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Interesting Scientific Problems: A Q&A with John Pastor

Island Press caught up with John Pastor, author of What Should a Clever Moose Eat? to learn more about natural history, ecology, and the North Woods. Check out the Q&A below, then order your copy of the book to see why Discover magazine said, "Even if you've never been to the North will come to appreciate it through ecologist Pastor. With an eye for fine detail and the gentle explication of a born teacher, Pastor crafts a rich biography of one of North America's most beautiful and diverse ecosystems, from the geology of its foundations to the birds in its skies." 

You have studied the North Woods for the past 30 years. What first sparked your interest in this area? What has continued to captivate you since then? 

Northern regions, the fur trade (which happened largely in the North Woods), and the early exploration of the northern half of the continent have fascinated me ever since I was a young boy. When I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, I decided to do my Ph.D. thesis in the North Woods, and I have been thinking about and/or working in the North Woods ever since. The combination of maple, pine, birch, aspen, spruce, fir, and other species not only makes the North Woods an extremely beautiful place to do field work, but the strong contrasts in how different plant and animal species affect the North Woods ecosystem offer us an almost endless array of interesting scientific problems. 

Some activists have called for the designation of the North Woods as a National Park or National Monument. What would such a designation mean for the future of the North Woods? 

I think this could help with local and regional conservation problems, but it will not help with the largest challenge facing the North Woods, which is global warming. The North Woods only came into existence 6,000 years ago when warming temperatures after the Ice Age allowed maple, birch, pine, spruce, fir, and other species to migrate from different directions into the region from Minnesota to Nova Scotia. With further warming, the unique combination of species which is the North Woods could disassemble and largely disappear. 

The difference between the past and future responses of this ecosystem to climate change is that the assembly of the North Woods 6,000 years ago was a natural process, whereas the disassembly of the North Woods in the near future will be a result of our moral failure to take responsibility for changing the way the planet’s climate works. 

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The North Woods. By Todd Murray, via Wikimedia Commons

What role does connecting ecology and observation of the natural world play in tackling the myriad of environmental challenges facing the world? 

Ecology, natural history, and observations of the natural world provide the foundation of knowledge we need to face and solve environmental problems. Without this science, we are blind not only to how to solve the problems, but even to the existence of these problems. Even more so, a fascination with how the natural world works is an important part of what it means to be a human being. As Robert Michael Pyle has said, “What we know we may choose to care for. What we fail to recognize, we certainly won’t.” I firmly believe that if people could know, really know, what beautiful, living, working systems lakes, rivers, prairies, wetlands, beaches, and forests are, they would do everything they could to preserve them. Causing the extinction of a species or the demise of an ecosystem would then seem a crime equal to the defacing of the Mona Lisa or the Pietà. 

What role can natural history play in helping us understand the effects of climate change on the North Woods? What responsibility do humans have to try and mitigate damaging effects? 

The most important aspect of the natural history of an organism is how it interacts with other species and the environment throughout its life cycle. We know precious little about that for most species: most of what we know about the natural history and life cycles of most species is the paragraph on them in a field guide, and not much more. The life cycles of two species that depend on each other or control each other may become decoupled as they respond in different ways to climate change. This may already be happening with warblers and an insect they prey upon, spruce budworms. Spruce budworm caterpillars are emerging earlier in the spring with warming temperatures, and warblers are no longer able to control their population and prevent them from defoliating spruce and fir. To understand if and how interacting species’ life cycles become decoupled with climate change, we need to know much, much more about their natural history. 

You write that “natural history questions often arise from simple, serendipitous observations that anyone can make on a walk through the woods.” What opportunities are there for citizen-scientists to get involved in natural history observation or research? 

The most useful thing people can do to learn about or contribute to the scientific study of natural history is to begin keeping notebooks and records on the seasonal and annual changes in things like timing of leaf out, bud burst, flowering, emergence of mammals, turtles, and other animals from winter hibernation, emergence of insects throughout the summer, and arrival and departures of migrating birds, and anything else wherever they live. Such records will be valuable not only in understanding the range of life cycles of different species but also how they will change with global warming. For example, naturalists and ecologists are now going back to Thoreau’s notebooks to see how plant and animal species might be responding to global warming during the past two centuries. There are a number of good books on how to keep a field journal, including guidance for drawing illustrations – Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles Roth is one of my favorites. Citizen scientists can share these observations with scientists and other observers by uploading their notes to the USA National Phenology Network. Citizen scientists can also assist natural history museums transcribe museum records on specimens into databases for scientists to study by going to Notes from Nature. Finally, find a local natural history organization such as a chapter of Audubon (birds), the Xerces Society (butterflies and insects), Wild Ones (wildflower gardeners), or other similar organizations and become involved with and learn from like-minded people. 

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Moose. By USDA Forest Service, via Wikimedia Commons

You illustrated the book and teach a biological illustration class at the University of Minnesota. What role can art play in how scientists study the natural world? 

Biology departments used to require that students learn how make drawings of observations, but in the past several decades this has gone by the wayside. This has been a big mistake. Drawing a specimen or landscape forces you to notice things that you would never notice even by taking carefully written notes. Many of these observations could be the grist for future research. More importantly, drawing or painting an organism engaged in different activities or from different viewpoints or with different techniques helps keep my mind open to new possibilities and ways of thinking about the world. 

Was there anything you found in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you? 

After over 30 years of living in and researching the North Woods, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of things, but I was surprised by something while writing every chapter. The most important surprise is how much we still have to learn about the North Woods. A number of years ago I mentioned to a friend we were on the verge of a relatively complete understanding of how the North Woods works. Boy, was I wrong. 

What do you hope readers will take away from this book? 

Naturalists and ecologists often ask questions that most people consider, well, peculiar. Such as “What should a clever moose eat?” The purpose of this book is to explain why people should care about the questions naturalists and ecologists ask. As we become more urban, many people, especially children, are becoming increasingly estranged from nature. Yet natural history underlies many of today’s policy and legislative issues, including global warming, the sustainable harvesting of resources, the control of predators and insects, and the preservation of species. Natural history is the underpinning to conservation, to natural resource management, and to human health and food supply. We need to help people re-engage a sense of delight and wonder in the natural world to address these practical problems. 

If the reader lives in the North Woods, I hope this book encourages them to go into the woods and observe things for themselves. If the reader does not live in the North Woods, then the natural history of where they live is the best place to start. When I was in college, there was a popular poster that proclaimed: “The real world is outside. Get into it!” I hope this book gets people outside into whatever biome they live in. 

Want more from John Pastor? Check out the #ForewordFriday: North Woods Edition to read an excerpt of the book or read his blog on the movement to designate the North Woods as a national monument.