgers still simmering over the coals.

The next morning, we spelunked through Devil’s Den Cave. This was no guided tour, or boardwalk-covered path. My mother, father, sister and I ventured into the back reaches of the cave with nothing but a flashlight to guide us. There was only one route, so no way to get lost, yet to my young eyes this was the grandest adventure into the deep, dark unknown.

Adult women with two young daughters outside

At far right, Laci Gerhart-Barley, then age 9, with her mother and sister after a memorable and formative caving trip. (Courtesy Laci Gerhart-Barley)

My sister and I found a single roosting bat and named him Ernie. We crawled over slimy rocks smeared with guano. When the way became too tight for even my small frame, we turned around and ventured back into the light of day. We were covered in muck, and so proud of our brave exploring that we took what is still one of my favorite family photos: my sister, my mother, and I proudly showing off our cave dirt to my father (who took the photo), proving our dedication to adventure over cleanliness.

Recently, some students asked me how I chose ecology as a career path. It was an easy choice for me since it combines both my academic interests and my love of the outdoors. My research focuses on using tree-ring chronologies to understand nutrient cycling and tree physiology in forests across the United States. As a lecturer at UC Davis, my education research seeks to help aspiring biologists get the most out of their education and find their own love of nature.

Love Story No. 1

By Andrew Latimer

Latimer is a professor of Plant Sciences, who studies how plants respond to change, including fire, drought and climate change.

What might be my oldest memory is a mental snapshot of rolling a hay bale down a hill past my mother, in the middle of a big meadow with my best friend. The hay bale was shoulder-high, but we could just get it to tip. We could smell the June grasses and herbs dried and compressed into that scratchy, warm block.

Sometimes, when I’m on the crest of a hill and feel the wind blowing from far away across a valley, it still seems like grace that the big, open world can be so gentle that even coming from so far away, the wind blowing across your bare arm can feel light and easy.

Below that hill lay other fields in various stages of succession. In a gorge downstream, old hemlocks sifted snow and shone green in winter. When we were older, we built forts in red maple stands and ate wild grapes after school. To us, this was nature, though the land had been clearcut, abandoned decades before, then repurposed as city watershed. Not a wilderness, but wild, it inspired awe and a kind of love.

I became a scientist to learn the rules that shape patchworks of forest and grassland and govern how they change. Has it worked? I have spent far too little time at my field sites. But when I look out across a forest or meadow, I think I have a better sense of how the ecosystem and its parts are responding to higher CO2. At least, I have more questions.

I don’t go back to that Connecticut farm anymore, because my family and best friend moved away. But I still find echoes of it everywhere. Weeds in the sandbox. The first midges of spring. Small, tangled waste spaces between highways and behind school buildings.

Decades along now myself, I feel ever more in love with the world’s transient forms of beauty.

A Love Story Add-on

By Kat Kerlin

Environmental science writer, UC Davis News and Media Relations

In asking scientists to share their love stories, I thought it right to reciprocate. Here goes:

young girl leans against fence with pasture in background

Kat Kerlin as a child on the Missouri farm where she grew up. (Courtesy Kat Kerlin)

I grew up on the edge of Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest across 40 acres of woods, creeks and pasture. It was a haven for me, a place of flitting red cardinals, spring peepers, lightning bugs and long trails to nowhere in particular. Its presence in my life, and the easy access to nature that it afforded me, made me want to protect places like that for people and wildlife. The main tool I use to do that is through writing.

My home in Missouri was also at the heart of America’s Lead Belt. Mining employed most people in my town while also contributing to water contamination and environmental degradation in pockets of an otherwise lush, beautiful land. When several mines were shut down in the 1970s and lead was (wisely) banned in gasoline in the 1990s, a trail of unemployment, poverty, and substance abuse in my community followed.

The tension between land and livelihood has never been lost on me. Protecting nature can be a complex business.

Loving it, though, I find blissfully easy.

Media Resources

Kat Kerlin is an environmental science writer and media relations specialist at UC Davis. She’s the editor of the “What Can I Do About Climate Change?” blog. kekerlin@ucdavis.edu. @UCDavis_Kerlin

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