Monday, November 22, 2010
With age, more men hopefully accept the fact that women are the more important half of the human race. Women stabilize us and keep the social system going despite the follies we men impose in pursuing short-sighted objectives. But it behooves us to express more appreciation that this is so, particularly because the focus on technological innovation of recent centuries makes all our lives increasingly tenuous. Indeed, so bent on control have men been that we may, in this 21st century, have spelled our own doom, at least as a civilization, if not quite a species.
The British child-psychiatrist, D.W. Winnicott, was convincing in showing that, for all of us, survival depends on having a “good enough mother.” But some of us are fortunate in having had a mother who was much more than merely competent in holding us to her bosom during those crucial first three years. Mine was such a mother. Whatever I accomplished in a long life seems to me a consequence of her having nurtured the self in me for over twenty years. As I recall, the nearest she ever came to reproach was to ask, “Roland, do you really want to do that?”
Born Angelina (Morin) Desjardins in Sorel, P.Q., the first of eight children, she gave up secondary schooling in order to help her mother cope with yet another child. Marrying at 27, to a Belgian musician who had come to head the musical programs of a small Catholic college, she too had eight children, all of them in Fall River, Mass., where my father juggled being church organist and piano teacher (at $1 a lesson at first).
Economically marginal existence in one of the last of the stingy cotton mill towns of southern New England. Sheltered in an ethnic enclave, she never learned English! But her five sons survived World War II, three of them managed college, and everyone led productive lives.
My good wife of fifty years (1947-1998), Muriel Crowley of Brooklyn, N.Y., was of English (Yorkshire) parentage. A graduate of Brooklyn College, she was on the swim team there, and as cadet nurse she earned a master’s degree at the Yale School of Nursing. We met at a summer conservation workshop in East Greenwhich, Rhode Island, where I was naturalist while at Brown University, and she was camp nurse. It was she who decided that I might make a good husband, and gently talked me into abandoning some thirty years of bachelorhood.
Calm, frugal, and practical, she helped me manage the tenuous development of a post-war career as Audubon Society naturalist and executive. Not interested in sex, she was nevertheless always receptive, and immediately won my complete allegiance. We had three rewarding children. She befriended nearly a dozen attractive women I brought home. That way, the women did the hugging and kissing, but I enjoyed them socially. The star of that entourage was on the Board of the National Audubon Society while I was headquarters biologist. Knowing how economically marginal Audubon salaries were, she loaned us a cottage on the northwest shore of Mount Desert Island, Maine, for twenty-five consecutive summers. A godsend to the whole family. She and my daughter Connie became good friends.
Muriel died at 78 in 1998, after a long bout with Parkinson’s syndrome. She had been school nurse, community activist (Norwalk), and a national leader in breeding, training, and showing Gordon Setters and black & tan English Cockers, which she called miniature Gordons. Despite the rather asocial focus on birds, nature conservation, and philosophical ideas I imposed during our fifty years together, she said “My only real disappointment with you is that you never learned to love dogs as much as I do.” I was 85.
For three years I coasted on that half-century’s good relations, but then rather suddenly felt isolated and irritated by my aloneness. Our doctor had said, “You’re in very good health, but remember that you will continue to need someone to hug.” Unfortunately, age makes us much less attractive, so my doctor’s prescription was only a desideratum.
In 2001, however, I spent a month alone at a friend’s new house in Costa Rica, near the Panama border. It was their dry season, and I enjoyed the birds and a nearby botanical garden. There I met a slender expatriate American women of sixty. We soon discovered that we both suffered isolation, and she consented to be my doctor’s prescription. So at 89, she helped me rediscover women. But 2000 miles of intervening geography is a real handicap. Neither of us wanted to change home base. I visited one more year, and helped her visit me once, but after that we limited ourselves to e-mails. She did say, when I thanked her, that my pleasure had been her pleasure squared.
Guided by wishful thinking, I expected soon to find someone to hug nearer home, but instead I had half a dozen friendly refusals. Too old to be a significant other, I nevertheless met and enjoyed a fifty-year old artist who lived nearby. We became fond of each other and I learned that being a helpful “uncle” had its own satisfactions.
Robert C. Neville, in Reconstruction of Thinking, (1981 p. 20), describes the “terror of existence” as “the vague apprehension of nature’s blind forces only barely humanized by fragile forms of experiential causality.” And he then says that religious imagery addresses that terror.
I call this so-called terror existential angst, and have never felt it onerous. I therefore feel little angst, and need less consolation since I don’t see life as a vale of tears. I accept death, its most focused form, as a biological necessity. Perhaps this is just good luck. Or it may be a naturalist’s appreciation that the life process, in nature, is mostly an example of successful cooperation. Our human mental constructs (interpretations) problematize too much, perhaps because we have become too individualistic.
Science has made nature’s forces much less blind to us. We now know which areas of the planet are most prone to thunderstorms, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, eruptions, fire, and even drought These are not mere incidents, or Acts of God; there is a pattern to their occurrence. There may of course be no escaping all of these hazards during a lifetime, but the extensive damage and suffering we now complain of could be greatly reduced by proper management of human uses of the land.
A chief cause of continuing damage to humans and their properties is thus ignorance, neglect, or actual disregard of known environmental realities, especially in the last century, since we should by now know better. The effects are of course worse among less educated people. But this is due mostly to the social failure to provide a sound general education, and to the political failure to regulate the use of hazardous zones, largely due to corruption of the political process by greedy exploiters of the land resource and the low state of public education.
Avoidance of hazardous zones would require self-limitation of the human population, so that there would be safe zones for everyone. People do not live on the slopes of Vesuvius, or in flood zones, by preference. But there is no excuse. Nor will religious consolations really help. We have an obligation to know the world we live in, and to live within its limits. Aristotle saw this more than two thousand years ago.
Monday, November 15, 2010
The origins of the Audubon movement, first at the State level in 1896 in Massachusetts, marked the articulation of a new awareness of the value of birds, and a demand that the attrition imposed by commerce in feathers generated by the millinery trade be halted. A similar popular movement developed in England at about the same time, so most of western society was somehow sensitized.
In the U. S. this became a twenty-year struggle, largely volunteer, because the nation’s outlook was primitively utilitarian. Part of the story is well told by T. Gilbert Pearson who first led the crusade nationally in a 1937 book, Adventures in Bird Protection. About twenty state societies organized themselves. They first formed a national committee to coordinate their voices, then a National Association of (State) Audubon Societies in 1905, with Pearson as its executive. This grassroots effort culminated in the passage of a Migratory Bird Protection Act in 1918.
The Great Depression of the early 1930s was rough on groups like State Audubon Societies and all but six of them succumbed to its economic ravages. In 1934 the early Association was abandoned and a separate organization, the National Audubon Society was incorporated. A new president, John H. Baker, was both a good amateur ornithologist, and a Wall Street veteran who had accumulated enough to be comfortable. For him, Audubon work was a public service. He sometimes asked prospective employees whether they could afford to work for the Audubon Society. He brought together a superlative staff and created several new imaginative programs.
Peter Mattheissen chronicled the slow development of wildlife protection in America in a 1959 book, Wildlife in America. And Frank Graham, Jr., in a 1990 book, The Audubon Ark, reviewed the history of the Audubon movement which
provided so much leadership in its first half-century. He did not, however, question the basic assumptions of the movement.
The sad fact of a century of conservation/environmental activism is that, despite occasional local accomplishments, and the “rescue” of a few endangered species through captive propagation and other means, birds and other wildlife went into catastrophic decline during that century of increasing devotion to conservation..
World Birdlife’s insightful formula, 9-6-1, is indicative. It reminds us that of the more than 9000 bird species, 6000 are in decline, and more than 1000 face extinction in this new century.
William Vogt, an Audubon staffer during Baker’s first creative decade, later wrote The Road to Survival. This first neo-Malthusian text alerted us to the implications of human population growth, but Vogt saw no politico-economic connections among these problems. Neither did Mattheissen or Graham, writing decades later.
The conservation/environmental movements have been sentimental because they fostered noble ends without adequate attention to practical means. These means are the social institutions (religious dicta, laws, rules of the game, traditions, etc.) we build to guide human behavior. The task is thus moral and political, not scientific or corporate.
In several Audubon convention talks during the Sixties I tried to alert local Auduboners that their task was to become the ecological conscience of their communities. But Audubon’s education programs were not much modified thereby.
The challenge, then, is to understand why the first century of the movement failed in its broader objectives, and to articulate a fresh account of “the creation story” to capture the imagination of all the people of this smallish planet so as to prevent the crowding of too many more species out of existence. We are all fellow-travelers in an exciting evolutionary trek.
During its first half-century the Audubon movement did much to inspire the nation to conserve wildlife. But in 1968 the National Audubon Society succumbed to the post-World War II notion of professional managerialism and unwittingly went bureaucratic. The new president, Elvis J. Stahr, even complimented the Board for breaking out of its bird-protection mode. He didn’t know birds and assumed that it would suffice to have someone on staff who did, to warn him of problems and opportunities. But he didn’t ask.
Professional managers, we have been slow to learn, are a social phenomenon
generated by our need to overwhelm the war-making capabilities of both Germany and Japan during World War II. Government set the goals and paid the bills, so all the managers had to do was produce and watch the bottom line. This was most unlike running a business. Unfortunately, this truncated sense of responsibility became the corporate world’s guideline after the war.
Stahr was a gentle manager. He fired no one. He learned quickly. During his first year in office he took me to lunch almost weekly to probe my biologist’s view of things. But he didn’t want to set policy. He readily admitted that he was a front man. “Don’t bring me problems,” he would say. “You’re a vice-president; solve them, then tell me about it so that I can raise more money.” This unfortunately created a policy vacuum, and in an increasingly complex era it became easy for staff to go off on its own tangents. The Audubon Society no longer spoke with one voice.
The U. S. still has an almost blind faith in growth. For one thing, growth covers up mistakes. But organizational growth almost inevitably leads to bureaucracy, whether the organization be religious, governmental, corporate; or like Audubon, non-governmental, an NGO.
Anthony Downs, a sociologist who wrote Inside Bureaucracy, said that any organization that grows beyond the point where the president no longer knows more than half of his subordinates by their first names will behave bureaucratically. Russell Peterson, who succeeded Stahr at Audubon, apparently understood this because he immediately told staff, “Call me Russ.”
Of course, the Seventies were also the era of a new environmental awareness. People joined Audubon and Sierra just to find out what this ecology stuff was about. Audubon membership climbed to half a million, but could not much exceed or long sustain that number, even though pollsters said that tens of millions of people were now interested in birds. The managers naturally complimented themselves on this growth rather than seeing it as driven by events. “We must be doing something right!”
If Audubon (as they now call it) is no longer the leader it was, its promise is still great. Birds can more easily be made exemplars of the wonders of the continuing-creation/evolutionary process to alert people. But this may mean that an NGO like Audubon will need at least as many poets and ethicists as it does managers.
The best way to do that may be at the local level. Charismatic Audubon staffers are a starting point, providing they are often on the ground, interpreting local bird life, its habitat needs, and the marvels of migration and of existence itself.
Again, however, the task is a social one, not one of individual conversion. Of course, individuals must lead a social movement, but success comes only if they convince enough others to join in making the necessary changes in the system. It is the system that, in the past, frustrated our good intentions, and will continue to do so if we don’t reform it. This is called institution-building, and governing-elites must do most of it.
Multiplying that local effort, rather than building larger managerial teams, may be the way to go. Decentralize the organization if that will accomplish the task. The task again? To learn to fit our (real) needs into the carrying capacity of Nature’s systems without crowding the other species unfairly. Aristotle saw that 300 years before the Christian era, and said it. For him, this is what it meant to be reasonable. He didn’t mention birds, of course, so we overlook the connection.
Our environmental ethics are the space we agree to leave for all those Others, birds included, when we take our God-given/evolutionary privileges seriously. Being “by nature” a social species, “We” is all of us, even though many will remain slow to learn. We must cajole them.
It should, however, have by now occurred to you that we cannot “save the birds” without simultaneously making significant changes in the commercial mentality and practices that now dominate our use of the land and waters that have produced that birdlife since before we came along. The destroyers are no longer poor fishermen-turned plume hunters. The economic system on which we are all more or less dependent is now the source of our problems. But overpopulation also creates the demand for too much economic throughput.
We have hardly begun thinking in terms of socio-politico-economic systems, but this is what bird conservationists will have to learn to do if they are to conserve birds. Otherwise, more of the same talk about saving birds may make more people aware of the problem, but it will also frustrate them because they will be all too aware that bird populations continue to decline.
It was accidental that bird conservation was one of the first resource conservation tasks we tackled. The more fundamental problems were only beginning to surface, and we did not much recognize them until 1999, say. But most of us missed the signal they waved in Seattle that year.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Most of us who are interested in birds have heard the question, “Do you love birds?” Vary the inflection and you will catch the puzzlement. I, for one, balk at such pigeon-holing, but perhaps mostly because that world love is so often misused. The word beauty is also too vaguely applied. Yet, we should struggle with these definitions. Both words seem central to the meaning of existence.
Once in a long while, someone comes along who has the sensitivity, and the poise, to say things convincingly and unforgettably. George Santayana, who taught philosophy at Harvard a century ago, had that mastery over words and ideas. He defined beauty as objectified pleasure. This may have said everything, but it may also require more spelling out, since the perspective is new.
A few years later, again at Harvard, Alfred North Whitehead, another import, taught that the term “life” has little meaning until we grant it purpose. Not an imposed purpose, but a self-generated purpose, a striving. The life process, he showed, borrows from the past, reshapes things in the present, and creates a definitive future; which then itself becomes past, an evolutionary accomplishment, ad infinitum. The very process of existence, whatever its origin, now lost in time, is a creative synthesis, a process of continuing creation. More pregnant than that one biblical event!
Reshaping things involves some appreciation of past accomplishments (what is), and some awareness of real possibilities (what could be). We are handmaidens to the creative process. All of us, that is: humans, beasts, microbes, and plants. This Whiteheadian process philosophy says that we make propositions about the possibilities, then seek to accomplish (objectify) them. We are like performers in a large orchestral symphony. And if the performance is harmonious we call it beautiful because we feel it so. We have neglected these two insightful philosophers.
Despite a few hundred years of exaggerated scientific emphasis on objectivity, this creative process is not intellectual. It is almost altogether aesthetic. It was going on long before human brains evolved. Indeed, our vaunted rationality often distorts the process. Witness our new knowledge of the atom: it is a threat to our continued existence! Our knowledge of chemistry, also less than a century old, is poisoning the world. Our skills in moving about the planet now homogenize life forms. We are destroying the insularity of habitats that gave most species their origins and their sustenance. We call the new competitors for space “invasive species,” almost oblivious to the fact that we set the stage and imported most of them ourselves.
Love, said Paul Tillich, is wishing you to be. It should be humbling that this gentle, philosophical theologian was declared an atheist by a trio of self-appointed, positivistic Inquisitors, here in America, a few months before he died! We are so haunted by the undercurrent of love in this corner of the universe that it serves us as a concept of God! Whitehead, obliged to Plato, saw God as the lure behind our strivings, necessary to the completion of the natural history of existence.
Every phylum in our catalogue of living things is an example of the exploration of possibilities accomplished by the evolutionary process, these last four billion years. All of us are variations on a theme, with slight but telling modifications of the DNA basic to all. From yeast to naked apes!
The birds that fascinate some of us are just one exciting tribe. Specialists in flight, though not alone in this, since the insects and bats are other specialists. But you hardly know what an accomplishment flight really is until you have seen one of the large albatrosses coursing a sub-Antarctic sea in a gale. Or a condor hissing down some cordilleran canyon in either of the Americas. Or, nearer home, a hummingbird hovering to observe you, close up!
Birds are often colorful, mostly wonderfully agile, specialists in making a living in varied habits, from sea-level to alpine zones. They sing and dance, often travel far. All the things we wish we could do better.
We love them because they are superlative exemplars of life’s possibilities. We need them to be, if only for the inspiration they provide, since the path is long, and we often lose our way. We idealize them of course, just as we idealize one another when we are in love.
The beauty we admire in them is in us. It is an awareness, however vague, of the accomplishments they exemplify. Santayana (at one remove), Francis of Assisi, Louis Agassiz Fuertes (the bird painter), they all saw it. For us birds are like the antipode of an electric spark, they at one end, we at the other. They too, the birds, are probably aware of this, in their own ways. We all see it if we look, though seldom in full focus..
And, of course, all those other tribes, from microbes to mammals, we perhaps more than most, are other exemplifications. It is tragic that we have been so slow in appreciating that we need these beautiful things to lure us to new accomplishments. Hope, love, and charity are nourished by the world’s beauty. This is almost all the faith we need.
This blog shares the musings of an artist-naturalist’s final decade after a long career in environmental affairs. It may open windows for others, young or old, who wonder what this environmental concern is about.
I first became interested in birds at age eight (back in 1920), thanks to the fact that a male Black-and-white Warbler landed on a porch railing, four feet away, and we stared at each other for perhaps two seconds. I was hooked for life, but intriguingly, met no one else interested in birds for six years, when I joined the Boy Scouts. Born in Fall River, Mass. in 1912, one of the last big textile mill towns, I was lucky that my father, a church organist and piano teacher, built a summer cottage on South Watuppa Pond nearby. Ten summers here, and reading all of Ernest Thompson Seton’s books on woodcraft, initiated me as field naturalist.
After two years of business school I was a bookkeeper for ten years. Thanks to the Great Depression of the Thirties, I broke out of that mold after banding birds on Cape Cod with Maurice Broun of Hawk Mountain fame. I went back to school to professionalize my interest in birds, studying wildlife management (1940) at the Stockbridge School of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). When it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1981, the Department of Forestry and Wildlife Management elected me Distinguished Alumnus.
In the mid-Forties World War II service first showed me much of the continent. It was like a government-financed expedition, ending with two years in subarctic Canadian Labrador as U. S. Air Corps weatherman. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, I then got a proper degree from Brown University, rounding out my naturalist’s background with botany and geology; and capped it with a Master’s degree at Cornell University in 1950.
I then started a new career as director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, a big fish in a small pond. I ran good field trips, preparation for a dozen years of pioneering international ecotourism when I accepted the National Audubon Society’s invitation to become headquarters biologist in New York City from 1958 onto 1977, and was vice president for ten of those years. I worked for three Audubon presidents, managed sanctuaries for four years, and helped organize recovery programs for the Bald Eagle, the California Condor, and the Peregrine Falcon. I argued the DDT problem nationally both before and after Rachel Carson. The Sixties placed great demands on us to explain why environmental conservation was important to everyone.
From about 1886, when sports fishermen complained about the destruction of fish runs by dams built for the textile industry; and from 1896 onward, when Audubon Societies were formed to object to the destruction of plume birds for the millinery trade, a Conservation Movement saw all this undesirable destruction of the environment as an unfortunate byproduct of economic Progress. The solution seemed to depend on a more efficient use of resources. President Truman said “Yes, let’s reclaim tin cans.” A more effective approach was to take land off the market, thus slowing the rush to develop everything, and saving room for other species.
Awareness broadened in 1962 when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring convinced many that the polymer chemistry of the Fifties was poisoning the environment, including us. Industry, having made heavy investments in this new technology, objected aggressively, and unfortunately chose to confuse public opinion in order to delay or prevent governmental regulation, rather than clean up its act. This undemocratic detour was first perfected by the cigarette industry, then taken up by the chemical pesticides industry, and by the petroleum industry when air pollution and the threat of global warming became dominant at the turn of the 21st Century. Conservation was no longer for the birds, but since the media were by now monopolized by a few tycoons, the public was slow in drawing the conclusion that large multinational corporations were the principal generators of our problems. Hardly anyone woke up to this until after 1999, when the World Trade Organization’s Seattle meeting was dirupted by Sixties “flower children” and unionists. This is what globalization is about. Where we go from here is up to you and the rest of us.
Living through this great transition in Western Civilization is probably the greatest intellectual challenge the human race has faced. For the first time, because of our numbers and the impact of our powerful technologies, we are disrupting the supportive processes that have made this planet habitable, so far. A hundred years ago we were hardly aware that there were such processes, so we have much to learn. This is what the new science of ecology is about. I knew one of the first world-class ecologists, Charles Elton of Oxford, so this emphasizes how new our awareness of all these problems is.
We are all amateurs at this survival game. Let’s share the points of view our very different experiences have produced.