Monday, September 3, 2007
Remembering a mentor of years past -- C. Don MacNeill
Tom’s Place Campground, Owens Valley, California--August 1959
We pulled off of Route 395 and negotiated the dusty potholes to our campsite. It was dark, and our mentors, MacNeill and Lundgren, were silhouettes in the light of a Coleman lamp. We unloaded our gear and joined them.
"Well, did you get anything, or was it a wild goose chase?" MacNeill smiled.
"We didn’t do too badly", replied my friend Dave as he handed him a cyanide jar full of dead katydids.
Don slowly turned the jar and assessed the catch, as Dave not only named most of the species, but recalled their host plants and details about their songs. (Dave and I had often debated the relative difficulty of collecting katydids to trapping rodents. Though I wouldn’t admit it, finding serenading insects at night in the sagebrush was a lot harder than trapping mice.)
My own report was less learned, but equally enthusiastic. That night we saw so many kangaroo rats and pocket mice crossing the roads, I was sure that the mouse traps known as "museum specials" would be full in the morning.
"I’m going to be mighty busy tomorrow putting up specimens", I crooned.
Our mentors smiled. "Well, why don’t you have a look at what we found here in camp", said Mr. Lundgren. The Coleman lantern and the bedsheet had reaped a great collection of moths, beetles, flies and other goodies. The message was clear: you don’t have to drive all over the valley to find good specimens.
A middle-aged man with flashlight approached us from the next campsite. "Boys, I gather that you’re naturalists."
MacNeill and Lundgren remained silent, and Dave resumed his discourse about our collecting activities.
"You didn’t by any chance lose some rattlesnakes, did you?"
Dave looked to me, the snake chaser.
"I don’t think so…", I hesitated. Then I registered the paternal forbearance of the three men. …. "but maybe I should check."
I bee-lined to the minnow can. Had the rattlers pushed open the lid? Or had I somehow failed to latch it after admiring the five beauties that afternoon? When I reached the can, it was empty and the lid was unlatched.
"Damn, they’re gone!" I exclaimed with an appropriate measure of drama.
"Well", said the stranger, "I think you might want to come over to my camp and collect them again." It was clear that he had been tip-toeing around rattlesnakes all afternoon, and had already discussed his concern with MacNeill and Lundgren.
Dave and I fetched the flashlights and snake stick, and as we pussy-footed to his campsite, yesterday’s memory flashed back to me…
"What the hell is that?" asked Mr. Lundgren as he released the hand brake. The minnow can was a splendid resonating chamber, and the bump of the hand brake set off the rattlers that were inside.
"Oh, just the rattlesnakes", I replied as if everyone kept a can of snakes next to he stick-shift.
"Well get ‘em the hell out of here. I’m not driving with a bucket of rattlesnakes next to my foot." The logic of keeping those lovely rattlers in the safety of the cab had somehow escaped Mr. Lundgren.
We searched the brush around our neighbor’s camp in quiet embarrassment, but a half hour later we had four of the five rattlesnakes back in the minnow can.
"Let’s hope the other one is gone forever", reflected our neighbor with a stern eye, "but maybe you should have another look in the morning." We never did figure out why our neighbor’s campsite had proved so attractive to those snakes. But we were lucky to be in the company of men who, when compared to our parents had the patience of Job. But then our parents weren’t naturalists.
That was 47 years ago. C. Don MacNeill, then a 35 year-old freethinker with a disdain for neckties, was a curator of entomology at the California Academy of Sciences. Milford Lundgren had been Don’s high school science teacher. Dave Rentz and I, then in our mid-teens, were members of the Academy’s Student Section, a club for "science nerds" that bore a certain resemblance to a secret society. When a San Francisco science teacher diagnosed a kid as having incurable biophilia, she would drop hints about "this special place for children like you".
On Saturdays a bevy of geeky adolescents converged from across the city at "the special place". The basement of the erstwhile Academy’s east wing housed the student section’s collections, library, meeting room, work areas, and a specimen prep area. Our guides there were a no-nonsense Stanford graduate student named Al Leviton, and a student teacher named Ray Bandar, who bore a curious resemblance to an over-developed Cosmo Kramer.
There were field trips. On Saturday mornings Bandar carted us in a WWII Dodge power wagon to various bay area destinations for "collecting".
The unofficial open-door policy between the Student Section and the science departments meant that an unusual specimen could win you an audience with a scientist. Don was certainly one of the academy’s most approachable scientists. You could count on finding him in his office or in the collection pouring over a drawer of pinned skippers.
Don MacNeill died in August 2005 at the age of 81. Two weeks later, Dave and I paid homage to our old mentor by revisiting the sites of that trip nearly 50 years ago. Fond memories of youth and discovery don’t fade easily, but they can’t be called up like the files on a computer’s hard drive. We needed to go through the experience. As we lived out the familiar old collecting ritual, the old sights and sounds summoned fragmented memories of times with our old friend. The trip accomplished what we wanted.
Memories of the First Trip
We were flattered by the invitation. True, we needed our parents’ permission, but by Dave’s reckoning MacNeill and Lundgren recognized the signs of our impending maturity. As my teenage friend put it, "They didn’t invite us to be our baby-sitters". No doubt they had weighed the pros and cons, but in reality, the invitation was simply a well-intentioned gesture. In two enthusiastic boy naturalists they probably recognized themselves.
Most importantly, the trip was a chance for Don to settle unfinished business in the Sierras. In 1959 he had discovered a new species of butterfly zipping about in the thin air of Mono Pass, and he named the skipper for his mother, Hesperia miriamae MacNeill. The scientific description of "miriamae" was unfinished, however, because he hadn’t yet seen or described the larvae. His summer trip to the high country had become an annual quest for gravid females, and a mission impossible. For several years he had returned from the mountains with females, but they had failed to lay eggs. The goal of describing the larval form eluded him for several more years. If it hadn’t been for that frustrating reality, we might not have been invited.
The timing was good. The dog days of August, 1958, were dragging on. School would start in a few weeks, and we were aching for diversion. Dave had just acquired "wheels", a hand-me down Volkswagen pickup truck from his father. Owens Valley would be the big one of the summer of ‘58, and the first of many trips we would do on our own.
It was 5:30 AM when my father dropped me off at the Rentz house in the Sunset District. Dave’s powder blue Volkswagen, symbolic of our freedom was in the garage. "Now that you have your learner’s permit", Dave said, "you can help me drive".
He went upstairs, and I loaded my gear into the truck with the energy of a sleepwalker. Then I climbed into the passenger’s seat, and stretched out for a snooze with my feet on the dashboard. Something snapped under my boot. The key! To my embarrassment I had broken it off in the ignition. A few minutes later Dave was back, and I made my feeble attempt to explain the improbable event…"You’re not going to believe this…". Dave found that he could still start the car by jamming the base of the key into the keyhole. With the confession over, my trusting friend asked me to back the car out of the garage. I was doing well until I heard a snapping sound. I had broken off the side view mirror. Thus started our trip to the eastern Sierras 47 years ago.
MacNeill and Lundgren beat us to our meeting place that day at Sonora Pass. There were delays for car repairs in Sonora, and Volkswagens were notoriously slow on grades. We found Don’s car parked on the shoulder, but the men were out of sight, so we collected on the slopes within view of the car until my friend started summoning me excitedly:
"You’ve got to see this!" I hurried down the slope and found Dave displaying his prize with wonderment. He had enthused about grylloblattids many times, and now there it was, looking like a soggy distended termite.
"That thing’s a grylloblattid? You’ve got to be kidding". It was one of those archaic missing links, a primitive Orthopteran that evolved in the shadows of glaciers. In a few years I would listen with a certain smugness as Professor Larry Swan waxed eloquent about grylloblattids, which thrive in the Aeolian zone, the high snowy reaches of mountains that the late professor discovered in the Himalaya. As Swan would have put it, the updrafts on high mountains deliver manna from the lowlands--spiders and all manner of aerial insects--to the hungry grylloblattids waiting under the snow like creatures from a Japanese sci-fi movie.
After nearly two hours of netting insects we had wandered back to the car, and were relieved to see our two friends descending the slope above us. We were together at last. Dave explained "our little accident" that caused the delay. I rolled my eyes. Don thought he might have seen a miriamae, "but it was going like a bat out of hell". In the late afternoon shadows we caravanned down the eastern slope of the Sierras towards Bridgeport. We kept a safe distance behind, because Lundgren conserved gas by coasting and riding the brake. When the road leveled out he popped the clutch and the car lurched with a smoky report.
I had never met Mr. Lundgren before. He had been Don MacNeill’s high school teacher, and he was an amateur entomologist and a knowledgable recreational naturalist who collected insects for biological supply houses. The biological supply houses sold them as "biological preparations" to schools and universities.
He was also a storyteller, as we learned that night in camp. Don had cooked his field specialty—glop. At last we learned the ingredients of his little secret. It was nothing more than tuna casserole, a mixture of tuna, noodles, peas, and mushroom soup, but he played up the glop story ("You'll find out soon enough') for suspense.
The topic of bears came up after dinner, and Lundgren issued a stern warning: never attempt to catch a bear cub in a tree. We had no idea that bear cubs were particularly dangerous, and he baited our youthful gullibility. He had committed the mistake himself somewhere in northern California in his youth. The bear had climbed as high as possible in a small ponderosa pine. He laid out his plan, which was to climb up and grab it by the scruff of its neck.
"I never got close enough for that. The bear was so terrified it starting crapping, and it didn’t finish its business till I was back on the ground. I don’t know what that cub was eating, but I assure you it didn’t smell like digested mother’s milk." He burned his clothes, and was never again interested in rescuing bear cubs. It was the kind of story that appeals to young men, especially young biologists with a weakness for scatological humor.
We left early the next day for Mono Pass, the type locality of "miriamae". We looked up to the pass from the trailhead. It was far above us, and the switchbacks looked like an unnecessary delay. Our mentors read our thoughts. "Just take your time", they advised. "We’ll collect on these switchbacks, take in the scenery, and in a few hours we’ll reach the pass."
The three entomologists took their time, but impetuosity sent me straight up the slope. When my friends’ caught up with me clouds were blowing over, the temperature was dropping, and I was still nauseous. They had a splendid collection of late summer insects. My colleagues reveled in the sights and collected more specimens as I sat glumly on a rock paying for my stupidity. It was a good lesson.
These were the fond memories that returned to us in the clear air of the eastern Sierra on our trip of 2005. We were two old guys locked in a time warp.
But one last thing. I haven't mentioned Don's theory of soul.
I was 16 when my grandfather died, and when things had settled after the funeral I stopped by the Academy to visit with Don. I didn't intend to mention my loss, but he expressed his sympathy, and I became a little emotional. He asked if I had good memories of him. Teary eyed, I answered, "Yes".
"He has a strong soul." He told me that his idea of the soul was the aggregate of good memories that one leaves behind.
Then he asked me if I wanted to drive to the Santa Cruz Mountains with him in a couple weeks to collect ferns. Of course I agreed. More good memories.
By his own definition, Don MacNeill has a very strong soul.
Note: This blog post was a joint effort with my old buddy, Dave Rentz (aka Mr Smiley to blog comment readers). Our memories of Don the mentor overlapped, but specific events differed. While I drifted away, Dave remained close to Don through the years. But when I visited Don at the academy around 2002, he asked me to send him my publications. The old mentor hadn't changed.
Many thanks to Library Assistant Karren Elsbernd for scanning the image of Don MacNeill, and the California Academy of Sciences for permission to reproduce it here. Photographer (c) California Academy of Sciences
Brown, R.M., J.M. Burns, M.M. Collins, P.A, Opler, J.A. Powell, and J. Vernon. 2006. Remembering Don MacNeill. Journal of the Lepidopterist's Society, 60(2):107-114.