A Conversation with Gene E. Likens: Part 1

The trailblazing ecologist and co-founder of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study sits down for a conversation about his life and career.

From humble beginnings growing up on a small farm in Indiana during the Great Depression, Gene E. Likens went on to build a storied career as one of the most pioneering ecologists of our time. Along with F. Herbert Bormann, Noye Johnson, and Robert Pierce, Dr. Likens co-founded the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study. He is now president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies—which he also founded—and holds faculty positions at the University of Connecticut, Yale, Cornell, Rutgers, and SUNY Albany.

Dr. Likens credits his success to “serendipity,” which he defines as “keeping your eyes, mind, and ears open, and when something interesting or important comes along you jump on it, grab it, and you run with it.”

The Hubbard Brook Research Foundation’s Clara Chaisson sat down with Dr. Likens in 2020 for a conversation about his life and career; how he transferred the skills he learned raising cattle and playing in the baseball rookie leagues to the scientific enterprise; and how the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study came to be. We released the interview in three parts during February 2021.

Listen to Dr. Likens in his own words by clicking here, or read a transcript of the interview below.

You have spent a significant portion of your career—nearly 60 years—studying the ecological processes at Hubbard Brook, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. But you grew up in a very different kind of landscape in the Midwest. Can we start there, from the beginning? What kind of child were you, and did you have an interest in the natural world from an early age?

I grew up on a small farm in northern Indiana. As a very young boy, I spent most of my time out of doors—in the summertime, almost always barefoot. I was a Depression baby, so we didn’t have much money, so I was barefoot because it was a necessity.

I spent a lot of my time wandering around in the woods around our home—there was a lot of farmland and mixed woodland—but also along lake shores. Fishing, and looking, and just wandering. I grew up in that environment, loving the out of doors—loving the things that I could see and touch and feel.

I remember also as a farm boy having the time to literally lay out in a field on my back and look up and watch the clouds and then think about where those clouds came from—I didn’t know, at that point—and where they were going, and what shapes they had, and just daydream. The daydreams, I think, were very important in that early part of my life in that they were a way of moving me from that very rural, isolated environment into wanting to see more of the world and the landscapes around me.

I grew up as a biologist from almost day one in terms of what I can remember

It sounds like not only did you enjoy being outside, but you had a lot of curiosity about the things you were seeing as well.

Absolutely. I wanted to know where things were, and what they were. At that point, I only knew roughly what the most obvious trees were, and I probably didn’t know any of the shrubs or grasses or any of that kind of thing. But I was very interested in the larger systems: the woods and the lakes.

That’s always kind of fascinated me, because as I grew older and then became a professional studying ecosystems, that’s really what had interested me from the beginning, and I never knew that. I didn’t know what an ecosystem was when I was a kid, never heard the word, the word wasn’t used then. So it just has been really fascinating to me that that kind of view of nature was important to me even when I was very young.

Did you seek out any sources to learn the answers to the questions you were having about the world around you? Did you read about ecology at all, or did that not come until later?

That wasn’t an option. It really wasn’t an option. Being relatively poor, my family and I lived in a log cabin. It had been a sheep shed, is what I’m told, and had been moved to a location close by my maternal grandparents’ home on their farm. I moved there with my mother and father when I was about two. We didn’t have any electricity, no running water...an outside outhouse. The heat was from a small coal-burning stove. We didn’t have any books in our home. We might have had a few magazines, but we didn’t have any books. There was no television, there was no internet, even the telephone was very rudimentary where we lived rurally.

And we didn’t have any money for anything of that sort. But we always had food, being on the farm; I don’t ever remember being hungry. And I never remember thinking about the fact that we were really poor. We were, but we just didn’t know it, I guess. We were happy. I had wonderful parents—very supportive, loving parents, which isn’t always the case. My father taught fifth and sixth grade for 48 years; my mother was a homemaker. They nurtured me through those early years.

It was only when I got all the way through high school and into college before that aspect of my life really developed.

What kind of farm did you grow up on, and what kind of responsibilities did you have?

It was a small mixed farm. We had beef cattle, and cattle for milking; we had chickens; we had hogs until one year they got cholera and my dad said he was never going to have any hogs again, and he didn’t. We raised oats, and wheat, and corn, and soybeans. We had a very large garden.

I was very active in that regard. I was a long-term member of the 4-H club. I started by saving my allowance money—I got 10 cents a week for doing chores. I bought my first Angus calf, to show in the fair, when I was 10. I showed it in the fair, and it won grand champion. But they were supposed to have all been steers—males—and mine was a female. That raised a lot of concern. My dad never liked any kind of confrontation, so he said, “Ok, we’ll sell the calf at the auction,” which was standard at those little fairs at that time. And we did. Probably one of the worst mistakes I ever made, because it was a really beautiful registered animal, but we sold it for eating, so that bloodline was lost.

I went on to raise beef cattle. Scotch shorthorn was the breed that I selected. I was able to raise enough of them on my father’s farm that I paid for every penny of my college—all four years—myself. I’m very proud of that fact. You couldn’t do that today with the prices of universities, but at that point I did. I had a registered herd of Scotch shorthorns, and I loved doing it. I liked showing them at the county fair, and I was also able to make enough money to pay for my college.

You got your bachelor’s degree in zoology from Manchester College, in North Manchester, Indiana. Had anyone in your family been to college before you? What factored into your decision to attend Manchester?

I was really the first one that ever graduated from college in my family. My father was a schoolteacher, but he went to something called normal school. It was a two-year program that allowed them to be teachers. He was a very excellent teacher, but he never got his full college degree. So I was the first in my family to do that.

I went to college at a small liberal arts school quite close to where I grew up, about seven miles away. I’d always been keenly interested in baseball; I wanted to be a professional baseball player. From as young as I can remember, that’s all I ever really wanted to do. We didn’t have money for baseballs or bats, so I would take small pebbles and sticks and try to hit the pebbles with the sticks. I thought, well, if I can hit a pebble with a stick, whenever I can get a baseball and a baseball bat, I could probably hit the baseball. So that’s what I did.

I played sports in high school, and as I was thinking about going to college I was offered an athletic scholarship at Michigan State University. I talked a friend of mine into driving with me. We drove to East Lansing, to Michigan State University, and were shown around by the coaches and given the royal treatment, all of that. I remember at the end of the grand tour, we went into their huge field house. On one end of the field house was this giant portrait of Robin Roberts, who had been the pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. He was a Hall of Famer and very famous. I just stood there with my mouth open in awe.

On the way home, I told my friend, “Wow. That was really amazing. They want to <i>pay </i>me to come and play sports at Michigan State?” But I said, “I can’t do it. It’s too big, it’s too complicated, I would get lost there.”

So I decided not to go. I turned it down. And instead I went to this small liberal arts school called Manchester College. I didn’t live at home, I lived at the college. It was probably, academically, one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, because it allowed me to pursue the real interest that I had, which is science, and I had wonderful teachers.

When you made that decision to go to Manchester College instead of accepting an athletic scholarship at Michigan State University, is that when you started to make the shift away from sports and more towards science?

No. I played baseball at Manchester. I was all-conference three years, and I’m proud of that as well. Practicing when I was little to hit little pebbles with sticks paid off, because I was a pretty good hitter!

I was offered the opportunity to play pro baseball in the rookie leagues that were in Kansas. So I took the train—by myself, this little country boy—all the way to McPherson, Kansas, and I played on the Ban Johnson baseball team there. I did very well, I made the all-star team. Then I went back the next year, and all of this while I was a junior and then a senior at Manchester College. These are called rookie leagues. You can keep your college eligibility because they don’t pay you directly, they give you jobs. My job was working on the town road crew.

I did that for two years, and I really, really enjoyed it, but decided again that it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was very glad I had done it, but I made the decision to stop and go onto graduate school and do something different with my life. I don’t know exactly why I made that decision, because there wasn’t anybody telling me I should. I just did. It just was what I wanted to do and being a professional baseball player seemed pretty risky even if you were very good.

There’s what I call the funnel—there’s about a gazillion people that really want to do it, and only a very few that are able to make the big leagues. Even if you make it through that funnel, you might get injured and not be able to play. So I decided to not go forward. I’m really glad I did what I did, because otherwise I would always have wondered, “Well, could I have done it?” I knew that I could, because I had done it and I did well.

Even though you ended up taking a very different path, do you think that there’s anything that you’ve retained from your days of being such a serious athlete that has helped you with your science career?

Absolutely. There are many things, I think. One is the interaction with people: teamwork. Whether it’s basketball, or baseball, or whatever sport, you have to have teamwork if you’re going to be successful. Our team was very good; we won the championship in the Ban Johnson League the second year I was there. As I got into science, and particularly working at the ecosystem level, it’s teamwork. I had to work with other people and find out how to work with other people successfully.

The other, I think, is basic competition. Yes, I’m competitive. But you have to channel that competition, that striving to be competitive, in a positive way. And I think the sports that I played helped me do that. I think there were many lessons that I might not even think about, but they were there for sure.

And what about the farm work that you did? What kind of skills from that do you think have translated to your science career?

Always being able to fix things. When I was a young professor, it wasn’t possible to go buy some gadget that you needed to do something. So I would have to build it. And as a young farm boy, and growing up on a farm, we always had to build anything that we needed. You couldn’t just go buy it—maybe because it cost too much, or maybe because it wasn’t available, or you had to repair it.

There are stories from the second World War that they always wanted farm boys on the front lines, because when the machinery broke down the farm boys could always wire it back together and make it work again. I think there’s a lot to that—that attitude that you couldn’t just leave things aside, you had to figure out ways to make them work.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Funding for this project was provided by a generous donation from Don and Gail Nelson.