Norman Myers Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Journey of an Environmental Scientist: Conversation with Norman Myers; 11/11/98 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 1 of 7


Dr. Myers, welcome back to Berkeley.

Very glad to be here.

Tell us a little about the formative experiences in your childhood that might have pointed you in the direction of environment work.

I was born, and spent my first eleven years, on a little sheep farm in the northern Pennines in England. You may be familiar with James Herriot country, you know, stone walls and rolling dales. Lovely country. But it was a little hill farm, fifty acres, mainly sheep. And it was a farm that had been in the Myers family for over 300 years. Unfortunately, in 1946 my father became too ill with rheumatism from trying to farm this rather water-sogged patch of heathland and he had to retire to the town.

My father never wrote me a letter because he was virtually illiterate. He had difficulty signing his name. Fortunately my mother was a school teacher and she said "come hell or high water" her children were going to have a good education. And she was the one who got me through a good grammar school, and then packed me off to Oxford.

But on the whole it was rather a difficult lifestyle and I didn't like it one bit. I did enjoy the countryside, and the flowers in the spring and all that kind of thing. But farming is an eight day week. Our house had no electricity or gas; we did everything, heating or cooking, with wood and coal. The water came from a stream where the cows had first of all watered. Our toilet was fifty yards down the yard. It was a bit of a tough experience and I didn't care for the farm or for nature at all in those days and I hadn't even heard of "environment."

And so did you do much reading in this environment or was that to come later?

Strange enough that you should ask that, Harry. I read voraciously, it was my great source of contentment. I got hold of the Tarzan books, and the [Sir Henry] Rider Haggard books about Africa, and I was so enchanted by the news of all those lush environments, those jungles and the savannas and lions and elephants, and goodness knows what. And really that made a very, very big impression on me which was, I would say, one of the chief factors that steered me toward Africa when I finally left college at the age of 22.

You're a man of many careers. Your first one was as a colonial administrator in Kenya.

That's right, in the great days of empire. I went to Kenya in 1958, at 22. It was a marvellous job and really the work was done in quite a democratic fashion. I was posted to an area of African tribes, first of all some Kipsigaos and then the Masai tribe, which was fantastic. And really I could only do anything with the active collaboration of the tribal elders and chiefs. I would have a certain amount of money from central government and I would say to them, "Do you want a cattle dipping station, or a new school, or a community hall, or a road, or whatever?" And for every one dollar that came from central government, they had to make one dollar themselves. And we'd sit under a thorn tree and debate this for endless days, and drink milk and blood, and so on. It was such fine work. And it also had a lot to do with wildlife. I actually got paid to do work like that! At age 22, I had an area, oh the size of the Bay Area for sure or maybe larger, with 50,000 people.

And you really had to win their respect.

Oh heavens, yes. Quite soon after I was posted to the Masai area, just two or three days, the chiefs and a bunch of young warriors decided to take me on a walk through their area to get acquainted with what was what. They wanted to start off at 4:00 in the morning and I looked at a map to see where they planned to take me, and I figured they were going to try to take this young white man from outside and walk him off his feet, show him what Masai were like. It was about a 35-mile walk. But fortunately I had been a cross country runner of some capacity in England. So we set out and we walked and walked and walked. On the way we came across a sleeping rhino and we played a little game. Each of the group of twelve of us took it in turn to tiptoe up to the sleeping rhino with a little stone, and put it on the rhino's back. Well, of course, after a while this pile of stones got quite big and heavy and sooner or later the rhino woke up. Fortunately it was one of the warriors who was placing a stone when the rhino did wake up, but I was having a look at the trees 'round about and figuring out which I could climb. And then finally we got to the village at the far end. I was very tired. Fifteen hours of walking in the equatorial sun really takes it out of you. They gave me a drink that looked like strawberry milkshake in a gourd. I knocked it down, and it really was quite restoring, but in fact it was a mixture of milk and blood. And the Masai pointed out that the gourd from which I was drinking had been sanitized by another of the cow's products.

I see! So you were confronted with the environment that day.

I was in very close quarters with the environment, yes.

And when your tour of duty ended you stayed on and became a teacher and then a photographer?

Yes. Very shortly after I arrived in Kenya the Africans said they really wanted independence. I'm not sure the two events were connected, but that's the way it was. So, within two or three years, Kenya became independent and I lost that job, and naturally enough. That was the end of empire. But I liked Kenya so much that I wanted to stay on there. I looked around for a job. I had no career plans or ambitions. And I became a high school teacher for a number of years. And you see, while I had been working in Masai land I worked on setting up a number of national parks, because there's wildlife from wall to wall there. In one area you can see elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, buffaloes, antelopes, zebras, all before breakfast, with a backdrop of Kilimanjaro. So when I started teaching I spent almost all the vacations in the game parks, because I was really hooked on the wildlife. And that was the start of my environmental interest, though I wasn't aware at the time. And after a while these safaris got rather expensive so I tried to pay my way by selling a few photographs, found I could, and so threw over teaching and became a full time professional photographer, which was very great, marvelous.

Your skills as a photographer, what you saw in the pictures you took, really heightened your sensitivity to the environment. I have a quote here from your biography, "At Oxford I attended classes on freedom, but watching the giraffe going its untrammeled way, as if it were the most inevitable thing in the world, I learned about another sort of freedom."

Yes, and that's what really stirred me. That was what hooked me. It wasn't so much the wildlife, it wasn't so much the lions and the giraffes. It was the lions and the giraffes in an African environment, doing their own African thing. The lion doing what it wanted to, chasing the giraffe, and the giraffe running away, and doing their own African thing. That stirred me and I find it very, very hard to encapsulate that in words. Even as I speak to you I can feel myself coming alive from those memories.

It sounds like a combination of awe and respect.

Yes. And also feeling that I was a stranger in their midst and I had to respect that. But also that I was part of their ecosystem in that I'm also a vertebrate animal, maybe a bit of a wild animal. I also needed to breath oxygen. I also needed food, and so on. It made me feel at one with them, and more at one with myself than I'd ever felt in the big city of Oxford, let's say, or Nairobi.

Next page: Learning to "Think Sideways" at Berkeley

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California