Chuck Hulse: Yen for Learning, Tree Encounters and Mysticism

By: Kate Kruesi.

Chuck Hulse has what he calls an “yen for learning.” He grew up in an eastern Long Island beach town, his parents allowing him to roam within one square mile of their home from a young age. This square mile included ocean dunes, salt marshes, scrub pine barrens and a well-stocked home and town library of nature guides and natural history references. The local Wildlife Refuge featured multiple weekly summer programs and Chuck attended them all. He was a naturalist before he understood the term, discovering starfish, scallops, eels, birds, insects and the concept of natural communities on his daily expeditions.

Then came the life stage peppered with “what do you do when you grow up?” questions. Chuck followed interests in chemistry, biology and physics, ultimately narrowing it down to a PhD investigating metalloproteins to better manage excess nitrates from agriculture. But he started to question the relevance; was improving agricultural practices the smarter solution? While deeply immersed in this lab work he routinely escaped to the Shenandoah Mountains and found himself drifting towards the environmental sciences.

But deeply (meta)physical encounters with trees kept changing his trajectory. At age 27, after sledding at 35 mph into a tree, and nearly dying, he experienced an epiphany: seeing the world in unnaturally brilliant color and a sense of clairvoyance. Starting over, after reading religion and philosophy and finishing his PhD and two post docs, he switched to medicine where he accomplished much in his distinguished career in Family Medicine at UVM. Then a second tree encounter: two falling on his family in tents during a freak windstorm, pinning him to the ground protectively crouched over his young daughter.  Again lucky to be alive, this seemed to, sadly, reverse his brilliant sense of vision.

Retiring in 2011, he continues to teach a course he developed, formerly Ecosystem Change and Human Health, now directed toward Biodiversity and Human Health, but still finds himself asking, “what will I do when I grow up”? The natural world kept calling him: connections to the Field Naturalist Program at UVM, Cornell University Extension’s Master Naturalist program, helping create a South Hero Land Trust Nature Walk series, a Champlain Islands’ Nature blog and field guides; becoming a Plant Conservation Volunteer for New England Wildflower Society, a Burlington Master Naturalist, and now working with Alicia Daniel to develop a South Hero/Champlain Islands Master Naturalist program.

His kids are now in college; he is more relaxed post work-stress; inklings of clairvoyance are returning; and he is again reading religion and philosophy. Chuck believes that the concept of “pieces, patterns, processes” is a great learning/evaluation tool for observation and understanding. In this approach, you learn not only the names of things like trees, but also how they are distributed in the landscape and learn to ask why.  But is there yet another level? Is there a spiritual aspect we are missing: the importance of awe, appreciation of beauty and miracle of biodiversity, a First People mystical connection?  Chuck continues to track his interests circling back to the connection to nature that makes him feel at home in the world.

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