Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ultimate Concerns

Paul Tillich (in Systematic Theology, 1967, p. 3-14) concluded that one’s ultimate concern is one’s religion. Because he was a believer, his religion was theological, or spiritual, that is God-related.  In his day it had long seemed the better part of valor to join the crowd and rationalize what might transcend animal existence; our minds seemed otherwise inexplicable.  So the concept of God and creation by fiat were invented as a first paradigm of how existence on this planet operates. But Tillich saw that both religious orthodoxy and fundamentalism may fail to be ultimately concerned if they elide aspects of the interpretation of one’s situation.  He concluded, for example, that we should not personalize God, since the best we could do was to postulate God as the ground of being.  Some of the orthodox declared him an atheist for that.

What, therefore, might the creative self-interpretation of existence now be for a secularist mentality, one that sees little basis for asking the question of God?  We are, after all, a long way from the prophets of Judea, the Roman emperor who instituted The Church of Rome, and the natural history of Aristotle. There may be a question of ultimate origins—some pre-Big Bang status quo-- but this is lost in time, so currently beyond any promising imaginary capability for a recent species like ours. It may also involve unlearning the indoctrinations of the religious system one was brought up in.  And unless one becomes a specialist, this may take half a lifetime. Few therefore get to it; only the rather old can undertake it, and only if they have persisted in their questioning.

Indeed, this creative task may have heretofore been impossible because the essential historical perspective on the nature of existence was lacking. This is the tragedy of unlucky circumstances for those generations who experienced that long interregnum.  Darwin gave us a clue in 1859, but it is the insights of the evolutionary science he launched 150 years ago, and the new science of neurobiology that are at last providing the perspective we need.   

The Darwinian insight is simply that we are all related, i.e., descended from a common ancestor.  One still  needs an understanding of the processes of existence: how these operate aside from the reproductive cycle  we  may also partake of as individuals.  A. N. Whitehead gave us that, but not until the 1920s, when he showed that all Earthly existence is a reworking of the same building blocks of existence, the atoms and molecules. We borrow from past evolutionary accomplishments, thus creating a short-lived present during which we perhaps add a bit of style , then pass things along. “The many become one and are augmented by one, ad infinitum,” Whitehead said.  The accumulation of innovations drives the continuing creative synthesis. Natural selection of the fittest shapes  particular  populations to environmental change imposed  by the atomic energy of the planet. This energy is focused in insolation and the plate tectonics that sets the stage for so much else. And it is itself a byproduct of the waning energy of the sun that gave us birth.  We are  embroiderings of stellar dust, but we know nothing of eternity. We have a rough idea of Earth’s beginnings, and we can anticipate its end when our sun’s energy is expended.

So, it is not origins, but the continuing drive for change and its innovative possibilities that is the mystery of existence on this planet.  We need first to be mindful of the long evolution of the processes that prepared the way for us.  
A predecessor of Whitehead’s at Harvard, Charles Sanders Peirce, said that everything we know is an example of the habits of Nature.   Habits take time to form.

 When the stellar gases that escaped our sun’s formation had cooled enough to allow atoms to form, interactive energetic and physico-chemical  processes (presumably common to the broader universe) shaped the results: they produced, initially,  this sterile planet with a different atmosphere than we now enjoy.  After a few more billion years of experimental change, self-organizing natural processes which we began by denying, produced life in the shallow seas about 4.6 billion years ago.  For some 80% of its subsequent existence, life existed only at the microbial level, unknown to us until the microscope was invented, and Louis Pasteur first identified germs in late 19th Century.  Not until about 460 million years ago did plants begin colonizing and reshaping  land surfaces. This paved the way for animals to also migrate out of the marine environment. Only 125 million years ago, mammals evolved, and only 65 million years ago, after dinosaurs were eliminated by Earth’s collision with an asteroid, did mammals radiate and multiply in the vacated niche .  This made room for us. 

Our  lineage, the Hominids, appeared about three million years ago, and our own species, Homo sapiens, less than 200,000 years ago, when some  genetic saltation provided  the larger skull that made room for the larger brain that enabled the development of a mind with superior reflective memory which makes us unique in several respects.   And only in the last 10,000 years or so have we evolved, socially this time, to become quasi-civilized, though inheritors of most of the sensibilities of the hunter-gatherers we were until so recently. The most recent genetic change in ourselves may be that for blond skin and hair that surprised our brown progenitors only about 10,000 years ago in Scandinavia. 
For a naturalist then, one who knows something of the amazing diversity of life on the planet, all of it best explained by evolutionary processes, it suffices that we are evolved simians. No need for the exceptionalism of special creation. Indeed, it should be humbling that the evolutionary  processes had to give us such a high reproductive  potential, apparently to enable us to survive natural hazards while the big brain’s potential was slowly actualized . And again humbling that we have not yet learned to adapt this reproductive potential to the changed circumstances of an over-populated world, even as we boast of the big brain.

The problems  of existence are thus of two kinds.  As a species produced by the environment, we are best adapted to  given environments.  We should perhaps ask why Western civilization has made presumptions about  basically flawed personalities such  as  Christianity’s notion of  original  sin, or Freud’s  unconscious,  concepts that seem to bother  
Asian societies much less.

Though the big brain has made us remarkably adaptive, and we can reshape many environments, there are many limits. Even 2000 years ago Aristotle said that intelligent existence involves living within the limits of our environment, whatever that be. Just as biologists have identified half a dozen life regions on the planet, each with a different assortment of climates and plants and animals, our political economy needs to recognize different carrying capacities, and help people refrain from overextending themselves in environments with limited carrying capacity. The niggardliness of nature so many, including economists, complain about, is mostly a problem of human overpopulation.

Secondly, the political economy of nations, since it has to do with the rational expectations of varying carrying capacity, must respect the existing natural constraints. Finally, and probably most difficult, the greed of a minority of the population must be democratically fenced in.  An economy based on the utopian notions of a free market do not do this. Compounded by overpopulation, this is probably the central dilemma of Western civilization.

So what is the ultimate concern of a reasonably conscientious secularist today?  If a concept of God comforts you, why God bless you. It may have been helpful for me to share  my family’s notion of God when I was young, but it no longer explains anything I need explained.  Existence is its own reward.  The world is fascinating, and my circumstances have provided a reasonable opportunity to explore and exercise my capabilities.  I have not willfully hurt another person, and have tried to be helpful.  I feel I have attained control of my own will, which some consider a mark of spirituality.  Like Emily Dickinson, I feel that instead of going to heaven at last, I’ve enjoyed it all along because the journey itself sufficed.  I have more cosmic piety than most people, and my concern has been to do things as well as I could. 

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Apparently oblivious to the significance of form in identifying species, an American student interning at the British Museum is said to have put the label “Trumpeter Swan” on a 1585 watercolor John White painted in Virginia on one of the early expeditions to what became colonial America.

This, despite the fact that Kim Sloan, curator of the John White Collection at the British Museum, had already pointed out that the bird in question had a knob, which is characteristic of the Mute Swan. Neither the Trumpeter nor the Tundra Swans have knobs. A 1960s identification of this same painting by University of North Carolina staff was apparently also mistaken as Trumpeter Swan because the bill color was black. Sloan pointed out that 16th Century watercolor pigments included lead, which often turns the original colors black. So, beware of identifications.

We easily overlook that we have been imprinted by Roger Tory Peterson’s 1934 interpretive methods in A Field Guide to the Birds, now in a 4th edition (1980). Peterson focused all diagnosis on the “field mark.”  This was a useful methodological trick he learned from an illustration in Two Little Savages, a book by Ernest Thompson Seton who taught a prior generation about Nature. But Peterson copyrighted the field mark, and dominated the field as Seton never could.

Field marks are handy, especially for people in a hurry, like Americans. But people learned to identify birds for themselves long before Peterson provided that short-cut.  A plate of bird drawings in the French dictionary, Nouveau Petit Larousse Illustre (p.715 in the 1938 edition), shows lovely illustrations, including a Mute Swan without a knob. The artist apparently simply considered this an unnecessary detail in a plate that would in any event be greatly reduced for reproduction.

Problems of misidentification have been rampant. In the 1930s George J. Wallace planned a life-history of Bicknell’s Thrush, a bird restricted to the mountain tops of the Northeast U. S. and adjacent Canada.  To his dismay, he found that a significant fraction of the specimens in museum collections had been misidentified, even though originally collected by the experts of the day. That frustrating experience gave us a delightful little book on bird taxonomy instead of a life history.

Likewise, in browsing through the bird skin collections of the Department of Ornithology at Cornell University a few years ago, Kenneth Parkes, a former student there who had meanwhile become the distinguished curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, made a surprising discovery. He saw that a specimen labeled immature Bonaparte’s Gull was actually an immature Little Gull, a European vagrant. Almost embarrassing was the fact that the bird had been taken on Cayuga Lake by three of the most notable bird students of their day:  Arthur A. Allen, the first full-time professor of ornithology in America; Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the greatest bird  portraitist of early 20th Century; and Ludlow Griscom, one of Allen’s first graduate students at Cornell who later showed all of us how to identify birds without shooting them, the same man Roger Peterson would call the court of last recourse in bird identification.

A more recent conundrum in bird identification is of course that of  the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Arkansas River bottoms of the old Mississippi River Embayment. In 2004, after fifty years without confirmed reports of this great bird, two supposed sightings initiated highly-publicized, large-scale field investigations in order to at last confirm the presumed persistence of a pair or more of these woodpeckers. If the birds had indeed survived all these years, they would warrant a massive conservation effort to ensure continued well-being.  But two full seasons of field work by scores of competent searchers uncovered nothing, so the effort sputtered.

It is perhaps inevitable that with increasing public interest in any human activity, there will be an increase in questionable testimony and commentary in that field. Ready or not, people like to have a say in things. Especially will this be so where funding may be available to pursue the pros and cons. In such a broader context, questions of bird identification are mere examples of  a process. The problem becomes truly complex and stubborn when premature assumptions involve social attitudes..

In late 20th Century, the growing urban population in advanced societies, now eager to demonstrate a concern for “the environment” which events increasingly posed as threat, sprouted a phobia, “the threat of invasive species.”  Scientists had of course been complaining about aspects of this problem for several decades. The threat is meaningful, but the public phobia is mostly based on na├»ve perception.

All three of planet Earth’s dominant civilizations—Chinese, Indian, and Western—have overpopulated their worlds, and thereby dramatically disrupted the evolutionary communities of  all the climatic regions. Although long neglected and discounted, there is now no escaping the fact that  most plant and animal populations—except that of humans  and a few adventives---are in drastic decline. This means that our take-over of  the environment to nurture our swollen billions has already eliminated a significant fraction of  the larger organisms produced by evolutionary experimentation. The survival prospects  for what remains are dire, and there is little alternative to being dubious about our ability to alter that march of events we set in motion, especially some 10,000 years ago, but more specifically 500 years ago in Europe. This, of course, is when we invented that economic system based on endless accumulation which we call Capitalism.

Invasive Species, so-called, are the “less desirable” or “out of place” plants and animals that come to compete unfavorably with the familiar, and therefore preferred-because-adapted-to, prior aggregations we call life communities. Although modern instruments currently enable us to contend over the complexities of these evolutionary processes, most species emerge because units of existing populations become isolated enough to allow the differential accumulation of  genetic changes. Such changes, whether physical or psychological, often suffice to prevent interbreeding. For the last century, this geographical isolation of population segments has been our criterion of what constitutes a biological species. At the level of micro-organisms, such invasions are often considered no more than infections.

Until “just now” we have been oblivious to the fact that our inveterate mania for road-building, mostly to provide access to resources of one kind or another, has so modified the continents that we have destroyed much of the spatial isolation that enabled species to form and persist in the first place. We have homogenized habitats, to the fatal disadvantage of  habitat specialists, and the dismaying advantage of  those generalist species we call unfriendly invasives. Besides, especially since the Age of  Exploration in the 16th Century, but the more so the more mobile we are, we have moved species around, willy-nilly, and set the stage for the massive era of invasives we now complain about.

Finally, it seems likely that our unsophisticated  concern about invasive species has redounded to a focused abuse of  one bird species in particular, the Mute Swan. In the 1930s, someone doing field studies in Rhode Island, rediscovered the obvious fact that a species new to the area tends to compete for food and space with prior residents. The Mute Swan was expanding its Long Island Sound populations at the time. A decade or two later, the state wildlife commissioners of that Northeast region became concerned about this intrusion into new territory, and recommended that the swan’s numbers be stabilized before it got out of hand. This seemed reasonable, and several States agreed to limit their swan populations to a number they felt acceptable, especially in view of the fact that the general public values this swan as one of the few large birds that can be approached. The same public should of course be taught that so large a bird will likely be insistent on its “personal space,” and might be dangerous if its territory is foolishly invaded.

A few State wildlife agencies, or even staff acting individually, unfortunately went to extremes and announced that the Mute Swan must be extirpated. This was notable in Maryland and Connecticut. That some groups had different agendas in mind became plain when, about 2005, it became known that they really wanted to eliminate Mute Swans in order to introduce Trumpeter Swans from the northwestern U.S. This was a bird they considered “nobler” in bearing, and thus a better trophy bird for the drastically declining hunting clan that heretofore provided local license fees for State budgets, and political support. But this looked like swapping one “invasive” species for another. It certainly elided the fact that waterfowlers who valued the “split rail traditions” of their sport had long refused to shoot “flying pup tents,” as they called Mute Swans.

It also elided the fact that native species, like ducks, said to be disadvantaged by the Mute Swan’s “competition,” have mostly been victims of dispossession by agriculture on their breeding grounds, and may soon be further decimated by drought.

The process became nasty when two ladies joined forces to challenge the lack of “due process” in permitting this carnage. They sued the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  And they twice won in court!  So the old-boy network circumvented the need to tell us what is really going on by getting a collusive Congressman to help change the law. The trick is well-known. Simply add an addendum, surreptitiously, to some complicated bill that has already passed muster. No discussion necessary.

Perhaps the real tragedy of this debacle lies in the public confusion being generated. A full century of  public education about the importance of conserving wildlife may be at stake  The irrationality of the present campaign against the Mute Swan is grotesquely illustrated by the demonization perpetrated  against this bird by none other than the National Wildlife Federation’s long-admired magazine for children, Ranger Rick.  An illustration whose demonic imagery appeared in a 2007 issue of Ranger Rick, is testimony to this strange credo.       

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Nature's Design

Shortly after reorganizing itself in 1934, the National Audubon Society adopted a promising credo, stating intriguingly that, “We believe in the wisdom of nature’s design.”  I was headquarters biologist for the society from 1958 to 1977, but at no time were any of  us challenged to spell out the implications of that motto. It was essentially forgotten.

This is tragic, because neither did the rest of American civilization have any inkling to the guidance such a credo might have provided.  Rather, we transplanted Europeans continued hell-bent on developing every acre we had wrested from the original Amerindians. Our national parks are now called “The best idea America ever had,” but that brief epoch of  park creation, mostly in early 20th Century, was the work of a small minority, pursued over the objections of a vociferous majority. North America’s central prairie is the largest patch of deep black soil on the planet, a chernozem, but we have yet to agree to preserve a sample of its grasslands and biota in a suitable national park.  

The threat of global warming that now hangs over us is a byproduct of centuries of such neglect of the  rest of The Creation. Our notions of special creation almost obliterated awareness of the fact that we are just one more recent product of a continuing evolutionary process of species creation.  Every species is essentially an experiment in more creatively using the same building blocks of nature, the atoms and molecules, each  in its time. Evolution progresses by innovation.   We are, in a sense, embroiderings of the stardust of the universe!  We should, therefore, as a primary obligation of cosmic piety, safeguard the natural systems that produce such marvels. This is what Nature is: a set of processes and their products. The design we detect in nature is the patterning we see in the processes. So, as participants we must not truncate systems, nor their varied, tentative accomplishments: what we call biodiversity. This cumulative diversity is the potentiality of the future. We know no destinies, not even our own, so we must learn to live in concert.  

Having first evolved in southeast Africa, we became strangers to one another by dispersing to all the continents while still pedestrians. Newly aware of this, we must now, as fellow humans, forge social systems built on mutual respect; in time to join in limiting our numbers to leave room for other created things. This is the most sincere way of expressing a collective appreciation of  the creative process itself.   In less than ten thousand years of civilization we of course accumulated lots of amateurish  misinterpretations. Time changes things, so what seemed appropriate a thousand or a hundred years ago may need reinterpretation.

Because we venerated them so, our early religious ideas may need more recasting. Our more recent scientific notions tend to be self-correcting, since we argue them from the beginning. And we abandon them more readily, since they are obviously of our own making, Religious notions seem so ancient that we have forgotten what inspired them.   Having experienced two major economic depressions in one life-time, I consider the early Church’s ban on usury a wise constraint we should have maintained against our more greedy compatriots. We let them obfuscate issues by chattering about “animal spirits.”  

Indeed, it is high time we recognized that in the 20th Century, at least in the U.S.A., the economy became our religion. Paul Tillich warned of this in mid-century when he reminded us that, functionally, our ultimate concern is our religion, no matter what other we profess. Reasserting such awareness may help our churches update their views and provide the leadership we need in creating a new sense of natural togetherness.

To untangle the false commitments we were talked into, especially since World War II, let us place our economic system in historical perspective. It helps to remember that the system is only about 500 yeas old. It dates from The Reformation, when The Church’s   control over domestic affairs was cast off. We cannot say that “we’ve always done it this way.” The price of this “freedom” was high because The Church had at least insisted on a wage sufficient to maintain a family. More than a minimum wage, or even a living wage.

Economists, however, have often wanted to believe that they dealt with complex economic behaviorisms in an atomic fashion, like real scientists. This leaning, often called “physics envy,” caused them to develop an acute form of reductionism, i.e., focusing on parts of the puzzle rather than the whole. All things are indeed so complex that beginning with the parts is often a necessary methodology. But it poses the problem of  not forgetting that parts don’t constitute the complex things we’re trying to understand.

For example, to make Economics seem more objective, the complexities of the natural processes referred to above were discounted, and economists considered all non-human things mere “natural resources.”  Such resources are said to have no innate value (ends) of their own. The morality of exploiting such resources is thus elided.  Should you quibble, the economist will say that there is no way of agreeing on the value of anything except by measuring your willingness to pay for it.  No one asks whether you have the ability to pay. A sort of put-up-or-shut-up stance.  

Mainline economists then became enamored of mathematics, another form of abstraction, since numbers are poor substitutes for the complexity of real things. But they called theirs the real world. Finally, thanks partly to the triumphal afterglow of “winning the Cold War,” many economists endorsed the efficiency of moving production abroad to take advantage of cheaper wages. But this undermined our own consumption levels and aggregate demand fell. Corporate managers, grown too big to constrain democratically, reduced production and invested in an orgy of financial speculation instead. Granted deregulation by compliant, ideologically-inspired regulators and politicians, they invented fictitious (dishonest) credit money which they called financial innovation (junk bonds, securitization, credit default swaps), and thus built the credit bubble that burst in late 2008, dragging the world into depression.

Western civilization has thus embarked on a 21st century with problems of formidable complexity,  almost all of them problems of its own making.
(1) Our numbers now exceed the planet’s carrying capacity: there is no sustainability. This is a consequence of sheer numbers;
(2) of  inequities of wealth and income which “dumbs-down” a majority of  the population by excluding people from adequate education ; and
(3) of the misapplication of destructive technological inventions, many of them mistakenly considered blessings of our civilization. For example, the internal combustion engine is disrupting the climate (not just warming it), and after World War II heavy draglines and bulldozers initiated large-scale drainage of wetlands and all kinds of other disruptive landscape alterations. And
(4) a defunct but still politically dominant economic system. These problems interact as positive-feedbacks, so it is likely that no one of them can be solved by itself.

 Having learned a lot about our deep history in just the last century, however, we may be almost ready to reintegrate ourselves into the evolutionary scenario. It would take imaginative leadership, but our religions might reinvigorate themselves by adopting the new, scientific creation story, and keep it open this time.  We would need to agree on reducing human population so that it can be accommodated by natural surpluses, but be wise enough to realize that this would first require a much more egalitarian support system, so that all people would feel advantageously involved. We may wish to retain the price-setting functions of capitalism, but would otherwise build fences to prevent abuses of free-market entrepreneurship. We would zone the uses of  Nature, both terrestrial and marine, so as to preserve biodiversity and more general ecological services. We would take Adam Smith’s neglected advice to keep the firm small, so as to make it serve the public interest, not just profit-making. It wouldn’t be Heaven-on-Earth, but a lot better than what we now struggle with.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010



The public library in Fall River, Mass., where I grew up, had inscribed above its portal,
The People’s University.  For me, who soon became an omnivorous reader, this was verily my first university. It was the early reading I found there that shaped my outer world, beyond family and the ethnic enclave that nurtured me. Even so, the perspective was regional. But as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Even the queen thinks provincially.”

Learning to read a book a week, almost for the rest of my life, of course complicates the
task of picking out that handful of books which most influenced me. A book may have
been impressive for its illustrations rather than text. Given my interest in birds, any book illustrated by Louis Agassiz Fuertes would remain imprinted.

* What most shaped my early outlook, even a subsequent career, was the outpouring of  natural history books by Ernest Thompson Seton, beginning with Two Little Savages, and all self-illustrated. I became a Seton Indian. I made my own bow and arrow and went out to kill a woodchuck, just to prove that I could. But I never became a hunter.

During a somewhat  parallel experience with Boy Scouting, I was intrigued that Seton’s “go-light” approach was eclipsed by Daniel Carter Beard’s “pioneering” approach, wherein scouts were tutored in cutting the sapling growth of  southern New England to build bridges, towers, and shelters. This reflected the American temper but lost most of us the opportunity of learning to live in harmony with nature.

* I like to think I learned English by reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and most of his other works. It helped that we shared interests in natural history and both  lived in southeastern New England.

*William Beebe, made famous by his use of the bathysphere in the Caribbean, among other adventures of a rich career in biology, introduced me to the splendor of the planet
by writing  The Edge of the Jungle in 1921.    It was years before I could go see for myself.

*Robert Cushman Murphy’s Oceanic Birds of South America (2 vol.) was probably the most exciting book I acquired, thanks to the exhortation of  William Vogt, who gave it a glowing tribute in Audubon Magazine in 1934. The introductory chapters were a short course in oceanography, first acquainting me with oceanic zonations and El Nino events. I got to know Murphy and later circumnavigated South America with his volumes in hand.

*Aldo Leopold’s reflections on the wildlife conservation task first appealed to me in
his Game Management (1937), but like everyone else I did not appreciate his poetic
philosophical insights until the posthumous Sand County Almanac  appeared in 1949. I had hoped to do graduate work with him, but he died the year before I graduated from Brown University. I worked on California Condor problems with his son Starker; and knew his youngest daughter, Estella, who was a paleobotanist.                                                                                                               

*Charles Elton, thanks to his Animal Ecology (1927) and other works, became my Charles Darwin, though I did not discover him until I studied wildlife management at the University of  Massachusetts, Amherst, a decade after that publication. I corresponded with him about lemming cycles from Canadian Labrador during World War II, and had the pleasure of meeting him at Oxford in 1966. Having suggested that I come for afternoon tea, he came out to greet me when my taxi arrived and said, “How shall I introduce you? Are you a doctor?”  When I said No, he said charmingly, “Oh, you’re a mister, just like me.”

*Although I have been a great admirer of Alfred North Whitehead and that handful of other Process philosophers, and although my friend Charles Hartshorne considered him an incomplete philosopher, I feel more kinship for George Santayana’s  Skepticism and Animal Faith (1923), especially because he saw soul as us seen from the inside. In his novel, The Last Puritan, he suggested that although “experience speaks through the mouth of older men…the best experience that they can bring us is that of their salvaged youth.”

*Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) introduced me to economics. I learned of  the book through a fellow weatherman at an isolated Air Force weather station in the high subarctic of Labrador during World War II. George, who was known as “the single taxer,” advocated keeping land in public ownership, and renting it for use in lieu of taxing income. This made so much sense to me that I decided to study economics in order to learn why his proposal was not implemented. The short answer is “Entrenched practice.” This insight became a foundation for my studies and conservation practice in ensuing decades.              
*Paul Shepard’s Nature and Madness (1982) is, I feel, a must-read book on the psycho-history of the founders of western civilization, a tour de force in human ecology. It is sad, but symptomatic, that the Sierra Club, the book’s publisher, soon remainded it. Paul bought these remainders and doled them out to friends and enquirers.

*I began reading historian Immanuel Wallerstein in 1985, thus being introduced to the ambiguities of capitalism and making better sense of why this ruling economy has abused both people and the environment for five hundred years. His 1999 book, THE END of The World as We Know It, is my favorite introduction to the complexities of this theme.                
Again, it was my pleasure to come to know Manny when he retired to Yale as a Research
Fellow. We lunch together now and then, and discuss the human condition.



The first environment away from home that provided me with a warm sense of place was a summer cottage—a tar-paper shack—my father built for us on Cranbury Neck cove, on the east side of South Watuppa Pond, the southern half of a long glacial lake southeast of Fall River, Massachusetts, in southern New England. The northern half of the lake was
retained as a drinking water reservoir.

This sense of place I speak of is born of important events that happen to us there. Our memories wed the event to the place, and we recall it as magical. There is of course a flood of such important events when we are young and so much is new. 

For example, when I was seven or eight, before having learned to swim alone, I crawled over the rocks of the lake’s shallow zone, and these were mountains to me. Indeed, because I was also learning to read English (a second language) at that time, and had somehow been introduced to the highest Andean peak (Acongagua of Chile), a brown-tipped rock that rose slightly above the others in the ice-push zone of  my lake is still Mt. Acongagua in my mind, even though I have since seen the actual Chilean peak.

When we were oral people, such places were said to speak to us. Today we can say that we speak for such places.

The cottage on the lake was a godsend for a dozen years. It allowed all of us to escape the gray surround of Fall River for two months and more every summer. Barefoot time.  We seven siblings, each in our way, swam, boated, and fished the lake. Surprisingly, however, only I built on that experience to became a naturalist

It was here, at age eight, that I first came face to face with a wild bird and lost my heart to this colorful tribe. I came to see this as an epiphany. The bird was a male Black-and-White Warbler, only five inches long. It landed on the porch railing, four feet away. I froze and it eyed me for less than two seconds before flying off. It seemed to me to focus all the energy of  existence itself! I knew I would have to learn all I could about  these amazing kin.

I have identified nearly 2500 bird species since then, and though I no longer chase them, I never tire of them, at home or abroad. They are my firmest tie to Nature, but not alone in providing a sense of commonalty with the world.

A surprising sequel is that I met no one else interested in birds until I joined the Boy Scouts six years later. But gradually, thanks to that chance meeting when I was eight, I introduced many to birds by learning to make a career of Audubon Society education work, even devoting a dozen years to warning of the threat of chemical pesticide uses that
killed so many birds.

Melting Pot

The parochial school I first went to was only a block from our home. But a long block. Long enough to be dangerous for a skinny kid who had entered school a year late because of frail health. The danger, for me, inhered in the fact that an occasional bully from the Irish neighborhood, not far away, liked nothing better than bloodying the nose of a vulnerable Canuck. All he had to do was catch a victim in mid-block, too far to retreat homeward, and not close enough to run for the school, where others would offer protection.  I suffered at least two bloody noses before learning to pace myself carefully and learn to identify dangerous lurkers from afar. And I learned to run.

This hazard, of course, was a version of the perennial social play for territorial advantage.  All species face it, but it is made worse by economic inequities in human groups.  As in most of the Northeast in those days, the dominant group was Anglo-American, that Protestant elite which Max Weber, the sociologist, saw as ideal capitalists.  They were those who had come earliest and accumulated more, learning how to maintain their advantages and passing them along. Their children were advantaged from the start, so did not have to compete with other groups, only among themselves. In Fall River, they occupied the Highlands, well above “the other side of the tracks.”  They owned the cotton mills and the banks, important sources of money-making. James Chase provided a revealing introduction to the advantages and difficulties of  this life style, right there in Fall River, in a book I think is entitled What We Have Lost.

Advantaged social groups devote almost daily attention to the invention of apt reasons for their good fortune.  This is one practical role of country clubs and Rotary Clubs. They tell us that they are “more entrepreneurial, more prudent, harder-working, just better-fitted to be leaders of the community”.  With considerable help from academic theoreticians, these self-fulfilling rationalizations become the conventional wisdom of the day and are energetically propagated. It is itself a good investment to pay others to praise your practices, especially if these have an iniquitous bite.

What then made wealth-accumulation reasonably secure was, not only early access to land and its resources, but, especially, a ready supply of cheap labor. From the 1850s onward, wave after wave of European immigrants innocently submitted themselves to the vagaries of an unfamiliar American economy.  Crowded out by population growth and stagnant economies back home, they became the exploitable, landless proletariat. In southern New England, first came the Irish, then Germans, Italians, Poles, Portuguese, and others. Blacks, not yet African-Americans, were of a special case. They were scarce in New England until the technical revolution in agriculture, mostly after World War II, forced them to seek refuge in northern cities. Latinos also came later.

My parents were wed in Canada, but the economic promise for a musician like by father were so obviously low up there that my mother suggested that he visit cousins of hers in Massachusetts. That way he found a church organist’s job, and concluded, rather innocently, that by teaching piano in addition, he would make ends meet.  He apparently did not much consider the size of the family that would soon need support.  The Church advocated  large families, oblivious to the fact that providing more hands when people were mostly farmers might be helpful, but that in an industrial society it simply meant more mouths to feed on inadequate wages, whether in cotton mills or elsewhere.  Sizeable French-Canadian enclaves grew with the mills of southern New England, and this was my milieu.
I soon became aware of the socio-economic problem this posed for me.  Being first-born of seven living children, I was needed as a wage-earner to help the family’s standard of  living from sinking too low. So, instead of going to high school, that standard preparation for earning a living in that day’s economic system, I was sent to a two-year business school.  My meager wage helped, but it meant delaying the pursuit of my own interests for a decade and more. I became a bookkeeper, took dictation, was a file clerk, and begged for a small raise annually, or perhaps more often, as needed.  It taught me about the business world, and the more I learned, the less it satisfied me. Escaping these conditions meant, somehow, escaping the ethnic enclave that had nourished me.  I realized that if I married here, I would probably be anchored for life. Besides, my bookkeeper’s salary would not support marriage!  So I avoided girls.

The nasty side of my dilemma was driven home to me when I lost my job in 1933. This forced me to seek work elsewhere. By sheer good luck, a small group of us who were studying birds for a Boy Scout merit badge, were taken to outer Cape Cod by our counselor. There, in North Eastham, was a small private ornithological research station operated by Dr. Oliver L. Austin, Sr. of Tuckahoe, New York, for the benefit of his son, Oliver, Jr., who had recently graduated from Harvard University with one of the early PhD degrees in the study of birds.  They banded birds and focused on population studies of the Common Tern.

The Austin son had had a falling-out with his father, and the station was being managed by Maurice Broun, a talented non-degree, all-around naturalist who had worked for Edward Howe Forbush, state ornithologist for Massachusetts, during the preparation of the three-volume Birds of Massachusetts. It was winter, so Broun cheerfully took time out to show our group this sandy Pitch Pine terrain between the open Atlantic Ocean and the semi-enclosed Massachusetts Bay.  At one point, I apparently impressed him by “calling” my first flock of Oldsquaw Ducks as these sped by offshore.

When, a bit later, Broun said that he was looking for an assistant to help with his studies, I asked “How about me?”  He agreed to try me if Dr. Austin, Sr. approved.  The good doctor made what was for me my first incoming long-distance telephone call and after a bit of haggling over details, hired me. I was 21. Broun, recently married to the daughter of a local sea captain, was six years older. He was friendly, helpful, and fair, but a strict task-master. I learned fast and felt that I had at last become quasi-professional in the bird world.

Unfortunately, this adventure was short-lived. The Austin son soon discovered that working for others was less fun than being his own boss, so he set about undermining Broun’s performance in phone calls to his father. Broun would not stand for this and quit hardly a month after I joined him.  I too quit, two weeks later. But new windows had been opened. Broun went on to become the distinguished resident naturalist of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, and the Austin Station is now a Massachusetts Audubon Society sanctuary.

My old office job was reactivated and I returned to bookkeeping for a while, but I now wanted out.  When, a few months later, I gave notice that I would quit and go back to school to professionalize my interest in birds, the office manager I had dutifully performed for all these years offered  me twice as much as he was paying me if I would stay. I only later learned to call this my “surplus value,” but it was no less insulting. This withholding of most wage-earners’ surplus value supports the endless capital accumulation of the relative handful of people who dominate the economic system. Later, when  conservationist policy became a responsibility, I studied this system more systematically.  It is the overlooked cause of the conservation problem itself.