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An Unusual Life Unfolding: Noted Bear Biologist Gains Acclaim in Origami World

May 3, 2016
by Glen Martin

Bernie Peyton is profoundly dyslexic, and that made his early years growing up in New York City difficult. School was hellish: He struggled to read, he was bullied, and it was hard to make friends. Then when he was 9, his stepfather gave him a book that changed his life.

Peyton still has the book—a beautifully illustrated instruction manual on origami by Isao Honda that contains examples of various works pasted to the pages. He recently opened the volume in his Berkeley home, and thumbed through it reverently.

“This book taught me how to learn,” he says. “I could look at it, see how things were done step-by-step, and then, following the procedures, I could do the same things. It made sense to me, and I applied it to other subjects. I learned to read. I took lots of art and math in school, and I wrestled and ran cross-country. I basically approached everything the way I approached origami: Step by step.”

Bernie Peyton is tall and graying, and he holds a large piece of paper for folding
Bernie Peyton

Peyton eventually matriculated at Harvard. He was a mediocre student there, but he took his bachelor of arts degree and continued to pursue the art of origami, to which he added painting. He moved to San Francisco, where he opened a studio and worked ceaselessly. Then he took an extended trip to the Northwest Territories, and his life changed once again.

“Once I saw that country, the bears, the wolves, the wolverines—I couldn’t get it out of my head,” he says. “I was tired of the fumes in the studio; I needed to go in another direction.”

So he cold-called the New York Zoological Society and met with George Schaller, widely regarded, then and now, as the world’s foremost field biologist. Schaller has studied a variety of animals, many of them endangered, but his métier is big, aggressive predators. His book The Serengeti Lion remains the definitive text on all things leonine. In an imperious tone, Schaller asked Peyton what he could do for the zoological society. Peyton candidly admitted it probably wasn’t much, but he really was interested in bears.

“He laughed, and it turned out that probably was the best possible answer,” Peyton recalls. “I got sent to Montana, where I learned to trap bears.”

He eventually returned to school, obtaining a Ph.D. in zoology from UC Berkeley. He then spent several decades laboring on bear conservation projects, mainly those involving spectacled bears in the Andes of South America. It was not, and is not, the kind of work that engenders optimism.

“I didn’t want to conduct my research in front of a computer screen. I had to walk away.“

“With the exception of the North American black bear and some populations of brown bear (for example, grizzlies), bears are in steep decline all over the world,” says Peyton. “Spectacled bears have declined by two-thirds, and their habitat has diminished by half in the last 20 or 30 years. The rate of forest destruction in the Andean nations is astounding. Areas that were untouched cloud forest a decade or two ago are now grasslands as far as you can see. All that forest has been converted to grazing land. Even the skies have changed. There’s a lot of moisture generated by cloud forests, and as their name suggests, the sky is usually gray, misty. Now it’s all bright blue.”

A spectacled bear

Peyton and his colleagues were instrumental in the creation of about 60 national parks in Colombia. “Not that it did much good. The illegal logging and poaching have continued unabated,” he acknowledges. While the world’s population is 7.5 billion people and growing, “there are maybe a million bears on the planet, and their numbers are in free-fall. It’s hard to find much hope in those numbers.”

Peyton’s academic and conservation biology career culminated in the mid-1990s with his participation in a global action plan for bear protection produced for the world’s preeminent wildlife preservation organization, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The researchers determined that $200 million could fund sufficient habitat and wildlife conservation initiatives to save a significant portion of the spectacled bear population.

“But it gradually became clear that there was no way that money was going to be raised,” says Peyton. “At that point, I felt like I’d done all that I could do. All of us involved in the research down there had provided most of our own funding. My wife and I sold alpaca wool and motorcycles. We owned part of an anchovy fishery. We all loved it, but it was grueling, and we all paid a price, sometimes the ultimate price. We had researchers die from malaria and rabies. At a certain point, the obstacles just seemed insurmountable. Plus, I’d had several rotator cuff surgeries, and I couldn’t use a machete well, and that’s a necessity for doing field work in South America. I didn’t want to conduct my research in front of a computer screen. I had to walk away. ”

Oragami frogs

And what he walked to—or rather walked back to—was origami. He had often ingratiated himself with Andean villagers by showing their kids how to fold simple origami creatures, and after leaving field biology he devoted all his energy to the art form of his youth. He quickly found admirers.

“It feels kind of weird,” he says, “but I’m somehow regarded as a rock star among people who know and care about origami.”

Peyton’s work has been featured in major exhibits, finding a particularly receptive audience in Taiwan. He had two exhibits in Taipei in 2009, and recently curated a show in Taiwan’s National Museum of History for 27 celebrated origami artists. But it would be a mistake to think that Asia in general is teeming with, for lack of a better word, origamiphiles. Peyton says origami is considered a somewhat puerile pursuit in Japan, the nominal birthplace of the art form (though some argue it originated in China, where true paper was first produced).

“It’s tolerated for the young,” says Peyton. “It’s basically considered a children’s pastime. When you get older, you’re expected to put those childish things behind you and become a doctor, lawyer or salary-man.”

In any event, Peyton continues to fold paper almost every day. While many origami artists use computers to determine where and how to fold, Peyton disdains that method, preferring a freestyle and intuitive approach.

Spider artwork

“My favorite fold is the crimp,” he says, demonstrating on a piece of paper. He quickly conjures up an eyeball, and then a nose, and the general lineaments of a face start to take shape.

“Most people fold flat, but I like to get into three dimensions as quickly as possible,” Peyton says, continuing his folding. “In this approach, the most important hand is the support hand, not the folding hand. It’s the support that allows you to bend the paper into 3-D.”

Peyton’s organic, extemporaneous style is particularly apt for his subject matter: The beasts he once studied or observed in the wild. The work of other origami artists may be exquisitely precise, but there can be a decidedly static and engineered quality to it. Peyton’s pieces seem more like totems, representations of living animals that project a powerful mana. The bears look like they’re about to scratch against a tree or dig for grubs. A tree snake appears poised to writhe off the wall, while a group of spawning sockeye salmon projects a fierce reproductive impulse.

Origami birds

Peyton also devotes considerable time to teaching origami to kids at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Oakland. “There are kids in there with leukemia, kids who are recovering from gunshot wounds,” he says. “But when I go in there, I’m surrounded by joy and laughter, not grief and misery. Origami engages them, reconnects them. There was one young guy who had been shot, and he was not doing well. Neither his parents nor his girlfriend had visited him. He wasn’t talking to the doctors or staff. I said, ‘Look, you’ve had a bad shake. But I want to show you what you can still do, so fold with me.’ Within 15 minutes, he had completed an extremely complicated exercise. He knocked it out of the park, and I told him, and after that he began talking, engaging. It started him on a real recovery.”

Origami also lets Peyton teach kids about science, math, logic and sociology in a way that is fun and comprehensible.

“Algebra, for example, teaches you how to think rationally,” says Peyton. “Algebra demonstrates that you can’t do one thing to a variable without affecting another variable. That can be applied to political and social situations—like building a wall at the southern border, for example. And origami can teach you algebra in a tactile and visual way. You demonstrate basic mathematical principles when you fold, and math is the framework for physical reality. DNA is folded, proteins are folded, our skin and our intestines are folded. We live in a folded world.”

origami globe
Peyton’s “Global Warming,” created for a show at the Energy Biosciences Institute on the Cal campus.
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