A North Carolinian Naturalist: Nicolette Cagle

Decades ago the North Carolina Piedmont was an unfamiliar landscape. Slowly, that changed. People came, logged, developed and built. New species were introduced. New inhabitants found homes. New trees took root–sprouting, fighting for small patches of sun, growing until they too stood tall. The trees of the North Carolina forest dominate, yet below the soil, their roots stretch towards complexity. Inextricably woven together, an underground network of mycorrhizal fungi grow and expand, connecting tree to tree. Messages shoot from one root to the next as the interconnectedness of the forest floor never silences. Such networks connect the web of roots spreading outwards—a natural communication system that tells the story of the forest.

A walk in the woods yields an encounter with the characters of nature. When people have looked, they have found a history inside tree rings and scars. They have developed a language to describe the complexities of tree species and have begun to understand the Piedmont of today. This is the tale of a North Carolinian Walden. It has no single author. It has been explored and studied by many ecologists.

If, however, it could ever be said to belong to any one person, that person might well be Nicolette Cagle, Nicholas School lecturer, environmental writer and naturalist. She sees the world through bud scars and leaf shapes. Woody plant species and scientific tree names are her second tongue. She is the tree lady of Durham, North Carolina.

Getting her start in ecology early on, Cagle was raised in a northern Illinois neighborhood surrounded by forest preserves. Across the street from her house laid the Grove, a nature center and refuge of preserved prairie, savanna and wetland habitats. Its stone columns, ivy-covered walls, and rounded front door lay next to a towering oak. The Grove is home to historic exhibits on famed herpetologist Robert Kennicott and botanist Donald Culross Peattie. “I’ve never had a living person be my role model; instead it was the Kennicotts. There are all these stories about Kennicott bringing a rattlesnake onto the table of his family home. And his sister, Alice, was the best shot in the family, and they would go dressed in their petticoats and collect insects. Those are still the images that always run through my mind.”

Clad in khakis and geared up in muck boots, 7-year-old Cagle had already decided she wanted to be a naturalist. As a wide-eyed budding scientist, Cagle viewed Kennicott and Peattie as the average child viewed Superman and Wonder Woman. She preferred to spend every waking minute outside. “By age 13, I was volunteering in animal care at the Grove weekly. By 16, I was working at the Grove three days a week during the school year and daily during the summer.” Cagle wandered around the prairies of her Illinois home like the queen of the jungle. With work ranging from animal care in the nature center to giving tours of the wetland habitats to providing environmental education for school groups, her interest never wavered; she eventually earned a PhD in ecology and began work on the interface of water quality and policy.

Seven-year-old Cagle always knew what she wanted to be, but that certainty wavered during her PhD program. “When I was applying to doctorate programs, I thought that I should study something that other people valued, and so I focused in on soils as this amazing black box that we needed to open up and explore. I applied to a lot of places, and one of those places was Duke. I came the summer before and did some fieldwork and lab work and I realized very quickly that I didn’t have the passion that I felt I should.” So in the logical solution that anyone takes when encountering indecision and uncertainty, Cagle took a road trip. On her journey, Cagle abandoned her initial focus of soils and while driving through what most would call fly-over states, she realized it was these meadow landscapes that she was passionate about. In the end, it was her dad who truly inspired her research. Visions of catching garter snakes in empty Chicago lots together led her to devoting five years of her life to the study of Illinois ophidians. “I discovered what I really loved was the snake species and the prairies. So I came back and had to find new advisors. The lesson there was starting to become aware of what other people found interesting and other peoples’ opinions. Up until that point, either because of my youth or because of my temperament, I never really cared what anyone thought. It had led me a little bit astray.”

Cagle is also a herpetologist. She bushwhacks through the brush of the Piedmont, scanning for any signs of snakes, or nowadays, lack of snakes. Cagle’s research focuses on a drastic drop in snake presence, marked by a 70 percent decline in the snake population in the U.S. since the 1850s. Collecting 120 snakes representing seven species, Cagle’s research has helped spur initiatives for captive breeding programs for the Massasauga (Sistrurus Catenatus), a rapidly declining snake found in northern Illinois. As the species was only found in scattered patches of habitat, a breeding program now led by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is working to re-establish wild populations.

Photo by Cailtyn Cooper

On a Monday afternoon while teaching a dendrology course on the study of trees, Cagle wore a bright orange naturalist vest. She had on hiking boots caked with mud and khaki pants with pockets lining the sides. Her dog-eared notebook held the history of the land we were standing on and the species on our list to learn. To our right lay the stone ruins of an old homestead, with the surrounding land spattered with headstones from the late 1800s. The trees showed signs of past settlements, with barbed-wire scars strangling the bark. Non-native grasses filled the walking paths. Species names were being rattled off, as students gathered around the tangled web of vines in the wooded Duke Forest. When Cagle pointed to the rarer whorl formation of the Myricaceae species, her enthusiasm for woody plants was surpassed only by the presence of a rough green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) that had found its perch among the common pawpaw.

Snakes may have been Cagle’s second calling, but her career has not always been an easy Thoreauvian walk in the woods. “I have struggled and I don’t know if it is because I have an unusual personality, if it is because I am a woman, or if it is because I look young for my age, but sometimes I felt that I wasn’t getting the respect that my studies had suggested to me that I deserved. I have definitely noticed, in herpetology, in particular, there is a boys club. The boys club is very rough with the animals; they want the snakes to perform and do things. ‘Oh watch how they bite!’ That always rubbed me the wrong way. And so trying to still partake in the science of herpetology, still develop relationships with colleagues while not partaking in that roughness, was incredibly difficult.”

Cagle’s challenges as a woman in science, however, have served as a source of inspiration for her latest endeavor—writing a book. In it, she challenges notions of charismatic megafauna—the tendency to protect only the fuzzy and furry, not the scaly nor slimy species. The book is mostly vignettes about experiences with snakes, but they are essays so each vignette has a different point—“whether it be about women in science or our connection with the land or what we do with things that we are turned off by, such as snakes.” To Cagle, communication is a way that humans connect to everything, to other humans, to the non-human world and to our environment. And particularly now, she shared, “as a mature ecologist later in life, seeing all the threats there are to our ecological systems—this makes that communication work even more important.” Her writings are but one side project to her academic work and teachings.

To examine the effects of the ubiquitous glass buildings that populate the campus of Duke University, Cagle conducted a study on bird mortality caused by collisions. She and an army of undergraduate and graduate students set out to assist with data collection, i.e. scanning campus for bird carcasses. Through geo-referenced research and past studies using a citizen science database called iNaturalist, window collision has proven to be the second largest cause of bird mortality behind feral cat predation. Glass reflections proved to be the end of many bird species.

Cagle’s eclectic attraction to various fauna and flora notwithstanding, trees remain her first love. “As a child, I remember pointing out the remains of trees chewed by beavers. In high school, when I took photography, I focused my attention on the long winter shadows of the oaks and hickories in the woods near my house.” Eventually, woody plants became more than an art subject. Cagle soon learned to identify over 100 woody plant species, rattling off the genus and families of every leaf in sight. To see the forest through the eyes of Cagle is to see friends. “To me they are almost like people, all these organisms and relationships that are familiar to me, even if I have never been in those woods before. After I see the individual entities, I start to see those relationships, the form of the land, and which trees might prefer to be in one area, or what wildflowers are growing in the lowlands. I see the soil and the rocks and the trees and the plants. Then my other senses kick in and I hear the animals. I get clued in to this whole other life that is hidden and trying not to be there.” Speaking and teaching about the forest through her own eyes came later. “I’m really introverted, so writing came more naturally.”

During the course of her career, Cagle has worked with the Nicholas School of the Environment Communications Studio and the Thompson Writing Program to provide resources for environmental students and professionals to translate the complexities of dendrology, ecology, herpetology, ornithology and all other -ologies to the laity. Connection to the land functions in the same way that a connection to a story or engaging research does. To Cagle, she finds that “our best scientists and naturalists have been fantastic communicators. Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson—all of them have the ability to observe. They are all detailed naturalists and they are all beautiful writers.” Through teaching, she highlights such a connection through field work and hands-on learning. Cagle seeks to harness the power of environmental writing to educate, inform, and communicate natural history and forest ecosystems.

She describes the importance of knowing nature on a personal level. It is in familiarity with the species that grow out of the sidewalk cracks and cover our back lawns with leaves that makes us natives. By knowing our environment, we are no longer ecological tourists. “When you know the buds of the American Beech or the needles of the Shortleaf Pine, you can call the Piedmont home.” A tree identification course on dendrology is one of Cagle’s favorite field-based courses. During dendrology, students unloaded from the two vans that picked us up like clockwork from the Environmental Hall off of Research Drive. Students grabbed notebooks, pencils, ziplock baggies and cameras. Dendrology class started each week with a quiz of past tree species learned. Leaf margins and arrangements, bud shape and scars, and bark texture and flakiness were all characteristics of trees you fail to notice until you are trying to distinguish a Quercus Stellata from a Quercus Falcata. 

“Okay everyone, put on your orange jackets, we don’t want any hunters thinking we are deer. Although if you mistake 25 forestry students for deer, you probably shouldn’t be hunting anyway.”

Jotting down details of the leaf shape, only to realize it was mid-November and there would be no leaves soon, Cagle’s students learn the field methods of dendrology by channeling their inner naturalist. Scribble down scientific name and common name. Collect leaf sample. Record defining characteristics. Bushwhack to next species.

“This one may look like Quercus Falcata, but it is a different oak species. You’ll note the cross shape, entire edges and alternate leaf arrangement. These are all characteristics of the Post Oak (Quercus Stellata).”

Through the process of naming, students are able to distinguish one species from another and gain a sense of familiarity with the wooded areas around them. But her students aren’t always 22-year-old leaf gurus; they are the same kids who stood outside the Grove in gumboots and khakis. Through serving as the director for the Environmental Science Summer Program at Duke, Cagle works to engage high school students in STEM education by tromping around the Duke Forest, discovering crayfish, fish, salamanders, caddisflies, stoneflies, mayflies and all other creek creatures. This kind of excursion, she says, is “a way of creating connections. And on the other hand it is a way of giving people additional capacity for a life of meaning and value and success, because connecting to the natural world is so rich–for our souls, for our intellect, for our understanding of systems, and for our understanding of our place in the world. There are so many places that your mind and heart and body can go that it just seems like I would be doing the world a disservice if I didn’t teach people about it.” A love of the outdoors starts at an early age and “when people are young they are still open. And it can change their lives. So it is for the students, but it is also for the earth.”

Cagle walks into graduate class ecstatic, carrying what appears to be a bud collection in her arms. Tree limbs and twigs erupt out of the weathered cardboard boxes that land on the table before us. Cagle is a professor whose passion can’t be concealed during lectures. Her musings and curiosities develop into long talks about how different types of wood affect the flavoring of wine or the strange artifact findings she has stumbled upon in her field work. But her effervescent lecturing style didn’t always come naturally; developing a teaching persona is something that doesn’t come automatically. “I have a natural style, but all of my models for teachers, every class I ever had in ecology was taught by a man. My mentor, Dean (Urban), is amazing and I thought to myself, ‘this is the best teacher I’ve ever had, I want to teach like him.’ And one day, when I had finished my PhD program, I had the opportunity to teach his class and I thought I would teach it just like him. It didn’t go well. It didn’t feel that great for me and I don’t think it felt great for the students either. It was bad and the reason was that I am not him. I’m not a man. Later on, I had a teaching fellowship that let me become comfortable with my own teaching persona, but it took a while and some introspection.” Such reflection comes from not only beyond the classroom, but also outside of the country.

From Glenview Illinois to Durham, North Carolina, Cagle’s intrigue in ecology surpasses the boundaries of the Piedmont. On a study abroad trip to Spain, 15-year-old Cagle had her first international travel experience and remembers “seeing storks for the first time on the roofs of the buildings and realizing there are ecologies out there that I had never encountered.” From here, the travel bug bit. “I became obsessed with going to Tanzania, going to the Serengeti. I love prairies, I love grasslands. It is an ecosystem that has always fascinated me. I grew up in Illinois and so I had it on my list of something I wanted to see. It took me until I was twenty-six to get there, but I did it.” Becoming aware of the different ecologies far away, Cagle now travels frequently. “Some cultures are way better travelers than our culture and it shows. The depth of our thinking or the options we come up with as people for dealing with our environmental problems are different. We can learn from other cultures.” Other countries integrate environmental respect into their policies. Indigenous customs and relationships with the land persist. Some countries have even become carbon sinks, absorbing more carbon than they emit.

Amid her hopefulness spurred by other nations as role models, Cagle discussed more and more about the “greats” of the environmental movement. “Paul Shepard called ecology the subversive science and it really resonated with me,” she shared enthusiastically. Ecology challenges the public perception of its rights to nature. It puts us in our place, where pesticide spraying, water pollution, over population, and usage are questioned. As Shepard puts it, “Although ecology may be treated as a science, its greater and overriding wisdom is universal. The ideological status of ecology is that of a resistance movement. If naturalists seem always to be against something it is because they feel a responsibility to share their understanding, and their opposition constitutes a defense of the natural system to which man is committed.”

If we were all to see the forest through the eyes of a naturalist, through the eyes of Cagle, the relationships of the woods would come alive. The hidden life and the network beneath the soil would become more evident. We could share the utmost importance of the snakes that most people avoid. We could become familiar with the tree that we walk past every day and are unable to name. We would become environmental writers and communicators of the ecological crisis. Seeing the relationships of the forest, the bud scars and the leaf shapes, we would become closer to a naturalist. We would come closer to Nicolette Cagle, tree lady of North Carolina.

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