Meet Peter Harris
Drive up Hwy. 61 along the north shore of Lake Superior, and you’ll see some of the state’s most gorgeous views. You might even catch yourself wondering: Are there lynx up here? What’s the orange growth on so many of the rocks? Does spring come earlier than it used to?
Congratulations! You’re a curious naturalist—just the kind of person Peter Harris loves to meet. As the science and research projects coordinator at Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland, Minn., he is on a mission is to spark environmental curiosity in everyone from school kids to adults to families. That mission is at the heart of who he is, and it provides a map to a lifetime passion of exploring nature.
You could credit his parents with guiding his earliest interests. “My dad was a bird watcher. He started taking me out and observing when I was four months old,” Peter says. “I lived by Lake Harriet [in Minneapolis]; that was my Pacific Ocean,” he says with nostalgic fondness. “My parents were interested in getting me outside,” he adds, so with TV limited to weekends, he had ample opportunity to explore the natural world.
That early spark caught fire in college. But something unexpected happened on his way to becoming a veterinarian. While earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Minnesota, “I made some connections and got on research projects in bird endocrinology. Then I spent a year doing research at the Itasca Biological Field Station,” he says. Watching nature progress through all its cycles in that one place over the course of a full year triggered a lot of curiosity.
“Then, after college, I biked around North America,” he says. “I saw the seasons change, and saw how the geographical orientation to the seasons changed. I saw extreme conditions—from desert heat, to dust storms, to nor’easters. I experienced how nature changes in increments, and it intrigued me.”
Captivated by this growing passion for phenology—the timing of seasonal changes in plants and animals—he launched his career in a new direction: He started as a student naturalist at Wolf Ridge, and met influential mentors B.J. Kohlstedt and Jim Gilbert. He was hired full-time in 1983 and has been there ever since. With a 2,000-acre classroom offering rich hands-on experiences to more than 15,000 students a year, Peter now manages some science curriculum and citizen science projects—including projects done in collaboration with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minnesota State Climatology Office, the National Weather Service, International Bird Population Institute and other groups and agencies.
“Environmental education occurs on a couple of levels,” he says. “We have phenology and weather training for staff. We also have a classes for students on climate change and weather.” A bulletin board puts phenology and weather data together so classes can interpret it.
“Science gains strength not just from data but from people understanding how science works, and you understand that by participating,” Peter says. “When we have kids outside and catch a live bird to demonstrate how we band, their eyes light up when they see the bird’s ear and hear the heartbeat. You know that you’ve connected. For the rest of their lives, when they see a bird, they’ll remember that moment.”
Peter also played a key role in developing the Minnesota Phenology Network. “The initial conception came through John Latimer and Larry Weber,” he says, “and they connected with Wolf Ridge. I got the hat as the planner.” Rebecca Montgomery and Chris Buyarski in the Department of Forestry at the University of Minnesota soon came on board in leadership roles. “One of the themes of the group was to have a place where people could come and feed their batteries. Second, we wanted to provide new information. Third, we wanted to start some kind of network system,” Peter says. Everyone—from professionals, to Master Naturalists, to engaged citizen scientists—is welcome to contribute phenology data through the network’s website and advance the science of climate change.
Here’s another way to think about cyclical changes in nature. “Phenology is a sentence that makes a book that makes a story,” Peter says. “It has a noun as its subject—whether that’s a plant or an animal; it has a verb—an event in the lifecycle relative to season changes, such as nesting or first flower; and it has an adverb describing when or how that event happens, such as early, peak and late.
“People notice that sentence in their world. It captures the whole cycle.”
For people interested in becoming curious naturalists, Peter suggests combining nature-watching with other enjoyable activities, such as journaling, photography or walking the dog. “Get into a routine and have fun with it,” he says.
To avoid getting overwhelmed, he has this recommendation: “Start simple. Follow one small piece of land, one particular tree, one or two species and learn the natural history of a few things as you go on. Success will breed more interest as you learn more.”
Perhaps sounding like his parents, he shares one more bit of advice that might lead someone down an unexpected path to an environmental career of their own: “Just get outside.”