In 2008, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey honored Rick Enser, a founding member and past president of the Survey, with its Distinguished Naturalist Award. The award was made at the Survey’s spring Gould Memorial Lecture, held at the University of Rhode Island on March 28, 2008. The award was presented by Keith Killingbeck, URI biology professor and Survey board member:
Naturalist supreme. Gifted author. Tireless volunteer. Creative innovator. Linnaean binomials these are not, yet they identify the essence of a biologist who has been at the epicenter of natural history in Rhode Island for almost 30 years. These couplets will immediately ring true to those lucky enough to have worked with Rick Enser over the years, yet in all likelihood he would be the first to disavow any connectedness to such high praise. Perhaps one more entry needs to be inserted into the Funk & Wagnall’s definition of Rick Enser: unassuming, self-effacing demeanor. That explains why he has in the past, and probably always will in the future, attempt to deflect the many accolades that have been directed his way. This time, the attempt failed.
With apologies to Stephen Hawking, what is called for here is “A Brief History of Rick.” After earning a Master of Science degree from URI in 1975, Rick taught natural history and ecology at both the URI W. Alton Jones Environmental Education Center and Johnson & Wales University. Then, in a move that was to shape the majority of his professional career, Rick accepted a position as Botanist (1979), then Coordinator and Botanist (1981) of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s (RIDEM) Natural Heritage Program. Rick defined, developed, and distinguished that program until he retired in 2007.
Given that the four descriptors at the top of this tribute in many ways categorize the wealth of contributions Rick has made to natural history in New England, let us take the liberty of using them as stones in the cairn that is this Distinguished Naturalist.
Stone one: naturalist supreme. As Lisa Gould so aptly wrote in a recent letter of nomination, Rick “has the heart of a naturalist and the brains of a scientist, and has contributed greatly to our understanding of Rhode Island’s biota and ecological communities, and to people’s love of them.” Although Rick was officially a RIDEM Botanist, his skills transcended this all-too-brief moniker. From moles to moths, frogs to forests, and thrips to thrushes, he knows them all. Not only does he know them all, but just like debt collectors and political campaigners, he knows where they all live! This latter knowledge has been particularly valuable to our understanding and protection of species considered to be rare or endangered in Rhode Island. Perhaps the best way to sum up Rick’s skills as a naturalist is this: If you were charged with identifying all the species encountered in one day in the field in each of five diverse ecosystems in Rhode Island with the help of one other person, who would it be? There is no doubt in my mind that Rick Enser would be the chosen biological buddy for many of us.
Stone two: gifted author. Simply put, Rick Enser writes often, well, and with style. Rick has published more than 50 articles for publications as diverse as the Rhode Island Naturalist, Maritimes, the Encyclopedia of Environmental Biology, Rhodora, WildfloraRI, and New England Wild Flower. Evidence of the breadth of his interests and knowledge are highlighted by the titles of three books for which he is author or co-author: The Vertebrates of Rhode Island, Vascular Flora of Rhode Island, and The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Rhode Island. In WildfloraRI, Rick published papers in two series titled “Invasive Alert” and “Phytogeography of Rare Plants in RI,” while in the Rhode Island Naturalist he published multiple offerings under the heading, “Notes from Field and Study.” Rick’s artistic side was not only expressed in writing, but also in expertly done line drawings that graced the pages of some of his publications.
Stone three: tireless volunteer. To say that Rick gives freely of his time and talents is a scurrilous understatement. The countless walks, talks, workshops, and training sessions he has offered never put a dime in his own pocket, but these gestures of goodwill certainly added to the collective biological awareness of Rhode Islanders eager to know more about the biota and ecosystems of their state. Rick was also a founding member and president of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, founding member and president of RINHS, and chair of the Rhode Island Task Force of the New England Plant Conservation Program. Although home since his recent retirement has become the snow-laden, but soon-to-be verdant hills of Vermont, Rick immediately jumped into the volunteer pool of our neighbor to the north as a Vermont Plant Conservation Volunteer. Old habits die hard.
Stone four: creative innovator. This stone, perhaps, is best known to those who have sat on Boards with Rick. Or is it, sat on boards with Rick? Either way, Rick’s creativity has shown through in his approach to problem solving. Two examples: problem one — how can the Rhode Island Natural Heritage database be maintained and improved after its primary creator and administrator at RIDEM retires? The fear, which indeed has come to pass, was that the RIDEM position would not be replaced. Enter Rick with the solution; transfer the database and a mandate to orchestrate its improvement to the RINHS. Problem two — how can RINHS increase its public visibility and more fully engage both scientists and amateur naturalists alike? Rick’s answer: develop, organize, and implement a series of species identification extravaganzas in which a different parcel of Rhode Island would be scoured each year to find and identify as many species as possible in a 24-hour period. The resultant Rhode Island Bioblitz has been a highlight on the social and science calendars of many Rhode Islanders for close to a decade now.
With the last stone placed, the cairn that shows the way, and the reasons for this year’s award selection, are nearly complete. Nearly, but not quite: In 2001, Rick penned the following for which he gave credit to David Wilcove (The Condor’s Shadow) for inspiration: “We form our understanding of the natural world as youngsters, and what we personally witness serves as our benchmark for observing and assessing the changes, good and bad, in wildlife populations, ecosystems, and all things natural” [emphasis added]. What each of us has personally witnessed in Rhode Island’s realm of natural history has been magnified and enhanced 100-fold by the good work and generous spirit of the 2008 Rhode Island Natural History Survey Distinguished Naturalist: Rick Enser.