Photo by Russ Kleinman, Buzzard Bay, Burro Mtns, NM 2008
Richard Felger has been a biologist since childhood.
I grew up in Los Angeles. We spent summers at the beach. Naturally I was into marine life. The beach drift was endless childhood wonder of marine algae, and marine creatures including egg cases of sharks and predatory moon snails, and mostly a diversity of shells. Large abalones of three species were common just below low tide. One by one I learned the scientific names of the sea creatures, mostly mollusks.
I remember so vividly the day a family friend gave me a birthday gift box of cactus and succulents. I was eight years old. I was amazed at the shapes that reminded me of my sea creature friends. I began growing cactus and succulents, and then orchids, cycads, and palms.
I made it through school in the back of the room with one of my books on plants and sea life opened inside a schoolbook. My education included the outdoors and pilgrimages to the Huntington Library botanic garden and volunteering at the Los Angeles County Museum’s marine biology department. My beloved high school teacher, Nancy Thomas Neeley, was an inspiration for a group of us natural history kids. When classes were out, we piled into Nancy’s car and spent the afternoon exploring tidepools and sometimes the desert. By way of Nancy’s boy friend and later husband Peter Neeley, I was introduced to the great ecologist Raymond Cowles at UCLA and whenever possible went to afternoon seminars and on weekend field trips.
I was in high school when I went with ecologists from Cowles’ lab on a field trip from Los Angeles to Álamos, Sonora. They were researching the newly discovered overwintering/hibernating of poorwills. That Christmas vacation field trip was a turning point. I noticed the change from the sparse California desert to the denser and taller desert plants heading south through Sonora to the tropical deciduous forest of Alamos. Someone gave me a copy of Howard Scott Gentry’s Rio Mayo Plants—I still have the book, full of marginal notes. We had a plant press and that was the beginning of my herbarium collections.
When I fledged, my three alligators went to the zoo and I went the University of Arizona, which I chose because it was in the Sonoran Desert and close to Sonora. Weekends, school breaks, and summer time to the Pinacates, Kino Bay and the Gulf of California islands in pangas with local fishermen. Cutting classes on Friday and Monday for fieldtrips and still I made it through the initiation of big university. I wanted to do my dissertation on the ethnobotany of the Comcaac (Seri people), from whom I had learned so much, but information from Native Americans was not considered science. No matter, the core of my dissertation involved fieldwork on the Gulf of California islands and the Sonora coast. I continued learning from the Seris and some years later Mary Beck Moser and I published the Ethnobotany of the Seris.
Searching the World for salt-tolerant food crops, discovering new food plants, the University of Colorado faculty, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, creating the Research Department at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and perusing research grants. Fieldwork and herbarium studies whenever possible, a privilege to follow my dreams and get some of it published and shared.
My wife, Silke Schneider, and I live in Silver City, New Mexico, with lots of animals and plants. It is here where I realized the wealth of food plants utilized by the Apache people that can make a difference in food resiliency for a dry world. What a difference it would have been if the early Euro-American invaders had been able learn the wealth of local knowledge.
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Richard received his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona in 1966. His dissertation analyzed the vegetation and flora of the islands and Gulf Coast of Sonora, Mexico. Subsequently he was on the faculty of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and then Senior Curator of Botany at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Returning to Tucson, he continued his research and conservation activities in aridlands, concentrating on the Gulf of California and Sonoran Desert Region.
Working at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum from 1978 to 1982, he founded the research department. He has been active in regional and international conservation, including pioneer conservation of sea turtles of the Pacific Coast of the Americas, primarily during the 1980s. In 1988 he founded the Drylands Institute in Tucson and was Executive Director until 2007. Until 2002 he was Adjunct Senior Research Scientist at the Environmental Research Laboratory, University of Arizona, and is presently Associated Researcher at the University of Arizona Herbarium.
His work with Mary Beck Moser, People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians (1985, 1990, University of Arizona Press) has preserved considerable indigenous knowledge of the Comcaac (Seri) homeland, and current projects mark the continuation of his contributions to the understanding of botanical diversity in this region.
Dr. Felger has conducted research in deserts worldwide and has been active in local and international conservation. He has written or co-authored more than 100 peer-review publications in addition to books and numerous popular writings in desert botany, ethnobiology, new food crops, and other fields. One of his strong interests is addressing world hunger through agricultural independence for arid regions. His concepts include perennials for no-till agriculture of food crops to fit to the land rather than changing the land to fit the crop. He pioneered the development of mesquites as a global dryland food crop and nipa (Distichlis palmeri), a rice-sized grain that thrives with pure seawater. His present research includes open-access floristic studies of the botany of the desert edge of the Guaymas Region of Sonora and other Sonoran Desert research, the Yoeme (Yaqui) ethnobiology, and a diversity of new food crops for a dry world.