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.