The Consummate Naturalist
Author and photographer John Tveten is remembered by friends and peers.
By Gary Clark
I never knew a naturalist quite like John Tveten, who passed away on Oct. 12, 2009, just before his 75th birthday, after a brief bout with cancer. John was brilliant but humble, knowledgeable but always studious, dedicated to careful observations but always ready to share them. Walking with him outdoors was like walking with a talking volume of field guidebooks for plants and critters. Shannon Davies, John’s editor at Texas A&M University Press, knows such a walk.
In telling the story of walking with John in a vacant lot at Rockport, Davies recalls: “When I walked with John, I learned there was no such thing as a ‘vacant’ lot. In that tromped-down, overmowed, sorry patch of earth, John saw tiny butterflies on tiny wildflowers growing in the grass with the ants, flies, bees, bugs and minuscule snails. Later, I learned that not only did John know everything, he could write books about everything.”
Yes, John knew everything. He was a consummate naturalist in the tradition of such legendary 20th-century Texas naturalists as Henry Attwater (1854–1931), Roy Bedichek (1873–1959) and Harry Oberholser (1870–1963). As did his naturalist predecessors, John wrote detailed accounts of nature, including books and articles on birds, butterflies, wildflowers and coastal ecology. However, unlike most naturalists before him, John was an accomplished nature photographer whose pictures illustrated not only his own publications but also scores of books and magazine articles. His photographs, for instance, provided compelling visual documentation in David Schmidly’s landmark book, The Mammals of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2004). His photographs also mesmerized all of us who attended his deeply informative lectures at nature festivals, nature clubs, schools and museums.
Often in the background but hardly out of the way was John’s wife, Gloria, who was also an accomplished naturalist. She assisted John in all of his writings long before her name appeared with his name in publications. John never failed to acknowledge her and her help. She always sat at the back of the room to operate the slide projector during John’s stirring lectures, and her accompaniment on the projector freed John to soar as a lecturer with his enticing rhetoric.
One of his lectures at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the late 1970s profoundly influenced me.
“You don’t have to go to faraway places to see the wonders of nature,” John intoned as his eyes glistened with excitement. “The wonders of nature are right here in Houston.” Gloria clicked the slide projector. On the screen, in glorious splendor, was a huge flock of snow geese arrayed across a blue sky, set off against the backdrop of an oil refinery. John’s resonant voice boomed. “I’ve seen beautiful sunsets all over the world, but can you beat this sunset?” Gloria clicked the slide projector again. And on the screen, the richly hued orange disk of the sun, with gulls silhouetted against it, touched the sea at twilight off Galveston Island.
John dazzled the rest of the audience and me that evening with nearly a hundred slides of colorful birds, resplendent butterflies and gorgeous wildflowers all photographed in the greater Houston area. His face was beaming when he said, “The Houston area is a wonderful place to enjoy the wonders of nature.”
In that lecture, John reminded me, a native-born Houstonian, that some of the world’s richest natural treasures lay right at home. From that point on, I began working hard with local nature clubs and conservation organizations to help build interest in the wildlife of Houston and in wildlife throughout Texas. John gave me the inspiration and fueled my enthusiasm to do that work. Fortunately, his and Gloria’s book Nature at Your Doorstep: A Nature Trails Book (Texas A&M University Press, 2008) documented the joy of nature where we live, and we can hope it will fire the enthusiasm even in people yet unborn to conserve natural treasures in their hometowns.
John’s original hometown was Morris, Minn., where he was born on Oct. 16, 1934. He began life as a naturalist at an early age by building a large collection of butterflies in and around his home state. While still a boy, he corresponded with leading lepidopterists around the world and became so well known that people from Europe and Japan called upon him after World War II to help resupply butterfly specimens to war-ravaged natural history museums.
In college, John studied chemistry and earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1960. Gloria, whom he had married in 1958, earned a master’s degree in mathematics that year from the same university. After graduation, the couple traveled to Baytown, where John took a job as a research chemist at ExxonMobil (then known as Humble Oil and Refining Co.). Gloria joined the faculty of Lee College in Baytown as a professor of mathematics.
John had been pursuing a hobby as a naturalist and nature photographer during his tenure at the refinery. One day, while sitting in an office meeting, he found himself more interested in a spider creeping along the conference table than he was in the momentous chemical discussions at hand, so he resigned from the company in 1973 to become a full-time nature photographer and writer. He also became a nature tour leader for such organizations as the Smithsonian Institution’s travel program, the National Audubon Society, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Spring Branch Nature Center (now called the Robert A. Vines Environmental Science Center) in Houston.
His photographs began appearing in hundreds of magazines, books, calendars and filmstrips. His articles began showing up in state and national magazines, including Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine and Smithsonian magazine. As the years progressed, John produced numerous books, among them The Birds of Texas (Shearer Publishing, 1993) and, along with Gloria, Wildflowers of Houston and Southeast Texas (University of Texas Press, 1997) and Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas (University of Texas Press, 1996).
When John died, he was working on a definitive book about moths, a project for Texas A&M University Press. In typical fashion, John’s research for the book included raising caterpillars to learn firsthand the life cycle and identification of moths.
Many people first became familiar with John through his newspaper column, “Nature Trails,” that began in the Houston Chronicle in 1975 and ran until March 1999. The column was first written under John’s byline, but later under a joint byline with Gloria. I devoured that column with the eagerness of a hummingbird devouring nectar. And like nectar to a hummingbird, John’s columns nourished me as a naturalist.
Legions of nature buffs, including birders, butterfly watchers and wildflower enthusiasts, can trace their inspiration and early teachings to John. He encouraged in people not only a knowledge of nature but also an appreciation.
For example, when my wife, Kathy Adams Clark, began her career as a professional nature photographer, she turned to John to guide her with his legendary photographic skill. John taught her to know a critter or a flower and to know it well before taking a picture. Kathy now drums that lesson into other photographers.
Tributes to John have been pouring in since his death. Kathy, who was at his bedside when he passed, said: “All of us who called him a friend will remember his strong love of this planet and his optimistic spirit. He was a naturalist first and a photographer second. He always said the critter was more interesting than the camera.”
John’s former neighbor and Texas naturalist David Dauphin said: “John’s books, field guides, newspaper articles, field trips and programs filled us with knowledge, the desire to see more and the need to savor nature slowly. John was a good friend, a kind man, a gentle man, a loving husband and father. I don’t ever remember a frown on his face.” Tom Collins, once the co-compiler for the Freeport Christmas Bird Count, said: “I remember that John didn’t just give the typical field guide discussion of birds. His words brought them to life and made you want to know more about them.”
Greg Lasley, author of Greg Lasley’s Texas Wildlife Portraits (Texas A&M University Press, 2008), said: “I’m proud to have called John a good friend for more than 30 years. He was one of the finest persons it has been my privilege to know, and I will miss him greatly. The writings about birds, butterflies, moths and other natural history subjects that John and Gloria produced over the years have enriched us all and leave a legacy for us to cherish.”
Kenn Kaufman, internationally known author of bird and butterfly guides, said: “I’ve never met a finer naturalist than John. His knowledge of everything in the outdoors, and his enthusiasm for it, were just extraordinary, but despite that he was amazingly humble.”
Texas naturalist Tony Gallucci composed a poem, which in part reads:
John spent his lifetime
First and foremost as a teacher
Sure he took photographs
But they were framed as visual lessons
Sure he raised caterpillars
But not for himself
Sure he wrote books
But to spread what he had learned himself
As for me, I thought of John as a scientist in mind and a poet in heart. He scrutinized nature with the inquisitive but exacting mind of a scientist. For example, in Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas, John wrote with the precision of a scientist about the complex family of longwing butterflies: “The concepts of family, genus, and species, after all, are artificial human constructions devised for our convenience. They help us indicate relationships among populations. The various butterfly populations, however, do not adhere to the strict order we impose.”
But he could also engage us with the heart of a poet as when he described his and Gloria’s lifetime of observing birds in Our Life With Birds: A Nature Trails Book (Texas A&M University Press, 2004): “We enjoy seeing uncommon birds, but we also enjoy seeing common birds doing uncommon things. And, most of all, we simply enjoy birds being birds uncommonly well.”
I believe that John will be ranked among the greatest naturalists. His knowledge was encyclopedic, and his generosity and vitality in sharing that knowledge were without equal. Over the years, whenever I called on him for help or advice, he was always generous, always helpful and always excited to talk about natural wonders. John will live in my memory as a great man for his knowledge and an even greater man for his heart.