Songs of the Trees


Feeling the strength of a Pin Oak in my backyard, Ridgefield, Washington. Photo: Brian Tissot.

… time is a fire in which we burn

Dr. Tolian Soran (Star Trek Generations)

I can still feel its strength and remember its message. For although I have no photos, it is etched in my mind. I recall the coolness of its shade, the sound of the wind blowing through its scaly leaves, the sweet smell on the wind, the sound of running water below. Although it was one tree among many, it caught my attention and for ten years of my life, I took the time to visit and listen to its song.

For if time truly is the fire in which our lives burn, shouldn’t we slow life down? Isn’t it prudent to seek solace as the seconds’ tick by? Most of us, myself included, are content to pack our daily lives full of activity. Rushing hither and yon chasing a dream that is perpetually beyond our grasp. After all, there’s so much to do in the world, so much to see, so much to accomplish, so who has time to be idle? But then, what are we missing as life rushes by?

Screenshot 2018-06-19 18.24.20

Coastal cedar trees on the Oregon coast. Photo: Stephen Grace.

I don’t know. But one of those things is the song of the trees. For they live in a different world, a world where time, at least from our perspective, is slow and endless. Where seasons roll by like days, decades like weeks, centuries like years. Where life is measured in millennia. But if you take the time to stop, to truly quiet your mind and listen, you will hear the trees. And their wisdom is profound.


Coastal cedars. photo: unknown.

I have heard many trees in my life: a pin oak in our backyard in Washington, a wounded fir tree on the Olympic coast, and the sound of Hemlock forests screaming in the winds of the high Cascades. But the one that is imprinted on my mind was a magnificent red cedar in a stream bed on our property in Ridgefield, Washington. When we moved there in 1998, I simply saw it as one tree among many in a small forest. But I had missed its beauty.

During that time in my life (my 40s), I was undergoing profound personal change and questioning my life. Who am I? Where am I going? What am I here for? This is the middle passage in life that many men (and woman) traverse in their lives. A frightening time of painful reflection of the past but with an opportunity to grow into something new, something more meaningful. During those years I faced the storm inside and the search for balance. I quickly discovered I was not alone and a good friend suggested a men’s weekend retreat with the Mankind Project. I hemmed and hawed, afraid of what I might discover about myself, but in November 1999 I went and my life was changed, forever.


Circle of men. Photo: Craig White.

I learned that like most men, I held deep wounds from my past experiences. Although the physical and emotional pain was gone, the trauma lived within my head and was reflected in actions in my life. I learned that weekend that I could move past those issues, but not by myself; I  needed help. For one cannot see their own shadow. So with the help of a trusting, powerful circle of new brothers, all wounded in different ways, I faced my deepest fears. It was a terrifying moment, but when it was over I had a new awareness of who I was and increased sensitivities to those around me. The world was different and I left with a deep connection to the gifts I could bring to myself, my family, my friends, and the world. If a person can truly be reborn in life, I was.

Then, years later, I revisited the tree and sought its message.  I sat patiently underneath, touching its trunk, asking for direction. Then I looked up and I saw what I had missed. For the tall, old tree was growing on the shifting slope of a stream bed and the ground had shifted, and its massive trunk had fallen over. Instead of lying dead in the stream, it fell against another cedar tree, which supported it with its own strength. At that point the two trees grew together; the wounded tree’s angular trunk was straight and tall and reached high into the canopy — its bulk held up by its neighbor.  The message was clear: with the support of its brother, the tree lived to reach the sky and join the other trees with its top swaying magnificently in the wind in the riparian forest.

The tree made me think of my weekend retreat and the brothers who had supported me and how I had supported them; the trees were mirroring that. Touching the trunk and waiting, I heard a slow song of joy; the happiness of being one with the forest, the pleasure of its gentle swaying in the wind under the sun, the comfort of sweet water pouring over its roots. The delight at being alive. Then I realized that was how I felt. Content, whole, joyful. With other men’s help, I had pulled the deep shadows in my life into the light. And it helped me to realize how glorious life was, that there was so much to do, and I had so much to offer. I was happy, just like the tree.

Later, when I served as staff on other men’s weekend — with the tree’s permission — I carried some leaves and placed them in the Talisman’s of newly initiated men; a pouch we carry to remind us of our transformative times. The fragrant leaves joined objects placed by other men: a salmon bone for strength; black and white rocks for men’s shadow and gold; Sage for cleansing. I asked the native American staff member making the pouches if I could include the cedar leaves from my tree. Upon discovery of what they were, he smiled: cedar was an important tree in his culture and was used for healing. A shiver ran down my spine as I realized that indeed, it had helped me heal. And now, I hoped, it would help the 30 men that carried those leaves away that weekend close to their hearts to heal as well; to move on with their lives. At that moment, part of my life’s circle felt complete and I felt a new phase of awareness and mission. And through that, a willingness to help others heal.


Now I make time to listen to the trees and seek to understand their songs and their wisdom. But in my efforts I’ve discovered that trees are not the only things that sing; indeed, all living things do. If you really listen you can even hear the planet sing, as it does every day: the waves, the wind, the soil, the very earth. And although I don’t know the words of the song, the music is magnificent.

Further reading:

Legend of the Killer Abalone

ab face

The last thing you see before you die. The face of the normally peaceful abalone in killer mode. Photo: UC Davis Bodega Bay Marine Laboratory White Abalone Recovery Team.

There is a legend, spawned deep in the mysterious kelp forests of southern California, of the killer abalone. On extremely rare occasions, conditions align with a violation of the abalone code that triggers the rare spawn of the trio of terror in the abalone universe: the red, the black, and their offspring, the pink abalone. So it was during the El Niño of the early 1980s that such an event occurred, much to the detriment of all those involved and for future world peace.

For at that time, in 1985 to be precise, legend has it that a serious violation of the abalone code of honor occurred by SCUBA divers subsequent to the chaos suffered by all marine creatures during the furious El Niño that had ensued. Normally, the placid abalone is content to graze peacefully on the algal gardens of the subtidal zone. But during this time they were deprived for several years of their prized dietary item, the juicy fronds of the brown kelp, and thus they were in no mood to tolerate man’s disrespect.

Thus, I present to you a video from that rare encounter between humans and the killer abalone so that you may learn and honor this amazing creature of the sea. As for the disposition of the human in the video, although he physically survived, let it be known that he was forever changed by his encounter with the killer abalone. Forever after, for better or for worse, his art reflected the deep thoughts and consciousness shared briefly with both the peaceful and killer abalone.

For more about that time period, watch Old Surf Movies: A Day in the life: Laguna Beach & the Wedge, Summer 1985:

Michael Hewes art

Dr. Abalone’s College Survival Guide, 1970s Edition


Dr Abalone collecting data on survival tactics whilst posing as a college student in 1977. Here I am assuming the “surfer” stereotype which helped me assimilate into the student-youth culture and collect heretofore hidden data.

Whilst searching the old archives, I, Dr. Abalone, have discovered some old unpublished data which, when utilized properly and with prudence, I believe could significantly enhance the survival rate of students struggling through the young adult rite of passage known as college. I do this with some reluctance, I might add, because these data were collected in the mid- to late-1970s and hence extrapolation to modern times is fraught with caveats. Instead of belaboring the details, I present a distillation of the major points of my studies and insert [warning notes], where appropriate. I use classical metrics of “success” including both GPA (grade point average; a standard but dubious measure of collegial success) and reproductive success  (number of offspring).

Habitat and Transportation

Although most students typically occupied a single housing unit, I observed they were more often part of a larger enclave, or commune, of individuals exhibiting complex usage patterns. Typical habitats include couches, floors, garages, motor vehicles, and a variety of other suboptimal but cost-efficient spaces including local beaches. Interestingly, individuals occupied their housing units on a wide range of time schedules and were sometimes absent for days, weeks or even months at a time frolicking at other unknown habitats outside the range of my tracking ability. Initial attempts at tagging and following individuals were thwarted by high tag loss which created limited inference. Although some individuals, often those with a high GPA, exhibited minimal overall movement and were quite sedentary, others were dynamic, constantly in motion, and unpredictable. Interestingly, these latter individuals had both low and high average GPAs. As a result, habitat choice and movement rates were a poor predictor of overall success.

VW Van

A common 1970s habitat and form of transportation. Stoners emerge for a VW van or Kombi. From the film: Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Overall, no single mode of transportation was observed and students were opportunistic in their choice of transport mechanisms. While few students possessed vehicles, they nevertheless constituted the primary method of transportation, although often indirectly. This mode included personal vehicles (rare), carpooling (common), and the ubiquitous practice known as “hitchhiking” (very common). I personally conducted research on hitchhiking for many years and found it to be an effective, if somewhat unpredictable, mode of transportation. However, delays in the arrival at destination were offset by benefits gained through networking and the potential for new reproductive encounters (see below). As an aside, there was a small but significant population of individuals that used their vehicles as a source of both habitation and transportation.

Mating Patterns

The sex life of a college student is a remarkable subject known for both its complexity and richness in revealing social dynamics [disclosure: my research is potentially biased due to direct involvement while collecting data]. Given the strong effects on fitness of this time period in the life history of a student, attendance at parties is considered an important part of socializing and the mating ritual and represents a unique challenge for the student’s ultimate survival and success [this assumes reproductive output is key to success, which is an untested assumption].


Parties often promoted risky behavior which reduced fitness but enhanced the probability of sexual encounters. Overall, GPA declined with increased party attendance. From the film: Almost Famous.

My results show extremes on both ends of the partying spectrum can result in strong stabilizing selection whereby a balance with the other required activities of students (e.g. studying) can be achieved. In either extreme, the student can experience reproductive failure (low party attendance, high GPA), or severe physical damage (or even mortality) from frequent high levels of partying (high party attendance, low GPA). Thus, GPA and reproductive success, at least in the formative years, are negatively correlated, predicting that successful college students will have a low reproductive success.

Guidelines for the proper level of partying has proven particularly difficult to establish as the author has repeatedly breached the boundaries of objectivity in the pursuit of guidelines for optimal frequency and occasion. Research is ongoing but initial results are best summarized as specific days and/or occasions to avoid extensive social mixing because they may cause interference with academic, and ultimately, reproductive, success [see caveats above]. The important dates to avoid excessive merrymaking include [1980 updates with strikethrough]: weekdays, prior to quizzes, midterms, and final examinations.

Food Acquisition

Since financial support for the student often arrives in discreet monthly moments of high emotion, the strategy for survival is focused on a strategic succession of choices over time. Early in the month, food is bountiful (relatively speaking, students are always poor) and items such as steak, chicken, pork and even an occasional meal at a formal eating establishment are possible. However, as resources dwindle logarithmically after the first few days, the strategy shifts to what’s called the “tried-and-true” stable for students. These items consist primarily of Top Ramen, Mac ‘N Cheese, and the versatile “refried beans.” The latter is particularly interesting in that once cooked, the remaining portion can be left in its cooking container and held in the refrigeration unit until at such time another portion is desired. Then the container is re-heated, more beans and water are added, and the cycle is repeated. This is not only economical but saves significant cleaning time and is ecologically low-impact [the bacterial load is questionable and the nutritional value of this item may not be significant.]


“Gigging” for fish was a major part of “Living off the Land” and a key part of the nutritional cycle for college students. Photo: Jim Russell.

It is near the end of the month when financial resources have reached near zero (or below zero) that true innovation in the diet is shown. This time period often referred to as living off the land, involves a period of intensive foraging for a variety of valuable items that can be exchanged for food. This phase begins with the recycling of bottles and cans, then progresses to newspapers, magazines, spare tires, unused stereos, selling weed, etc. In the commune I studied, which consisted of three male subjects, the final stage was marked by a return to the hunter-gather stage of foraging whereby individuals entered the ocean for “abing-and–gigging” otherwise known as free diving for abalone and other assorted sea creatures and killing fish with a “gig,” a spear of frightening but effective design. Foraging for algae, barnacles, clams, limpets, and other small snails were not uncommon. Paradoxically, it is during this time period that individuals consumed the most fresh and nutritious substances in the diet cycle, which began anew as the financial supply restarted at the beginning of a new month.

Miscellaneous Findings

Discretionary diversions (i.e., hobbies) served a useful psychological purpose during the stress-filled life of the college student. Major activities include partying and sex, which have been covered previously. Here I focus on the mundane, but important activities that complete the time budget of a student exclusive of sleeping and studying. Through my extensive research, I have documented hundreds of activities but several predominated in the small coastal California college that was the focus of this study: skateboarding, surfing, television, inhaling marijuana, crashing, and “hanging out.”

Screenshot 2018-05-17 18.58.48

Inhaling Marijuana was a major activity among some individuals known as “Stoners.” Although outwardly happy, these individuals generally had a low GPA. From the film: Old Surf Movies: Pismo and Shell Beach. 1979

In the surfing enclave I inhabited, all major life activities revolved around the conditions of the oceans and it’s waves. As I have documented in my treatise “Dr. Abalone’s Field Guide to the Six Species of Surfers” there are six species of surfers. Here, I observed two prominent species: “Stoked” and the “Stoner.”  Most of the time, Stoked was the dominant species and showed a manifest addiction to searching and riding waves using a significant fraction of the time budget to the exclusion of all other activities, including even sex and partying. However, the Stoner, although less common in abundance, had a significant influence on the other members of the clan such that small levels of surfing were mixed with time spent eating, engaging in sex, crashing, foraging, and “hanging out” [generally inhaling marijuana while eating].  Skateboarding was relegated to those days when it was too windy or the ocean too calm for surfing. In total, surfing had a highly variable effect on GPA but reproductive success was generally high due to the charismatic appeal of the sport to the opposite sex.


It is remarkable that although the main focus of the college student’s life is assumed to be focused on academics, I found that students spent a significant and highly variable amount of time preparing for and completing material that prepared them for advancement in their degree programs.

The typical scene in the library in the 1970s. Anyone remember the Dewey Decimal System? [Notice the lack of computers; you actually had to physically find information, which contributed to higher GPAs].

Time commitments varied from zero in some individuals to dozens of hours per week in others. It is notable that there was no correlation between studying intensity and final GPA.  The correlation was weak with some individuals excelling at classes with close to zero effort whilst others studied endlessly yet still manage to fail miserably. I can only conclude that academic success was not influenced by the time committed to studying but yet was determined by some other unknown factor or factors not investigated in this study.

Summary and Conclusions

In conclusion, the collegial life history stage of a student in the 1970s was clearly fraught with unpredictability, high risks, and variable opportunities. Despite the strong selective forces present in this environment, individuals appeared to emerge unscathed from this stage and ultimately achieved reproductive success despite predictions based on individual variables, especially the highly-valued student GPA. As such, I was unable to develop a full model with any degree of statistical precision and conclude it is difficult to understand, let alone predict, the survivorship and success of a college student. As a personal observation, I, the author, had a hell of a lot of fun during these investigations. Regardless, I hope these observations are of some value to those currently negotiating college life and nostalgic for those remembering the past. Although many things have changed, many clearly have not. — Dr. Ab


The author in his VW habitat in the 1970s, a Stoked surfing living off the land.

Further reading from Dr. Abalone:


Deadly Jetties: Surfer’s Dreams, Captain’s Nightmares

Gary Robertshaw

Coast Guard vessel training at Morro Bay Harbor entrance, December 2007. Photo: Gary Robertshaw.

The Dual Nature of Jetties

Whenever humans seek to control the environment, the smackdown can be severe and unpredictable. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sea. Here, the ocean teaches us the folly of our plans, sometimes with fatal consequences. Jetties are prime examples. Built to create harbors and to control beach erosion, the disconnect between design and reality are often stark (Pilkey and Dixon, 1998). With respect to surfers, although there are downsides, we generally come out on top, as jetties create some of the best human-made waves on the planet. But for vessels entering and exiting harbors, jetties can be both a blessing and a curse. So here’s an example of two things we’ve learned from jetties: 1) How they have created some great surf spots; and 2) Some of the tragedies and near-death experiences created by jetties.

Death’s Doormat: Morro Bay’s famous jetties

One of the most famous images associated with Morro Bay’s jetties is a photo of the 84’ long M.V. Mojo, chartered by Hollywood star, George C. Scott’s during a massive winter storm on January 28, 1978. Ignoring warnings not to attempt leaving Morro Bay, the impatient Scott demanded that his skipper head out despite the risks. The result was an iconic photo of a near-death experience at the legendary Morro Bay harbor mouth that cost the owner $85,000 in repairs. Luckily, no one was killed and injuries were not life-threatening.


M.V. Mojo chartered by Hollywood actor George C. Scott, attempts to leave Morro Bay Harbor in 1978. For scale, the vessel was 84 feet long Photo: Scott Redd.

Morro Bay’s jetties are well known for dangerous conditions and are called “Death’s Doormat” by the local newspaper. Each year in the 1980s and 90s, the jetties claimed at least two lives. Because of that, it is near the top of the Coast Guard’s list of dangerous waterways.


Morro Bay in 1936, before the jetties were built. Notice the causeway out to Morro Rock. Source:

Historically,  Morro Bay was a natural harbor that allowed limited entry by small boats into the bay. In 1933-35 a causeway was built out to Morro Rock which was used as a quarry for building material. The jetties were built in 1942-43 to support naval training and patrol craft.  Due to large storms, the north jetty was damaged and repaired in 1943, 1944, 1946 and 1983. Major El Niño storms in 1983 caused $1,430,000 in damage to both breakwaters (Bottin, 1988).


From the air the jetties look fairly straightforward: they face SW, away from large winter swells, but like most jetties, they alter the flow of sand which creates a shallowing at the entrance to the harbor that requires dredging, which happens, on average, every other decade.

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Days where waves broke across the harbor mouth. From Kaihatu et al.,, 1989.

When swells are big, generally from Nov-Mar, the waves can break across the mouth of the harbor, and combined with strong tidal currents from the bay, make it very difficult (or impossible) to enter or exit the harbor. According to the Army Corp of Engineers, this happens about 28 days per year, on average (Table 1; Kaihatu et al., 1989). To make matters worse, winter swells arrive at a different direction than the opening to the harbor, requiring a turn across the prevailing swell direction which can push a vessel into the south jetty or into the surf down the coast. Lastly (as if that wasn’t enough), wave reflection off the end of the north jetty creates a cross-wave double peak at the entrance (see below), creating an additional unpredictable hazard that can be difficult to navigate.


Morro Bay Entrance. Photo: Woody Woodworth.

0902160051In fact, that’s exactly what happened on Feb. 16, 1983, during the famous El Niño storm year when the 44′ whale watching boat, the San Mateo, headed out with 32 passengers, including 23 Middle School students. Despite repeated warnings not to exit the harbor, the boat was hit by three large waves at the entrance and capsized, sending everyone in the water. None were wearing lifejackets.  As reported in the SLO Telegram-Tribune, at the time, then harbor patrolman Jerry Mendez stated: “With that many kids, with the conditions we had …” then he slowly shook his head. In his many years of patrolling the harbor, about half of the people on boats that capsized ended up drowning. Miraculously, due to the near-instant response of the Harbor Patrol, who had watched them head out and tried to warn them, with assistance by the Coast Guard, everyone was saved within 30 min.

Ironically, the city of Morro Bay was sued by insurance companies and survivors and settled out of court to minimize costs.  Many consider Morro Bay one of the most dangerous harbors in the nation: from 1979-1987, 21 lives were lost in boating accidents. Finally, in 1995, the Army Corps of Engineering deepened and expanded the channel to improve safety but there are still many days when it is impossible to cross the harbor mouth.

This situation isn’t uncommon in the US and other dangerous harbors include Humboldt Bay, California; Coos Bay, Oregon; and Oregon Inlet in North Carolina. For a detailed look at the history of Oregon Inlet checkout Pilkey and Dixon’s book, The Corp and the Shore.

Although the Morro Bay jetties create several surf spots — Widow’s Wall, Corners and South Jetty, all decent waves — they are not comparable to other famous jetty spots such as the Ala Moana Bowls, Newport Wedge, Santa Cruz Harbor, and the Santa Barbara Sandspit.

Accidental Wave: Santa Barbara Sand Spit


Santa Barbara Harbor Entrance showng the Sandspit. Photo: Woody Woodworth.

Creating perfect waves is difficult, as evidenced by the failures of many human-made reefs (but check out Kelly Slater’s wave park). Interestingly, all of the best jetty waves were accidentally created by the Army Corp of Engineers in its efforts to create safe harbors for boats. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Santa Barbara Sandspit, arguably one of the best jetty-created waves.

Montage of historical photos showing the development of the Santa Barbara Sandspit after jetty construction began in 1928 (source):

In the case of Santa Barbara, the waves took decades to develop. The first jetties were built in 1928-29. Over many years, the southward transport of sand built up Leadbetter Beach that eventually overflowed into the harbor, and despite constant dredging, creating a sandbar at the harbor mouth in the 1960s, producing an amazing wave.

Montage of photos showing the wave at the Santa Barbara Sandspit as it enters the harbor (source):

It’s a very unusual wave. The hollow right-hand barrel begins with a huge backwash coming out at an angle from the breakwater that breaks over a shallow sand bottom in front of the breakwater rocks. The wave is dangerous and can get very crowded but offers a superb tube-riding experience. Here’s an excellent description from Surfline:

“Here’s how Sandspit works: a set will approach the breakwater, hit the backwash, jack up right in front of some craggy jetty boulders and spin-off down the line. The takeoffs are ridiculously steep and are often outright airdrops, so paddle into them like mad, hop up as soon as you can and look to pull-in from ground zero. When conditions are ideal, the wave is a straight tube, nothing else. No room for carves, reentries or floaters. Visualize Kirra, but on a smaller, colder scale. You’ll see a lot of kids trying to launch airs at Sandspit, but why risk flopping over an endless, mind-bending barrel? Tuberiding is the name of the game here, but it’s also a dangerous place to surf. Not only is the bottom extremely shallow and the lips like jackhammers, surfers have been known to get washed over the breakwater and deposited in fetus position on the other side. Watch that backwash.” –

Short video of Sandspit during Hurricane Marie in 2014:

In summary, the ocean teaches us she is firmly in control and our powers to manipulate her are insignificant by comparison. The bottom line is that although jetties as human constructs are generally successful in achieving their goals, we are a long ways from mastering the manipulation of coastal processes.

For ultimately we must realize that the ocean is all powerful and there is a limit to what we can do. There is a very clear wall that can be reached where the ocean just says “No, you are not going to do that!” and you are pushed back or you die. It isn’t a malevolent action, nor a kind one, it is just the ocean being itself; indifferent to the activities of humans, indeed all living things. The ocean just is. The challenge for us is seeing the limit, seeing that wall. It isn’t visible or even obvious. But when you see it you will never forget it.


  • Bottin, R.R. 1998. Case Histories of Corp Breakwater and Jetty Structures. Coastal Engineering Research Center. Dept. Army. Report 1. 70pp.
  • Kaihatu, J. M., L.S. Lillycrop and E. F. Thompson. 1989. Effects of Entrance Channel Dredging at Morro Bay, California. US Army Corps of Engineers. Misc paper CERC-89-13.
  • Middlecamp, D. 2018. Waves crushed a Morro Bay tour boat and tossed 23 kids into the sea. How did they survive? San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune. Accessed March 25, 2018.
  • Pilkey, O. H. and K. D. Dixon. 1998. The Corp and the Shore. Island Press.
  • Swellbrains, 2016. California Perfection Last Week at Sandspit in Santa Barabara. Accessed April 24, 2018.

How to Become a Marine biologist: Landing a Tenure-Track Position


Congratulations, you survived one of the most grueling intellectual rites of passage in modern society: you have your Ph.D.! Now what? Well, I’d like to say that the world lays before you, screaming for access to your higher intellect and many talents. But the reality is now you are faced with one of the toughest tasks of all: getting a permanent job with an advanced degree in a crowded field. Now, there are lots of good choices here: Federal, State or local institutions, private companies, non-profits, but I am going to focus on what some consider — and I am admittingly biased — the brass ring of academic success: a tenure-track position at a college or university.  It’s not that this is the end-all-be-all achievement of higher education. It’s not. It is just one of many choices after a Ph.D. but the one I choose to focus on here. In the end, it comes down to your long-term goals and what you want to accomplish in life.

Find the Balance

Before you jump on the Science want ads, spend some time thinking about what you really want in your life. Tenure-track positions at colleges and universities generally revolve around a mix of teaching and research so you need to decide where you land on that continuum.


Percentage of institution types within U.S. higher education (based on data from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, 2010).

At one end, community colleges (CCs), which mostly offer Associate-level degrees, focus on teaching and won’t offer much time to build a research program given the high demands on your time, which generally requires 4-5 courses per term (quarters or semesters). Despite that load, some people are able to conduct research in CCs but it’s generally not what you’re paid to you unless you make it part of your teaching duties (e.g., integrated teaching-research experiences). Baccalaureate universities, so-called liberal arts-based institutions, are focused primarily on undergraduate students, so expect a lot of teaching, but research is required at some level and some faculty are quite productive, especially if research is conducted with students as part of class projects, special topics courses, etc. These institutions typically require 2-3 courses per term plus varying degrees of accomplishments in scholarship (generally grants, publications, service, and pedagogy). Comprehensive, or MS-level degree institutions, are generally similar to Baccalaureate universities but with more time allocated to research. However, teaching is still the primary concern.

Student learn by conducting research at Humoldt State University.

Finally, there’s the R1-R3, or Doctoral Universities R1 = highest research activity; R3 = moderate). They are primarily focused on research and lots of it, but teaching is also important to varying degrees. In all of these choices “service” is also a key component, which means serving on committees or advisory boards at the college, university, local, state, national or international level. Ultimately it is excellence, or at least competence, in all three of these areas that will determine the success of your career in academics. Standards vary widely and its one of many things you should learn about before accepting a job offer at a particular institution.

In the end, there aren’t many easy choices here: each is challenging in its own way. In general, teaching is more straightforward, predictable, and easier to plan your life around but it can also be grueling and relentless but also very rewarding. Research has a larger random element due to its dependence on peer-review of grants, publications, actually at just about every level. It is also very satisfying to be generating new knowledge and contributing to the research agenda at many levels. But if your good at research, once you gain momentum, it can be very satisfying. I personally have had positions at liberal arts, comprehensive, and research universities and have found that all have different strengths, challenges, and rewards (see Living Mr. Holland’s Opus: My Life as a College Professor).

Make Sure it Fits

Because you’re about to jump into an extremely competitive environment, it is really, really important to think about the choices before you. Most likely you’ve had experiences in your graduate career that have exposed you to the pluses and minuses of teaching and research and you know what makes you happy and what you’re good at. Be honest: not everyone is cut out to be an amazing teacher or world-class researcher. If you’re good at both, great, but you need to know where to aim on the teaching-research continuum. The worst thing you can do is take a job that doesn’t fit which can end up with a sudden move or denial of tenure down the road, This step is definitely worth the extra thought.

Whatever you do don’t just take the first job that comes along. You’ve worked very hard for your degree and finding the right position takes time. Be patient. It can take years. Waiting is probably the hardest thing you can do but have confidence that you are unique and the right job is waiting for you. As a newly minted Ph.D., after a one-year post-doc, I applied to 19 positions before I made it to my first long list, then I personally interviewed for the next two positions before I was finally offered a job.  Since then I have applied for an additional six jobs, interviewed at four, and had three job offers. Maybe I’m getting better but it could be that experience and time to getting a job offer can vary tremendously (see 112 applications, 17 interviews, 3 offers). As I mentioned in my post, how to become a marine biologist: don’t give up. Timing is everything.

Pay Attention to the Job Ad

Once you know what you want, start looking for position advertisements in Science, Nature, the Chronicle of Higher Education, or whatever sources you can find including discipline-, ethnic- and race-specific listservs and websites. If it fits your criteria for balance, apply. The more experience you get, the better your applications will become. I personally don’t waste my (or their) time on applying for a job I would never consider accepting but that is a personal and ethical choice. Some people apply to everything.

Make Contact

It is ok (and good practice) to call the chair of the search committee and ask questions. The more you know, the better your application will be as you will be able to address specific issues they are looking for in your application. Although the chair may not answer all your questions you should try, but don’t be overly intrusive. What are they looking for? What classes are they looking to have taught? What area of research would complement existing strengths?  Are they adding a new area? What’s it like working there? Who’s on the search committee? All of these questions can help you write your application letter and prepare for an eventual interview. DO NOT ask about salary, start-up, or anything that can be considered presumptuous at this stage in the process. Some questions are best left until after you get an official job offer.

Write a Brilliant Letter

Pay attention to the job application: the search committee (the one that will recommend you for the position, or not) has spent time writing it, so take it seriously. Think of your letter as a summary of why you should get the position with the details in your CV.  The truth is this letter can make or break your chances on getting to the next level. The idea is to make it easy for them to see that you are highly qualified for the position. So structure it around what they are looking for: express interest and state why you are a good fit, then paragraph by paragraph address your qualifications in order of their importance. If it’s a teaching job, start with that and why you’re the best teacher on the planet, or at least describe your experiences and how you fit in with what they want. Then research, then whatever else is in the job ad. Conclude with a summary of your qualifications and restate your interest in the position.

The letter should be 2-3 pages max. Absolutely make sure to address the minimum and desired qualifications in all of your application material (including research and teaching statements) but particularly in your application letter. Ther should be no typos, grammatical errors, or anything the committee can use to justify cutting you. Having served on 20 search committees (and chaired most of them) it is tedious reviewing applications for a position where the applicant didn’t take the time to address their qualifications for the position; surprisingly, the majority of applicants don’t and are quickly eliminated. So make it easy on us and you’ll have a good chance of making it to the next step: the long list. If you just zing in the letter you used for the last position, chances are you’ll be eliminated.

Customize your CV

Your CV fills in the details of your education, accomplishments, and experiences and should be customized for each position. Based on the duties of the position, place the most important material up front. If it’s a research position, quickly transition from your education and work experience to your grants, publications, and anything else relative to conducting research (advisory boards, review panels, etc.) then move onto the next most important category. In reality, this just means reorganized your CV for each position you apply for so that organizationally your CV matches the logic of your application letter. Again, make it easy for the committee to see your strengths relative to the position requirements. It’s worth the extra effort.

Long-lists: prepare for your phone/video interview

Preparation is key to getting a job offer. If you’ve made it to the long- or short-list then you’re competitive and have a decent shot at the position. Don’t blow it by not adequately preparing. This involves several steps. First, learn about the university, its vision and mission, and any current issues it may be dealing with. Then focus on the college, the department and the faculty. If you know who’s on the search committee, research each person, their interests, and what papers they have published recently.  Read a few of their key papers and be ready to discuss them.  Importantly, try to imagine the type of issues they might focus on and the specific questions they might ask. When you’re meeting with someone you’ll have something to talk about and show you’ve done your homework.

I make a list of as many possible questions I can think of and write out my responses. These include both standard questions (Why do you want to come here? Why do you value diversity? What’s your teaching style, preferred courses? research interests and experience? long-term plans?) but also specific questions each committee member may ask based on their individual backgrounds. Once you get a schedule for your interview then also do that for everyone you will be meeting with. It sounds like a lot of work, and it is. Eventually, it all boils down to how bad you want the position. It is obvious in an interview who has done their homework and who hasn’t.

If it’s a phone- or video-interview you’ll be well prepared for anything they may throw at you. Some committees may send questions in advance but most won’t, so just answer things the best you can, be relaxed, take your time, and make good eye contact (if online). Your answers should be brief (a minute or two), not overly long or short and should stick to the topic. In the end, you’ll usually have time to ask your own questions. Make sure you have several ready that illustrate both your knowledge of the position and will provide important details about the job. Again, this is not the place to ask about salary, start-up or other issues that are best left until after you get an offer.

Be Your Best

At all stages, but especially if you get invited to a personal interview, you need to be on your best behavior. Be professional in everything you do. Dress appropriately (ask the committee chair about protocol if you’re not sure), scope out who you will be talking with and know something about each person before you go, be prepared with questions but be a great listener. Study a map of the campus. This is a trial run of what it might be like to work at this institution so do your best to convince them you are the right person for the position. At the same time ask intelligent questions that show you have high standards and are well informed. Again, save potentially polarizing questions like salary, start-up, what specific classes you’ll be teaching, etc. until you’re offered the position. There may be some hidden agendas.

There is nothing worse than talking to an interviewee that has not done his/her homework. If you want the job, ACT like it in all aspects with everyone you meet. The interview process can be a grueling marathon lasting several days so in some respects it is an endurance contest. Never let down your guard, both formally on campus, and informally during meals or at potlucks. The whole idea of the latter is to get you to relax and assess the important, but unwritten, collegiality component of the position. Sure, they want your scientific prowess and vast experience but they also want you to fit in with their department and get along as a fellow scientist. In many, perhaps most cases, they already know your background and qualifications, so collegiality can be a big deal. My advice is to just be yourself. But not overdo it. Avoid questions about your personal life, significant others, etc. at your discretion. Although many of these questions are technically off limits, some people will ask them anyway, unfortunately, especially of woman. So be guarded and politely change the subject if the interview strays into an area where you don’t feel comfortable.

Despite how much you prepare, there will be plenty of unknowns where you’ll have to wing it, but the more you prepare the better you’ll be ready and the better the impression you’ll leave behind. Once you make the short list and you’re competing with just 2-3 other people, it can make a huge difference.

Give a World-Class Talk

The culminating moment of your interview will often be your research talk, and in some cases a research and teaching talk.  Here it is: your moment to shine, to show your stuff, to give the talk of our life. This is the moment where the search committee members often make their decisions about who to choose, so give it everything you’ve got.  You want to be very well organized, clear, and passionate about your work. Be creative and engage the audience by asking questions or using interactive media. Faculty know this is your moment to showcase your work, so if you’ re not blowing them away here, you certainly won’t once you’re hired. Cardinal sins to avoid are: making mistakes, going over time, and giving an unorganized and confusing talk.

If you use any video or sound, make sure it all works on the equipment in the room you are assigned to give your seminar to avoid any tech problems. I always bring my own laptop, just in case, and test it out prior to the seminar or lecture. Same with a pointer and slide clicker. The last thing you need is to be flustered right before your seminar starts and/or to suffer delays or bad media during your presentation. Although it may not be your fault, it will reflect badly on you. This is not the time to be testing fancy videos or cool graphics. Stick with the tried and true, relax, and give a clear and well-organized talk and it will be appreciated.

You Only Get What You Negotiate

Ok, you survived the interview and have patiently waiting for weeks and months as the search committee has deliberated on your fate. Then you get a call, or an e-mail offered you the position. What do you do next? Indeed, you’ve worked your whole life for this moment so it’s tempting to just say “Yes!”  without condition. But the truth is, this is a key moment in your career that may determine your future success. For my first position, I pretty much took what they offered me; I was just happy to get a job. But as the years went by I came to realize I had not taken advantage of a golden opportunity. Although the Dean/Chair may want you, they want you at the lowest price possible. Their motivation is to keep costs down. From your perspective, you want to get the highest salary possible because once you’re in the system the reward systems are often meager; hence you starting salary is likely the biggest opportunity you will have to achieve a high salary. But there are limits, so do your homework, know what is possible and what comparative salaries are like elsewhere. Take cost-of-living into perspective as well as opportunities for your spouse to get a job in the local area.

The same goes for start-up funds. This is your one chance to get funding for that key piece of equipment you need to get your lab started.  You should negotiate your lab space, any renovations required, and funds to get your lab up and running. Also, think about grad student or tech support for the first few years. Salary and start-up can be played off against each other, so if you don’t get the salary you want, push for more one-time start-up funds. Or vice-versa. Other things you can negotiate are moving expenses, future travel funds and/or grad/tech support. It is easier for administrators to make future commitments relative to current commitments, but whatever you do get it in writing in your offer letter. The letter should include your salary, start-up amount and the time period over which they can be spent (commonly 2-4 years), teaching load, specific courses you will teach (if you want), and any credit towards tenure and promotion along with the details (or a link to) their T-P process.

Don’t Give up!

If things don’t work out and you’re not offered the job, don’t give up. It can take years to get the right position and as daunting as that may seem it will be worthwhile if you end up in a great job. Plus, the more you interview the better you will get. After all these years of hard work, the worst thing you can do is accept a sub-optimal position. Of course, you know your strengths and weaknesses better than anyone, so be realistic, but selective. The reality is the only way you will not become a marine biologist is to give up. So hang in there because someone is waiting for your specific talents.

References for further reading:

Reflections on Blogging for Science and Surfing

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My most popular article, posted on Earth Day, 2016. Viewed 15,000 times. Interest spiked after the movie premiered on HBO.

Here I am, five years and 182,000 views later, writing my 100th post. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to reflect back on what blogging had meant to me and how it has changed my life.

When I started it was just for fun. I didn’t expect much and honestly, it started on a whim; an outlet for my creative energies that my work as a scientist didn’t fulfill. I realized that despite my successful career as a biologist, I am a writer at heart, and that means focusing on different ways to express my feelings. It began as an outlet to describe the death of my dog, Bandit. But once I started writing I was pleasantly surprised and amazed at the ideas that came pouring out of me.

Although surfing and marine biology were my initial interests and constituted over 60% of my posts, other topics crept in including philosophy (10%), ethics (7%), and grinds (good food) (4%). I decided early on to blog about whatever I was interested in, which kept my interest, but I largely stayed within the confines of my “Dr. Abalone” theme, which worked as a fairly popular niche among ocean-going folks. Plus, as a scientist in a highly specialized and complex world, I believe it is important that we reach out to the general public and tell everyone about what we’re doing, what we know, and what we don’t know.

So here are some highlights of how blogging has changed my life, all for the better.

1. It has made me a better writer One obvious point: writing a scientific paper and blogging are two very different things. Surprisingly,  blogging, writing for general audiences, has improved my skills at writing technical peer-reviewed scientific papers and proposals. The old axiom is true: the more you write the better you get. It’s cross-training for scientists and an effective one at that. Sure, blogging takes time away from writing papers but there are some advantages. Plus, I don’t usually write papers at night, which is when I blog (except under tight deadlines) so there isn’t much of a time conflict. It does cut into my tv and reading time.

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Giving a talk at the Surfing Doctors Conference. Anglet, France. Oct. 2, 2015. An opportunity that arose from my blog about surfing and marine biology. Photo: Susan Tissot.

2. It has created new opportunities. I have been pleasantly surprised by learning who reads my posts and the opportunities created. For starters, I get emails from people across the globe that have an interest in my writings. From these conversations I have been:

  • Invited as a speaker to an international conference on Surfing Medicine. In addition to a paid-trip to southern France to attend the conference and give a talk, it has inspired me to create the discipline of Surfing Ecology, which has had some significant interest and synergy.
  • I’ve been invited to contribute an article to about the lore and science of red abalone.
  • I have had multiple queries about my classic surfing videos. This includes use in broadcast TV by several major outlets (e.g., Oprah Winfred), use in several historical films, and request for use in bars, retail stores, several advertising agencies, and, surprisingly, in many music videos.

I can’t say I have made a ton of money doing all this but it had been fun getting paid for doing things I enjoy and it has covered my WordPress fees.

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I was surprised by how popular my BBQ recipes were. This was my second most popular post with over 8,000 views.

3. It has expanded my creative directions. Through blogging, I have learned to love creative writing which has inspired me to write more. I just finished a draft of my first novel, a book on science fiction. More on this later but the fact that I became passionate enough to write a 100,000+ word novel is amazing, although it has cut into my blogging time and has taken two years to complete.

All of this has lead to the idea that I can see a life after my science career when I retire that is somewhat different than my current path, which is exciting. Although I’m quite ready to retire, I can imagine a second life as a writer; one that I never imagined when I started blogging five years ago.

4. Above all, it’s fun and I enjoy it. Writing is fun and so is conducting research on a new topic and pulling it all together into a 1,000-word essay. So, I’m learning a lot and I enjoy sharing what I’m learning with others and getting their feedback. Plus, it’s generally free (one of the few remaining things that are free) so what have you got to lose? Write on!

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My top blog posts, 2013-2018.

Giants Among Us: Tribute to Gary Brusca

RCB & GJB 1970s

Dr. Gary Brusca (right) and brother Dr. Rick Brusca (left) on Trinidad Pier in Northern California, 1970s. Photos: unknown.

From Nature’s Law by Waren Stauls (aka Gary Brusca):

Life is too
short to let
destroy today,
but never forget that
tomorrow you may need
a memory –
and it will be there.

As an undergraduate student at Cal Poly (SLO) in the mid-1970s I was educated in the shadow of the giants before me, Gary and Richard Brusca. My advisor and zoology Professor Dave Montgomery never hesitated to mention the near-miraculous accomplishments of the mythical brothers that preceded us as undergraduate students before getting their PhDs: how they knew this, or studied for that, or memorized thousands of scientific names; feats us mortals would be lucky to even approximate. It was both intimidating and challenging but yet, here I am, 40 years later, a Professor of Biology and Director of Humboldt State University’s Marine Laboratory making a feeble attempt to do exactly the same thing with my students that I learned at Cal Poly.

But it was here at Humboldt, from 1967-1998, that Gary became the living legend he is is known for today. Walking the halls of the Trinidad marine lab and rummaging through the slides and specimen collection in the classrooms, I can see and feel the presence of his love for natural history, his thoughtful collections, the detail of his carefully inscribed labels, and the passion he had for teaching his students. For although he has been gone for 18 years, he is still very much alive here in the classrooms through the amazing textbooks he wrote with his brother Gary, including A Naturalist’s Seashore Guide, and their classic textbook, Invertebrates.

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Invertebrates: the classic and ultra-challenging textbook that covers 95% of the animal kingdom. Intimidating to both instructors and students alike.

And so I feel compelled to keep his great memory alive in the current generation of students. To remind them that once a giant among men walked these halls, explored these shores, and wrote poetry about life.  To instill his devotion to natural history in students, a tradition that is fading away but Humboldt State University is still known for, and to carry the legacies of Ed Ricketts and Joel Hedgpeth, which he upheld, moving forward. So I reproduce here obituaries and poems as a tribute to an amazing man. One that although I actually only met for a few hours, inspired me, along with Professor Montgomery and a host of mentors, into a lifetime of dedication to invertebrates and marine biology. His legacy lives on in me, in my students, and eventually (I hope) in theirs. Because knowledge derived from passion never dies, especially when inspired by the dedication of someone like Gary Brusca.

The following is reproduced from the SCAMIT (Southern California Association of Marine Invertebrate Taxonomists) newsletter from January, 2000 (Vol 18(9): 3-6.

Dr. Richard C. Brusca
Senior Research Scientist and Interim Director of Education Columbia University Biosphere 2 Center

January, 2000

With great sadness I report the death of my brother, Gary J. Brusca, who passed away on January 13, 2000. Gary received his BSc (1960) from California State Polytechnic University (San Luis Obispo) as one of Dave Montgomery’s advisees; his MSc (1961) from the University of the Pacific (Stockton), working under John Tucker and Joel Hedgpeth; and his PhD (1965) from the University of Southern California (Los Angeles), under the guidance of Russell Zimmer. From 1972 to 1974 he lived and worked as a fisheries biologist on the island of Mauritius, where his youngest son (James) was born. Gary is best known in the carcinology world for his research on hyperiid amphipods, and for two books we published together, A Naturalist’s Seashore Guide: Common Marine Life of the Northern California Coast and Adjacent Shores (Mad River Press, 1978), and Invertebrates (Sinauer Associates, 1990). His “Annotated Keys to the Hyperiidea of North American Coastal Waters” (Allan Hancock Foundation Tech. Rpts. 5:1-76, 1981) is a benchmark summary for the hyperiid (pelagic) amphipods of North America. Gary also authored a general text on embryology (General Patterns of Invertebrate Development., 1975, Mad River Press). However, for students of the California coast Gary may be best remembered for his excellence in the classroom and the field where he trained legions of marine biology students over the years at University of the Pacific (1964-1967) and Humboldt State University (1967-1998).

One of his greatest joys in life were early morning field trips with students, arriving at the coast just as the sun was rising and the fog was lifting on those cold gray northern California beaches.

From 1967 to 1990, Gary won countless awards in recognition of his teaching excellence, including the “Cal Poly Honored Alumnus in Science and Math” award. But more of interest to many was the fact that Gary was one of a small group of Pacific coast biologists who carried on the legacy of Ed Ricketts and Joel Hedgpeth. He was co-founder and publisher of The Stomatopod, an eclectic and irreverent biology journal in the tradition of the 60’s and early 70’s, that entertained and educated Pacific coast biologists for many years. Gary’s minimalistic poetry, collectively published under the pseudonym “Waren Stauls” (Nature’s Laws. Selected Poems of Waren Stauls) followed in the tradition of Joel Hedgpeth’s books published under the pseudonym Jerome Tichner (Poems in Contempt of Progress, Scattered Poems). Gary retired in 1999, moving to the Sacramento (CA) area, where his wife Julie, 5 children, and 2 grandchildren survive him. At the time of his death, he and I were working on a new general zoology text (Concepts in Zoology, for Saunders Publishing) and revisions of our Invertebrates text and California seashore guide.

Les Watling
Professor of Oceanography,
and Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation
School of Marine Sciences Darling Marine Center
University of Maine
[reprinted with the author’s permission from the CrustL list server]
January, 2000

The passing of Gary is especially sad for me. Gary was my first graduate advisor while he was at the University of the Pacific, bringing me into the marine sciences and crustacean studies when I was real young, having entered graduate school at 19. He set a strong tone of excellence in thought and enjoyment in research. The early morning field trips weren’t onerous with Gary, but that’s not to say they weren’t painful. He made them a lot of fun and true adventures. But what I remember most about him was the detail of his courses. I can say with some conviction that most of the invertebrate knowledge I have at my fingertips I acquired in Gary’s classes. Every course had long, detailed phylogenetic arguments at their core — not because we all had good answers or even techniques in those days for discussing phylogeny, but because you had to master the details to be able to argue anything. Gary knew the details and if your argument violated some feature of morphology, you were informed in short order. Perhaps the most valuable of all the classes, though, was the one on invertebrate embryology. There wasn’t a text to speak of, but there was, again, a teacher with the details. We were all convinced then that the big phylogenetic conundrums would be solved with embryological help. Little did we know how that field would change and the information it would ultimately give us.

I met him again just a few years ago. He didn’t seem to have changed all that much, so it was a big surprise to find out last year that he was ill. I’m sure his years at Humboldt produced many students with a strong appreciation for, as well as a thorough understanding, of the marine world.

In sum, I guess I feel that most importantly, Gary showed “how” to teach, not just “what” to teach.

Tim Stebbins
City of San Diego Marine Biology Laboratory
[reprinted with the author’s permission from the CrustL list server]
January, 2000

I would also like to express my deepest sorrow on the passing of Gary Brusca and offer a brief personal perspective on a remarkable individual. Gary was one of my graduate advisors at Humboldt State University, a mentor and a good friend. He was without exception one of the finest instructors and finest people I have had the privilege to know. Gary was a first-rate scientist, a first-rate instructor, and a first-rate writer and editor. It was Gary who first introduced me to the joys of crustaceans, and it was Gary that ingrained in me a respect for ‘natural history’ in the tradition of the great naturalists.

It is impossible here to truly capture who Gary was. Those of us who were fortunate to be his students can only express a sense of awe at his contributions to our education. As Les Watling has already pointed out, the detail of Gary’s courses was truly amazing. In fact, I think his graduate courses in invertebrate embryology and crustacean biology were two of the most challenging and rewarding classes I ever took. They certainly made you think, and discuss, and argue, and….You never saw so many worn out graduate students after a Gary Brusca 2- week take-home midterm. Gary had an ability to make you think beyond what you knew, or at least try to. Perhaps what stood out even more in terms of classroom experience was simply watching Gary teach undergraduate invertebrate zoology (what a learning experience it was to be his assistant). Although he was remarkable in the laboratory, his lectures were even more so. He had an eloquence about the way he spoke that made every lecture seem like a story, inspiring and never boring. I will never forget watching him ‘tell his stories’ with his eyes on the students, while at the same time drawing the most exquisite and detailed illustrations on the board. I was never able to figure out when (or if) he looked at his notes, and hours later I was still unable to duplicate his drawings. Perhaps Gary was a magician of sorts. Anyway, I still have those notes today.

Gary’s contributions were certainly not limited to the classroom. In fact, I always felt the field was his true laboratory and lecture hall. Some of my fondest memories are the two summers that I worked with Gary as part of a NSF Summer Institute in Marine Biology for advanced high school students. It was those countless field trips with all those inquisitive young minds in tow that really showed Gary at his best. He didn’t seem to mind that I had little idea how to drive, or double-shift, that rickety old bus along the frontage roads overlooking the Humboldt coast. It was an adventure, and we were heading to the tidepools where we (or usually the students) never failed to discover something new Finally, and as Rick mentioned in his announcement, Gary was perhaps most of all a Naturalist in the spirit of Ed Ricketts and Joel Hedgpeth. It seems it was this philosophy that influenced everything he taught. In fact, the last ‘course’ I took from Gary in the Spring of 1982 was a seminar on the life of Edward F. Ricketts, not the typical biology fare. Our texts, so to speak, were John Steinbeck’s ‘The Log from the Sea of Cortez,’ ‘Cannery Row,’ and ‘Sweet Thursday,’ and Joel Hedgpeth’s two volume ‘The Outer Shores’. What a fun and thought provoking experience that was!

As part of the seminar, Gary (a.k.a. Waren Stauls) penned the poem below in honor of Ed Ricketts. It seems appropriate to reproduce it here.

Cling too tight to a memory
     and it will fold upon itself,
Hiding all there is to see
as pages on a dusty shelf.

My memory of you is second hand,
yet we are bound by sea’s life blood
By being drawn where tide meets land,
revealed to us by ebb and flood.

Is that where true things rest forever
out of range of understanding?
Defying all of man’s endeavors
to glimpse beyond the surface trappings.

To walk at best along the edge
of some deep thing just out of sight,
Afraid to look beyond the ledge,
comprehension may not make it right.

Unplumbed depths that beckon for us,
we cannot fathom it from here, 
To step inside where one bright chorus
reveals it simple, crystal clear.

But then with all the truth unveiled
those absolutes become our bonds,
We are only free by what’s concealed
and cannot search for that which has been found.

And if within the deep thing one resides,
and all the interwoven threads unraveled,
It cannot be explained to those outside
who’s mystic paths to truth remain untraveled.

Were these the things you tried to say,
as creatures told them once to you?
To listen to the voice of death one day
that says, my friend it’s time for breaking through.

— Waren Stauls (Gary Brusca), 1982

Lessons from Killer Dana


Before the Fall, 1960s. Photo: unknown.

Among the powerful slogans used in the battles to protect surf spots along the coast of California, that of “Killer Dana” still resonates among the surf community. The loss of Dana Point, and it’s renown right point break, should serve a stark reminder of what could happen without the protections we currently have in place. Dana Point, in many ways the birthplace of the surfing industry, was notorious for focusing deep-water south swells on a long, rocky point break, creating one of the best waves big-waves spots on the coast at that time, not to mention the day-to-day fun surf. According to surf historian and Dana Point surfer Allan Seymour “The thing about Killer Dana is that it was the only place that would hold a 12 or 15-foot swell,” said. “And these were huge, freight train-thick swells. And the prevailing wind was westerly coming over Dana Point, which made for offshore winds from Doheny to Killer Dana.”


Fun surf on a small day. Photo: unknown.

In the 1950s and 60s, the town developed plans to build a marina in Dana Harbor and construction began on the $100 million project in 1966. A group of surfers, led by Ron Drummond, worked to stop construction, but the loss of the wave and any damage to the ocean was considered insignificant compared to the economic benefits of the new marina. As Jeremy Evans writes in the Battle for Paradise:

When the first of many boulders was dropped in 1966, specatators stood on the shore and clapped, marveling at the sight and excited for the future economic boost. Killer Dana’s surfers were also there that day, powerless to stop what they considered to be nothing more than aquatic rape. They were saddened and stunned as the bouders were dropped into the cove, which had been the setting for some of their greatest surfing memories and was, to some, their second home. For others, it was their only home. 


Funeral for Killer Dana: as a crane prepares to drop boulders for a breakwater, surfers surround canoe surfer Ron Drummond, who led the oppostion to the construction. Photo: unknown.

Thus, was born surf activism in California. Back then, in the 1960s, there was no NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act, 1970) or its California counterpart CEQA (1970), which required public meetings and extensive planning prior to major construction projects like Dana Cove; no Clean Water Act (1972), which regulated the location and discharges of developments and power plants; no Coastal Commission (1972), which providing regulatory oversight of the coastal zone; and no Surfrider Foundation (1984), who fought for the interests of surfers. Then, the only warning for some projects was the posting of a construction permit and the arrival of bulldozers.

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Breakwater construction: 27,000 truckloads of granite boulders from San Marcos and Catalina island were used over a two-year period. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

In was also a critical time in the state’s history. Developers and urban planners had developed proposals for most of the coastline to create a series of “atomic cities:” regional developments centered around marinas, high-rise developments, nuclear power plants, and interconnected freeways.  And this happened throughout much of southern California in Marina del Rey, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Newport Beach, Dana Point, and San Diego. As backlash against such rapid developments began, the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill galvanized many into action and Californians approved Proposition 20 in 1972 to establish the Coastal Commission.


Dana Point area, before and after harbor development. Photo: unknown.

Since the establishment of the Commission, and the passage of the California Coastal Act (1976), the state has successfully blocked offshore oil drilling and leasing, restricted coastal construction and development, and expanding public access to beaches. Planned developments at Davenport, Bodega Bay, Sea Ranch, Shelter Cover and other areas were modified or stopped. The meaning of all this for California is profound and often unappreciated. David Helvarg, in his seminal history of California, The Golden Shore, writes:

Why is it that almost half the coastline of the most populous state in the nation, a coastline that’s also arguably among the most scenic and spectacular in the world, is so thinly seeded that the largest coastal city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, Eureka, California, has a population of just twenty-eight thousand? Even today, with twenty-five million Californians living in coastal counties south of the Golden Gate, the five coastal counties north of the bridge: Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte have a combined population of fewer than one million people and more than two-thirds of them live in Marin and Sonoma within commuting distance of San Francisco. How come the very serviceable harbors at Bodega and Humboldt Bay aren’t major port towns or at least swarming with summer tourists like you find on Cape Cod, along the Jersey Shore, or on North Carolina’s outer banks? Part of the answer is climatic, part economic, and the rest I’d attribute to the sprawl-preventing California Coastal Commission.

It’s important to remember that these battles are still ongoing. As Peter Douglas, the executive director of the Commission for 26 years, once famously said: “The coast is never saved. It’s always being saved.” As evidence, recall the 2016 agreement that ended one of the most hard-fought, long-lasting environmental battles in California history over the building of a freeway through San Onofre State Park, which woud have destroyed Trestles. It took surfers, the Surfrider Foundation, and a broad coalition of environmental groups and native American Tribes many years to push for a successful agreement. Even after these  prolonged struggles, the decisions often hangs by a thread. In the case of San Onofre, a hard-fought victory and “permanent” agreement is being threatened once again. So the battles continue and there will always be work to be done.

rally sized

Rally to save Trestles. Photo: Surfrider Foundation.

So, you might ask, why the history lesson and the uncovering of old wounds in the surf community? It’s for motivation and the simple reason that current politics are rapidly changing, with many important environmental policies and institutions being eliminated. swept aside, defunded, or marginalized. Once again, the very real possibility of oil and gas drilling off the California coast has returned and who knows what’s coming next. If we forget the tragic losses of the past, the reasons why we fought, or don’t support the institutions that helped bring those changes about, we run the very real risk of repeating old mistakes. We simply can’t let that happen and Killer Dana should be a reminder for all of us.

So, here’s a few things you can do (with links to some of my relevant posts):

And remember Killer Dana!


George Saunders Zimmerman “Peanuts” Larson at Dana Point, 1939. Photo: Doc Ball.


When Invertebrates Ruled the Planet: the Enigmatic Rangeomorphs


How the world might have looked 600 million years ago, with Stromatolites (cynaobacteria and perhaps green algae) dominating the coastlines. Multicellular life was just starting to appear on the planet.

The earth is very old, 4.6 billion years to be precise: an immense amount of time that is difficult to comprehend. The truth is that after the earth had a chance to settle down from its violent birth, which included coalescing from planetesimals, violent volcanic eruptions, a collision with a Mars-sized object that created the moon, and 300 hundred millions of years of bombardment by massive asteroids, life evolved relatively quickly and appeared after 1.1 billion years. However, it took another 3 billion years for multicellular life to begin. Thus, most of our planet’s history has been dominated by single-celled organisms such as archea, bacteria, including cyanobacteria (blue-green algae), and single-celled creatures (eukaryotes).

Now most scientists look to  the “Cambrian Explosion” for the beginning of multi-cellular animal life; and rightfully so. It was at that time, about 540 million years ago (mya), that an amazing diversity of animals appeared to explode on the scene, or at least in the fossil record. First documented in the famous Burgess Shale of British Columbia and discussed in Stephen J. Gould’s incredible book Wonderful Life, complex animals appeared to  burst onto the planet in an unparalleled record of animal diversity with most of the modern phyla intact. But there is an older, and more recently discovered era, the Ediacaran, that actually represents the earliest appearance of complex life. And it’s a fascinating era with many puzzles. Chief among them are the Rangeomorphs, an enigmatic group of organisms that were ubiquitous in fossil assemblages over 580 mya, 40 million years before the “Cambrian explosion.”.

Ediacaran fossil assemblages are common at only a few places:  Newfoundland, Arkhangelsk Russia, Namibia and at their namesake in the Ediacaran Hills in South Australia. Although there are differences, each site shows a common architectural organization of a group of critters that lasted for over 30 million years. To call them invertebrates is probably presumptive; they may not even be animals. Their unique frond-like fractal body plan consisting of petals branching off a central axis and occurs across dozens of taxa.

Although they were found in shallow water environments, their structure precludes filter feeding and their occurrence in deep water indicates they may have fed on dissolved organic matter which was common in the microbial-dominated Ediacaran seas. In some cases they occurred at densities and distributions similar to modern-day invertebrate communities with major diversity patterns that exploited resources at different levels about the seafloor.  Early forms were simple and prostrate while more derived forms showed a complex, fractal-based structure elevated successively elevated above the substrate. These patterns indicate species were adapted to variation in water flow.


Diversity of Rangiomorph morphologies show varying complexity and distance off the seafloor, suggesting their were exploiting different resources.

In a recent review (Liu et al., 2015) reviewed the ecology of the Ediacaran macrobiota, including the Rangeomorphs. Their conclusion: We don’t really know what they were or how they functioned. Here’s what we do know:

  1. They probably aren’t related to any modern marine life: they are likely an early evolutionary experiment in multicellular life and a stem group branching off just before or after the divergence of animals and fungi (Erwin and Valentine, 2013).
  2. Their frond-like morphology is unique: their fractal-based segmented morphology suggest their surface area:volume ratio was constant, unlike modern animals where it decreases with size. Thus, their bodies may have been filled with inert water such as water or sediment to maintain thin tissue contact with the environment  (Laflamme et al., 2009).
  3.  They were common in both shallow- and deep-sea environments: therefore, they could not have used photosynthesis and had no obvious structures for filter feeding so their feeding strategy was enigmatic.
  4. They may have fed passively: one hypothesis is they feed by osmotrophy (Laflamme et al., 2009) which involves simple absorption of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) from seawater. DOC may have been 2-3 orders of magnitude higher in the microbial-dominates seas of the Ediacaran and a common source of energy. Their constant surface area: volume area support this possibility.
  5. They may not have been animals: one hypotheses suggest they were fungi (Erwin and Valentine, 2013), perhaps even terrestrial lichens (Retallack, 2014), and these were early adaptations to primordial seas and shores.

Depiction of Ediacaran Fauna, showing Rangeomorphs and other metazoan taxa.

Although there were other multicellular taxa during the Ediacaran period, the Rangeomorphs stand out as a dominant component of that time period that persisted for over 30 million years. During that time we also see the appearance of taxa that show the ancestors of modern animals were clearly present, including the ancestors of sponges, cnidarians, and ctenophores. Other invertebrates, such as Kimberella, a putative ancestral mollusk, indicates that bilaterally symmetric animals were likely on the scene, which eventually gave rise to our vertebrate ancestors in the Cambrian period 20 million years later. But it wasn’t until the Devonian period (120 million year later) that fishes began to dominate the sea.


Evolutionary Chart of major Ediacaran taxa.


  • Erwin, D.H., and Valentine, J.W. 2013. The Cambrian Explosion: The Construction of Animal Biodiversity. Roberts and Co., Greenwood Village, CO. xii + 406 p.
  • Gould, S. J. 1990. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. W. W. Norton & Company, New York, NY. 352 pp,
  • Laflamme, M., S. Xiao, and M. Kowalewski. 2009. Osmotrophy in modern Ediarcara organisms. Proc. Nat. Acad, Sci. 106(34); 14438-14443.
  • Liu, A. G., C. G. Kenchington and E. G. Mitchell 2015. Remarkable insights into the paleoecology of the Avalonian Ediacaran macrobiota. Gondwana Res. 27: 1355-1380.
  • Retallack, G. J. 2014. Precambrian life on land. The Paleobotanist  63(2014): 1-15.
  • Valentine, J.W. 2013. 2004. On the Origin of Phyla. University Of Chicago Press. 608 pp.

Sure Thing BBQ Beef Brisket

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Total cook time = 7-8 hours

For those of us addicted to working our way through the BBQ line-up, brisket remains as one of the most challenging categories, or maybe it’s just me. Over the last decade of my (serious) BBQ life, I have developed decent recipes for chicken, pulled pork, ribs, and prime rib but brisket stood as the last great challenge to be conquered. I tried dozens of recipes with smokers, gas grills, a pellet grill, and charcoal but my briskets were mostly disasters with a rare, unrepeatable victory. There is nothing worse than starting the fire at 4am and after a 14-16 hour cook having the anxious family dig into a dry, tasteless, tough, or overly seasoned 15-pound hunk of black meat. After many years of admittedly self-inflicted torture, I am happy to report that I have narrowed the number of uncontrolled variables to a point where I can now produce a great brisket every time.

Here’s the ticket to a low-and-slow cooked juicy, tasty, tender brisket that only takes 7 hours with a 5-hour cook.

  • High brisket quality, prime is best;
  • Cooking method that retains moisture;
  • Using a “Texas Crutch” by wrapping with foil and adding moisture;
  • Using a basic rub that accents the natural beef flavor;
  • Letting the meat rest after the cook.

The Meat

As with most BBQ recipes the most important ingredient is the meat and with brisket, it is worth going to the next level. With this cut, in particular, it makes a HUGE difference and is probably the #1 reason for most of my failures. I usually buy my briskets at Costco and go for prime cuts. Choice works but anything less and you have a high chance of a tough cut. In my experience it is better to use a whole packer brisket, 8-16 lbs; the smaller cuts just don’t retain moisture sufficient for a good BBQ. The whole brisket includes both the flat and point cuts.


Prime cut from Costco. At $3.99 a pound an excellent choice!

Preparation and Dry Brining

Briskets typically include thick layers of fat that need to be removed. With a sharp knife trim the off excess fat until only 1/4″ remains in some areas. The fat does not improve the flavor and wastes the rub, so trim it back to a minimum. After trimming I dry brine the meat by adding 1/2 tsp per pound (about 2 Tbsp for a typical full 12-14 lbs brisket) evenly over both sides of the meat and let it sit in the frig for 2-4 hours prior to cooking. If you’re using a Pit Barrel Cooker. it’s also good to check the length of your brisket. If it hangs too low trim off the lower portion and cook separately or hang the meat from a hook placed lower on the meat.


Choose a cooker that retains moisture which results in a tender, juicy brisket. I use a Pit Barrel Cooker which is super easy and works every time. However, in theory, any method that retains moist heat like a ceramic cooker, pellet grill, or charcoal/wood grill with a water pan will work. Retaining moisture is key otherwise the long cooking times will dry out the meat. The cooker should also maintain a low and slow heat, typically about 225-250F (higher in the Pit Barrel). In general, higher temps will produce a tough brisket. As they say, tasty is easy; tender and moist is difficult. [Note: there are hot and fast methods that work well]. Adding wood is important for that smokey flavor, so your cooker should support adding wood chunks, chips, or pellets. My favorites are oak, mesquite, and hickory but whatever smoke flavor you add is a personal choice (see Zen of Wood).

A Pit Barrel Cooker is super easy and I don’t watch the temperature or the coals. Follow the basic instructions: I fill the basket with Kingsford Briquets, light the coals (using a chimney, paper, or whatever), then wait 20 min until the center area is well-lit. Make sure the vent is open as instructed for your altitude, pop in the two rods, and you’re ready for an easy cook. [Note: other brands and sizes of charcoal will work but you’ll have to work out your own time and temperature combination. The basic method works every time for me and I never lose heat, even on long cooks.]

Pastes and Rubs

What you put on the meat is important but there are a wide variety of choices. Just basic salt and pepper in equal proportions works with a good cut of meat. I use the mix below, which includes a paste that adds flavor that enhances the juice and meat, and a basic rub, which accents the overall beef flavor profile. You can add whatever you like to change the basic flavors:

  • Cayenne and/or white pepper for spicier meat;
  • Different types of chile such as paprika or mild/hotter varieties;
  • Add additional flavors with sage, ground ginger, rosemary, thyme, brown sugar, honey, or cinnamon to create a unique flavor.

You’ll notice I don’t use salt in my rub but instead use dry brining prior to cooking (see above). It does not only minimize the salt but helps the meat retain moisture while cooking.


Seasoned 3-hook brisket ready for the Pit Barrel Smoker

Flavor Paste:

  • 3 Tbsp crushed Beef Bouillon cubes (or Better than Bouillon)
  • 3 Tbsp prepared Yellow Mustard
  • 1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce


  • 3 Tbsp coarse ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp white or brown sugar
  • 1 Tbsp onion powder
  • 2 Tsp garlic powder
  • 2 Tsp chile powder (Ancho preferred)
  • 1 Tsp Chipotle chile powder

After the trim and dry brine, evenly coat the meat with the flavor paste then sprinkle the rub on both sides and rub it into the meat. You can do this right before the cook: there is no need to let it sit. For the Pit Barrel I typically use 2-3 hooks to hang the meat because there is nothing worse than losing a $50-100 brisket into the coals!

Cooking and the “Crutch”

When the coals are ready just hang the meat in the smoker, relax and enjoy the smoky aromas emanating from the cooker. I usually throw in some wood chunks at the start and every 30-60 min as needed for the first few hours, but don’t overdo it. You may want to insert a remote thermometer but check the temp every few hours.  When the temperature of the meat reaches 160-170F, pull it off and wrap it tightly in foil or butcher paper and add some liquid to braise the meat.


With the flavor paste I just add 1/2 cup of water but you can use whatever you want such as your favorite beer, beef broth, honey and/or red wine. Then wrap it up and put it back in the cooker [you’ll need to insert the grill in the Pit Barrel Cooker but be sure to put the rods back in as they help maintain the right temp]. An oven is fine too! When the temp reaches 200-205F, pull the meat and let it rest.


Resting is a key part of the cooking process as it allows the meat to continue steaming and creates a more tender and juicy meat. You should allow at least an hour, I usually use two. Resting should be done in an insulated box of some kind to retain heat. I just wrap it in old towels and stick it in a cooler but old blankets work or ideally an insulated food carrier like a Cambro. After it’s rested pull it out and enjoy the rewards of your hard work: a juicy, tender, melt-in-your-mouth brisket! Save the juice from the wrap and pour it over the meat or serve separately. For an extra treat create Burnt Ends (see here for how to do that along with carving tips.)