Sutherland (left) leads a hike on the White Rocks formation east of Boulder. (Photo by Phillip Yates)

Open Space ‘superhero’ infuses science with humor and passion

By Terri Cook

On a Spanish-language nature hike,  Dave Sutherland and Uni Hill elementary students explore why leaves change color.
On a Spanish-language nature hike, Dave Sutherland and Uni Hill elementary students explore why leaves change color.

Nature has always been an integral part of David Sutherland’s life. At the tender age of 4, he began collecting butterflies and rocks, and when his parents bought him a beautifully illustrated bird guidebook, he immediately began to crayon his own series.

Humor also plays a vital role in Sutherland’s life; he loves puns, silly limericks and Monty Python, and has participated in a number of theatrical productions.

“I have always had a goofy sense of humor,” he says. “When I was a teen, my brother and I created our own superhero comic series based on ridiculous heroes and absurdly stupid villains.” Little did Sutherland realize that one day he would successfully merge his dual passions into a real-life caped-crusader career as a science educator who makes people laugh.

Growing Up ‘Normal’

Sutherland, 52, grew up in central Illinois in a town called Normal. “It’s a town that really exists,” he says, “but it was no place for a person like me. It was dull, conventional and unimaginative.”

Still, Sutherland explored “what little bits of nature were left there,” and believes the scraps of native prairie he discovered “were essential to making me into a naturalist from an early age.” Family car-camping trips all over the U.S. and Canada took him to many other nature-oriented destinations.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, Sutherland repairs the long fishing net farmers used to harvest tilapia.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, Sutherland repairs the long fishing net farmers used to harvest tilapia.

Sutherland fled Normal when he was 18, heading west to California’s Pomona College. After graduating in 1984 with a degree in
biology, the self-proclaimed “science geek” volunteered for the Peace Corps as a freshwater-fisheries trainer in Honduras, where he met his future wife, Jennifer. Sutherland returned to the U.S. to further his education at the University of Idaho. In one project, he conducted a case study of Costa Rican families to determine whether environmental education aimed at schoolchildren was transferred to their parents. To find out, Sutherland introduced traceable environmental information into Costa Rican classrooms using a medium he could relate to—an educational and entertaining comic book that he wrote and illustrated under a Hispanic pseudonym. (The conclusion: Students’ parents didn’t pick up much.)

After finishing his master’s degree and working for several years at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos Islands, Sutherland and his family moved to Boulder, where he has worked as a city education and outreach coordinator since 1996.

The Ideal Job

Sutherland shows off a (stuffed) great horned owl at the Boulder Creek Fest.
Sutherland shows off a (stuffed) great horned owl at the Boulder Creek Fest.
The naturalist at 4.
The naturalist at 4.

Being a naturalist is Sutherland’s ideal job because he gets to work outdoors and share his passion for science with others. An admitted “ham,” Sutherland enjoys leading hikes, which gives him a “captive” audience. “Much of my delivery is to say outrageous things with a straight face, which lends itself perfectly to being a naturalist,” he says. “I can say all sorts of ridiculous things to people on my hikes and let the twinkle in my eye alert them to the fact that I’m kidding.”

Thanks to his theater experience, Sutherland incorporates funny voices, sound effects and accents as part of the 80 or so programs he delivers each year. These additions always make his audience laugh—and help them absorb the environmental information he wants to convey. “People find science more interesting when it is packaged as a story,” he says.

Sutherland’s talents have touched thousands of Boulder County residents’ lives, including many in the local Latin American community. “Dave has dedicated many years to reaching the Spanish-speaking community, sharing his love for the environment and stewardship values with enthusiasm and passion,” says fellow OSMP naturalist Juanita Echeverri.

Sutherland’s achievements were formally acknowledged in 2005, when the Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education honored him with its Enos Mills Lifetime Achievement Award. He was specifically cited for inspiring his coworkers and peers, and also for creating programs that “make people laugh and enjoy nature while presenting important environmental issues.”

A superhero, indeed!


 

Terri Cook  is a Boulder-based science writer whose career has focused on exploring and explaining the history of our amazing planet. She is the co-author of three books, including Geology Underfoot Along Colorado’s Front Range. Follow her adventures at www.down2earthscience.com.