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.