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Off the shelf: A forensic scientist recalls his love of pre-Second World War kids’ mystery and adventure novels

Plus, what Dr. Gerard Courtin, a professor emeritus at Laurentian University, is reading now and a few recommendations for you

Hugh Kruzel

Special for Northern Life/

Good instructors make your university learning easy, but outstanding professors do more than teach a topic; they influence your life.  

They affect the choices you make about that present moment, and all that follows is but a cascade from that one eureka or a series of insights. Many a first-year student took a one-term science course to satisfy a requirement, but were soon surprisingly enrolled in plant and animal programs because of the inspired enthusiasm of one man.

Dr. Gerard Courtin BSc (UNB), MSc, PhD (Illinois) Professor Emeritus, Department of Forensic Science at Laurentian University is more than just a biology lecturer. Through him, many grew to understand the parallels between the challenges plants and animals face in arctic and alpine ecosystems, and the damaged landscape of Sudbury; and also to see the possibilities. 

Courtin, recognized for excellence in teaching received a citation for Outstanding Contribution to University Teaching in 2000 for his work with both undergraduate and graduate programs. Naturally, he nudged students to do much reading and he himself read widely to gain awareness of the interrelationships of disciplines and current research in his field. 
HK: Dr. Courtin can you recall the first book that was read to you?

GC: No.  I was born in France five years before the outbreak of the Second World War. This was already a time of turmoil and uncertainty. I recall several things from my first five years but nothing about reading. Undoubtedly, I was read to in French.
HK: Then what of the first book you read on your own?

GC: My family fled France for England at the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Thrown in with my English cousins apparently I was speaking fluent English after six weeks.  It is certainly the right age to pick up languages.

We were an “out of doors” family, so I was attracted to books that dealt with the out of doors, wilderness and places different to my own. I was enslaved to my atlas, and by the time I was nine or ten, I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the world, its capital cities, its centres of economic wealth, and where various resources came from. It was no surprise that I loved geography as a subject.

But what were the first books that I read?  It was actually a series called the Bunkle Books. ( Bunkle was precocious and solved mysteries.  Bunkle was my age so I related to him, of course.  During the war years my part of England was heavily bombed and aircraft, both friend and foe, were an almost constant presence. No surprise then that I had an interest in aircraft. So, I read the Biggles Books.

These books started before the war and Biggles, as a pilot, found himself on missions all over the world. My atlas was always at hand. Biggles continued to fly during the war, but the author, wisely as I think about it now, soft-pedalled the horrors of war. He did exciting things, but death and destruction were kept to a minimum.

The books that enthralled me right into my early teenage years were those by Arthur Ransome. They centred around the children of three families who most often spent their vacations together. The central theme to almost all the books was sailing and so my love of sailing and sailing history was whetted. I would pick up any of those books today and read it from cover to cover with a different perspective than when I first read it, but with equal enjoyment. Although the illustrations are of the 1930s and the dress likewise, nevertheless, the storyline is timeless. My grandchildren are being read those stories now by their father, who had them read by me until he was old enough to read them on his own.

HK: What do you love about reading?

GC: I love the feel of holding a book. I have no interest in digital books and I abhor having to read theses on the computer. I do it because it is more “convenient” and it saves on paper, but I probably miss things that I would catch in hard copy. To be fair, I prefer writing on the screen than handwriting because my handwriting is almost illegible, even to me.

I have a weakness in that I like to own books. If I read a book from the public library and it resonates with me, the chances are that I shall then go out and buy it. The books I love I have read at least twice, and some many times.

HK: What is your favourite genre?

GC: I enjoy both fact and fiction. A good novel holds me because I have an interest in the techniques that the author uses to keep me engaged. I probably read twice as many factual books as I do fiction. Probably the reason is that I learn more from them and, as a scientist, I am naturally curious.

Now that you ask the question, I am forced to think back to books that I read in my teenage years and recognize that one in particular probably set me on my general career path. It was I Planted Trees by Richard St. Barbe Baker. The author was an officer in the Forest Service, and oversaw the planting of trees throughout the Commonwealth as it existed prior to the Second World War.

The concept of subjugation of one nation by another is an anathema today and the British did despicable things in India, but equally, they did some things remarkably well. Because they planted trees and in order for them to prosper, they did not permit grazing by sheep and goats.  The result is that sub-alpine and alpine zones were protected from damage. When the British Raj ended in 1947, and India was returned to its people, the protection of forests was no longer enforced. I have been to Kashmir and the impact of grazing has been profound. One example stays in my mind even today, 30 years after I was at Sonamarg. Sonamarg means “the golden meadow.” In a bend in the Sind River, an almost unbroken sea of Saffron crocus — one of the most costly spices one can buy — must have been an amazing sight. However, when I was there one did not find a single crocus: a sad example of the effect of overgrazing and poor management of the land.  

If I finished up in university studying Forestry at UNB, I suspect that it was strongly influenced by that book, read many years previous to my becoming a university student. It would not surprise me, although it has never crossed my mind until now, that is one of the reasons that I was attracted to the alpine zone for my graduate work.

There have been so many books that have been sources of vital knowledge during my professional career. The most influential have been papers by David Gates, at the time at the St. Louis Botanical Garden, and a book by William Lowry, a professor at Oregon State. I was more than fortunate and acutely aware that I was studying at a time when the effects and importance of the physical environment on plant function was finally being recognized. My graduate work was predicated on that newfound knowledge and what I learned during those years has been critical to how and what I have taught as a faculty member. Other than my earliest graduate students, almost all students, graduate and undergraduate, that I have taught have accepted that knowledge as being the status quo without fanfare. They owe their view of plant eco-physiology to Gates and Lowry without realizing it. 

HK: Have your reading patterns changed in the last five or so years?

GC: My efforts may have shifted in emphasis, but I continue to involve myself in society and continue to try and learn. Ironically, I read less today than I did when I was working full time. Reading at that time was a vital part of decompressing from a far too hectic existence. Now I am too busy with a diversity of societal obligations to find much time to read. I am very choosy about what I read; it has got to count! 

I am most likely to read what is going to increase my knowledge whether or not it has immediate application to what I am doing presently.

HK: What three or five books would you pull off the shelf for a student or friend?

GC: For anyone who deals with people and especially those who have to lead by example, the must-read is:  Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth. I have just purchased my fourth copy because each time I find someone who simply has to read the book.

For the environmentally curious — though sadly out of print: Lyall Watson: Heaven’s Breath: The Natural History of Wind.

Then there is Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s A Cloudspotter’s Guide. There is much more to that little volume than the names of clouds; it is a simple exposure to environmental physics, art and religion. 

And by the same author: The Wave Watcher’s Companion. Again, much more than the title alone promises.

For someone who needs to have a global perspective on the world I recommend Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is probably the most informative book I have ever read in terms of where we as humans have come from. 

HK: Do you think the current crop of students are adequately equipped with book basics to understand the world, our times, the past, the future?

GC: No, no, and no!  At least not for the majority of science students. I cannot speak for the fine arts. I cannot address this without grinding an axe regarding the influence of electronic devices and social media. Why read if you can Google it? Why communicate at length (reading is communication) when you can text what you had for breakfast?

The concept of reading a paragraph and thinking about what the author is saying, be it fact or fiction, is simply not on many students’ radar. I admit to being a card-carrying Luddite, but I worry that in-depth reading and taking the time to think is becoming a lost, or worse abandoned, way of life.

Maybe if we all gave a significant book to a student we know entering university this fall we might open their eyes to something beyond the screen and instant messaging.  

Many thanks to Dr. Courtin for answers to the “Off the Shelf” questions.

This column returns in a few weeks with insights of influential people and the books that have fashioned their views, careers, and aspirations.