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The Wilder Side of Me

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"The summer before fifth grade, my classmates and I were sent a letter from our soon-to-be science teacher instructing us on the insect collection we were to assiduously begin while we were on summer break. We had to collect a minimum of 30 insects making sure that we had a good variety of species. I refused to collect any insects — at least in the way we had been instructed — in a jar partially filled with alcohol."

From the title you may assume that this post will wax ineloquently about my party lifestyle (which I don’t have), possibly sharing some links to Facebook photos that I probably should have never set free into the InterWebs. You would be mistaken.

This post is a celebration of life — literally. It is a celebration of the wonders of the natural world and my seemingly innate connection to it from an early age. It is an autobiographical essay about how I become a naturalist and ecologist.

Jeff photographing a Tree Frog on a Mayapple leaf

Although the vast majority of readers of my blog know me as an InterWeb technologist and technological futurist, I am as much a naturalist as I am a technologist. To me, the study of the natural world, the drive to understand the intimate connections of the Web of Life, and my fascination with the complex adaptive systems that power our ecosphere, provide me with unique insights into the technological challenges our species faces. Thus, being a naturalist makes me a better technologist and futurist.

An Exotic Bird Sparks My Imagination

From my earliest memories, I was fascinated by the natural world. Although I was a very sickly kid, that did not stop me from dreaming about animals, wishing to explore the wilds of my backyard. As a kid, I collected spiders and insects in jars so as to study them. I watched the Red-headed Woodpeckers that nested in our ancient Red oaks. I absorbed every wildlife documentary and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode I could watch.

Red-headed Woodpecker

In summer my family would travel to Cape Cod, to Plymouth Beach. We would spend two weeks at the beach in a cottage that my mother’s sister, my aunt, owned. The cottage was on the shore with great views of the ocean. There I would explore the shoreline, study the intertidal pools, and try not to let my terrible asthma ruin my time.

When I was six or seven, I encountered an exotic bird at this cottage. I was transfixed by its song. I would spend long periods of time just sitting on the front porch, looking out over the ocean, and listening to the wonderful, melodious song of this bird. I had no idea what it was and only occasionally caught glimpses of it perched on a shrub down below me.

Each year when our vacation was over and we were jumping into the car for our long drive home, I would intently listen, trying to catch the song of this exotic bird one last time. Each year I looked forward to returning to the cottage so as I could hear the music of this marvelous creature again.

It was not until I was nine or ten years old that I figured out the mystery of this bird. One summer’s day in South Bend, I heard the mystical song of this bird at our home. I grabbed our Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America and finally identified my exotic quarry. It was a Song Sparrow! It turned out to be a rather common sparrow with a wide distribution throughout most of the United States and Canada. But for some reason, I had never heard it anywhere else except in Cape Cod — that was until now.

Although I had been fascinated by the Red-headed woodpeckers that nested in our yard and the Common Redpolls that showed up only in the wintertime at our feeders, it was this common bird, the Song Sparrow, that sparked my interest in and love of birds.

To this day whenever I hear a Song Sparrow singing I am transported back to the front porch of that cottage on Plymouth Beach. I am a six-year old kid once again and anything seems possible. To me, a Song Sparrow remains an exotic, mystical bird.

Song Sparrow

With my growing interest in birds, it was not long until I started going out into the field (our neighborhood) to actively pursue them. When I was ten or eleven, my Father’s father, my grandfather, moved to Green Valley, Arizona. One summer we traveled to Arizona to visit him. I remember the evening when my father announced that he planned to wake up at 5:30 am to go bird watching in and around Mount Wrightson — one of the sky islands of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert region. That sounded interesting to me so I asked him if I could join him. Our first bird of the morning, and the first bird that I saw as an official traveling birder, was a Phainopepla — a Northern Cardinal shaped and sized bird but that is all black.

Lessons From A Big Brown Bug: I Started Fifth Grade With Four Insects In A Jar

The summer before fifth grade, my classmates and I were sent a letter from our soon-to-be science teacher instructing us on the insect collection we were to assiduously begin while we were on summer break. We had to collect a minimum of 30 insects making sure that we had a good variety of species. I refused to collect any insects — at least in the way we had been instructed — in a jar partially filled with alcohol.

I had learned years previously how to properly collect insects: in a jar with a lid into which holes were punched so the insects would have plenty of oxygen. Capturing a live insect and dropping it into a jar or alcohol to kill and preserve it was out of the question. Besides, I argued, I could easily use my older brothers’ insect collections; we still had them in the house. I also suggested that I already knew more about insects than my classmates because I had been studying live specimens for years.

My parents were sympathetic but insisted that I at least give it a try. I was a stellar student with a penchant for science and they did not want me to flunk. So I did as they requested, painfully catching three insects in the jar of death. I saw my fourth insect fly to a low-hanging oak limb in my best friend’s front yard. I knew what it was just from its flight pattern. It was a large brown true bug, in the order Hemiptera.

I quickly approached the oak tree, opening my jar that had no holes in the lid. I positioned the lid on top of the leaf and the true bug, and the jar below the leaf. With one swift motion, I slammed the lid down and the jar up, trapping the insect in the container. The insect was now trapped between the torn leaf and the underside of the lid. I carefully opened the jar and slid the leaf out from underneath the lid, making sure the true bug did not escape.

Then it happened.

I watched as the true bug futilely tried to cling on to the sides of the slippery glass jar. It struggled to grip the smooth surface as it succumbed to the deadly vapors of the alcohol. My peripheral vision began to collapse as I watched in horror as the true bug hit the liquid and sank. I literally had tunnel vision. I slumped to the ground, jar in my hands, watching the insect’s last moments of life. I was deeply saddened. I sat on the hilltop of my friend’s lawn, stunned at what I had done. It was a visceral experience that I vividly remember to this day.

I had been a collector and observer of insects for years. But I used collection jars that let me study live specimens and learn about their behaviors. Now I had trivialized an insect’s utility by killing it in alcohol just so that I could get a good grade in my fifth-grade science class. I already knew the body parts of an insect. I already knew about the various life cycles and taxonomic classifications of many of the insects in our yard. This process would teach me nothing new — other than how to put a pin in a dead bug.

Right then and there, in my emotionally-distraught state and filled with guilt, I vowed that this was the end of my fifth-grade science insect collection. I slowly walked home in tears. When my Mom saw me, she knew too that my insect collecting days were over — at least the type of collecting that requires a killing jar.

So, with only four insects in my jar of death, I started fifth grade. And guess what? My science teacher was accepting of my choice. I did an alternate project instead and remained the best science student in my class.

Microbiology and Ecology: Two Seemingly-Disparate Fields

The time I spent studying insects and birds in my backyard as a kid, as well as the horrible experience I had killing insects for a fifth-grade science class, shaped my decisions for years to come. I attended the University of Notre Dame, majoring in molecular microbiology and ecology — two seemingly-disparate fields. Why ecology? Because I could not give up my love of natural history.

Although I was fascinated by life on the microscopic scale, I squeezed in extra coursework on field ecology, botany, population ecology and more so that I could sate the thirst I had for natural history.

So Long Science, Hello Something Else — Anything Else

After four years of studying science and spending too much time in dingy science labs, I lost track of what I wanted to do next. With my degree in microbiology and coursework in chemistry and biochemistry, I could have applied to medical school. But I had lost interest in that idea between my freshman and sophomore years. During the summer, I spent some time hanging out with a thoracic surgeon, actually accompanying him on his hospital rounds and standing next to him in the operating arena as he performed various surgeries. Although that was fascinating, the idea of being cooped up in a hospital for the rest of my career was unappealing.

I considered going to graduate school in the sciences — possible ecology or even marine biology — as I still had an interest in ecology and field work. But the reality was that I was burned out studying science. I simply had had one too many labs and too much science coursework.

I needed a break.

So instead of getting a job, I decided to enroll in business school. I thought that studying something that was entirely different from what I had been studying ever since I was a kid might be a refreshing change.

I was accepted into Notre Dame’s Graduate Business School, into their MBA program. I decided to pursue a dual track, concentrating in both information technology and marketing. As I had learned how to program computers during my freshman year of high school and I was quite good at it, this course of study seemed to make sense.

As graduation from the MBA program approached, I realized once again that I did not want to pursue the typical career paths that my graduate business colleagues were interested in pursuing. Instead, I wanted to combine my new-found business skills with my love of science and nature.

I graduated with high honors from the program and landed a position with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Washington, DC. That was serendipitous as it was at the NWF where I met my future wife.

Our Malagasy Adventure: The Makings of A Tropical Ecologist

I was hired by the NWF’s Corporate Conservation Council to work on a wetlands mitigation database project. The pay was miserable and I knew that in less than a year I would be looking for another job. But working at NWF and meeting April helped me to rekindled my love of nature and science.

Soon we were engaged and dreaming about our future. We both decided to go to graduate school in biology — she would study biological anthropology and I would study tropical ecology with an emphasis on ornithology.

We took the general GREs and the GRE biology subject tests. It was the second time I took both tests — the first time I took them was just before I had decided to get a MBA and forego graduate school in the sciences.

April’s advisor for her undergraduate science major was a famous primatologist — Dr. Patricia Wright. She was working on a conservation project in Madagascar. In the summer of 1990, she invited the two of us — now freshly married — to come to Madagascar to help out with a major habitat and species assessment project for Madagascar’s first proposed national park — Ranomafana National Park.

There we helped in several studies: foraging behavior of Diademed Sifakas (a type of lemur) and nesting behavior and brooding success of Rufous Vangas and Malagasy Paradise Flycatchers.

Jeff watching the nest of a Rufous Vanga

Namorona River in Ranomafana National Park

Male Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher

Female Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher

Jeff weighing Malagasy Paradise Flycatcher hatchlings

The smallest primate on earth — the Mouse Lemur

A New Species And Some Sobering Advice

During our off time, April and I would explore the rainforest, sometimes venturing a couple hours away from base camp. On one such break, we actually decided to explore the river bank near our camp — we, as well as all the researchers, lived in tents.

We came across a small bird constructing a nest. We observed it for awhile and realized that it was a species we had not yet encountered. When we were in Madagascar, there was no field guide to the birds. Although one was in the works, it was not yet in print — it came out a few weeks after we left Madagascar.

We realized that we needed to show this bird to the ornithologist for whom we were doing research. Suffice it to say that it was a new species — the Cryptic Warbler — but it would not be officially “discovered” until two years later by two birding tour guides scouting the location as a possible tour destination. They found the bird very close to the area in which we first observed it. If you ever see me out in the field, ask me to finish the story about how we almost co-discovered a new bird species but didn’t.

Whereas it would be a few years before we realized our unfortunate luck in not being co-discoverers of a new species of bird, we had a more fundamental, life-changing experience in Madagascar. We were told in no uncertain terms by several of the world-class researchers in the camp that we should not go to graduate school.

After all our time, effort, and interest in pursuing graduate degrees in science, top-notched scientists were telling us that it was not worth it. They said that funding for graduate students studying tropical ecology was almost impossible to get due to drastic cut backs. They said that they had great difficulties in securing funding for their projects. If world-renowned scientists were having difficulties obtaining funding, what chances did we have in securing funding for our graduate studies?

Confused And Back In The States

We returned back to the states wondering what we should do. April was still employed by NWF but her time there was drawing to a close. Her experiences in Madagascar made her realize that she wanted to pursue a writing career, focusing on science and nature. It is the career she has cultivated with much success for over twenty years.

I, on the other hand, was confused. After a call from a friend and graduate school colleague, April and I decided to move back to my hometown of South Bend, Indiana. There I would join him in a new computer consulting venture. That was the start of my consulting career. You can read more details about the business side of my life on my About Me page.

Even though I had decided for a second time not to pursue a graduate degree in science, my passion for nature had been rekindled by our experiences in Madagascar and by April’s infectious love of wildlife. I searched for ways that I could cobble together some semblance of a nature-based avocation. Although my vocation was computers, I desperately wished that I could find a way to make nature my vocation instead of avocation.

When the first Gulf War broke out, my business partner was called to duty — he was a career Air Force navigator who remained in the Air Force Reserves. He wanted to keep the business but with him going, it did not make sense for me to stick around. So, I started my own consulting company.

To maintain my connection to natural-history pursuits, I served as Vice President and then President of our local chapter of the Audubon Society. I discovered that, according to others, I had a gift for hearing, learning, and identifying bird vocalizations. Although I knew the songs and calls of many bird species already, I spent time expanding my knowledge base, learning the vocalizations of many of the North America’s bird species. I also co-wrote with April an adult book on the ecology of North American hummingbirds (north of Mexico). On the weekends April and I would go birding or I would work on honing my botanical skills.

JFNew, Native Plant Nursery, And Prairie Fen

The dotcom bubble (or bust) brought another change in my career. In 1999, I no longer worked at the consulting company I had started. Through my work with the South Bend – Elkhart Audubon Society, an opportunity came along to join a relatively young ecological consulting firm — JFNew & Associates. I was initially hired to turn around a failing division of the company that had never turned a profit but I served in many concurrent capacities.

I served as a restoration ecologist, director of the native plant nursery, and partner of the firm. Along with running the daily operations of the nursery division, I also managed ecological assessments, bird surveys, and helped clients obtain permits for their projects. Again, you can read more about my business success at JFNew on my About Me page.

My proudest accomplishment as a result of my client work at JFNew was the co-discovery of a significant acreage of a very rare habitat type in Michigan called prairie fen. Our discovery of 140 acres of habitat added almost 10% to the total known extant acreage of this rare prairie fen habitat type to the state of Michigan. After three years of off-the-clock survey work on the weekends and difficult negotiations between the developers and The Nature Conservancy state office in Michigan, we were able to reach an agreement for purchase and transfer of this land. It is now protected from future development. As there are many rare, threatened, or endangered plants and animals that call this place home, it is a victory I will always cherish.

Jeff with his 71-year old Father at the Prairie Fen

The Prairie Fen makes the cover of the Michigan TNC’s 2003 Annual Report

An article about the Prairie Fen in the Michigan TNC magazine

Restoring Our Yard

There are a number of benefits of running a native plant nursery. One of the best benefits is discounted and free plants. I took advantage of the opportunity and purchased and acquired many thousands of native plant cuttings, plugs, and starts. We used the material to restore and landscape a large portion of our yard.

Native Columbine, a hummingbird favorite

The almost glowing purple flowers of Spiderwort

Cupplants offer a great source of nectar for native bees and seed in the fall for American Goldfinches

A field of Lupinus perennis, another early-spring native bee nectar source

Royal Catchfly, a state listed species in Indiana, is another hummingbird favorite

Over the course of six years, we restored almost an acre of our one-and-a-half acre yard, returning it to savanna, prairie, and wetland habitat.

Jeff and a colleague perform a controlled burn to prepare the planting site

Jeff marks borders for the savanna restoration planting

A crew helps install more than 1000 native savanna plants

Heavy equipment was required for multiple projects

The savanna after one year.

We even built a large water garden to help propagate rare native plant species and provide suitable habitat for pond-based animals.

The fully excavated water garden basins — three in all.

Water garden excavation closeup

Laying the liner. This is not a small water garden!

Functioning water garden after a few months.

Close up of small pond vegetated with native aquatic plants

View of large pond. Just behind is a peat bog with rare native plants.

A Green Frog finds a comfortable home

A Blue Dasher perched on the spike of Pickerel Weed

At its heyday, we had almost 400 species of genotypically-local native plants in our yard. Today, the number has dwindled as we’ve let natural processes decide which plant populations thrive and which ones die. Before we returned native vegetation to our yard and got rid of much of the lawn, we had recorded 6 species of butterfly and moth. After, we had over 43 species.

We raised a group of Io Moths that we found on one of our Redbuds

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a Liatris Spike

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth feeding on Prairie Monarda

A gorgeous Red-spotted Purple butterfly

Through my work at the native plant nursery, with ecological assessments, and our work in restoring our yard, my botanical interests and skills blossomed. I became a better-rounded naturalist, rather than a lopsided ecologist who primarily knew about the birds.

Tropical Tour Guiding

While I was still at JFNew, April and I started a nature tour company. It was yet another way for me to get out in the wilds and immerse myself in nature. We called our company a natural-history adventure travel company and offered tours to the tropics during the few weeks of vacation that I took each year from my ecological consulting company.

I dreamed of growing this business to the point that I could retire from JFNew and spend a good portion of my time exploring tropical rainforests while making a living doing it.

Jeff (in center) after canopy-climbing adventure in Panama

A Chestnut-mandibled Toucan in a Cecropia Tree

Male Fasciated Antshrike

A Chapter Ends As My Journey Is Threatened

In early 2004, it became apparent that I was very sick. It took almost eight months to place a name on my disease. I was diagnosed with a deadly disease and made the decision to resign my partnership at JFNew in early 2005. I left the company and my native plant nursery so as to focus on my health. As a result of my illness, we also had to suspend our Sayre Nature Adventures tours.

During my fight for health, I needed to do something to keep my mind preoccupied. As it was not practical or advisable for me to spend too much time outdoors — or at least exploring the wilds in some exotic locale — I decided to return to my computer consulting days. However, instead of taking on clients, I caught up on the latest and greatest Internet programming paradigms with the goal of eventually starting a media-based publishing startup.

With my change of focus to Internet technologies, I came full circle and nature once again became an avocation, taking a backseat in my daily routine. To this day, I continually struggle with finding ways to integrate nature into my business life. I have a few options that I am exploring that might make the pursuit of natural history more than an avocation, but my current InterWeb startup path is also a passion of mine.

Thus, I lead a double life. Most of you known me as a technologist and futurist. But some of my closest friends know me as a naturalist and ecologist. What am I? I am both.

Much of the foundation of my technological musings is based on ecological theories and the study of complex adaptive systems in nature. Honing my skills as a naturalist and opening my mind to the ecological ties in nature have helped me to see the larger, intrinsic connections that are shaping the technological basis of humanity’s communication revolution. Homo sapiens is but a single species. Although humankind may believe that it is separate from the natural world, we are inextricably incorporated into the Web of Life. We are part of the natural world. We are but another species of animal — albeit one that is increasingly stressing the bonds of the ecosphere.

The Journey Continues

Oh, by the way, I did not die from my disease. In fact, I am healthier in many ways than I was a decade or more ago. A few years back, as it became apparent that I had beat the disease that was trying to conquer me, I began to workout once again. Lifting, running, returning to the field to bird and botanize. I have slowly rebuilt my strength and body and reengaged with the natural world. Whereas life is a constant struggle and a complex challenge, time spent observing, studying, and appreciating the natural world is not only good for the soul but also helps put one’s place in the world into proper perspective.

E. O. Wilson says that, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I have known this to be true for decades. But nature also holds the keys to our species future, keys that can only be utilized if we take the time to truly comprehend the marvel that is the Web of Life.

Related Articles

To learn more about how I like to spend my time in the physical world, see my article, A Migration Celebration.

Article Comments

  1. […] decision process required considerable soul searching and resulted in two long blog articles: The Wilder Side of Me and A Migration […]

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