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Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Tea with Tamara: Mark Rauzon, biogeographer and Laney Instructor

In+this+bimonthly+column%2C+I+chat+with+folks+from+the+Peralta+community+and+ask+ten+questions+aiming+to+make+everyone+more+relatable+to+each+other.+%28Graphic+by+Randi+Cross%2FThe+Citizen%29
In this bimonthly column, I chat with folks from the Peralta community and ask ten questions aiming to make everyone more relatable to each other. (Graphic by Randi Cross/The Citizen)

Biogeographer Mark Rauzon, armed with a cup of tea, sits down with me to chat from his home in Oakland, CA. After spending most of his career as a freelance biogeographer – a biologist who studies the geographical distribution of life forms in different biomes – an opportunity with PCCD beckoned, helping to further shape and give meaning to his life’s work. At 50 years old, Rauzon became an Instructor in the Geography Department at Laney College and has been teaching here for 16 years. 

Let’s get into it!

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Tamara Copes [T]: What does being a Biologist mean to you?

Mark Rauzon [M]: Great question…I never even thought of that. But ever since I was a little boy I was very much interested in other creatures. I remember one of my earliest memories was going down to kindergarten and walking on the city streets of Philadelphia, and finding a dinosaur egg on the curb. It turns out that the dinosaur egg was just a very old dog turd that had turned white, but I thought I had discovered a nest of dinosaurs. I was so interested in nature, so it was baked into me, I guess, is what I’m saying. You know, it’s like part of my identity, part of my nature.

T: Tell me about a most interesting historical tragedy or event that has stuck with you.

M: There’s so many that were just so profound. But I remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy and I was a little fifth grader and that shattered this vision that we had of ourselves as America. […]

It was the beginning of conspiracy theories. It was the beginning of the end, that the Government is actually not on our side, that there’s a shadow government. It was the beginning of the loss of innocence that was kind of further shattered by 9/11.

But everyone in the world remembered that moment. My father was in London, and he was identifiable as an American, I guess, just cause the way he dressed and some Londoner came up to him and said, your president has just been killed.

And I remember when I was maybe eight years old, I went to a bakery with my mother or my babysitter and everyone ran to the window. It’s like, what was that?! It’s like, well there goes this car with the guy who was running for president called John F. Kennedy.

So I saw his car, and it stuck with my mind, cause everyone was like… he was going to the local mall to have a pep rally. So I feel a little kinship to the whole moment.

T: In 2016 you published a book, called Isles of Amnesia that focused on eradicating “invasive plants and animals introduced by humans” in the American Insular Pacific, a region that “spans from Hawai’i to Samoa to Guam and their neighbors.” In layman’s terms, why is eradicating invasive plants and animals important?

M: Biology is an expression of life that has adapted and evolved to very specific places. […]

The creatures that have adapted to islands, have adapted to living without predators for millions of years. They have no competition. They don’t have to worry about anything eating them or stepping on thorns, cause they didn’t have to. 

So when we humans came to these islands, the first thing we brought were our rats, our cats, our dogs, our goats, our chickens, sheep, and then the plants that we love to have for food. 

But along with them come the weeds, the thorns.

And now those creatures get on islands where they have no competition, and they take over. The animals that evolve there, they’ve never had to deal with threats, so they are easily exterminated. 

And so most of the extinctions that have occurred, have occurred with island animals. Most of the plants that have gone extinct have gone extinct on islands. […]

T: A time machine. Would you rather live in the 1800s or the 3000s? Why?

M: We’re not gonna get to 3000, so I won’t go there. But you know this is a funny thing […] my friend was a spiritual guide, and she would have helped people remember what they were like in their past life. Well, it turns out that everyone who remembered [their past lives], they were all princes, or they were a privileged person. No one remembers, you know, working on the Pyramids under the lash of the pharaohs. You know, no one remembers being on a ship with a cruel captain. So you know I wouldn’t want to go back to the eighties [1880s] and be on that ship with Captain Ahab or Captain Bligh, who would be, you know, punishing me. So it depends…if I could go back with privilege and be a prince of a principality, or wear a top hat and be in London, you know. That would… I’d be okay with that.

T: What is one food you tried that you think everyone should try at least once?

M: I’ll say one thing that I think everyone should do, and my wife and I were just talking about that. We went to Japan […] and had a traditional server, and we had like 36 different courses. Yeah, we had all these little, tiny seafood creatures that were slimy and gelatinous, but it was served in such a traditional Japanese manner that it was really quite not only a cultural experience, but a culinary cuisine experience that I wish everyone could taste. 

T: A favorite childhood memory?

M: I have a picture of me and my mom at the Atlantic City Boardwalk when I was like two, and she’s dressed out in her full mink coat. My mother was a real stylish woman. My mother was a hairdresser. She was a ‘glamour girl’ in the 40s. She was very much a very stylish person, especially with personal hygiene and dressing and such.

She took me to the Atlantic City Boardwalk and there’s pigeons around our feet, and it was like me being the first bird watcher with my mother dressed in a fur coat, and I’m looking at the pigeons, and I’m just like a little boy in a snowsuit.

I don’t remember that, but that’s what the photo evokes.

Slideshow: Pictures of Rauzon, from child to senior. Photos courtest of Mark Rauzon

T: Do you believe in the supernatural or magic?

M: You know, as a scientist I actually do. I believe that there are dimensions that we cannot plumb and plumb with our limited mind, imaginations.

And I’ll tell you why. Our beautiful cat, who we had for 16 years, was a great spirit. Just a wonderful creature. Just a very powerful, spiritual animal. We had her euthanized on October the 7th. 

But the morning when we knew [it] was going to be her last day, our neighbor has a giant redwood tree, and at dawn, a big green parrot came and sat at the tree and squawked and squawked and squawked before sunrise, like what the heck?! Never seen a parrot here. And then she passed that day, and at sunset a great horned owl sat in the same branch and quietly hooted.

And it seemed like the animals were coming to be welcoming this Great Spirit into the next. 

[…] There are things that we cannot fathom. And so there is a spiritual component that we have to acknowledge.

T: What music are you listening to right now? What’s on your repeat playlist?

M: I’m going back to… well, I love reggae. I thought that was going to have more durability. I thought Reggae would be around for a long time. It kind of got replaced with rap.

You know, I’m still a hippie, so I’m still in the San Francisco psychedelic era. Like on the 15th, I’m going down to the Fillmore to catch the last remainder of the Grateful Dead guitarists. The folk music was so calming, and it was also very educational, and it was very evocative with moods, romanticism and idealism. And I kind of miss that.

T: What’s one reggae artist that you might recommend to the readers?

M: Third World, the immortal Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer.

T: Would you rather be trapped in a romantic comedy with your enemies or trapped in a horror movie with your friends?

M: Well, I’d rather be trapped in a romantic comedy with friends, but that wasn’t an option. Well if you’re in a romantic comedy with enemies, there’s a possibility they could become friends, I suppose. You know how the happy ending is, you end up marrying your enemy. And then when they remake that movie it seems a horror show and you end up killing them. They were your friend, now you finally have a chance to get rid of them. Let’s go to both movies.

T: What is one of the greatest compliments you’ve ever received?

M: Well, I saw that you had asked Lily that, so that’s the only question I prepared. I just saw on Rate My Professor. It goes “This is the best teacher I ever had. You will love this teacher. 100% recommended.” And I just saw that it was just posted the other day. So I was like, well, that is such a great honor and compliment. […]

I never really thought of myself as a teacher until recently. I thought I was kind of more of a failed biologist because I didn’t manage to get the biology thing [as a living]. […] So I think that Laney was really one of the best things that ever happened to me that I did not set out to have happen. It was a humanizing experience. Before, I was in my own little world.

It enabled me to do my passion, which is reaching people. You know, I’ve had thousands and thousands of students, including you. Look at you then, where you are now. So helping people along with their thinking and you know, maximizing one’s potential is something you have to do in a community. It gave me the opportunity. Ultimately the compliment of being the best teacher they ever had really trumps anything else, I think.

You can set yourself goals, but opportunities are going to come unbidden, and you’ve just got to be prepared to accept them.

About the Contributor
Tamara Copes, Columnist
Tamara Copes is a California native with a nomadic spirit and curious mind. Deep family roots in Oakland brought her back here to live as an adult and since then she has involved herself in numerous and varied community projects; determined to leave her mark. When not working, you may find her dancing to House, Salsa and Hip Hop music or rolling around town running errands and rhythm skating. Tamara most enjoys creative forms of storytelling. She is on the hunt to find her place in the literary world and has returned to a Journalism major after 20 years of pursuing other interests.
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