Messing about in boats

I realise that this is the second eulogy that I have posted on the blog in the last couple of months (which is all the more striking due to the low frequency of posts), but there was one passing recently that I simply have to mark. I was devastated to hear that Professor Brian Moss died recently. You will find a number of obituaries written by people who are better qualified to comment on his scientific work, and who knew him better as a person. However, while I was not as close to him as some, I did have the honour and privilege of learning from him as an undergraduate, a postgraduate, a postdoc, and as junior faculty, and so I feel the need to share some of the affection and deep respect that I felt for Brian. There have been a number of leading academics who have influenced my work and career (Dave and Tom in particular) and without them I would not have the collaborations, publications, or career that I enjoy today. However, I think it’s fair to say that Brian had the single largest personal influence over me from anyone within the academy, and shaped the academic that I have become. Other people watch David Attenborough on television, but I had the privilege of being taught by and working alongside my very own Attenborough who inspired me to think in different ways across disciplines. I quote Aldo Leopold in my lectures because he introduced me to “Thinking Like a Mountain”…

The slide in my lecture on “Ecology in the Anthropocene” when I read to my students the same passage from Leopold’s Sand County Almanac that Brian read to my class when I was a student.

I teach freshwater ecology to my students ever mindful of days spent with him in a rowing boat on Slapton Ley, watching him – at the age of 60 – towing boatfuls of burly undergraduate boys against the wind out of the reeds where birds were nesting…

Sea mist over Slapton Ley, with the rowboats in the foreground (photo by Mark Robinson, CC BY-NC 2.0)

…and I try to convey enthusiasm unbound by stuffy academic mores inspired by his fine, baritone, a capella rendition of “Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud” in which he used to lead 100 undergraduates each year…

People who have heard me sing may be glad that I have not (yet!) brought that particular element into my teaching.

In a deeply moving final note in the International Society of Limnology, written after his diagnosis and published very shortly after his passing, Brian was in typically pensive and poetic form:

It has helped, I think, to be an ecologist. We understand element cycles; we realise that immortal populations would be a genetic disaster; we see, in our work, population cycles in which ‘d’ is just as important as ‘b’, not least because an ever-increasing human population simply means greater problems for the Planet. I have a strong feeling of being part of all that in a very natural way. ‘Doubtless’, as Max Ehrman wrote in his 1927 poem, Desiderata, ‘the Universe is unfolding as it should’.

1491572_10152115503030086_2038482963_oI am pleased to say that I met Brian one last time at Donana Field Station in southern Spain in 2013 (see right – I’m not sure why I’m doing the hand jive…) after I started teaching at the University of Leeds, and I was able to tell him that I was inspired by his lectures to include that quote from Leopold. Brian was a polymath (lead double bassist in the Southport Orchestra as well as his academic exploits), a fascinating intellectual, and a gentleman, and the world is now less interesting with him gone. However, his substantial legacy lives on in the people he influenced, and I am delighted to be a part of that.


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