Derham Giuliani, keen naturalist, entomologist, and animal behaviorist died at his home in Big Pine on Sept. 7, 2010 at the age of 79. He died of cancer that had traveled to his bones, but was hiking, observing nature, and visiting friends up to three weeks before his death. Derham was cared for, up to his death, by a dear, old friend and neighbor with the help of the Hospice of the Owens Valley. Most of Derham’s friends did not know he was ill and all deeply mourn the passing of a truly unique and gentle-spirited person. Many people had been looking forward to autumn forays up and down desert canyons and on rugged mountain roads accompanied by Derham.
Derham was born in San Francisco in 1931 and his earliest memory was watching a trail of ants. This fascination with insects only grew and by the age of 12, he was already a serious and avid “bug’ scholar, visiting all the windy, foggy hills and sandy dunes of the Bay Area to find and to document the wild, rare, and interesting life forms there. He kept journals of his natural history observations from that age to his death. He frequently was heard to say, “I’ll have to make a note of that.” (Many of his notes and spreadsheets are housed at the White Mountain Research Station.) As a young man, he participated in Academy of Science courses and studies and continued to drop off data there once a year for the rest of his life. Derham studied Mathematics at both the College of Marin and UC Berkeley and became entranced by the patterns found in it, but the studies kept him indoors too much. He decided to follow his deepest interests and live a simple life in terms of material goods and family connections. He moved to Marin County, rich in natural wonders, and was a postman for some years. That way, he could walk outside all day, enjoy the fresh air, and observe some insects along the way.
During this time Derham took over the care of several ringtail cats, wild desert animals, and redesigned his little house with runways and hiding places the nocturnal creatures would enjoy. He found observing and studying these animals’ behaviors so entertaining that he got rid of his television and watched them all night! The ringtail cats grew accustomed to his silent and non-invasive presence so he grew to know a great deal about their natural behaviors and unique personalities. He often remarked that was when he first observed that the males and females within a species were so different in their behaviors that they seemed like all together two different species. In later years, Bishop mountaineer, Smoke Blanchard, once wrote, “ ‘The Ringtailed Cat Man” was a guest lecturer at the Palisade School of Mountaineering. A shy, gangling, stringy, black stubble-bearded, frizzy-headed speaker who, who scuffed his toes in the dirt, stared at the ground, and mumbled inaudibly about high-altitude squirrel habits, Derham Giuliani is most comfortable with a high-camp audience held in the glow of his nocturnally blood-shot eyes.”
Derham was dedicated to the study of the patterns of the world; from chess (played at a Master level) to the shifting ripples of sand dunes, from predictions of heavy to light pine nut years to the fluctuating chipmunk populations. He found himself drawn like a magnet to the Eastern Sierra. His deep and abiding love of living things caused him to first visit, then relocate to Big Pine in the early 1960s. He lived there for well over 40 years, welcomed on the land of Enid Larsen, his best friend, a retired schoolteacher, and amateur “chipmunkologist”. Together, they systematically studied the formations of clouds and chipmunk and squirrel populations. They watched caterpillars and roamed throughout the Eureka Valley. Enid was very impressed by Derham’s commitment to nature and, at her death, stipulated that he could stay in his little house on her land for the rest of his life, studying and living on small research grants in which he was interested. He spent nearly 40 years, two days a week, observing and keeping a census of chipmunks in the White Mountains on the Bristlecone Pine Road. A retired zoologist from UC who was considered the foremost expert in alpine chipmunks once remarked in an interview, “ He [Derham Giuliani] knows more about these chipmunks and squirrels than anybody else in the world. Period. He is a remarkable individual.”
Giuliani possessed a deep interest in all things wild and unknown. He found the mystery of living things exciting and never tired of counting the rows of pinecone scales and remarking upon both the patterns and the wondrous anomalies found in nature. [People] think I must be writing a paper or I have a degree,” he said. “But it’s just sheer curiosity. Every year, I see something that will catch my interest—and I try to learn a little bit more about it.” Clambering up every watered canyon in the Eastern Sierra, he performed the fieldwork for a UC native salamander study for several years. He often chuckled about the fact that, in this study, he had walked the equivalent elevation gain of sea level to Mt. Everest five times.
Derham did not limit himself to the creatures already mentioned, but accomplished much field study about butterflies, moths, beetles, and scorpions from coast, to deserts, to alpine zones. His expert contributions are noted in several major natural history books, including The Natural History of the Inyo-White Range and The Butterflies of California. Giuliani had at least three species named after him due his discovery of overlooked and under-rated insects: a beetle, Microedus giulianii, a winter moth, Tescalsia giulianiata, and a spider, Xenochelifer derhami .
Giuliani was, according to a good friend,” … biocentric to the core. Organized religion held no value for him. But he was not an atheist: he was an agnostic, a pantheist. He looked forward to following life’s natural trajectory into the beyond, if there was a beyond. If there wasn’t, he was fine with that as well.”
Above all, Giuliani was compassionate, intelligent, gentle, open-minded, and always curious. He used to claim that his least favorite species was the human due to his destructive effect upon nature. Ironically, he leaves behind a large number of friends and colleagues who considered him the kindest person they ever met, a sensitive and unassuming man who stood tall and inspiring among the six and a half billion other humans populating this Earth.
“Thanks to Derham Giuliani, we know a lot more about animals, patterns, wonderment, joy, and awe,” said another friend. “Whether you knew Derham or not, I hope in your mind’s eye you may ‘catch sight of the loose-jointed cat man flapping by in his untied tennies and butterfly net’ and remember his reverence for the Earth.”
Anyone who would like to celebrate Derham’s life work may donate to the Friends of the Inyo at 699 West Line St., Suite A, Bishop, CA 93514.