Part ecological reserve, part urban hiking trail and part research facility, Tumamoc Hill is visited by over 1,500 people each day. When Benjamin Wilder became interim director of the hill’s Desert Laboratory in October 2016, he made it his mission to shake things up in two key ways: Engaging the community and incorporating artists into the research team.

Located west of downtown Tucson, Tumamoc Hill has a history that dates back 4,000 years. It’s also called the “birthplace of modern ecology,” since Frederick V. Coville and Daniel T. MacDougal established the lab in 1903 through a grant from the Carnegie Institution.

Today, the University of Arizona owns the hill, but the research funding provided is “about the same as it was in 1906, not adjusted for inflation,” said Wilder, who recently became the lab director. 

Not including the salaries of himself and two other part-time employees, there is only a little more than $10,000 provided annually to their department.

“There’s a small operational budget that pretty much just covers our basic costs to make sure the walls don’t cave in and the plumbing doesn’t implode,” he said.

Wilder is the only full-time employee working at the lab. While he is a seasoned research scientist, he can’t do it all himself. He has a network of colleagues that conduct their own research on Tumamoc Hill. 

These are volunteers, active and retired scientists, alumni who previously worked in the lab and came back, and emeritus professors from the university. The funding for those research projects comes from grants that Wilder and the others pursue aggressively. 

“I’m not alone,” he said. “There’s incredible support, and care for and connection to Tumamoc Hill both from the community side, but also there’s an amazing group of alumni … they’re very enthused and excited that there is this renewed energy happening.”

By renewed energy, Wilder is talking about the heightened popularity of the hill as a hiking trail. He changed the public access hours from being closed from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. to being open from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. A drastic change, but Wilder had a plan in mind. 

“I desperately want to help support a sense of stewardship amongst the community, that each one of us is responsible for taking care of Tumamoc,” he said.

 

It’s a privilege to walk up Tumamoc Hill, according to Wilder. So by creating easier access for the public, he hopes to see a reciprocated interest in furthering the research being done there, whether that’s through funding, citizen science projects, or just respecting the preserved ecosystem.

“We’re much happier with the changed hours,” said Cynthia Anson, the part-time program coordinator of the Desert Laboratory. “The hours as they stood before weren’t really enforceable and a lot of people want to walk during the daytime and so now we feel like it’s used continually from the very early morning hours until the evening hours.” 

By opening up the hill for community use, the team has been able to instill a sense of civic duty with the most frequent walkers. Anson said she is in the process of organizing a handful of events that will invite people up to learn about desert ecology and capture the history of this long-inhabited place.

Another key change Wilder has pursued is the integration of art with the research that is conducted on the hill. By definition a good scientist makes for a poor communicator, Wilder said. Art can work as a vehicle for communicating the science that is being done.

“We can feel a lot better about communicating the work we do, so I feel it’s just a natural partnership,” he said. “Even beyond that, it’s that artistic approach influences the science and the science influences the artistic.”

Paul Mirocha, the Desert Laboratory’s artist-in-residence, is a firm believer in the benefits of that partnership, but a lot more work needs to be done before any real barriers are broken.

“It’s one thing to talk about it, but another thing to have [art and science] do anything meaningful together,” Mirocha said. “It’s taken me decades and years to realize why they seem to be a perfect match, but in practice there’s a lot of difficulties to get anything where each side learns something from each other and is respectful of each side’s point of view.”

Mirocha began his residency in 2011, when he was invited by Gary Nabhan, an internationally-recognized ecologist and nature writer who conducts research projects on Tumamoc Hill. 

He spends his days walking the hill, photographing, drawing, painting and writing about the nature that surrounds him. He has also done collaborations with some of the Desert Laboratory’s affiliated scientists.

“It’s a really unique place, it’s sort of like having an office in a skyscraper,” he said. “You’re up there, 800 feet, and you see the mountains all around … It’s a really peaceful place to think and work.”

Mirocha makes a living from doing science illustrations, which the science community consumes eagerly, but he says his interest is more in fine art.

“I call it place-based art,” he said. “And there’s been a number of other artists who have come up here to learn about ecology because it feeds into the art they were doing.”

Over the course of his residency, Mirocha has read a large portion of the research produced by the lab’s scientists, which spans over the last century. Learning about science gives him new perspectives and ideas to incorporate into his work, and he believes the same could happen for scientists if more of them would try out those creative mediums.

“For the most part, scientists don’t see any overlap [between science and art],” he said. “But what’s interesting to me is the tiniest bit of overlap. I’m trying to find where that is.”

Da Vinci, Galileo, Boveri, Ramón y Cajal, Einstein and many more were famous scientists who doubled as musicians or artists. Mirocha said scientists used to be trained professionally as artists, but modern times have done away with that.

In 2008, a research paper from Michigan State University said Nobel Prize-winning scientists were 2.85 times more likely to have an artistic hobby than the average scientist. The abstract argues, “Scientists and their biographers often commented on the utility of their avocations as stimuli for their science. The utility of arts and crafts training for scientists may have important public policy and educational implications in light of the marginalization of these subjects in most curricula.”

“Scientists has evolved more towards real data, [they have] become almost proud of the lack of human influence that it’s even done by machines,” Mirocha said.

At the Desert Laboratory, Mirocha said that he and Wilder are excited to try out new collaborations between scientists and artists, but the progress is slow because there’s a lot of new ground to cover. His vision is an environment where artists and scientists work together on projects and one shows the other something they weren’t seeing before.

Kathleen B. Kunz is a Tucson Local Media freelance reporter.

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