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.