What’s your favorite part of this book? And what’s your favorite story about Errington, who seems to have been very adventurous in the field?
There are so many great passages in Of Men and Marshes that it’s hard to choose one favorite, but I do love the last line of the book, which reads, “The lessons as well as the beauties of marshes await the perceptive, as do the lessons and beauties of the skies, of the seas, of the mountains, and of the other places remaining where man can still reflect upon lessons and beauties that are not of human making.” He ends the book by inviting us to reflect on the kinds of lessons we can learn from marshlands, as well as from a larger spectrum of environments. He reminds us to pay attention to the intrinsic, nonmonetary value of an ecosystem, and we need that reminder now more than ever.
My favorite story about Errington the man? He was a remarkable guy, and one event he relates in his memoir of growing up in South Dakota in the 1910s and 20s is especially telling. Even at a very young age he was an avid lover of the outdoors. When he was eight years old he contracted polio, and the disease laid him up in bed for a time and withered one of his legs. It’s the kind of thing that might easily have ended his plan for a future as a professional trapper. To overcome his disability, he imposed upon himself a regimen of very long walks, miles and miles each Saturday, which he used to strengthen his leg. It must have been remarkably painful and frustrating, but he did it, and soon he was walking with barely a limp. By the time he was 18 he had so fully recovered from polio—while also honing his wilderness survival skills—that he was able to make an eight-month solo trapping expedition into the wilderness of upper Minnesota, during the winter months no less. He was clearly a determined man, and, as I’ve learned from talking to his family members, he applied that determination to pretty much everything he did.
I bet that English professors sometimes dream of becoming wildlife biologists, but how many wildlife biologists dream of becoming English professors? Tell us how you made this unusual transition.
I guess I’ve never really understood the artificial boundaries we place between the sciences and the humanities. As a kid I was as equally enthralled with reading a good story as I was with turning over rocks to see what wriggling things I could find. I’ve always been a reader and a writer, and I had the luck of growing up in rural Arkansas, so I had some great natural places to explore right in my backyard. When I had to choose a major for college I was perplexed as to what to do. I went with biology for my bachelor’s but I might have as easily gone with English or history. After working as a biologist for a while (both in the field and in a lab), I realized I really missed those old required humanities courses I had in college. So one day I decided to embrace that interest and pursue a graduate education in American literature. I didn’t make the decision lightly, but I’m so glad I took the risk because I love what I do, and I have been able to use my eclectic professional background to great effect both in my research and in my teaching. As I tell my students, you really have to muster the courage to follow your true interests, especially if those interests are nontraditional. I think too many people compromise in their careers, or worse they choose a path that is really meant to satisfy someone else’s expectations. Paul Errington is someone who had his feet firmly planted in both the sciences and the humanities. As a younger man he wanted to be both a trapper and a fiction writer, and he would sometimes, after a day of running traps, return to camp to write stories by lantern light, using an old ammo crate as a desk. There are others. Rachel Carson, for instance, started her college career as an English major before switching to biology, but—thankfully—she kept her love of literature and writing, and it shows in her books. It sometimes works in the opposite direction. After Joseph Wood Krutch retired from a successful career as a theater critic and Columbia University English professor, he moved from New York City to Arizona, where he was inspired to become an even more accomplished nature writer and conservationist.
What are your favorite natural areas in Iowa and the Midwest?
I often go to nearby Ledges State Park, where I like walking the trails and enjoying the overlooks. One restored marsh that I enjoy visiting is the Colo Bogs Wildlife Management Area near Colo, Iowa. It’s a good spot to enjoy the diversity of bird life, wetland mammals, and native grasses Errington knew so well from his research. Another favorite is the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge, which offers a glimpse of what Iowa’s native prairie might have been like. It’s another good example of how an environment can be restored for the benefit of future generations and because it, as Errington argued, deserves to exist in its own right.