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From Issue #25 September 12, 2013

Down from the Mountaintop

Derham Giuliani charmed nature of its secrets on high.

By Tim Heffernan Twitter icon 

Years ago I met a man who told me a secret that has stayed evergreen in my mind. Derham Giuliani was a naturalist, a self-taught — and the foremost — expert on the insects and amphibians of the dry lands in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada.

Across four decades, in a labor of patient, painstaking love, he uncovered the hidden lives of the tiny, fragile, and remarkable creatures that live in this vast, harsh, and unremarked-upon corner of the country. Over and over, he made discoveries about them that no one else knew. The secret he told me was one of these. What he described is a wonder of the natural world, and as far as I know it remains obscured and safe to this day.

Derham lived in what the IRS would classify as poverty, but by all accounts wanted for little. He lived alone, and was happy that way. He observed, he learned, and he taught. It was a life, and a way of life, to be honored. When I met him I was in my second year of college, at a strange school in a brown valley in the high California desert near the Nevada border. He could have taught me whatever I wanted to know about that desert, but I was young and hasty, and thought the secret was the only valuable thing.

It was not. His life and studies were the gifts, and I received them, without being fully aware of their value “when I was eighteen and nineteen, when it counted,” as Edward Hoagland put it.

Sui generis

Derham Giuliani grew up in the Bay Area, fell head over heels for Mother Nature, and resolved never to leave her. As a young man he earned a small living gathering specimens for University of California biologists. He worked in the San Francisco fog and on the misty Farallon Islands.

Then, at some point, he traveled east, away from the ocean and across the mountains to the desert that lies between the Golden State and the forest-green Rockies, where his heart settled. He moved to the little town of Big Pine, named for an incongruous sequoia planted in 1913 to celebrate the opening of a new road and itself named for Teddy Roosevelt.

He befriended Enid Larsen, a local teacher and naturalist, who invited him to park his truck on her property and live in a spare cabin she owned. Then he began to explore.

Up the well-watered canyons of the Sierra Nevada. Deep into the chalk-dry Nevada desert. Across sand dunes and through pine forests. Day and night, summer and winter, for days and weeks at a time, most especially in his beloved White-Inyo Range. These are the lush Sierras’ arid twin — just a few miles from their snowy peaks, but drier, higher, emptier, and to those who fall under their spell, more beautiful.

Derham would drive his old truck as close as he could to where he wanted to be — which was rarely very close, since he generally wanted to be where people and roads didn’t go — and then hike in. No fancy hiking boots: just low-top sneakers; never jeans, just thrift-store slacks. “He looked sort of like an erudite bum,” James Wilson, a friend, says with a laugh. “He also had perhaps the most beautiful stride I’ve ever seen. The guy could walk.”

Atop any notable mountain in the American West you will find a container, left there by an early summiter, with a notebook and a pencil inside: a peak register. When you reach the top, you sign your name. Many registers date back decades and form a sort of community-in-time. Derham’s name shows up in them again and again, often in hard-to-reach places where even old registers still have a lot of blank pages.1

Denise Waterbury befriended Derham at the White Mountain Research Station, a University of California field institute and the heart of the local scientific community. She recalls climbing Troy Peak, a desolate slab in the empty heart of Nevada, notable only for the bristlecone pines — the world’s longest-lived tree — that speckle its bare slopes. (There are much easier places to see them, including, easiest of all, in the White Mountains themselves, at the end of a paved Forest Service road.)

At the end of the 7,000-foot climb to Troy Peak, Waterbury says, “I thought, ‘OK, I don’t have to come up here again.’ I remember actually saying that to my friends — and then sitting down and opening the register and seeing Derham’s name in there six times!”

His name lives on elsewhere, too: At least five species bear it: four insects and a spider, all tiny creatures living in difficult places. There is Microedus giulianii (a beetle), Tescalsia giulianiata (an alpine moth), and Xenochelifer derhami (the spider). There’s also Giuliani’s dune scarab beetle (Pseudocotalpa giulianii), and the tongue-pleasing Giuliani’s dubiraphian riffle beetle (Dubiraphia giulianii).

Taxonomy rules forbid naming a species for oneself. But a discoverer can name one in honor of another person. And so those tiny giulianiis and derhamis are a measure of the great respect and affection felt for Derham by the many scientists whose work he supported with his collecting. (These scientists in turn supported him with the small research grants he lived on. Friends and neighbors helped, too: a new pair of binoculars, a repair job; practical needs.)

The names also speak to his wondrous powers of observation, and to the hours he devoted to learning all that was already known of the insects and amphibians in the places he explored. Only that combination of a nature-lover’s keen eyes and an expert’s mastery of detail allowed him to realize, on a windswept flat two and a half miles above sea level in the Whites, that the tiny moth in his net was new to science. He was as unique as his discovery and, like it, born to reach rare heights.

The examined life

“I’ve never met another naturalist so observant, so knowledgeable, and so willing to share his knowledge with you,” says Waterbury. And even those who didn’t know him have remarked on Derham’s generosity with his prodigious learning. Chris Norment, a young biologist at SUNY-Brockport, never met Derham but offers gratitude for his work in an online diary:

I park my car and walk up another arid alluvial fan in the Inyo Mountains, climb for sixteen hundred feet through creosote bush scrub, over desert pavement, and up a boulder-strewn wash. Ninety minutes of dry and sweaty walking brings me into a narrow limestone slot; the sound of falling water drifts down canyon, past a cluster of seep willow.

This looks like slender salamander habitat, and I only have to flip two rocks before I find one — a large, chocolate-brown individual, with a beautiful constellation of silver-gray iridophores on its dorsal surface.…

This is a good spot, the best I’ve found so far — and the only reason I know of it is because a biologist showed me an unpublished report by Derham Giuliani (1931–2010), an “old-time” naturalist who spent many years exploring the Inyo, White, and Sierra Nevada mountains.

Friends also note another side of Derham’s nature. John Smiley, the former director of White Mountain Research Station, knew him for almost 30 years. “Everybody recognized this quality. I don’t know what you’d call it, but I think James Wilson said it best: He was just a saintly person.”

Wilson himself explains: “I can tell you that he’s one of the most beloved humans, by the few people who knew him, that I’ve ever known. Because of the purity of his love of the natural world and the simplicity of his life, he’s a paradigm many would aspire to but few of us in this ragingly materialistic culture manage to achieve. He lived in a shack, and he had a truck because he had to [in order] to do his field research. And he loved books.” Wilson adds, “He’s perhaps the simplest-living person I’ve ever known.”

You can see flashes of Derham’s spirit, as a scientist seeking knowledge and a man seeking meaning, in a videotaped interview. With his bright, kindly eyes, white beard, and silver hair, he certainly looks like a schoolbook saint. But it is his carriage and demeanor that mark him as different. He is quiet and still before the camera, where others would giggle and fidget.

And he does something that any writer will recognize as rare: he answers the question he is asked, and when he is done answering, he stops talking. Most of us are hopelessly confessional under even friendly interrogation. We go on and on; we spill our guts as though reticence is a crime. Derham doesn’t. His peacefulness is utterly disarming and, well, yes — kind of holy. Although my response is colored by knowing, as I do now, that he likely had already been diagnosed with terminal cancer at the time the video was made.

Derham worked on his archives and continued to take joy in nature right up to his death in September 2010. He seems to have prepared long in advance, and with good humor, for the moment. Commenting in November 2007 on a fatuous article about “green burials,” he suggested instead that readers “mimic nature; millions of years of life have prepared the perfect recycling method. With a bit of planning, the vultures, ravens, coyotes, worms, insects, etcetera can be coaxed into doing the job correctly in quite short order.”

Not a rabble rouser

I met this man on two occasions, 15 and 16 summers ago. In no meaningful sense did I know him. Why Derham struck the young me so powerfully is no great mystery, nor is it, if I am honest, entirely complimentary to my character. James Wilson’s “erudite bum” was his friend; to me he was partway a curiosity, an exotic creature that I might poke at for a response. And I was still just young enough to feel free to do so, with the sort of rude, prying questions that are a specialty of precocious children. Wouldn’t a pair of real hiking boots be better than those old sneakers? Is it true he often slept in his truck?

But I was also sincerely impressed by Derham, and envious of him. I was falling in love with the wild parts of that country. I took long hikes into it, without maps, to see what I could find. Spend time alone in the desert mountains and you inevitably find things, if you pay attention: arrowheads, fossils, petroglyphs.

I once found a Joshua tree where it shouldn’t have been — too high up, and miles from its nearest kin. Another time I found a pair of structures, like drystone weirs, that had been built across the mouths of two small draws. They were not marked on the archaeological surveys I later checked, and I could not guess their purpose, but I could tell that they were ancient: sediment had piled up behind them until it reached their tops.

Every discovery was a hot thrill. The solitude was as continuously refreshing as running water. To spend my life walking alone, seeing things few eyes had seen — to spend my life as Derham spent his — seemed to promise a lifetime of that refreshment and those thrills. I wanted to learn from him how to do it. Writing has not proved a perfect substitute, but it’s kept me mostly satisfied.

Why Derham strikes me so powerfully today is not as straightforward. Beyond his kindness, his generosity, and his self-possession, I mean — beyond that life, and way of life, to be honored. But viewed from the different path I chose for my life’s work, a lesson from his labors stands out. For all his love of solitude, he worked according to the scientist’s code that the value of any discovery lies in sharing it with others. “It’s always been traditional among scientists all over the world to be in communication with one another,” he says in that video. “To me, this is part of civilization at its best.”

Not just the value but the very meaning of discovery has to include that idea of sharing. My reporting isn’t really reporting unless it is read. Science doesn’t count until the methods and results can be repeated.

Humans have walked the canyon in which those salamanders dwell for thousands of years; Derham was not the first to see the little creatures there. But he was the first to record their presence. Because of that, others can now find them and learn from them, try to keep them safe, miss them if they ever disappear, and try to bring them back if they do.

For others to know that “this is as it is” or, in sadder circumstances, “this is as it was” — that is why scientists record and writers report. It’s also why a gentle man could spend 40 years wandering the desert and walk out feeling rightly that he had done great things.

The secret Derham told me is a rare exception to his openness with his discoveries. It seems he told me and, at most, a few others — and none I spoke to nor could find. It is unconfirmed, and I never traveled to vet its truth. But Derham having said it, I believe without qualms that it is true.

Derham found a gathering of butterflies, in a place where they weren’t known to exist in numbers and where they shouldn’t have been able to survive for long. Were he to have told the world — or were I to — a wonder of nature might have been illuminated. It also might have been overrun by the curious and destroyed.

If it survives, I think it’s safest remaining secret. And Derham seemed to think so, too. I take his silence as a final lesson. We spill our guts as if reticence is a crime. But there are times when the crime is to talk.

Illustration by Olivia Warnecke.2


  1. Christa Mrgan wrote about her experience working at Yosemite and reaching mountaintops in “Summit Cum Laude” in Issue #16 (May 9, 2013). 

  2. Olivia Warnecke is a graphic designer and painter. Her main love is painting unusual birds, floppy dogs, curious foxes, and other fauna. She is also an avid collector of Japanese pencils, first-edition Edward Gorey and Paul Bowles tomes, dusty old graphic design annuals, and Myrna Loy paraphernalia. She lives in San Francisco and on Twitter at @itsolivia

Tim Heffernan attended Deep Springs College from 1996 through 1998. After initially studying biology, he took a degree in economics. Today he writes about heavy industry and the natural world for The Atlantic, Popular Mechanics, Pacific Standard, and others. He lives in New York.

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