This interview was conducted on May 9, 2019.
AUTHOR OF WILD: LA
Scientist. Artist. Author. Museum Educator. You have such a fascinating multi-disciplinary career that touches on so many disciplines and genres. For those who may not already follow you, can you share a little bit about the work you do on your own and at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County?
I grew up on a farm in the U.K. and literally pretended to be a badger in a hollow tree. I think this helps to give a sense of how my love for nature developed. Then when I was 14 I moved halfway across the world, to the Inland Empire. I didn’t so much experience culture shock, but I did experience nature shock. It wasn’t until I attended university, at UC Riverside, and studied entomology, that I really began to understand my new environment. Through the lives and ways of insects, I began to understand nature in Southern California. After focusing on entomological research for my undergrad, I made a switch to communicating science and got a master’s degree in environmental education. I have since focused my life’s work on connecting people to nature. I prefer to do this work in cities, because I feel that this is where the greatest need and opportunity lies. My work at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County centers on getting the general public involved in scientific research on the nature in L.A., through community science. I also work in service to the L.A. River, by advocating for her revitalization. I run picnics on the river, I lead tours along her banks and adjacent parks, and I attend lots of community meetings.
What is the Community Science Program and why is it important for Angelenos to participate?
In essence, community science partners the general public with professional scientists to answer real world questions. The questions we have at the Museum are about nature in Los Angeles. For instance: What species live here and where? What new species are showing up? Are there undiscovered species living here that we don’t know about? How are things changing over time? By partnering with our community, we can ask and answer questions like these, in ways there were not possible before the technological revolution that are smartphones, digital cameras, and personal computers. Many of us literally carry around a tiny computer in our pockets, which we can harness to document nature in our city, county, state and beyond. We can collectively cover a lot more ground–all over the Southern California region–with a lot more eyes/cameras. We can amass a lot more data. With this large data set we are making big discoveries. Our community has helped the Museum discover 40+ new species of flies in L.A, documented the first brown widow spiders in Torrance and Mediterranean House Geckos in Chatsworth.
It was fascinating to learn from your book WILD LA, that Los Angeles is the only city in the US that has a major mountain range running thru it and its claimed as the “birdiest” county in the County with over 500 recorded bird species. What were some new things you learned about Los Angeles during the research for the book that excited you?
I learned so many things! With my background in entomology, I had a lot of knowledge about insects, but because we cover 101 species in the book, I got to learn about many new species. I wrote the first drafts of two snails, a slug, two mushrooms, a slime mold, and also a lichen. I learned that the local garden snails we see sliming all over town, actually use love darts–a type of biological cupid’s arrow, if you will–to harpoon their mate with hormones that induce mating! I mean how cool is that?
I also got to visit and explore the 25 different field trips we highlight in the book. Some of these places were brand new to me. My new favorite is Arlington Garden in South Pasadena. This garden sits on an old Caltrans yard, but now is a haven for wildlife–a place for humans to sit back and enjoy nature in the city.
Travel seems to be a constant in your life. Why is traveling so important to you and your work and what do you look for when planning your next adventure?
Travel is definitely something that feeds my soul. When I was 14 I moved to the U.S.A, on the way we visited the Philippines, where my step-mum is from. That trip profoundly affected my sense of the world, and my place in it. I feel very fortunate to have had this experience at such a young age. I still love traveling today, and enjoy adventuring to new places. However, I have been working to severely limit my travel because of the carbon footprint. Did you know that for one round trip flight from L.A. back to visit my family in London, it emits 3.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Which is equivalent to what a meat-loving diet would emit in an entire year! Food for thought indeed.
If you could you take us to any place in Los Angeles County that inspires you most as an artist and scientist, where would you take us and why?
This is easy, it would be the L.A. River in the Glendale Narrows stretch. A section of this part of the river, is one of the two areas on the river where you can kayak, which is one of the funnest nature experiences (IMHO) people can have in L.A.! There are even class I and II rapids here. When I’m not kayaking, I love bird and bug watching. Standing on top of Sunnynook bridge is a great place to do this. You can stand above the middle of the river and see into the willow and cottonwood tree canopies, and spy on the birds and the bees and butterflies too. I also love playing pooh sticks here. Pooh sticks is a game lots of kids play in the U.K. As the name suggests it originates from a Winnie the Pooh book. Each person playing takes a stick and throws it off the upstream side of a bridge. The winner is the stick that comes out the other side of the bridge first. It doesn’t quite work on this very narrow, pedestrian bridge, but I do it anyway!
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