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ABOUT
M.L. HERRING

ML Herring Sketching.jpeg

Where do I live and what do I do? Those are important questions to ask of anyone who lives on a rambunctious planet at this tumultuous  time doing what we can to make it better. I live on a narrow strip of temperate rainforest on the far west coast of North America, in a forest, on a river, and in the wonder of real life. I write about ecology and I draw what I see. Sometimes I also teach kids or grown-ups or whoever wants to write and draw with me, outside, in the field. I call it exploration art, but mostly it’s observation, and wonder.

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Camping 1956

The Improvisational Work of Becoming Myself

The youngest daughter of a librarian and a Marine Corps pilot, I grew up with books on my mind and wind in my hair. I have kept an illustrated journal most of my life.The earliest were filled with sketches of animals and lists of what I wanted to DO when I grew up. I still keep a journal. Animal sketches have given way to other moments of observed wonder. What to DO with my life has given way to doing it. 

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, blue-and-white 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 Thomas Jefferson’s university. As a University Scholar, I was set free to study whatever intrigued me. 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

 

That path led me to Oregon, lured by images of then-Governor Tom McCall and his invitation to visit but please don’t stay. I visited, and I stayed, along with a generation of similarly inspired college graduates looking for an ecological life. I worked as a research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. I 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 gone. Making sense of such a sudden crash of an iconic species required public-focused information, which became my mission. That 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 spend a few months with each of the university’s 40 beautiful natural reserves, to record their research opportunities in words and pictures, and to publish a booklet for each site. To do 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 grew into my freelance business, the Science Writers’ Group, in which I was the sole writer, illustrator, designer, and tech support. This was my ticket to explore ground-breaking science across the country. I created the Natural Areas Report with forest scientist Sarah Greene, and I further expanded my science communication overseas with Australian ecologist David Brunkhorst. 

 

Back home, at the end of the millennium, science-based bioregional assessments were becoming a new way to make environmental policy on a grand scale. I teamed up with forest economist Norm Johnson, research geologist Fred Swanson, and Sarah Greene to showcase seven of the largest of these in the book Bioregional Assessments: Science at the Crossroads of Management and Policy. Following that, I helped develop Oregon’s State of the Environment Report for Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, with Oregon State University president Paul Risser. 

 

Writing about science for an increasingly skeptical public, I realized I would need new tools. I found those tools and inspiration from Lauren Kessler and her program of Literary Nonfiction at the University of Oregon. From there, I was offered a tenured professorship at Oregon State, where I headed the communications department for the College of Agricultural Sciences and the statewide Extension and Experiment Station programs. On nights and weekends, I wrote an expansive history of the Douglas-fir region with Sarah Greene, centered around the Wind River Experimental Forest and its state-of-the-art canopy crane research, in the book 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 2011, reporting on small scale aquaculture in the poorest 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 several talented people to explore Oregon’s environment, agriculture, and life sciences in words and pictures. The magazine (and my writing within it) won several national awards. Most rewarding, perhaps, 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 the Pacific Northwest’s forests, coastlines, deserts, and cities. 

Inspired by an artist-in-residency at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, I wrote and illustrated an imagined journey through my beloved, unruly temperate rainforest, in a book entitled Born of Fire and Rain. Now, as an emerita professor, I continue to write about natural history from my family’s farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. 

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