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Joe Willis – Black Oak Naturalist

Getting down on his hands and knees comes naturally to Joe Willis.

Since childhood, Willis has found wondrous worlds under rocks and beneath leaves.  He communicates his passion for nature through teaching, writing and leading others into the woods near his home in Plumas County.

“In some respects,” he said, “I started even before I went to school.  My parents had the foresight to let my siblings and me wander around our backyard and tip over a rock or a log to see what was there.”

Through his blog, www.blackoaknaturalist.blogspot.com, Willis describes the bugs, unusual plants and animals that inhabit the Shasta Cascade region.  Instead of traveling with his wife and son to Reno to see The Hobbit, Willis spent the day outside exploring the Middle Kingdom to be found in his own backyard.  He wrote that within the tiny trumpet shaped lichen emerging from mosses along the forest floor, he could imagine “elves, dragons and maybe a friendly, talking centipede.”

“I’m one of the kids who never got hooked on (reading fiction), because my own little world always seemed better than I could find in any storybooks,” he said.  His grade school teachers thought his attraction to nature would distract him from serious study, though it did the opposite.  Willis went on to attain Zoology and Biology degrees from Tulane University and the University of Florida.

Like other children, Willis was fascinated with Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, but for the mathematics and sciences threaded throughout the book, not just the fairytale.  Today, Plumas County is Willis’ Wonderland.  Its east-west orientation, varied elevations and transition between the northern Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade ranges provide never ending fascination to him.

“We’re living on the edge, between an old rural lifestyle and modernism.  Most kids learn to put on tire chains at an early age.  They pick up firewood cutting skills, but also the internet.  It’s a place on a societal, biological and geographical edge.”

To those traveling through Plumas County, he recommends, “Get out of the car as often as possible.  Allow enough time for that.  If you come up to see fall colors, get over the notion of seeing it as some sort of postcard.  Exercise the senses.  The bright colored leaves all have a taste, a smell.  While walking around, you hear sticks crack.”  Willis describes getting out into the woods as heightening one’s awareness of living, of feeling the pulse of life within you.

Willis suggests beginning at the Plumas County Museum in Quincy and buying a copy of John Muir Laws’ Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, which he described as filled with watercolors more helpful in identifying species than photos seen in other guides.  Or, call Willis at 530-283-1746 for a guided walk through the woods.  The cost is nominal, but the experience is life changing.  Because, when Joe Willis is not teaching nature writing at Feather River College, working on a book about the outdoors, or posting another observation to his blog, he’s on his hands and knees finding unimaginably fascinating wonders.

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