As a kid who spent a lot of time with his siblings exploring the nature that surrounded them, Paul Dayton learned to love natural history. When he found out that he could grow up and study nature for a living, his career path was set.
A professor emeritus of marine ecology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Dayton has not only spent a career fascinated by and studying life underwater, he also remains interested in, and committed to, preserving the desert ecology from his childhood in Arizona. He’s published a children’s book, “Rabbits and Rats, Birds and Seeds, Cactus and Trees: Plants and Animals at Work in El Pinacate, Sonoran Desert, Mexico,” which tells the story of the relationships between the plants and animals in the desert and how they rely on each other to survive.
The book is bilingual and has been nominated as a finalist for the 2018 International Latino Book Awards, produced by Latino Literacy Now, a non-profit promoting literacy in the Latino community.
Dayton, 77, lives in Solana Beach with his wife, Linnea (who’s the editor and publisher of his book), and they have two adult children. He took some time to talk about his book and, his passion for nature, and his hope for the children who read his book.
Q: How did you go from a career in science that revolves around water to writing a children’s book about plants and animals in the desert?
A: Good question. The book was written to inform the Mexican children that live in the area surrounding El Pinacate (y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve), perhaps the most wonderful natural area I know. I hope that explaining the important relationships that structure the desert ecosystem will enable the citizens to understand the ecosystem, and that this understanding will also inspire a paternalistic love of the region so that they will want to protect these fragile relationships.
Q: Your book, “Rabbits and Rats, Birds and Seeds, Cactus and Trees: Plants and Animals at Work in El Pinacate, Sonoran Desert, Mexico,” features a desert tortoise named Renaldo telling the story, through you. Where did Renaldo come from and what inspired this story?
A: Renaldo is the name we gave to a real desert tortoise that lives on the top of a volcanic cinder cone that overlooks our favorite camp. This and one other found at the same location are the only living desert tortoises found in the Pinacate, so far as I know.
Q: Why did you want to tell it with the tortoise as the narrator?
A: First, I wanted to acknowledge the fact that this tough, old reptile is there watching over this ecosystem for many decades. Second, I did not want my message to the Mexican children to be a gringo lecturing to them about their park, and I thought that they would be more receptive to getting the information from a tortoise. One of the great childhood strengths lost to most adults is the ability to fantasize. I hope it works.
Q: What did you want to convey with this story?
A: A sense of tenderness for, and empathy with, nature. Ideally, this love is based on an understanding of important relationships that need to be protected. Too often, environmental protection focuses on individual species, when really it is the important relationships that need protection. These relationships are fractured long before a species becomes endangered. I hope that this is communicated to the parents as well as the children.
Q: What did you want children to get from this story?
A: I hope that the children will grow up with an ability to look at a natural situation and understand the natural history that resulted in the patterns they see, and perhaps more importantly, to be able to correctly fantasize other relationships that they can explore and study themselves. This is how a child grows into the future with a sense of place that then supports good human stewardship of nature. And, hopefully, some of the children will also grow into creative ecologists.
Q: What were your initial thoughts when you learned you’d been selected as a finalist for this year’s International Latino Book Awards?
A: I was surprised and pleased as it means a lot to me because the organization has such worthy goals. My first thought was that the award and all the recognition should go to the translator, Barbara Ilizaliturri, and her husband, Exequiel Ezcurra, who helped with some technical aspects. The Spanish version was recognized, thus it was her brilliant translation that is responsible. Barbara deserves the recognition for her spectacular translation.
Q: What does it mean to you be nominated for this award?
A: Being recognized by an organization dedicated to enhancing literacy and good writing in the Spanish-speaking community is extremely satisfying. The world is full of wonderful books in Spanish, and it is very important that Latino children everywhere develop a cultural pride in their heritage.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to have an organization dedicated to specifically recognizing Latino authors, illustrators, books and stories?
A: As ecologists depend on a sense of place, people need a sense of self, and this organization does a wonderful job enhancing Latino pride that today, more than ever, we need to support.
Q: What has your work writing this book taught you about yourself?
A: Humility. I have always said that if you cannot explain something to an interested child, you do not understand it yourself. But when I tried to write something for kids, I found it really challenging, and my wife helped a lot.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: Always imagine that you see the world through the eyes of the organism you study. This applies to plants and animals as it forces one to consider what is really most important to the organism. And this is also critical to healthy human relationships.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I am a good cook with a Dutch oven in the field; and maybe not so good in the kitchen where the consumers are more critical.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: Taking my granddaughters to Balboa Park. It has to be one of the best parks in the country and there are always wonderful things to learn for young and old.
What I love about Solana Beach ...I like the easy access to San Elijo Lagoon (Ecological Reserve) that I visit several times a week, and I really appreciate our neighbors who tolerate my chickens and neurotic little dog.
---Lisa Deaderick is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune