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Ray Dasmann’s Way to See

By Peter Berg
January 6, 2003
Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador

Besides his prodigious accomplishments in the fields of conservation and ecology, Ray Dasmann was an inspiring guide for learning how and what to observe.

During the gifted times when I walked in the woods with him, Ray didn’t utter more than a dozen words. He took so long responding to my questions on the first trip that I stopped asking, and he usually didn’t volunteer information. Simply being in a wild environment and looking was obviously sufficient. Sometimes he pointed. Once he gestured toward something and made a rare remark that was actually a question in itself, "Why do coyotes shit on stumps?" Considering the traditional metaphysical significance of coyotes for the indigenous people of California, the spread of this practice in the contemporary era of massive stump production may be a deeper comment than we suspect.

When he offered to take Aaron Rosenberg and me to an unusual place near the cabin where he lived on San Juan Ridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills, I assumed that it would be another unique experience. It turned out to be one of the rarest places I have been privileged to visit. Ray chose the site for his cabin because there was nothing behind it for hundreds of feet down the precipitous slope of the Yuba River gorge. We walked a short distance from the cabin and then followed the lip of the gorge. There was no trail through the tall Douglass Fir and Pine trees, but Ray picked his way with assurance. We could feel a cool breeze of updrafted air when we eventually passed over the rim and angled down a slight grade. Ray led us to the edge of a small naturally clear meadow and stopped. We watched silently as he stared straight ahead and began to take off his shoes.

He next removed his shirt and started to take off his pants. It was a baffling moment and I glanced at Aaron to see his response. He was taking off his shoes as well. Soon the three of us were standing completely naked while Ray looked over the ground straight ahead and to the sides. He took a few steps forward, crouched and stared at the skull of what was probably a raccoon. Parts of the backbone and legs were visible a few feet away. The beaked skull and wing of a large bird lay near them. A short distance more was part of the rib cage of a deer. Beyond that was a scattering of all kinds of wild animal remains. We walked a little farther and saw a small pelvis, antlers, single thigh bones, small piles of feathers, patches of fur. When we reached the center of the meadow there were bleached bones in every direction.

Ray walked off a little way without any regard for us. His eyes were radiant. I discovered that I was going completely inside myself and sat down. We had walked into a great secret. Out of sight and smell, this was a well-used hideaway for carrying caught prey and devouring it. The bones were picked clean but they were recent enough not to be covered with leaves. I didn’t reach for anything the way a more random discovery on a trail might be handled with curiosity. There were too many choices here to examine a single one closely. None of us seemed to want to disturb anything.

After a time my brain started up again. How many predators used this dining room? Who were they? What times were they active here? How many places like this existed? Had anyone else been here? And what were three naked human beings doing in a circle of wild bones? Silent speculations that weren’t going to get an answer then or maybe ever.

At a certain unspoken moment it was time to go. Taking our clothes off had been exactly the right thing. It was a direct way to respectfully take part in what we had been shown. We had gotten down to our basic species identity. Now it was right to get dressed and leave. We never spoke of the vision in the meadow again.

Ray and I spent plenty of other times discussing things intently over kitchen tables and during rides for a decade during the seventies and eighties. His generous influence in refining ideas about bioregions and having them accepted in ecological circles is part of a populist cultural and political history that lies outside all of his strictly professional accomplishments. Ray was even more than this. His greatest contribution to me was being how to see.

Ramond Dasmann, photo by Jennifer McNulty
Raymond Dasmann, Photo by Jennifer McNulty

Notice of Ray's Passing

Raymond F. Dasmann, 83; a Founding Father of Environmentalism

By Elaine Woo (LA Times, 11/9/02)

Raymond F. Dasmann, whose research and writings about threats to the natural world helped mold the modern environmental movement, died of pneumonia Tuesday (11/5/02) in Santa Cruz. He was 83 and had been in declining health for several years.

Dasmann was a UC Berkeley-trained field biologist who began talking about the need for environmental conservation in the late 1950s, almost two decades before the concept took hold in the American mainstream.

Although not a household name like Rachel Carson or Jacques Cousteau, he is considered a luminary of environmentalism whose intellectual contributions include the concept of "ecodevelopment," or sustainable development, the idea that a community's progress should not rely on exploitation of its natural resources. "He was one of the great pioneers in trying to keep the human environment habitable and sustainable," Paul R. Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist and author of the landmark 1968 book "The Population Bomb" who considered Dasmann one of his heroes, said Friday.

The author of more than a dozen books that include two classics of the conservation movement, Dasmann was respected for his global vision and insistence that ecological solutions include a central role for indigenous cultures.

His 1965 book "The Destruction of California" was a call to action that became a staple of university ecology courses in the 1970s. Coming three years after Carson's "Silent Spring," it was, said Ehrlich, "a pioneering monument in what was soon to be an explosion" of books on ecology.

Although in frail health, Dasmann produced two memoirs in his last few years: a 232-page oral history published by the University of California Press last year; and "Called by the Wild: The Autobiography of a Conservationist," published in April.

He also wrote a highly regarded textbook, "Environmental Conservation," originally issued in 1959 and now in its fifth edition.

Dasmann coined what he called the first law of the environment. "No matter how bad you think things are," he often said, "the total reality is much worse."

Dasmann was born in working-class San Francisco, the son of a police sergeant. His brother worked for the state Department of Forestry and helped spark Dasmann's interest in the natural world.

He was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley when World War II erupted, sending him into the Army and service in Australia and New Guinea. During the war, he met Australian painter Elizabeth Sheldon, to whom he was married for 52 years, until her death in 1996.

He resumed his education after the war, eventually earning his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from UC Berkeley, where he studied under the eminent wildlife biologist A. Starker Leopold.

As a graduate student, Dasmann studied deer populations in Northern California, a topic that acquainted him with the complexities of environmental politics. Finding that the population of deer was growing far faster than their range could support, Dasmann and his colleagues argued that a doe hunt was necessary to restore balance. But they failed to convince deer hunters, who feared it would lead to extinction and ruin their sport.

Dasmann received his doctorate in 1954, then taught at Humboldt State University and later UC Berkeley. In between, he studied African wild game as a Fulbright field biologist in what was is now Zimbabwe.

In 1966, Dasmann entered the policy arena, first as an ecologist for the Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.C., then, beginning in 1970, for the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Switzerland.

He began studying environmental issues from a global vantage point, traveling to hot spots in Africa, Sri Lanka and the Caribbean.

"He was one of the few American scientists ... and practically the only one of his generation, to look globally and locally" at environmental issues, said Randall Jarrell, who directs the Regional History Project at UC Santa Cruz and interviewed Dasmann for the oral history.

Dasmann returned to California in 1977 to teach ecology at UC Santa Cruz. He was an active professor until his retirement in 1989.

Jarrell, who called Dasmann the Darwin of the ecological movement, said Dasmann insisted that ecologists learn from the indigenous peoples living in threatened environments.

"In a national park, the first thing we do is get rid of the people," Jarrell said. "He said, 'These people have been living here for thousands of years; let's let them be the stewards.' His inclusion of human beings into this equation of conservation biology is one of his greatest contributions."

Dasmann's overriding message remained constant over the last three decades.

"I believe we must restore the sense of individual responsibility and involvement, and get away from the idea that conservation is the responsibility of somebody else -- the federal government, the state, the corporations, the rich," he told Whole Earth magazine last year. "We need to look at our patterns of consumption and behavior and shed those practices that contribute to the destruction of nature. This is incredibly difficult to do in a society oriented toward consumption, material enrichment and waste."

He once built his own house -- a humble structure in the foothills of the Sierra -- but he was the first to admit that he was no paragon of conservation; he confessed, for instance, that he drove a gas-powered car.

He characterized himself as "a tentative optimist" about the future of the world who found hope in the success of organic farming and related movements. But in his last days, the pessimist may have been winning the battle.

Bill Allayaud, legislative director of the Sierra Club in California, met him by chance a few days before his death while visiting his mother in the same nursing home. He told Dasmann that he worked for the Sierra Club and that the group was waging difficult battles.

"He said, 'So many struggles, so many struggles,' and began to cry," recalled Allayaud. "It was hitting him ... the really long, hard road we have to fight. I told him, 'I know why you're crying.' I said, 'We will continue to fight.' "