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Life & Work with Joan Strassmann

Today we’d like to introduce you to Joan Strassmann. 

Hi Joan, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I am from East Lansing, where I grew up with forests right behind our house and paths to fields and more forests and abandoned gravel pits, great for a child to explore nature. My parents took us foraging for strawberries and blackberries in season, and we went up north when we could. Every few years my father took research leave from his job as economics professor at Michigan State University and took us abroad, so I got to live in Mexico City, London, and Geneva before I went to the University of Michigan. A summer at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston changed my life because it made me realize observing nature outside could be a real job. After that summer, I spent every moment I could at Bug Camp as we call it, and planned for graduate school. 

My plans worked out, and I have been a professor of biology for 42 years, 30 at Rice University in Houston and 12 at Washington University in St. Louis. I have studied social behavior of wasps, stingless bees, and, more recently, social amoebas and bacteria. I have worked in Venezuela, Brazil, and Italy. But there was always something missing. I also wanted to be a writer, something I began as an undergraduate at Michigan, even winning one of their Hopwood Awards. 

Nature writing would combine my interests, but finding time for it was hard. I planned to write a book entitled Slow Birding about 20 years ago, celebrating the kind of careful observation of birds I was teaching my students and riffing off the Slow Food movement from Italy. Somehow the release from professional travel with the pandemic gave me the time and the confidence to turn my plan into words. I’m delighted that I finally fulfilled my dream of writing this book and hope it makes a different in others’ lives. 

I am also glad that I have finally found a way to return to Michigan, at least part-time. My Michigan home is in Leland, in the heart of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore country. Here I have been fortunate to team up with a bird banding station run by Bill Scharf and Alice Van Zoeren. We band birds that migrate through our area so they can be identified. Alice is part of the team that protects the endangered Piping Plovers on our beaches. 

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back, would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
I suppose there are challenges and obstacles in all worthwhile endeavors. For me, the most serious ones were internal. Could I write something people would want to read? Could I finish a book? Could I be sure my facts were correct? Would my narrative flow? Once I overcame these personal demons and committed to this project it moved ahead quite smoothly. But that was after more than a decade. 

Thanks – so, what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
My book is called Slow Birding. It is about birding close to home instead of traveling all over the world to find rare birds. Why not stay right close to home and watch your neighborhood birds. In the book, I guide people, beginning and expert bird watchers alike, to slow down, get out a chair and watch what the birds do. I also tell the stories of what the experts, the ornithologists who are the ultimate Slow Birders, have figured out about 16 common birds. All of these birds can be found in Michigan. Don’t you want to know more about Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, American Robins, and Cedar Waxwings? How about the birds we helped invade the US, House Sparrows, and European Starlings, aren’t you curious about them? I am and so I worked on them, reading and talking with experts. The stories I tell are for everyone, and I hope you like them. 

Where do you see things going in the next 5-10 years?
Everyone likes books. There is nothing like a real book in print. It is delightful how well the publishing industry is doing, along with the independent bookstores where we can browse and discover. 

Contact Info:

Image Credits

Joan Strassmann
David Queller
Philip Queller
Logan Clark

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