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M.L. Herring


The youngest daughter of a librarian and a Marine Corps pilot, I grew up with books on my mind and wind in my hair. Wherever we lived, there was a forest to explore; and on lucky deployments, a river.


Without planning to, I have kept an illustrated journal my entire life. The earliest books were filled with sketches of animals and long lists of what I wanted to BE when I grew up. I always knew that I wanted to BE outside. But where? Forest or river? And doing what? science or art?  Eventually, I changed the conjunction and made a life of science AND art, in forests AND rivers. And I still keep a journal.  

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Camping in the Sierra Nevada


After a childhood spent poking around outdoors, dividing my time between beetles and Beatles, my real education began on Christmas Eve 1968, when the Apollo 8 astronauts sent the world a photograph of Earth rising above the surface of the moon. We saw our shared and only home, alone in space. We pledged our new allegiance on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day. I sewed a green-striped, theta-emblazoned Earth Day flag that we hoisted up the flagpole in front of T.C Williams High School, a short bike ride from the Pentagon.


After T.C. Williams, I headed to the University of Virginia, as part of the first class of women accepted into Mr. Jefferson’s university. As a so-called University Scholar, I was set free to design my own major (a dubious honor bestowed on kids with good grades.) Luckily, I found two brilliant mentors—Bill Odum, a wetlands ecologist, and Carl Spirito, a neurophysiologist—who lit a path for me toward behavioral ecology. After graduation, I lit out for Oregon.


Lured by images of then-Governor Tom McCall and his plea for people like me to visit but please don’t stay, I stayed. I worked as an artist until the pull back toward science became irresistible. I hired on as a research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and was given a uniform and a boat. It was heaven.


Around that time, on the Oregon Coast, the salmon that had always been there all of a sudden were not there. Trying to explain such a sudden crash of an iconic species pushed me into press conferences and legislative hearings. The public understanding of science became my mission, which led me to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz and John Wilkes’ ground-breaking program in science communication. 


After graduation, I worked for the University of California Natural Reserve System, where my job was to immerse myself in each of the university’s natural reserves and describe their research opportunities in words and pictures to attract researchers, grants, and legislative support. To do part of this from Oregon in 1986, I explored the frontier of working remotely with a phone-cradle modem, a handshake code, and a bizarre chorus of buzzing, clicks, and whirrs that connected my rural Oregon homestead to the ARPANET of California’s silicon future. 


This soon grew into a freelance business, the Science Writers’ Group, in which I was the writer, illustrator, designer, and tech support in this one-person "group." This was my ticket to biological field stations across the country, where I helped researchers demonstrate the importance of their science to the public who funded it. I worked with forest ecologist Sarah Greene to create the Natural Areas Report and with Australian ecologist David Brunkhorst to introduce the idea of bioregional planning globally. 


Back home again at the end of the millennium, science-based bioregional assessments were growing in importance as a way to make environmental policy. I teamed up with forest economist Norm Johnson, research geologist Fred Swanson, and Sarah Greene to showcase seven of the largest of these in  Bioregional Assessments: Science at the Crossroads of Management and Policy. Following that, I helped Oregon State University president Paul Risser develop Oregon’s State of the Environment Report for Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. That brought me in partnership with scientists in my own Corvallis community.


Immersed in a college campus made me want to go to back to school, again. I found the perfect inspiration in Lauren Kessler and her genius program of Literary Nonfiction at the University of Oregon. Academia turned out to be a good fit. I was offered a tenure professorship at Oregon State University, where I headed the communications department for the College of Agricultural Sciences and the statewide Extension and Experiment Station programs. I teamed up with Sarah Greene again to write an expansive history of the Douglas-fir region centered around the Wind River Experimental Forest and its state-of-the-art canopy crane research, in Forest of Time.


Science communications drew me overseas again, with the USAID Aquafish program headed by Hillary Egna at Oregon State. I worked in Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines during 2010-2011, writing about small scale aquaculture in some of the least developed corners of southeast Asia. 


One of the best parts of my 18 years at OSU was editing the research magazine, Oregon’s Progress. I worked with a real group — several talented people — exploring Oregon’s environment, agriculture, and life sciences in words and pictures. The magazine won many national awards, and perhaps most rewarding were the responses we received from teachers (from elementary schools to law schools) who used our stories in their classrooms. That sparked my partnership with aquatic entomologist Judy Li to write and illustrate the series of Ellie and Ricky science books that inspire children to explore the ecology of Oregon’s forests, coastlines, deserts, and cities. 


Now, as an emerita professor, I continue to write about the natural history of the West and the interesting people I meet along the way from my family’s farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 

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