In Memoriam: Richard Felger
By: Sula Vanderplank | Director of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Conservation Program, Pronatura Noroeste
Dr. Richard Stephen Felger was born in 1934 and grew up in Los Angeles where he loved to visit the tide pools… he once told me that he started out as a marine biologist but became interested in plants when he was eight. Desert plants were old friends to Richard, and those of us who knew him were always touched to witness his reunion with a plant he hadn’t seen for a while. Although Richard is famous for his 100+ published works on plants of arid lands, he is equally renowned as an ethnobiologist, and devout student of the Comcaac (Seri People), who named him “Ctam Hehe Iyat Ctaamtim” meaning “the guy who cuts tops off plants”.
Richard received his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona in 1966, and his thesis focused on the vegetation of the Sonora coast and islands of the Gulf of California, but his attentions were already turned toward the knowledge of the Comcaac. He went on to write his seminal work with Mary Beck Moser in 1985. He was also passionately devoted to the conservation of sea turtles, pioneering their conservation efforts in the 1980s, and he always had a special place in his heart for marine life.
Richard’s distinguished career took him from Los Angeles to Boulder and beyond, but he was largely based in Tucson throughout his career, concentrating on the Sonoran Desert and the Gulf of California region – the good stuff as he would say – working out of the herbarium at the University of Arizona, and establishing the Drylands Institute. He spent his final years with his beloved wife Silke, at their home in Silver City.
Richard was an avid plant collector, and has left a wealth of data for us all in herbaria around the world, especially at the University of Arizona herbarium. A quick search of the SEINet data portal reveals almost 18,000 of his collections that are already available in digital form. His productivity was always enviable, and his final days were no exception, with multiple books in press at the time of his passing (Oct 31, 2020).
He slept little and liked coffee, he knew every plant you saw, but he also knew how to giggle with glee, how to inspire and motivate, how to support and comfort his friends, and how to tell a great story. He leaves us with not only the exceptional documentation of his lifetime of research, but the possibility of significant contributions to mankind through his work on future food crops for drylands and saline soils, such as mesquite, big sacaton, and nipa (Distichlis palmeri a salt tolerant grass endemic to the upper Gulf of California). In 2015, he received a from the Next Generation of Sonoran Desert Researchers, acknowledging his role as a leading authority on the Sonoran Desert, and thanking him for all he has done to further research and conservation in the region.
His legacy, of course, lives on in his extraordinary actions and publications, but perhaps more importantly, in the many lives that he touched, and in the souls and minds of so many great desert naturalists who had the honor of collaborating with him (see ‘friends’ page). He put his own important work aside to make time to encourage me all through graduate school; he even wrote an unsolicited letter of support when I applied for my first job. He lives on in our hearts, and in his poignant poetry.
As much as in his amazing tales that were part of an ongoing collection he was working on which he called ’10,000 years of field notes’.
Anyone that knew Richard will have their own special memories of his unique personality and his strong sense of purpose. To those of you that didn’t have the pleasure of meeting him, his words live on in the thousands of published pages of knowledge he left us with, yet I can tell you that he was far more than the amazing botanist you must have heard about. He was a great man and a great friend.