David Dunn, tree whisperer? Great artist as scientist story, though!

September 29th, 2011 · No Comments

by Jim Cummings

David Dunn is a longtime friend and colleague to EarthEar here in Santa Fe, and in fact his underwater insect recordings were my first taste of the sounds of the natural world having the potential to be deeply strange and amazing, rather than “just” beautiful. So when he discovered that the bark beetles chewing their way through the piñon pines in the hills of New Mexico were making all sorts of bizarre sounds, and suggested publishing a CD to benefit the Acoustic Ecology Institute, I was all for it.

Since then, the bark beetle inquiry has taken on a life of its own, becoming a perfect expression of David’s longtime conviction that artists can contribute in significant ways to science.  The acoustic behavior and communication of bark beetles was previously unstudied by entomologists, and now he’s being called to consult with scientists studying not only the piñon pine beetle, but also the mountain pine beetles ravaging larger higher-elevation and higher-latitude pines, as well as insect pests of the non-beetle persuasion.

This past week, a long article appeared in several Canadian newspapers, providing the most detailed look yet at David’s beetle odyssey.  It’s an excerpt from a new book by Andrew Nikiforuk, Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests.  The article dubs David “the tree whisperer,” though so far he hasn’t quite figured out how to calm the outbreaks; in fact, the research so far seems to be leading more toward driving beetles crazy than calming them.  But after forgiving the headline writer, we can sink into the article itself, which is the most detailed, entertaining version yet of David’s beetle adventures.

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