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Streams of consciousness

April 2, 2015

Books represent large undertakings. The writing process is arduous, the time lengthy, and the research often difficult, even dangerous. So what leads authors to pour their hearts and souls into such laborious work? Author Kurt Fausch joins us today to share what drove him to create his recently published book, For the Love of Rivers. Staying true to his scientific background, yet venturing into the connection between nature and emotion, Fausch offers his audience a book that reads much like a journey—and today, he invites us to come along.

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Why would a scientist write about love for rivers?  Don’t scientists normally stick to the facts? 

I became a fish biologist, and later a professor of stream ecology, so that I could do the studies needed to provide answers for the field biologists and natural resource stewards who manage fish and the streams and rivers they inhabit.  Along with teaching students about these ideas, and working together with graduate students and other researchers on these studies, this is really all I ever wanted to achieve. 

Somehow, along the way, I became drawn into a deeper relationship with the streams and rivers I was studying, the colleagues I was working with, and the need to communicate both the science and these emotions to others. 

In For the Love of Rivers: a Scientist’s Journey, I draw the reader into an international research FortheLoveofRiverscollaboration with Japanese stream ecologist Shigeru Nakano and his colleagues.  Nakano and I developed a deep friendship fueled by a common passion to immerse ourselves in streams, literally (by snorkeling), and understand how the native charr and trout in northern Japan and northern Montana coexisted in the same habitats in streams without driving each other extinct. 

Shigeru went on to do brilliant large-scale field experiments covering streams with mesh greenhouses to show how the insects emerging from streams into the riparian forest, and those falling into streams from the forest, created key connections that fed animals in both ecosystems.  Cutting these off with the greenhouses made half the fish in the stream, and most of the bats and spiders in the riparian forest, disappear!

But when Nakano was killed while visiting the field site of another scientist in Baja California, it set me back and I began to ask what was most important in my busy life as a researcher and teacher.  The loss of streams and fish that we were recording in several other studies, and our predictions of what we stand to lose based on those studies, loomed large in my thinking.

One day, out of the blue, former student-turned-filmmaker Jeremy Monroe (founder of Freshwaters Illustrated) approached me about making a documentary film on Nakano’s life and amazing career.  His idea was to draw the public into an engaging story, and teach them about how streams, fish, and their strong linkages with riparian forests work.  I was skeptical at first, but after the film had been beamed to more than 100 million homes on PBS stations, I realized the power of stories that include the emotional connections among scientists in capturing the attention of everyday people and providing a means to communicate complex science.  I decided to write my story -- of streams and the scientists who study them.

But when I thought about what would move people to actually want to conserve these beautiful ecosystems, I realized that I needed to move beyond the science of streams, and even the science of why humans are attracted to the sights and sound of running waters.  Stephen Jay Gould, the famous evolutionary biologist and great communicator of science, wrote that we only save those things that we love, and we only love those things with which we develop a deep emotional bond. 

In the end, I needed to take the risk to explore what it is that I love about rivers, even as a scientist who has been trained to study them objectively and focus on the cold, hard facts.  While not ignoring the importance of science to conserving rivers, I realized that I needed to move beyond this science if I wanted to inspire others to keep striving to understand what is essential about rivers to us as humans, and keep working with others to conserve them.

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Kurt Fausch is a professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University, where he has taught for more than 30 years. Collaborative research has taken him throughout Colorado, much of the western U.S., and worldwide, including to Hokkaido in northern Japan. A recipient of numerous awards from the American Fisheries Society and the World Council of Fisheries Societies, Fausch is a respected professional in his field. For the Love of Rivers is now available on our website or by calling 1 (800) 621-2736. Watch a full trailer for the book here.

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