Predators at my Window: The Recovery of Predator Populations in Southern New England

The author's rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

The author’s rapid sketch of a bobcat (Lynx rufus) spotted outside his study window. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By: Richard Telford

On an early Saturday morning this past January, working at my desk that faces the eastern sunrise, my gaze was arrested by a sudden movement crossing the breaking sun.  My desk window faces a break in the 18th century stonewall that encloses our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse on three sides; beyond this wall break is a massive brush pile that I have created as I’ve cut back overgrowth along the wall edges to increase light and decrease Lyme tick habitat.  On this particular morning, I experienced a momentary disconnect as I gazed at the unusually stocky, bob-tailed housecat that had broken the line of the emerging sun, quickly realizing that it was, of course, no housecat but instead a bobcat (Lynx rufus).  While bobcats are reasonably common in our area, they are crepuscular—largely active in the twilight hours—and thus difficult to sight.  Further, like most mammalian predators at the upper trophic levels, they are discreet in their interactions with humans. In the twelve years I had lived in our farmhouse, I had never seen one prior to that morning.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of the bobcat seen from his study window.

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of the bobcat (Lynx rufus) seen from his study window.

I quickly called my wife, six-year-old daughter, and two-year-old son to the window, where we watched this particular specimen as it stood with its forelegs perched on an angular piece of granite half-buried in front of the brush pile, likely a stone toppled from the wall years earlier.  Finally, the bobcat vanished into the woods east of our house, likely heading towards the series of stepping stone parcels that comprise the 324-acre Natchaug State Forest, which borders the 1765-acre James L. Goodwin State Forest, providing a significant habitat for bobcats as well as a sizeable eastern coyote population.

Seeing the bobcat at our window was for me a euphoric moment, similar to the moment I first saw a black bear (Ursus americanus) in the wild at close quarters fifteen years ago while through-hiking Shenandoah National Forest with my brother, bypassing the summer-crowded Appalachian Trail leg in favor a network of abandoned club trails dating to the 1930s.  In both cases, each moment of wonder was tempered by concern, and it is this balance that, in my view, largely defines the interaction of the American public with regional predator populations.  We long for wilderness, but we likewise crave safety, not just in the context of the natural world but in the whole of our lives.  The former impulse can lead us to conserve, while the latter may prompt us to destroy.  Effectively balancing these two desires is central to ensuring the safety of both predator species and their human observers.

In Shenandoah, my brother and I would go on to have eleven more close encounters with black bears which, like us, gravitated to moving water sources in the valleys during a period of severe drought.  Each interaction filled us with wonder, but we also remained aware that an encounter gone bad could end terribly, both for us and the bear.  One afternoon, crossing a brushed-choked summit with a narrow cut-through along its ridge, we became acutely aware of this.  Pounded by rain that largely drowned out most other noise, we repeatedly heard the crushing of brush in feverish spurts off to our right.  We continued to hear these irregular utterances until, perhaps ten yards off the trail, we saw the head of a large black bear rise like a periscope from the brush, its nose drawing in heavy drafts of air that no doubt included our scent.  Perhaps a second or two later, a movement to our left drew our gaze, a cub that had treed itself in the skeletal remains of a long-dead conifer.  Alarmed, we sprinted down the trail, our heavily-laden packs jangling loudly as we put distance between ourselves and the franticly searching sow bear.  Though with less urgency, the need to balance the desire for wilderness with the desire for safety permeated our sighting of the bobcat less than fifteen feet from our house on that early January morning.

While a bobcat poses no significant threat to an adult human unless it is rabid, our three children—ages six, two, and one—fall well within the weight range of typical bobcat prey.  A study published in The American Midland Naturalist documented the bobcat’s ability to take prey up to eight times its body weight, in that case fully grown white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). Further, while bobcats in southern New England feed primarily on Eastern and New England cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus and Sylvilagus transitionalis), in winter they will vary their diet significantly when prey is less abundant.  Pound for pound, they are fierce and capable predators.  Thus, though our sighting of this particular bobcat filled us with wonder, it also made us pause in terms of managing the threat that it represents, albeit a remote one.  While this may seem an overreaction to some, the lack of such caution among the general public, arguably, represents a more serious threat not just to humans but to upper-level predator species as well. One widely reported negative predator-human interaction has the capacity to significantly alter the public view of a predator species, even when that interaction stems primarily from poor decision-making at the human end—e.g. the classic bear-feeding dilemma at refuse dumps in national parks and other such sites.  Thus, if we wish to preserve these species, we must shape our interactions with them with greater awareness.

During the first half of the twentieth century, upper-level predator species in Connecticut had largely been eliminated, but by the 1950s, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, western coyotes (Canis latrans) migrating eastward reached northwestern Connecticut, eventually dispersing statewide. Interestingly, the eastern coyote is considerably larger than its western counterpart, a likely product of interbreeding with Canadian gray wolves (Canis lupus) during migration.  Additionally, a 1988 reintroduction program aimed at restoring Connecticut’s fisher cat (Martes pennant) population, decimated in the late nineteenth century by excessive logging, has been successful in establishing a robust enough population that the state initiated a limited trapping season in 2005.  Red and gray foxes (Vulpes vulpes and Urocyon cinereoargenteus) are likewise abundant in Connecticut, and the black bear population has grown considerably over the past twenty years.  From a practical point of view, the recovery of predator populations in Connecticut has lead to a significantly healthier food web, and a more vital and ecologically sound set of natural systems and organismal interactions.

From a spiritual point of view, there is an unquantifiable gratification that comes from living within a more complete ecosystem.  At night, we frequently hear the howling of coyotes along with the calling of barred and great horned owls, and, though these sounds are ubiquitous in rural northeastern Connecticut, they never fail to evoke in us a sense of gratitude for the privilege of living beside these remnants of long ago wilderness, these creatures that have adapted to a shifting landscape that has been shaped and reshaped by anthropogenic change.  Interestingly, one particular anthropogenic change, late nineteenth-century farm abandonment, has probably bolstered the aforementioned recovery of upper-level predator populations in Connecticut more than any other single factor.  Northeastern Connecticut, for example, has returned to a 78% forested landscape, albeit a fragmented one in contrast to pre-Columbian days.  Thus, this recovery will likely maintain an upward trajectory until the various populations approach their respective carrying capacities.  This is cause both for celebration and caution, as noted earlier.  We must eschew the historic, almost fanatical human impulse to extirpate predator populations, an impulse largely rooted in fear—a tall order when, as a society, we grow increasingly transfixed to electronic screens and increasingly disconnected from the natural world.  The fear, whether it relates to physical or economic harm, must be mitigated through education, must be tempered by on-the ground realities.  It cannot, however, be fully eliminated, nor should it be.

The author's six-year-old daughter's sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The author’s six-year-old daughter’s sketch of a red fox (Vulpes vulpes).

Last month, I walked with my daughter out to the brush pile outside my study window. That morning, we were looking for evidence of cottontail rabbits—likely introduced eastern cottontail rather than the declining, native New England cottontail—that we believe are occupying a former woodchuck (Marmota monax) burrow.  Down the hill from the brush pile is an old farm dump that, based on its contents, appears to have been used by former occupants of our house from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s. I asked my daughter if she wanted to walk down to the dump, and her response surprised me.  She told me she did not want to walk in woods where there might be foxes.  I assured her that a fox would likely never attack her, especially with an adult present, and, by the time we reached the farm dump, she seemed to have shed her fear entirely.

The author's six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author's study window in the early morning hours.  Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The author’s six-year-old daughter examines fox tracks left by a likely breading pair that passed near the author’s study window in the early morning hours. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Several weeks later, early in the morning, I saw through my study window what looked to be a breeding pair of red foxes.  They trotted along the edge of the clearing south of the brush pile and quickly vanished.  The night before, a light, late-season snow had covered the ground, and, when my daughter awoke, I told her what I had seen.  When breakfast was done, I took her and our two-year-old son out to see if we could find the track trail.  Though the snow was wet and already melting, we were able to distinguish several tracks, and my daughter quickly grew engrossed in the process. This prompted other observations as well: several small rodent tunnels in deep pockets of snow; a lone, half-opened milkweed pod with the gauzy filaments of its coma ruffling in the light breeze; a half-toppled apple tree, its sweet bark gnawed by a hungry white-tailed deer.

I aimed that morning to ease the sense of fear my daughter had expressed several weeks before and foster instead her already-strong sense of wonder.  The latter already largely defines her view of the natural world, and it took little that day to draw it out, but it is tempered at times by the equally natural and logical fears of childhood.  As noted above, we must mitigate but not shed those fears entirely in adulthood as we look to coexist with increasing upper-level predator populations.  A healthy fear can guide us to interact with these populations with foresight and a sense responsibility for their continued survival; it encourages us, as well, to foster such interactions in our children.  A healthy fear can guide us to take reasonable precautions: to secure our refuse properly, to protect small pets and livestock from undue exposure to predation, to manage compost piles and bird-feeding stations with awareness of the drawing effect they can have for upper-level predators.  A healthy fear in this context perhaps translates to a deep respect for these extraordinary creatures, for their survival needs, for their instinctual drives developed over millennia, for their right to exist in the world, and for the way in which they enrich that world by their presence and diminish it with their absence.

True Leisure and the Flight of the Dragonette: Innovating for Sustainability

A chapter illustration by Edward Shenton for Edwin Way Teale's Dune Boy, in which Teale chronicles his flight of a homemade biplane glider, the Dragonette.

A chapter illustration by Edward Shenton for chapter 17 of Edwin Way Teale’s Dune Boy, in which Teale chronicles his flight of a homemade biplane glider, the Dragonette.

By Richard Telford

On December 28, 1959, Life Magazine released a special bonus issue to usher in a new decade, titling it “The Good Life.”  Life’s editors declared, “The new leisure is here.  For the first time a civilization has reached a point where most people are no longer preoccupied exclusively with providing food and shelter,” adding, “there was a time when only the rich had leisure [….],” but “Then came mass production and automation—and suddenly what used to be the small leisured classes became the big leisured masses.”  I learned of this special issue last summer while reading The Hampton Journal, one of four 500-page journals kept by naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale from 1959 until his death in 1980, while he lived with his wife, Nellie, at Trail Wood, the Teales’ private nature sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut.  I thought of this special issue once again, and of Teale in his boyhood days, when I read last week of Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, two Swiss aviators attempting the first trans-global, solar-powered flight. The two are piloting Solar Impulse, which their team characterizes as “the only airplane of perpetual endurance, able to fly day and night on solar power, without a drop of fuel.” Though the subjects above might seem disparate, their strong connections offer important lessons in a time when our present mass production and automation strip us of true leisure and replace it with an illusory leisure defined largely by material goods and social media. Though seemingly paradoxical, the loss of true leisure undercuts exploration, inquiry, and innovation, and, as a byproduct of these losses, it likewise undercuts long-term sustainability across all scales and dynamics, ranging from personal wellbeing to the survival of much of the world’s biodiversity. To understand this sequence of loss multiplying loss, we must begin in the Indiana dune country of Edwin Way Teale’s boyhood.

A later printing of Edwin Way Teale's The Book of Gliders, first published in 1930 by Dutton.  From the collection of the author.

A later printing of Edwin Way Teale’s The Book of Gliders, first published in 1930 by Dutton. From the collection of the author.

Edwin Way Teale in his 1943 memoir of his childhood summers, Dune Boy, writes, “And so it came about, when I was ten years old, that I determined to fly.”  Six years after the Kitty Hawk flight of the Wright brothers, the first public air show, or air-meet, occurred in 1909 in Rheims, France, and it was quickly followed by hundreds of others in a short span of time. Teale notes in his first published book, The Book of Gliders (1930), that by 1914 he “had built a hundred models and four gliders—two monoplanes and two biplanes.  The first ended a brief career with a nose-dive from the chicken coop.  The fourth, a huge biplane that ran along on wheels, was pulled kitewise several times across the lower meadow, with my grandfather galloping ahead, shouting encouragement to old ‘Dolly,’ the family carriage horse, that furnished power.” Teale documents the construction and flight of the latter biplane glider, The Dragonette, in chapters sixteen and seventeen of Dune Boy, and these chapters serve to illustrate the critical value of true leisure, which I define for my purposes here as the opportunity to do what we want or need without the demand to do what others insist we must.

True leisure allows us to explore, observe, and inquire.  True leisure allows us to think, to hypothesize, to rethink, and, ultimately, to grow.  While these processes are most critical in childhood, and their effects potentially most long-lasting, it is a mistake to accept as a given that we shed them in adulthood.  For at least a decade, a dedicated contingent within our society has sounded the alarm over the dwindling sense of connection children feel to the natural world, or to any world beyond the confines of LCD screens and over-programmed lives.  We have, as a society, stripped our children’s lives and our own of true leisure, in great part due to the meteoric rise of mass production and automation which, according to the editors of Life, held such promise fifty-five years ago.  How many of us feel a part of “the big leisured masses” in 2015?  How many of us can proclaim without reservation that we are living “the good life” these days?

Edwin Way Teale, in his December 26, 1959 entry of The Hampton Journal, notes the arrival of Life’s “The Good Life” issue largely with disdain.  He is especially appalled by a three-page fold-out spread advertising Swift’s Premium meats.  He copies the text of the ad in his journal: “Can you imagine any better expression of The Good Life than rare and juicy roast beef labeled—Swift’s Premium.”  To this, he adds the following commentary:

When life is really mirrored by Life, the highest good that people will be able to imagine will no doubt be a slice of roast beef.  Thus words are degraded, language erodes.  The good life of the holy man, the good life of Thoreau’s simple ways are replaced [by a] world of materialism.

To be fair to the then-editors of Life Magazine, the December 1959 special issue does not exclusively focus on the material gains for the “leisured masses.” An unsigned editorial on page 62, for example, notes that “it will be necessary, and probably inevitable, that Americans discover the internal quest for happiness, which is the highest use to which leisure can be put.”  Still, this kind of reflection is largely overshadowed by the issue’s dominant focus on the external quest for happiness through material accumulation.

The aircraft Solar Impulse, which is currently being piloted by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg in an attempt to complete the first trans-global flight in a solar-powered aircraft.  Courtesy of

The aircraft Solar Impulse, which is currently being piloted by Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg in an attempt to complete the first trans-global flight in a solar-powered aircraft. Courtesy of

So, when I recently read about Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg and their endeavor to pilot Solar Impulse around the globe, I could not help but think of the thirteen-year-old Edwin Way Teale gliding for several glorious seconds over the Indiana dunes, the whistling of warm air mingling with Grampa Way’s encouraging shouts and Dolly’s hooves thundering against the taut tow rope. I imagine Piccard and Borschberg to have had leisure time, true leisure time, as young boys—time to imagine, to observe, to wonder, to fail, and to succeed. What is striking about their work and that of their larger team is that it represents innovation rooted in simplification, in taking less from the earth and from future generations. Throughout Life’s “The Good Life” issue, one advertisement after the next extols the value of newly cheaper goods that promise a better life: RCA color televisions made $500 cheaper by automated production, Chevrolet Guide-Matic auto-dimming car headlights, Creslan acrylic fiber…“born of a magic molecule.”  In that version of “The Good Life,” everything is easier, cheaper, and more plentiful.  But then, and now, having more often leaves us with less—a reality that so often seems to elude us.  Still, the aimed-for trans-global flight of Solar Impulse offers hope.  It offers a different model for progress, rooted in sustainability-based innovation, and it is one of many such models taking shape today.

Perhaps it is the growing realization that our material goods, no matter their sophistication and abundance, cannot themselves yield happiness.  Perhaps it is a greater cognizance of our overflowing waste stream.  Perhaps it is the increasingly unavoidable reality that anthropogenic climate change is yielding a cascade of deleterious effects.  Perhaps it is the growing awareness of catastrophic and often irreversible biodiversity losses.  Whatever the reasons, we seem poised at the dawn of an era that will be marked by real gains in innovation aimed toward sustainability. In that sense, the flight of Solar Impulse, the progress of which an be monitored here, is simply a noteworthy and imagination-capturing example of broader change already underway. Whether or not the gains we make can outpace, and possibly temper, our consumer culture remains to be seen.  Still, reading Life’s “The Good Life” issue, there is the overriding sense that the consumer at the dawn of the 1960s wore a corporate veil that obscured any and all downsides to progress.  Reading those pages, it is hard to reconcile that Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was only two years from serial publication.  Thanks to Carson, Teale, and many others, for us the veil has been lifted. It is only a question of what we do with our new and clearer vision.  Realizing that true leisure is a fundamental need, while the latest iteration of smart phone is a want, is a good place to begin.


The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

Lessons from My Father

The author's father, at left, at the dock of his Aunt Sephie's fishing camp in upper Ontario, Canada, circa 1932. At center is his cousin Dorothea, whom the author visited with his family in 1977.

The author’s father, at left, at the dock of his Aunt Sephie’s fishing camp in upper Ontario, Canada, circa 1932. At center is his cousin Dorothea, whom the author visited with his family in 1977.

By: Richard Telford

Recently, the twelfth anniversary of my father’s death, February 9th, passed quietly—for me a day of wide-ranging reflection.  My deep grounding in the natural world—and my drive to explore and celebrate and advocate for it through writing and photography—is itself deeply grounded in the complex fabric of my father’s example, in his innumerable lessons, and in the manifold opportunities he provided for its exploration in my growing-up years.   Such relationships, I believe, can and must guide us as we contemplate the long-term conservation, preservation, and restoration of the natural world.

The author's father, foreground center, at his Aunt Sephie's fishing camp, circa 1932.

The author’s father, foreground center, at his Aunt Sephie’s fishing camp, circa 1932.

Born in 1926 to Canadian parents who would later emigrate from Paris, Ontario to Gary, Indiana, my father, William Richard Telford, was a child of the Great Depression in an industrial city where steel production was king.  His father, an insurance salesman, struggled to make ends meet, sometimes paying his clients’ premiums in lean times to keep business, leading to several moves when rent could not be paid. Having come from a rural community along the Grand River, north of Lake Eerie, my father’s parents were troubled by the prospect of their only child spending his summers in the streets of a gritty steel town where, in their view, potential trouble lurked everywhere.  So, at the outset of each summer, his parents drove him to the lakes region several hours north of Toronto to a remote fishing camp owned by his “Aunt” Sephie Hamilton, who was in fact the grandmother of one of his cousins by marriage, Dorothea. Summers at Aunt Sephie’s camp were marked by fishing, boating, swimming, and the exploration of largely untouched wilderness.  In the fall, his parents would return to bring him back to Gary for the start of school.  As he got older, he collected and sold fishing bait to American tourists and later guided visitors on foot or by canoe on hunting and fishing trips.  These experiences, and many others, profoundly shaped his life, and mine as well.

In 1977, three months shy of my eighth birthday, we embarked on a summer trip to revisit many of the places and people of my father’s early years in upper Ontario, our hulking brown Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon loaded with camping and fishing gear.  This trip took us through Toronto, where we visited the Toronto Science Centre, which I have written about here, and northward to the homes of many of my father’s cousins by blood or marriage, most of whom were still living or summering on largely unspoiled lakes where we fished for largemouth bass and muskellunge. Several events of this 1500-mile roundtrip journey stand out in memory, the first being a visit to the lakeside home of my Aunt Dorothea, with whom my father had spent many summers at Aunt Sephie’s camp.

At least in memory, the lake on which Dorothea and her husband Russ lived was boundless.  It was also almost entirely absent of development.  One night, in a motor boat piloted by Dorothea and Russ’s son John, a thick-bearded man in his late twenties, we traversed the moonlit lake well into the night.  We began by dropping deep lines rigged with lead sinkers and baited with earthworms, angling for large catfish scavenging the lake bottom.  Each time we cut the motor, the absence of human noise was striking.  Only the night chorus of insects, the gentle lapping of water on the aluminum hull, and the occasional tail-slap or whumping surface-suck of a feeding largemouth bass broke the night’s silence.  The latter sounds, in conjunction with our failure to draw any catfish to our lines, prompted us to fish the surface instead, my father tying extra-large black Fred Arbogast Jitterbugs onto our rigs.  Twice my father’s casts prompted raucous strikes.  Setting the hook after the first strike, he handed his rod to my brother, who promptly brought a hefty bass to the boat’s edge, where my Uncle John netted it.  Setting the hook after the second strike, my father handed his rod to me.  I cranked the handle in the wrong direction, slackening the line and giving the bass ample line to throw the lure’s hooks, which it promptly did.  Our subsequent casts proved strike-less, and we began the long trip home from the lake’s far end.

En route, unbeknownst to my father, I released the lure and several hundred yards of line from his rig, which I was holding.  In my seven-year old mind, this was trolling, and I envisioned some goliath bass leaping out of the water to swallow the Arbogast Jitterbug which, in reality, was skittering wildly along the surface, keeping pace with the boat and imitating no imaginable prey.  Nearing the house, we stopped once more to throw a few casts, at which time my father realized that I had left the full spool of line across the lake’s surface. To speed its retrieval, he asked my Uncle John to turn the boat, and we slowly followed the now-slack line back as my father pumped the reel’s handle.  While a less environmentally conscious angler might have simply cut the line, such actions were anathema to my father, who practiced a Leave No Trace ethic long before its popularization.  Notable, too, was his endless patience for such events and, perhaps more importantly, his capacity to see the value of the idea underlying my action, despite its less-than-stellar execution.

The second event of those days that stands out in memory is an ill-fated expedition, led by my Uncle John, to visit an abandoned logging camp where an intact Ford Model T truck had likewise been abandoned.  Following an overgrown logging road, the hike in started with a sense of promise that quickly shifted to despair.  As we got deeper in-country, we found ourselves relentlessly pursued at first by small clouds of biting female blackflies looking for a blood meal to nourish their latent eggs and later by an outright swarm that swelled exponentially both in painful bites and audible volume.  After countless reassurances of our being “almost there,” my Uncle John, who legally fished and hunted year-round in all conditions under a poverty allowance, acquiesced to the sheer misery of our situation, at which point he pulled off his perspiration-soaked white tee-shirt, pulled it over my head and upper body as a shield against the thickening swarm, and threw me over his shoulder as we high-tailed it back to his waiting Datsun 620 pickup truck, the logging camp and its Model T relinquished to the recesses of imagination.

The author's father, at left, after his return from World War II service in the Philippines.  With him is his first cousin, George Telford Qua, who worked for a period as a bush pilot delivering mail to the lakes region of upper Ontario, Canada.

The author’s father, at left, after his return from World War II service in the Philippines. With him is his first cousin, George Telford Qua.

A final event worthy of mention was our visit to the lake cottage of my father’s first cousin George Telford Qua, with whom my father shared a deep, abiding friendship.  Each in the naming of one of his sons had honored the other:  George William Qua and William George Telford, my older brother.  Uncle George was a man who fired our imaginations as young boys.  He had for some years been a bush pilot in northern Ontario, delivering mail with a Piper Cub outfitted with pontoons for lake landings.  He had once crashed his plane deep in the wilderness, eventually managing to drag himself to a remote town from which he was able to make his way home.  At Uncle George’s camp, I spent much of the day fishing for muskellunge with his son Jamie.  I also recall several of us shaking bottle upon bottle of Coca Cola, popping the tops with a can opener, and spraying the contents to the kitchen ceiling, as well as using a hammer to detonate fifty-count toy gun cap rolls on stones in the backyard.  These latter pursuits were, of course, met with stern adult disapproval but nonetheless provided quite the satisfying day.

While my father’s early childhood years were lean ones—one meat meal per week, an adult border sleeping on a second bed jammed into his bedroom to supplement the family’s meager income, abrupt departures from one rented space to another in the worst times—my father often spoke of them as carefree days.  This was likely due in part to his having no memory of a time before the Great Depression and in part to the unfettered summers of Ontario fishing camp life where wilderness could be explored at no cost but yield great return.  It is reminiscent of Edwin Way Teale’s chronicle of his childhood summers in his 1943 book Dune Boy, or of Farley Mowat’s exploits in his 1957 book The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.  This is the kind of exploration that is so largely absent in the lives of children today, though it should not be and, despite contrary present-time thinking, does not have to be.  In a time when we largely program our children’s lives morning to night, the need to provide them chances for unfettered exploration has never been so urgent.  For my father, those carefree days ended with a stint working in the Gary Steel Mills and with the receipt of his draft notice by telegram on Thanksgiving Day, three weeks before his eighteenth birthday.

Image of a hillside waterfall taken by the author's father during WWII military service in the Philippines, 1944.

Image of a hillside waterfall taken by the author’s father during WWII military service in the Philippines, 1944.

After basic training, my father shipped off to the Philippines to take part in “island clearing” as part of General Douglas MacArthur’s promised return to reclaim the Philippines from its Japanese occupiers.  Somehow, my father managed to carry a folding camera with him during his Philippine tour of duty, and he produced about 100 images.  Even in these photographs, of which I am now the caretaker, his deep appreciation for the natural world is evident.  Along with images of service buddies, destroyed aircraft and ships, and even a P.O.W. camp for captured Japanese soldiers, there are pictures of terraced fields, a cascading waterfall, dried up stream beds, and sweeping mountain views.  Unfortunately, his camera suffered from terrible light leaks in bright sunlight, and while lines of overexposure mar many of the images, his appreciation of nature’s beauty is clear.  My father was deeply affected by the war, and he rarely spoke about it in any detail, but he did confide to me on several occasions that, returning home, it was wilderness to which he turned to help “find himself” again when he found the company of others—particularly those who had not served in war and could not understand what he had experienced—often intolerable.  While the acute trauma of war may heighten the need for solace that can be found only when we shed the demand, confusion, and artificial urgency of human society, the need itself is universal. At present, we largely ignore that need, and we pay a steep price for doing so.

The author's father, third from left, during his duty tour in the Philippines, 1944-1945.

The author’s father, third from left, during his duty tour in the Philippines, 1944-1945.

For my father, no act offered greater consolation in his post-war years than solitary fishing, and, as I was growing up, the countless hours we spent fishing together profoundly shaped our relationship.  On many mornings my father and I rose before dawn, wiped the dew from the seats of our small Grumman V-hull boat, and cut the glassy surface of mist-laden water to hunt up some cove or treefall or lily pad forest.  The image of my father, pipe ajar in his mouth, its smoke trailing off to nothingness, his hand reaching back to the guide-handle of the 4-horse power motor, endures in my mind to this day.  In one of my earliest fragmentary memories of fishing with him, I can recall my father giving wide berth to a fly fisherman wading near the shore.  We were traveling by canoe, and the sun had just risen above the lush summer tree-line, bathing the water in golden light.  Most distinct in my memory, though, are the long, sweeping arcs of fluorescent fly line that rolled back and forth as the man false-casted until, the precise distance attained, he let the line drop silently and imperceptibly to the water’s calm surface.  Years later, my parents took me to the L.L. Bean fly fishing school in Freeport, Maine, where I was fortunate to be taught by Dave Whitlock, a legendary angler and, more importantly, a gentle and generous soul.

If we aim to foster conservation-mindedness in our children and in future generations, we must provide them mentors, dead and living.  While some parents are both inclined and able to fulfill this role, many are not.   On several occasions, my father told me about a Gary, Indiana public school teacher who was an avid amateur mycologist.  On the weekends, this man took day-long trips to the Indiana countryside to hunt for edible mushrooms.  Recognizing my father’s interest in the natural world, the teacher invited my father to join him on several of these trips, and my father did so.  My father spoke of these expeditions in glowing terms, and it is precisely this kind of mentorship that is so critical to advance the goals of the conservation movement, but is it possible now?  We are raising our children in a climate governed largely by fear, some of which is reasonable and some of which is not.  In an age where social media in all its forms bombards us with the lurid details of abuse cases and more broadly paints the world as a terribly threatening place, we are compelled to adopt a bunker mentality.  Such a mentality directly threatens the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of our children and of ourselves.  It likewise threatens our capacity to conserve, preserve, and restore the natural world, as it largely precludes the formation by our children of meaningful bonds to that world.  We must seek a more balanced approach, one which recognizes the critical role of mentorship in all its forms, and the equally critical role of unfettered exploration.  We must do this, both for the wellbeing of our children and for the wellbeing of our planet, the two of which are inextricably linked.

Stepping Out of the Digital Sphere: Reviving Film, Reviving Ourselves

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond in Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015

By: Richard Telford

A photograph taken during the author's travel through Arizona's Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

A photograph taken during the author’s travel through Arizona’s Painted Desert in the summer of 1995. Copyright Richard Telford, 1995.

In June of 1995, several days after the last school day of my second year of teaching, I packed the capped bed of my 1988 Toyota 4×4 pickup with clothes, camping gear, books, and other necessities.  I shut off the utilities in my Connecticut apartment, paid all of my bills, made several phone calls, and left for the summer to see my native land and, with a little luck, return feeling renewed.  Using a newly-purchased Rand McNally North American Road Atlas, I set a loose course westward.  I drove along the northern border, out to Anacortes, Washington, then headed south to the Mexican border, eventually returning east along the southern border.  By the time I arrived home again, I had added 8,300 miles to my odometer and a flood of life experience to my twenty-five-year-young consciousness.  During that summer sojourn, I took with me a now-antiquated Nikon 4004s film camera and a pair of zoom lenses, along with a small cooler full of Kodak Kodachrome 64 and Ektachrome 100, two richly saturated slide films. I had no working knowledge of manual camera operation, so I kept the camera in the program mode, shooting nearly 1,000 frames.  To Nikon’s credit, nearly all of them came out well, but I found myself nagged by a slight sense of disconnection; while I had had the vision to see the potential image itself, I hadn’t the faintest notion of how the camera had negotiated the available light to capture it—at best a half victory.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

The author as passenger in a Cessna light plane flying over the San Juan Islands, Washington State, in the summer of 1995.

Thus, during the following fall, I searched newspaper ads for a used, fully manual camera sans automation.  While in Michigan, my brother had introduced me to the 1994 McBroom’s Camera Bluebook, and, after dog-earing numerous pages and balancing features with price, I settled on the purchase of a first-generation 35mm Canon F-1n, manufactured from 1971-1981, a simple but nearly indestructible professional camera.  As I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange, with that purchase I began a photographic journey that has included shooting with nearly all commonly available film formats and camera types, including both 35mm and medium format SLRs and rangefinders, and even several 4×5 inch sheet film view cameras from the 1940s.  I became proficient in hand-developing and printing my own work, had several gallery shows, and even worked a two-year stint as a part-time photojournalist, from 1999 to 2001, when film was giving way to the early digital SLRs—a change which I lamented deeply.  Despite recognizing digital photography’s enormous potential, I mourned the loss of a form that had reached its apex, a feeling that has not altogether left me even now.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale's 1937 book Grassroot Jungles.  From the collection of the author.

The front cover of Edwin Way Teale’s 1937 book Grassroot Jungles. From the collection of the author.

I eventually sold off most of my film equipment and stored the rest, shifting entirely to digital shooting.  Still, my love for film never waned, and, for many years I formulated and reformulated plans to return, at least in part, to film photography.  Recently, once again feeling a strong compulsion to do so, I began to research mail order developing companies that could likewise perform high-quality scans of medium format negatives.  I took my medium format equipment—a trio of 6x6cm Rolleiflex SLRs and three fixed focal length Carl Zeiss lenses out of storage after a nearly ten-year hiatus.  In doing so, I aimed to recapture the sense of wonder inherent in photography that, absent an LCD screen, is rooted in knowledge of the interplay of shutter speed and aperture and film speed, photography for which the shutter release is an act of faith in the latent, unseen image soon to emerge.  I hoped to shed the speed of the world around me, if only a little—to compose, to see, to allow a finite number of film frames to open my creativity in a way that a high-capacity memory card cannot.  For me, there was no better place for this reawakening than the Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former private sanctuary of American naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale, which is now owned and managed by the Connecticut Audubon Society.  Teale pioneered insect photography shortly before and during World War II, astonishing the world with his close-up insect images in two books, Grassroot Jungles (1937) and Near Horizons (1943), winning the John Burroughs Medal for distinguished natural history writing for the latter.  Teale himself had tramped the sanctuary grounds countless times with camera in hand, and, with his wife Nellie, had likewise cut the trails I would walk that morning.  Together, they created numerous names by which to delineate those Trails and their notable features, names that persist to this day.

Arriving to Trail Wood before dawn, I shouldered my tightly-packed bag and tripod and headed up The Lane, the dirt access road that leads to the Teales’ 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, which is pictured on the cover of his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.  The weather report predicted a clear day, and I hoped to position myself to photograph the early sunlight that Robert Frost so aptly characterizes in his famous short poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  I considered as subjects one of the open pastures near the house:  Firefly Meadow or The Starfield or Monument Pasture. I likewise considered heading toward the Upper North Woods to capture the breaking light as it spread its arc across three-acre Beaver Pond, or heading eastward to capture the light rising over the nearly-frozen, south-flowing Hampton Brook. I momentarily chided myself for not having come with more of a plan but as quickly dismissed the feeling.  In our frenetic, technology-driven lives, we feel compelled to over-plan our fragments of “down time” so much that we render ourselves unable to enjoy them.  In our compulsive drive to infuse them with value, we risk devaluing them.  On that brisk morning, as I tromped up The Lane, my ears filled with the steady crunch of rime-coated soil and stones beneath my feet, I was determined not to do so.

The author's Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

The author’s Rolleiflex 6006 Model 2, manufactured from 1989 to 1993. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Shooting 120 roll film, which has remained largely unchanged since Kodak introduced it in 1901, imposes limits that are largely anachronistic to the digital majority of the present time.  Though it might seem ironic, this, I would argue, is its chief strength.  In a 6x6cm camera, a roll of 120 film will produce 12 images.  The finished roll must be removed from the camera, at which point the photographer must fold the paper backing, lick a strip of adhesive-backed paper attached at the roll’s end, and wrap the roll tightly to avoid exposure to stray light until the film can be processed.  To load another roll, the photographer reverses this process, opening the paper backing at the start of a new roll of film, threading the paper onto an empty spool, advancing it first by hand and then with the camera’s mechanism.  These processes form a kind of precursor and postscript to the taking of the images, which is itself a process made more deliberate and more meaningful precisely because of its seeming limitations.  Each frame is carefully composed and recomposed; ambient light is calculated and recalculated; focus and depth of field are checked and rechecked; the final composed shot is assessed; and, in the end, the shutter may or may not be tripped.  On that recent January morning at Trail Wood, I shot only twelve frames in three hours, and most of those were taken within a few short intervals.  I composed and left unrecorded far more shots than I took.

At daybreak, the sun did not, as it had been predicted to do, break through the low cloud cover, leaving the pasture light rather dull and unremarkable, so I took to the woods.  As I headed to the north and east, toward Beaver Pond, the sun did break through the low clouds for several minutes, only a few degrees above the horizon.  It bathed the upper branches of the mature canopy with fiery orange light, and, almost as quickly as I set my camera up and began to compose, I halted the process, immediately aware that I could not capture what I was seeing in the way that I wished.  That image, though not captured on film, will remain in my mind for many days to come.  For me, photographing nature is as much about seeing as it is about recording.  While a 32-gigabyte memory card loaded in a sophisticated digital SLR may enable one to shoot with abandon and hope for the best, film demands a different approach, a different impulse, a different, and to my mind deeper, way of seeing.  This is especially true when shooting with a simple array of fixed focal length lenses, as I was that morning.  Are these limits?  In a way.  Do they limit our vision?  I don’t think so.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond at Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut, where naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale spent the latter part of his life.

Needle ice forming at the edge of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

As I walked alongside the diminutive Hyla Pond—named by the Teales for its breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper—a barred owl (Strix varia) crossed the trail before me and roosted in a venerable red oak (Quercus rubra) near the trail’s edge.  Although we frequently hear the calling of barred owls around our old farmhouse, I have seen them only a handful of times, and here again was a photograph of the mind never to be recorded on film, though not lessened by that fact.  Reaching Beaver Pond, I composed numerous images but shot only a few.  Even those did not seem to me to be fully realized.  Some images are final destinations, while others are necessary steps along the way.  Both are equally important.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

A second view of the fallen red oak (Quercus rubra) west of Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2015.

Upon my return, not far from where I saw the barred owl, I noticed another venerable red oak, this one toppled by wind or disease.  Its broken form, running parallel to Beaver Pond to the west, cut across the living lines of forest that unfolded in dense succession to the east.  The oak’s exposed red sinews flowed in liquid form, seeming to burst from its deeply furrowed bark.  At the center of the break, splintered points formed jagged fans that followed the arc of the canopy above and of the earth itself.  I spent nearly an hour working my way around the fallen giant, framing one image after another, only rarely tripping the shutter.  I mostly worked along the Beaver Pond side of the trunk, but, upon circling the fragmented root mass to examine the other side, I found the image I wanted.  After composing and recomposing, moving my tripod near and away, raising and lowering its height, I shot my twelfth frame and listened to the hum of the camera’s motor drive as it pulled the last of the paper backing off the starter spool.  Though I had more film with me, I chose not to load another roll.  Three hours and twelve frames later, I veered off from the path I had taken to Beaver Pond and cut through The Starfield to head for home.

My simple in-home darkroom was dismantled long ago, and I have no plans to recreate it. Nor do I plan to walk away from digital photography, as I am deeply grateful for what it offers me in terms of production speed, ease of publication, and the capacity for wide dissemination of my images. It has creative benefits as well.  For example, my digital camera work in macro photography, a technique laden with lighting and exposure challenges, has opened up new worlds for me.  This has been especially true in my photo-documentation and identification of the dragonflies that frequent our property, which I have written about elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange.  No single photographic format or medium has ever been or will ever be ideal for all subjects.  By the latter half of the twentieth century, the 4×5-inch Graflex view camera and the 6×6-centimeter Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, formerly journalistic mainstays, had been largely superseded by a new generation of faster, lighter 35mm cameras, just as the latter have been superseded in kind by their digital counterparts.  This is, perhaps, the trajectory of all technologies that we develop to automate the processes in which we engage, artistic and otherwise.  The inherent danger of this trajectory is that we become more and more alienated from the processes facilitated by those new technologies as more is done for us and less is required of us, both in thought and action.  In many ways, our detachment from the processes that govern our daily lives likewise fosters a corresponding detachment both from the natural world and from our role in it.  Perhaps in choosing to view nature through a simpler lens, both literally and figuratively, we are given a clearer view both of nature and of ourselves, allowing us to value each more fully.

Practicing a Sustainable Conservation Ethic: Truth, Compromise, and the Persistence of Questions

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

A pair of brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) fly in tandem in southern Puerto Rico. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2008.

By Richard Telford

In his landmark 1949 book A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold called for a land ethic that “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”  Each year, practicing such an ethic, which I will broaden here and term a conservation ethic, grows more challenging as both the benefits—real and perceived—and the harmful by-products of not practicing such an ethic multiply.  These harmful by-products manifest themselves most plainly and directly in their environmental cost, but there are social and spiritual costs as well. As we advance in technological terms, these costs grow increasingly difficult to navigate and, for many, even to see at all. Leopold noted in 1949, “It was simpler, for example, to define the anti-social uses of sticks and stones in the days of the mastodons than of bullets and billboards in the age of motors.”

The first paperback edition cover of Aldo Leopold's seminal 20th-century conservation book.

The first paperback edition cover of Aldo Leopold’s seminal 20th-century conservation book.

Now, the “age of motors” seems remote and simple compared to our present age of information, powered by cadmium, selenium, and other heavy metals, an information age in which the quest for knowledge is so often overshadowed by the pursuit of hollow adulation and illusory self-worth.  In Leopold’s era, the natural world was threatened by a pervasive public near-ignorance of the full scope of destruction we could levy through our progress.   In the present age, when such knowledge is so readily and immediately available to us, the threat lies instead in its being drowned by a cascade of largely vacuous social media utterances that foster isolation and indifference.  It lies as well in the widespread American corporate campaign to link consumption to self-worth and to obfuscate both the environmental and social costs of that campaign.  It is not hyperbole to say that we need a conservation ethic now more than ever.  Arguably, such a claim will be equally valid in each of the eras to follow ours; thus, we must foster such an ethic not just in ourselves but in our youngest generation.

In order to achieve its desired effects—which I will drastically simplify here as environmental, social, and spiritual sustainability—a conservation ethic must ultimately be practiced with consistency along all scales: individual, local, societal, global.  Each scale is laden with challenges, and, to navigate these, we must avoid setting end targets that are too measured, too inflexible.  A sustainable conservation ethic cannot be an all or nothing proposition.  Instead, it requires us to continuously reevaluate its truths, to compromise when necessary, and, perhaps most importantly, to value questions more than answers.  There are few simple answers in the practice of a meaningful conservation ethic.  Such an ethic must evolve, and we must evolve with it and be committed to doing so for the long haul.

The window display of the Salvation Army where the author's family buys virtually all of their clothing and durable goods second hand.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The window display of the Salvation Army where the author’s family buys virtually all of their clothing and durable goods second hand. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

No conservation ethic can take root in society as a whole without doing so first in the individual.  As much as it might seem counterintuitive when we reflect on the scope of the world’s problems, environmental and otherwise, it is at the individual scale that we can do the greatest good.  Our actions can, by example and through direct interaction with others, multiply outward.  As an environmental journalist, I consider the effect of a Rachel Carson or an Aldo Leopold, and I am encouraged.  These are exceptional examples of the power of action at the individual scale, of course, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that all of our conservation ethic-driven actions have the power to influence friends, children, colleagues, even passersby.  There is a real danger in losing sight of the power of our daily acts.  There is likewise a danger in holding ourselves to such a high conservation ethic standard that we wallow in our inevitable failures to meet that standard.  It is not easy to be a conservationist in a society that lauds and demands consumption beyond our own and the planet’s means.  It is not easy to be a conservationist when one of our fundamental, instinctual drives is to protect our individual interests and those of the people closest to us.  It is inevitable that, having developed a conservation ethic, we will violate it with some regularity.  Arguably, the more developed our conservation ethic is, the more our violation of it becomes a conscious act.  Such an ethic requires both commitment and compromise, both self-criticism and self-forgiveness.

The conundrum of a conservation ethic on the individual scale is aptly illustrated by American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale in an August 2, 1959 journal entry he recorded shortly after his move to Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut.  He writes of destroying a large white-faced hornet nest in a tree less than fifty feet from the 1806 farmhouse he would later make famous in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm.  Teale notes in his journal that “white-faced hornets are large, numerous and not mild-dispositioned like the Polistes,” and so he concocted an elaborate plan to set the nest afire and let it drop to a steel garbage can below.  This was the same Edwin Way Teale who had published in 1943 The Golden Throng, a 208-page text in which he wrote with wonder about the extraordinary society of honeybees.  In in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, Teale had noted that the wasps, which include hornets, “with the ants and the bees […] form a triumvirate which demonstrates the wonders of instinct.”  Teale’s anguish over his destruction of the nest is clear in the following passage from the entry:

“So at 9:25 P.M. the life of this insect city ended.  The catastrophe was sudden and complete.  I had done what had to be done.  I had done it with split-second timing and complete success.  Yet I went to bed uneasy in my mind.  For I had demonstrated that fiendish side of the human mind that, as much as benevolence and kindness, if not more, accounts for Man’s position as Lord of the Earth.  And I was not proud of it.”

This summer, I discovered a ground nest of yellow jackets (Vespula maculifrons) in the north corner of our garden and, like Teale fifty-five years ago, I will dig it up this winter and dispose of it in our woods, filling in the ground cavity to dissuade a new nest in spring.  It is a not a task I relish, for, like Teale, I am decidedly on the side of life, but I have a vivid boyhood memory of a neighbor boy, David Cohen, stepping in a similar nest deep in the woods behind my childhood home.  I recall clearly his leaps and screams, his mother hosing him down with a garden hose, the yellow jackets that poured out of his untied canvas Keds.  As a father of three small children, the fate of a nest inches form the footpath to our backyard, and any such nest too close to the paths of our daily life, is self-evident.  At times our conservation ethic must yield to other needs, and it is at these times that I am reminded of Aldous Huxley’s foreword to the 1946 reissue of his seminal 1932 novel Brave New World.  In that foreword, Huxley asserts, “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment.”  He further admonishes the reader that “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”  As noted earlier, a conservation ethic at times requires self-forgiveness to avert a greater, crippling sense of defeat. Here lies the difference between a conservation ethic that is sustainable and one that is not.

Nonetheless, self-interest, in all of its magnifications along all of its scales, is the greatest challenge to the conservation of the natural world.  Just as we must strive for environmental sustainability in the sum total of our daily actions and interactions, so too must we seek a sustainable conservation ethic.  It is impractical to expect that our self-interests will or even should always yield to environmental considerations.  What is realistic, productive, and sustainable is to develop the expectation that we will defer to the greater environmental good when possible and, when we cannot, we will at least moderate our actions to minimize their negative effects.  Living in a rural area with negligible public transportation, I cannot elect not to drive my car, but I can moderate my use of it.  The challenge of such an approach is building the capacity to separate need from want, a capacity that is severely undervalued in our consumption-driven culture.  There is no greater friend to the natural world than a severe economic downturn that arrests unfettered development and runaway consumption.  Such times can and should offer us opportunities for reflection, reflection that must extend beyond environmental considerations alone.  According to a 2013 study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 3.9 million American households with children “were unable at times during the year to provide adequate, nutritious food for their children.”  During the same year, Forbes reported an average National Basketball Association player salary of $5.15 million.  These numbers should give us pause.  As a society, what do we value?  What do we prioritize?

While the contrasting statistics above speak primarily to the skewed valuation system that permeates our society, they also have considerable environmental implications.  Food insecurity, for example, which the USDA study defines as “lack[ing] enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members,” inevitably drives those affected by it to purchase low-cost, low-nutrition, unsustainably harvested and manufactured foods, often from big box retailers.  These same retailers flood the market with a vast array of low-cost, low-quality, short-lived “durable goods” that pour into American landfills at unprecedented rates.  We see over and over again the staggering long-term environmental and social cost of the two-dollar Walmart T-shirt that simply cannot, in real and sustainable terms, cost two dollars.  The salary-inflated network of professional sports organizations likewise leaves in its wake a terrible environmental cost.  Consider the refuse production, energy consumption, and food waste in one arena during the course of one sporting event.  Consider as well the vast array of memorabilia produced and sold in this context.  How much of it is produced with an eye on sustainability?  How much of it is destined for a speedy trip to the local or regional landfill?  Thus, we cannot separate a conservation ethic from the larger ethics systems that govern our behavior in society, nor should we.

Returning again to Leopold’s call for humankind to shift from conqueror of the natural world to plain member and citizen, I must likewise return to the fact that this is not a simple proposition, or even a fully realizable one.  Our capacity to reason and our drive to improve our lives renders impossible our taking a role of equal citizenship.  For better or worse, we are, as Teale notes above, the Lords of the Earth, in so much as we possess an unparalleled capacity to irreversibly alter it through our disproportionate consumption of its finite resources.  This imbalanced relationship will persist short of a catastrophic event, natural or anthropogenic, that annihilates the human race.  Thus, it is more pragmatic, and therefore sustainable, to aim instead for a role of benevolent citizenship framed and guided by a developed conservation ethic.  This is an attainable goal toward which we can and must strive while tempering our expectations to accept the inevitable periodic failures both of ourselves and the greater society to meet it.  While at times this failure will simply result from our choosing what is convenient over what is sustainable, this is not always the case.  Two brief examples follow to illustrate this distinction.

A view of the firebox of the author's Jotul F500 Oslo woodstove loaded with red maple, black cherry, and red oak at startup.  Photo by Richard Telford, copyright 2013.

A view of the firebox of the author’s Jotul F500 Oslo woodstove loaded with red maple, black cherry, and red oak at startup. Photo by Richard Telford, copyright 2013.

As I have written about in a previous Ecotone Exchange essay, we heat our 1770 northeastern Connecticut farmhouse exclusively with two wood-burning stoves.  Wood-burning as a primary heat source both challenges and reinforces a conservation ethic.  Done properly, burning wood in an EPA-certified stove or insert can yield 85-90% efficiency, and wood is one of a handful of truly renewable energy sources.  Furthermore, the argument is often posited that wood is a carbon-neutral energy source, as the carbon released in burning would be released over time anyway.   I would like to put my full faith into this last argument, but even a quick review of scientific literature shows it to be an oversimplification, and, in the world of complex environmental issues, oversimplifications have a way of imploding.  Even if one accepts the carbon-neutral argument for responsible wood-burning, there is nonetheless the nagging question of particulate matter pollution, a serious issue both for its environmental effects and the public health concerns it raises.

A cross-section view from one of the author's woodpiles.  The end cracking visible in these logs indicates that they are well seasoned and will burn efficiently and cleanly in the woodstove.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A cross-section view from one of the author’s woodpiles. The end cracking visible in these logs indicates that they are well seasoned and will burn efficiently and cleanly in the woodstove. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Particulate matter pollution is a necessary by-product of using wood as fuel, regardless of efficiency improvements.  It is the excessive emission of this particulate matter that has made the primitive but popular phase one outdoor wood furnaces the subject of increasing public concern and anger.  By design, these units convert wood to heat through smolder-burning at less than 200 degrees Fahrenheit and thus can belch particulate-loaded smoke that can travel for miles.  This has led many states and municipalities to ban their use outright and has also led the EPA to introduce stricter efficiency standards on newly manufactured units.  By contrast, an EPA-certified in-home woodstove typically burns at 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing for a nearly smokeless burn at optimum temperature as off-gasses are burned in-stove rather than emitted through the chimney.   Still, even wood burned efficiently produces four times more particulate matter than home heating oil and twenty times more particulate matter than natural gas.  Additionally, short of a return to the exclusive use of the axe and bucking saw, the harvesting and transport of fuel wood likewise produces carbon and other emissions.  Each heating season, I once again contemplate and struggle with the environmental consequences of our woodstove use, and I affirm once again that we are, I believe, right in our actions, though not without a cost.  I contemplate the finite supply of fossil fuels, which correspondingly demands increasingly invasive and irreversibly destructive means of extraction.  I contemplate the piping of tar sands oil through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that, regardless of the assurances of lobbyists and scientists-for-hire, will inevitably suffer a catastrophic break with equally catastrophic ecological effects.  I contemplate the deleterious process of fracking and its poisoning of groundwater.  I contemplate the extraction of undersea oil by deep-water drilling and the steep environmental cost of getting that oil refined and transported to my home.  These and other factors lead me to decide that locally harvested and responsibly burned wood in a region that is 78% forested produces a lesser net negative result, and I am reminded once again that a conservation ethic fosters and demands an ongoing process of evaluation and reevaluation, a process that is driven more by questions than it is by answers.

The author's created wool bear caterpillar habitat suitable for hibernation.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The author’s created wool bear caterpillar habitat suitable for hibernation. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

For my second example, I turn to the ubiquitous wooly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella).  In early December of this year, we noticed a wooly bear inching across the front room floor of our old farmhouse.  Due to the house’s fieldstone foundation and 244 years’ worth of unseen field mouse passageways among the old timbers, wildlife has a way of finding its way in.  My six-year-old daughter’s immediate response was to declare it her pet.  Normally, we allow nothing wild to be kept captive in our house, and we have worked hard to foster in our children the idea that nature should be observed and appreciated with as low an impact as possible. I waivered, however, in the case of the wooly bear.  I put my daughter down to sleep with the assurance that I would decide by morning what we would do with it.  With a quick online search, I found hundreds of sites touting the ease of hatching wooly bears into Isabella Tiger Moths in captivity. This particular specimen, if released outside, would either promptly hibernate or die trying to do so.  In the end, I took an oversized Ball canning jar, poked some holes in the lid, and created a simple habitat suitable for hibernation.  In doing so, I violated a cardinal tenet of my own conservation ethic, but I likewise seized a valuable opportunity for my children to watch and appreciate firsthand this magical transformation.  How can we hope to foster a conservation ethic in our children without providing them such interactions?

Environmental educators bringing children into the field face a daunting challenge in a time when the world is experiencing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity due largely to anthropogenic causes.  It is, of course, vital that we foster a leave-no-trace mindset in the children we educate, a mindset that may in the future guide their personal and professional lives.  However, many of us with a deep love of the natural world will readily trace that connection to the unfettered explorations of childhood, an inherently destructive process at times, intended or not, but an infinitely enriching one as well.  I have written about this duality in my own childhood elsewhere on The Ecotone Exchange.  While we may cringe at the thought of dragging a seining net across a pond bottom and laying it out on the shore edge for examination, there is no better way for a child to see at once the complex benthic world hidden beneath the water’s surface.  If we are going to engage children with the natural world in meaningful ways, such compromise, and the discomfort that comes with it, is necessary.  This compromise must be guided by a cost-benefit analysis of sorts, and the questions that drive that deliberation will rarely yield easy answers.  As noted earlier, a conservation ethic has never been, nor will it ever be, an all or nothing proposition.

In the end, a conservation ethic is necessarily subject to evolution, responding both to personal growth in the individual and change in the society.  The latter kind of change simultaneously alters the environmental paradigm and the appropriate response to that evolved paradigm.  In simple terms, a conservation ethic has the power to give our daily lives greater deliberateness and meaning.  It offers a potent antidote to the sense of futility we inevitably feel when confronted by the consumerism and greed and ignorance that imperil the natural world.  As we work to develop a sustainable conservation ethic, we must seek questions as much as we seek answers—not in a way that paralyzes us and makes us put up our hands but in a way that empowers us to envision and bring to fruition significant changes in our resource use on all scales and in our broader treatment of the natural world on the whole.  I can see no other workable course.

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his private journals kept at Trail Wood, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

A Place to Live, a Place to Die: Forging Deep Connections to the Land

The Starfield, a pasture in Trail Wood, the abandoned farm where naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale spent the last 21 years of his life.  His ashes were spread in the Starfield after his death in 1980.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2013.

The Starfield, a pasture in Trail Wood, the abandoned farm where naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Teale’s ashes were scattered in The Starfield after his death in 1980. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2013.

By: Richard Telford

The quintessentially American poet Walt Whitman, in the 1892 “Deathbed Edition” final revision of his opus 52-section “Song of Myself,” writes the following couplet in the poem’s final section:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

American poet Walt Whitman in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady, circa 1860-1865.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

American poet Walt Whitman in a photograph taken by Matthew Brady, circa 1860-1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It was section 52 of Whitman’s resonant and deeply moving poem that I selected as one of two readings for my father’s funeral more than a decade ago.  In the poem as a whole, Whitman conveys a striking duality—he extols both our individual significance and insignificance.  Whitman opens the poem with his famous declaration, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume […],” but he immediately acknowledges thereafter that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”  He ultimately articulates both the connectedness and the democracy of “Nature without check with original energy.”  In the end, Whitman argues, we are deeply connected to the land and to each other, whether or not we fully realize it; we are all “coaxe[d]” to “the vapor and the dusk” and ultimately “depart as air.”  And in this democracy of our return to earth—natural earth, atomic earth, final earth—there is, I believe, likewise a democracy of potential deep connection to the natural world, not just in the profound self-realization of facing our own deaths but in life, minute-by-minute life, from cradle to grave.  That sense of connection often lies latent, largely untapped, obscured by a parade of distractions—a truth not just for our era but all eras, though each manifests it in new ways as well as old—but that potential remains.  What is latent can be made vibrant, what is untapped can be tapped, what lies hidden can be made to rise—by our own conscious actions and by fostering such actions in others.  Whitman and so many others who have articulated a deep connection to the land offer us hope.  So too does the natural curiosity of childhood, an in-born impulse to explore which is often whittled away by the societal structures we impose upon it but need not be.  In a time when we face what Richard Leaky, Roger Lewin, Niles Eldredge, and others have termed The Sixth Extinction, the unprecedented anthropogenically-driven loss of biodiversity, the fostering of that impulse to explore, both in our children and in ourselves, is essential.

The author's two-year-old son romping under a sprinkler during the dog days of summer.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

The author’s two-year-old son romping under a sprinkler during the dog days of summer. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

During the last two decades, place-based education—championed by Laurie Lane-Zucker, John Elder, David Sobel, and many others—has risen to the forefront of the effort to foster conservation-mindedness and overall wellbeing in the general public, especially children. As Mary Rivkin has written in The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside (1995), “For the long-term conservation of the world, it seems reasonable that children need a strong base of firsthand knowledge.”  It is the absence of such firsthand knowledge that has rightfully sounded alarms over the future of the conservation movement and of the natural world at all scales. The effects of this experiential gap have most famously, and in some circles controversially, been characterized by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods (revised edition 2008) as Nature-Deficit Disorder.  The picture painted by Louv in his many writings, by David Sobel in Beyond Ecophobia and elsewhere, and by many others, is a dire one, as it should be, but I draw hope from the literary record, from the naturalist writers who achieved in life the deepest connections to the land, leaving for subsequent generations an instructive record of those connections.  If many of these writers have themselves faded from the public consciousness, it is, I think, simply one more reflection of the societal shift away from the natural world in deference to one marked by consumption, by largely vacuous electronic communication, by hollowness and unsustainability.  As we consciously work to foster and to forge the latent, ready, critical connection between children and the natural world, naturalist writers can provide us a model, a guide by which we may foster and forge those connections first within ourselves.  How can we otherwise give to future generations what is largely absent in us?

When naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale moved in 1959 to Trail Wood, the 130-acre home and sanctuary where he would spend the remaining twenty-one years of his life, he noted in a newly started journal, “We are more fortunate than Moses—we saw our Promised Land and entered it as well […]; our search was wide but in the end we found our Eden” (September 18, 1959).  Ten days later, in a subsequent entry, he notes:  “Here is place to live in and a place to die in, too.”  Despite having just arrived to the place that he would later document in two books, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) and A Walk Through the Year (1978), Teale had the vision to see the fulfillment, the sloughing off of the unimportant, that could be had in such a place.  We spend our lives seeking our own Edens, and the short-term targets of that search are often the illusory shadows of success as we are led to see it: material goods, social media adulation, the outward shows of status in all its forms.  What Teale and Whitman, Louv and Sobel, and many others knew and know is that it is through the permanence of the natural world, no matter how we alter it, that we can reconcile our own impermanence.  What better motive can we have for valuing, embracing, and ultimately conserving the natural world?  What better example can we offer to future generations?

In the early spring of 1921, naturalist writer John Burroughs was gravely ill, and he embarked upon a cross-country train trip in hopes of dying amidst his beloved Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.  He died en route, and a March 30 New York Times story reported that passengers aboard the train wept openly as the nationally beloved Burroughs was taken from the train.  Edwin Way Teale, dying of cancer in 1980, produced several rough sketches of a headstone to ostensibly mark his and Nellie Teale’s resting place, and to commemorate their only child, David, who was declared dead one year after going missing in action during heavy fighting along the Moselle River in Germany in 1945.  The following statement appears in penciled script along the top edge of one of Teale’s headstone sketches: “Ashes scattered over The Starfield at Trail Wood.”  Like Whitman, Teale wished to bequeath himself to the land he loved.  For both Burroughs and Teale, their deep connections to the land guided their lives to the end. Their final acts culminated lives deeply connected to the natural world and to the respective places that had profoundly shaped those connections. Such deep connections can be found in the work of living writers, as well;  consider Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Robert Michael Pyle’s The Thunder Tree or Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Walt Whitman opens section 6 of “Song of Myself” with the following couplet:

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;                                                          How could I answer the child?  I do not know what it is any more than he.

In these lines, Whitman captures the natural, exploratory curiosity of childhood.  He likewise articulates well how comparatively small our understanding of the natural world truly is, rendering us, if we are honest with ourselves, always explorers.  In that sense, perhaps the sum of what we don’t know can drive us to keep the good impulses of childhood that we often shed too readily.  It is these impulses that allow us to make deep connections to the land, both in living life and leaving it.

A Call for Writers and Visual Artists, Summer 2015

A white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), a late summer dragonfly.  Edwin way Teale wrote about observing large numbers of Sympetrum dragonflies in his early days at Trail Wood.   Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A white-faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), a late summer dragonfly. Edwin way Teale wrote about observing large numbers of Sympetrum dragonflies in his early days at Trail Wood. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

By: Richard Telford

Connecticut Audubon Society is now accepting applications for the 2015 Edwin Way Teale Artists-in-Residence at Trail Wood program.  Electronic application submissions will be accepted this year, which is a change from previous years. Through the program, inaugurated in 2012, CAS invites writers and visual artists, chosen through a juried process, to spend one week in residence at the former home of Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale.  The home is situated in the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary, which Yankee Magazine in 2013 named as one of Connecticut’s two best nature sanctuaries—the other being CAS’s 700-acre Baflin Sanctuary, which is a ten-minute drive from Trail Wood.  The sanctuary still contains many of the trails cut by Edwin and Nellie Teale shortly after their arrival in the summer of 1959.  These continue to be maintained by CAS.

Teale in the Blind

American naturalist writer and photographer Edwin Way Teale at work in his observation blind alongside Hampton Brook in Trail Wood. Courtesy of the Edwin Way Teale Papers, Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries. Works by Edwin Way Teale are copyrighted by the University of Connecticut Libraries. Used with permission.

One month after their move to Trail Wood, Edwin wrote in a July 6, 1959 journal entry, “We have the feeling here that whenever we look out the window there may be something exciting to see. Adventures lie all around us.”  Edwin, in his unpublished writings, often referred to Trail Wood as his and Nellie’s “Eden” and their “Promised Land.” He remained there until his death in 1980, and Nellie until hers in 1993.  Just prior to Edwin’s death, the Teales arranged to bequeath the site to Connecticut Audubon Society as a sanctuary open to the public, which it remains today.

Edwin’s site observations, as well as some of Nellie’s, are thoughtfully documented in the two books he wrote about Trail Wood, A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm (1974) and A Walk Through the Year (1978).  Program participants are encouraged to read one or both of these works in order to more fully understand the intent of this program, the site itself, and the important legacy of the Teales.  Alexander Brash, president of Connecticut Audubon Society, notes, “The residency program keeps alive the spirit of Edwin Way Teale, who opened American’s eyes to the small beauties of the natural world and the importance of conservation through close observation and precise writing, both here at home in Connecticut and across the country in his travel books.”

Writing Cabin 2013-12-14

Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood after a light December snowfall. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2013.

Additionally, the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut houses Edwin’s private papers, including four 500-page journals he kept while at Trail Wood. A catalog of the Teale archive can be viewed here. Residency program staff can help arrange a visit to the archive prior to or during the residency period.  Trail Wood is open to the public but generally experiences moderate visitorship, allowing a solitary and contemplative experience conducive to the creative process.  Edwin’s writing cabin, which has previously been undergoing restoration, will be available for use by resident artists this year.  The cabin, which overlooks a one-acre pond the Teales had dug in 1959, was built to match the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond.  It offered Edwin a working space removed from visitors and the telephone.

While in residence, artists are encouraged to practice their craft in a way that is inspired both by the site’s natural beauty and its important role in American natural history writing.  The site contains diverse habitat, including mature eastern forest, abandoned pastureland, a three-acre beaver pond, a year-round running brook, and lowland swamps. The site offers excellent birding opportunities, with 88 species having been identified in the sanctuary.  Edwin’s writing study in the main house is still preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death in 1980, per Nellie Teale’s wishes, and CAS staff can provide visiting artists with access to it.  Presently, residencies are scheduled only for the summer months.  With planned further restoration of the Teale home, an 1806 center-chimney Cape Cod, CAS hopes to expand the residency offerings to a year-round schedule in future years.

After the completion of the residency, participating writers and visual artists are invited to attend a follow-up event, Trail Wood Under the Harvest Moon, held annually on-site in September.  At this event, each resident artist is asked to read or present a sample of work completed during the residency and to speak briefly about the residency experience itself. This work can be in process.  The residency application can be found here.  It provides further explanation of the program and an overview of the its logistics. Inquiries about the program can be sent to  The program’s coordinator, CAS volunteer Richard Telford, has published a series of articles on or related to Edwin Way Teale and Trail Wood at the Ecotone Exchange, and these articles, available here, may provide helpful background for prospective applicants.

The Things We Carry: Revisiting Holling Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling's Paddle-to-the-Sea.

The original 1941 cover for Hollis Clancy Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea, which was awarded the 1942 Caldecott Medal.

By: Richard Telford

The ratcheting hum of the 16-millimeter projector gave way to the roar of the dark ocean as Paddle-to-the-Sea, a small, one-foot-long canoe carved by the hands of a Nipigon boy in the far north of Canada, rose and fell among thick gray swells dimly lit by a leaden sky. It was during the mid 1970s, in the closing days of an elementary school year, and several classes, including my own, had been packed into a classroom to watch the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Holling Clancy Holling’s 1942 Caldecott Honor Book Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  It is a film I never forgot, and I have carried many images from it with me in the decades that followed:  the young boy carving his Paddle-to-the-Sea and pouring a line of molten lead for ballast in a groove cut along the hull; the boy’s hands placing Paddle atop a snow-covered hill, waiting for the spring melt to carry him away; Paddle-to-the-Sea floating through a series of beaver ponds while the surrounding landscape ripples with flame during a forest fire; and, finally, Paddle-to-the-Sea floating along the garbage-strewn surface of one of the Great Lakes, sewage being pumped in from great conduits.  Though the film was, for a child, a magical telling of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey to the sea from the deep north woods of Canada, that last image resonated with me as much as the others, though not more.

A film still from the National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason.  Courtesy of the Criterion Collection.

A film still from the 1966 National Film Board of Canada production of Paddle-to-the-Sea, directed by Bill Mason. Janus Films has released a high-definition digital transfer of the film on DVD in The Criterion Collection.

Despite being largely true to the book’s content and intentions, Bill Mason’s film is far more overt in its conservation messaging than Holling’s book, first published in 1941, when war-time industrialism was ramping up and the insecticidal value of DDT had just been discovered two years earlier. While the book clearly aims to foster an appreciation for the North American watershed, the film exceeds the book’s original bounds, reflecting the precipitous rise in concern over water pollution that would set the stage for the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, one year before Holling would die due to complications of Parkinson’s disease.  The eco-politicization of the film, though it is not overly obtrusive and does not detract from the magic of Paddle-to-the-Sea’s journey, is a logical outcome of the time in which it was produced.  Rachel Carson, in Silent Spring, published in 1962, had just shocked the public consciousness with the vision of a world in which “only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh,” a landscape over which a “grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed.”

One year later, Stewart Udall, in his seminal 1963 book The Quiet Crisis, warned that “we live in a land of vanishing beauty, of increasing ugliness, of shrinking open space, and of an overall environment that is diminished daily by pollution and noise and blight.” Udall’s book, and more importantly its message, had garnered enough public clout—no doubt in part due to Carson’s efforts—to prompt President John F. Kennedy to write its Introduction less than a year before he would be assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.  Thus, Bill Mason’s film emerged in a time of environmental urgency.  He could juxtapose the beauty and magic of the Nipigon boy’s simple act of sending off his Paddle-to-the-Sea against the beauty and complexity of a vast watershed, just as Holling Clancy Holling had done 25 years earlier, but he could likewise frame it with the rising specter of water pollution.  While Holling had written to an American public deeply mired in a global war, in a time when industry reigned, Mason worked in a time when that magnificent and powerful hydrographic system had come to be seen as fragile, threatened, and fleeting.  Thus, his film had the potential both to appeal to children’s natural sense of wonder and, at the same time, to foster conservation-mindedness when it was desperately needed, both in children and adults.

Holling Clancy Holling, through his books and periodical illustrations, was a consummate educator, as was his wife Lucille, who, as an illustrator and writer herself, assisted him on many projects. While Paddle-to-the-Sea is an engaging story of the unlikely travels of the Nipigon boy’s “Paddle Person,” it is likewise rich with information related both to natural history and to modern industry of the 1940s, both of which Holling marvels at and praises.  This information is conveyed not only in the main text of the story, but also in pencil sketches superimposed around the margin of the text.  The book features twenty-seven one-page chapters of text, surrounded by copious pencil illustrations and hand-printed explanations, each facing a full-page watercolor illustration on the opposite page.  Holling teaches geography, for example, through these pencil sketches, showing through a series of drawings that “Lake Superior’s outline makes a wolf’s head” and Lake Huron “makes the outline of a trapper with a pack of furs.”  When Paddle-to-the-Sea passes through a sawmill in Chapter 7, only to be saved from the mill blade by a friendly lumberjack, Holling sketches onto the top margin of the text a complete “Diagram of a Sawmill.”  As Paddle-to-the-Sea makes its way across Lake Erie, Holling incorporates a “Diagram of a Lake Freighter,” breaking down the bulkheads, rudder chain, ballast tanks, and many other elements, facing a watercolor painting of the falls with a minute silhouette of Paddle-to-the-Sea as it tips over edge of the cascading Niagra waters, from which an arcing rainbow rises.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937.  Courtesy of Wikipedia.

An installment of The World Museum, by Holling Clancy Holling and his wife Lucille, published May 16, 1937. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paddle-to-the-Sea is but one of many works that Holling created, often with the assistance of his wife Lucille, to captivate the minds and stretch the imaginations of children. One interesting endeavor of the Hollings was a series of newspaper comics published in the late 1930s called The World Museum.  These comics featured a series of illustrations with detailed instructions for cutting them out and assembling their component parts into elaborate dioramas, requiring only “scissors, paste, and wrapping paper.”  Topics included the Grand Canyon, an undersea adventure, covered wagons, and a buffalo hunt.  The latter topic, though perhaps challenging our conservation hindsight, must be seen in the context of the times.  Given that The World Museum was being produced in the heart of the Great Depression, the series was truly visionary, making an elaborate educational tool available to nearly any child whose parents could afford a newspaper.  Among Holling’s other book-length natural history works for children are Minn of the Mississippi (1951), a Newbery Honor Book that follows the movement of a snapping turtle from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, and Pagoo (1957), which presents an intricate picture of tide pool life from the vantage point of a hermit crab.

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling's 1951 children's book Minn of the Mississippi, which one the

The cover of Hollis Clancy Holling’s 1951 children’s book Minn of the Mississippi, which was later awarded the Newbery Medal.

It would be impressive enough if Holling Clancy Holling only juxtaposed rich and wondrous visual art with a pedagogically deft text that at times is truly magical, but he transcends even this with writing of great beauty. Of the Nipigon country in Paddle-to-the-Sea, Holling writes, “All this time the world was changing.  The air grew warmer, the birch twigs swelled with new buds.  A moose pawed the snow beside a log, uncovering green moss and arbutus like tiny stars.  And then, one morning, the gray clouds drifted from the sky.  The sun burst out warm and bright above the hills, and under its glare the snow blankets drooped on the fir trees.”  In Minn of the Mississippi, Holling renders the cell division leading to the formation of a snapping turtle embryo into a passage that is lyric and magical: “These cells were not piling themselves for no purpose.  They were adding new chains of cells within their secret ocean because the life in them held a memory.  It remembered patterns laid out when the world was young.  And, as though the Life had been given a definite, detailed task—“THESE CELLS SHALL BUILD TO A CERTAIN PATTERN WITHIN THIS SEA”—all cells were busily obeying this magic, mysterious order.”

Recently, justifiable attention has been paid to the reality that children—and many adults—grow more physically disconnected from the natural world with each passing year. The implications of this disconnection on the conservation movement are ominous, and the most commonly espoused approach of ecological triage is simply to bring children out into nature.  While this is critical, it is a simplistic solution with arguably little benefit in and of itself.  Many children lack a meaningful context with which to frame their experiences in nature.  It is not enough to simply deposit a child in a natural setting and hope for the best.  Works like those of Holling Clancy Holling can provide critical context for those experiences; they can likewise meaningfully frame those experiences after the fact.  They can also spur engagement.  The Internet is full of stories of individuals and school groups who have launched their own incarnations of Paddle-to-the-Sea.

In considering the power of children’s literature to foster conservation-mindedness, the works of Thornton W. Burgess, a staple of my childhood, likewise come to mind. During the early twentieth century, nature study as a national past-time hit its peak, and the national literature of that period reflects this. Much of that literature deserves revisiting, despite some challenges to our modern views, such as Holling’s appreciation for industry or Burgess’s heavy use of anthropomorphism.  There is, of course, modern children’s literature of great value as well; Janet Yolen’s Owl Moon, Natalia Romanova’s Once There Was a Tree, and Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born come to mind, as do a host of books by Jean Craighead George. And there are many others.  Still, in a time when we too must face the unavoidable reality that all natural systems, hydrographic and otherwise, are fragile, threatened, and fleeting, it is critical that we use all available tools, including the full canon of children’s literature, to engage children with and provide them meaningful context for the natural world.  Allowing a child to journey with a Nipigon boy’s Paddle-to-the-Sea “to the Great Salt Water” can accomplish these ends and a great deal more.

Amplifying Life: Macro Photography and Our Vision of Ourselves

An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis) straddles an unknown flower.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

By:  Richard Telford

The cover of Grassroot Jungles, Edwin Way Teale’s landmark 1937 book of insect photography and natural history.

In 1937, Edwin Way Teale stunned the reading public, both in the United States and abroad, with the publication of Grassroot Jungles, a book that featured 130 photographs macro photographs of insects in both natural and studio settings. New York Times reviewer Anita Moffett, writing in the December 19, 1937 New York Times Book Review, noted that “these pictures combine fact with imaginative power in depicting the beauty and goblinlike [sic] grotesqueness of the fascinating and almost unknown world to which the reader is introduced.”  The book aptly illustrates the power and dynamic value of macro photography—at once a tool for exploration, for documentation, for education, and for engagement.  Through macro photography, we are given a wealth of concrete, visual detail that would otherwise be imperceptible to us; at the same time, we glimpse with heightened clarity the extraordinary functional complexity of both the individual organism and the dynamic world it inhabits.  If we are lucky, we may likewise see our own place in that world.

A close-up view of the thorax of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly  (Pachydiplax longipennis).  The pronotum, the shield-like cover at top, I covered sensory bristles.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A close-up view of the thorax of a male Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). The pronotum, the shield-like cover at top, is covered with fine sensory bristles. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Through the macro lens, we can see the delicate sensory bristles on the pronotum that shields the dragonfly’s thorax, the unfurled probiscus of the butterfly siphoning nectar from summer blossoms. With this heightened visual knowledge, we may come to see the former as a complex network of sensory appendages that can measure speed and direction of flight, temperature, the nearness of prey.  In the latter we may see a simple, flexible, coiled straw, when in fact it is a complex organ with three muscle types, nerves, sensilla, a central canal through which nectar passes, and a branched trachea.  Intuitively we know that the sophistication of such apparatus reveals the unquantifiable complexity of the creatures that utilize them, of the evolutionary process that gave them rise, and of the infinite permutations of form and function and beauty in the natural world.  It is reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s assertion in part 31 of “Song of Myself” that “a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.”  In the magnification of the small, we are reminded of our smallness.  Thus macro photography, in both the acts of creation and consumption, is dynamic—we can simply see and appreciate the heretofore unseen, or we can, through both intuitive and formal deduction and induction, become explorers of the interplay of process, form, function, and beauty.

A Peck's Skipper butterfly  (Polites peckius) inserts its probiscus to siphon nectar from a red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) while an American bumble bee  (Bombus pennsylvanicus) works its way up the opposite side of the flower.  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A Peck’s Skipper butterfly (Polites peckius) inserts its probiscus to siphon nectar from a red clover blossom (Trifolium pratense) while an American bumble bee (Bombus pennsylvanicus) works its way up the opposite side of the flower. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

In a remembrance of Teale written for the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in 1981, fellow entomologist and writer Alexander Klots noted that Teale began his photographic journey “with what today seems a crude and cumbersome apparatus, a big bellows-extension camera and loose flash-powder gun.”  Thirty-three years after the publication of that remembrance, in the time of constantly-evolving digital single reflex cameras, that early equipment seems more prehistoric than crude, a footnote of history rather than a working tool. In his 1962 introduction to Russ Kinne’s The Complete Book of Nature Photography, Roger Tory Peterson aptly summarizes the speed of such changes, writing, “Twenty-five years ago I was rash enough to suggest that nature photography probably couldn’t look forward to more than a 10 or 15 per cent improvement in results.  I believed that this art, craft or sport—call it what you will—had attained near stability.  How incredibly naive!”  Peterson’s realization came amidst the development of cameras “now so sophisticated that they almost think” and “ingenious systems  of synchronization and remote control, fluid tripods, gyroscopic stabilizers and 1,000 other accessories [that] tempt the photographer to mortgage his home.”

How many times has Peterson’s realization of the passage of technological time been reiterated, either spoken or unspoken, amidst the near-complete decline of gelatin emulsion film resulting from digital media’s meteoric rise? It is quite easy to ask rhetorically where we can possibly go from here.  Will some unknown dragon smite digital photography as we know it now?  It seems inevitable, though it is hard to envision precisely how this will happen. Ultimately, does it matter?  Does the process of siezing a time-stopped vision of the natural world fundamentally change as the technology leaps forward?  I don’t think so.

A female Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis).  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A female Blue Dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

This past summer, I worked diligently to photograph and identify the host of dragonfly species that frequent the landscape surrounding our 1770 Connecticut farmhouse, a process I documented in an earlier piece I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange.  Through this process, I awakened an impulse in myself that had gone briefly dormant.  Nearly twenty years ago, I purchased a well-worn, heavily-brassed Canon F-1n 35mm film camera, along with a copy of  Henry Horenstein’s excellent Black & White Photography: A Basic Manual.  With these, I taught myself to shoot, develop, and print my own photographs.  I went on to shoot in various formats, including 6×6 centimeter medium format and 4×5 inch sheet film, and worked part-time for several years as a photojournalist in the early 2000s when film was rapidly giving way to digital.

A pair of Dusky Slugs (Arion subfuscus) feeds on the remains of a mushroom at sunrise.

A pair of Dusky Slugs (Arion subfuscus) feeds on the remains of a mushroom at sunrise. Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

For the last several years, I had done little photographic work, and all of my serious macro work had been done during what now feels like another lifetime, largely on high-saturation color films like Kodak’s Kodachrome and Fuji’s Velvia. In recent years, sorting through sheaves of old prints, contact sheets, and negatives, I had often wondered in earnest if the feelings of exploration and inquiry and wonder that my early days of shooting film had provided me could likewise be experienced through digital photography.  I wondered if, proverbially speaking, I could go home again.  My work with dragonflies and other subjects this past summer showed me the possibility of doing so, albeit in a different technological context.

While uploading digital images to my computer screen will never capture precisely the feeling of watching a contact sheet of images take visible form in a tray of developer, the gratification of watching one’s vision translate to a physical form is rewarding nontheless. It is likewise hard to ignore the value of photo-imaging software that can facilitate even simple corrections, such as the removal of dust spots, and artistic ones, such as the boosting of an image’s contrast, that take minutes now compared to hours in the darkroom.  Here too, though, there is a duality, as those hours in the darkroom, while often tedious, were often contemplative as well, and they could yield a remarkable intimacy with one’s images—the value of long, close examination, both of film and paper and of oneself.

A late summer White-Faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum).  Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

A late summer White-Faced Meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum). Photo by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

Many times this past summer I felt child-like joy as I knelt in deep grass or muck, squinting at the viewfinder to bring a dragonfly’s compound, rainbow eye into sharp focus. I felt the momentary ease of shedding life’s heavier considerations, or at least keeping them distant, intent instead on the image taking shape in the camera’s viewfinder.  Such acts, through photography or otherwise, remind us of what matters, of what is beautiful and complex, of what should inspire awe in us, of what is both transitory and constant.  Too often we are oblivious to such things to our detriment, whether or not we can realize it.

Rachel Carson, in a letter written to Edwin Way Teale on August 16, 1955, expresses precisely this kind of wonder experienced through the photographic process. She thanks him for his “good letter of advice about cameras” and informs him that she “got an Exacta in May.”  She notes, “I am learning by degrees, and am really delighted with the camera, for now even a rank amateur like me can get really lovely results.  Such detail, brilliance, and depth of focus!  The marine subjects are toughest for a beginner, but flowers, mosses, scenes, etc. are more rewarding.  Nevertheless, that camera can look right down through 4 or 5 feet of water and see the bottom—as my eyes can’t.”  Here Carson articulates in plain terms photography’s power—and this is most true of macro photography—to help us see beauty that we otherwise could or, just as often, would not see.

An excerpt from a letter written to Edwin Way Teale by Rachel Carson.  Used by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries System and the Estate of Edwin Way Teale.

An excerpt from a letter written to Edwin Way Teale by Rachel Carson. Used by permission of the University of Connecticut Libraries System and the Estate of Edwin Way Teale.

Three years later, on May 10th, 1958, Teale would write to Carson to recommend the purchase of a Kilfitt macro lens, the first commercially produced true macro lens available to the general public, capable of producing 1:1 reproduction without the use of extension tubes or bellows.  He explains that it “surely would be of great help getting closeups [sic] of small marine subjects, recording them at full, or a little more than full, life size.”  To place this correspondence in a historical context, less than one month earlier, on April 17th, Carson had written to Teale with what now seems an astonishing level of understatement: “As perhaps you heard, I suddenly find myself writing about insecticides.  I hadn’t meant to, but it seems to me enormously important, and I decided far too many people (including myself only a few months ago!) knew what they should about it.”  Ironically, she adds, “So now I’m into it, but hope to do it quickly and rather briefly.”

In the aforementioned introduction to Russ Kinne’s book, Roger Tory Peterson notes photography’s capacity to create “an exact record of what happened in a particular second.” This capacity has, he notes elsewhere in his essay, both an aesthetic and a documentary value.  In the act of nature photography, macro or otherwise, perhaps what we document most fully is ourselves—our vision of the world  around us and the value we place upon it.  Recording such vision is fraught with aesthetic, moral, and ethical choices.  How much do we intrude on the natural world to capture its beauty?  How do we keep this vision true to its subject?  A quick image search for macro photography in Google yields a host of super-saturated images whose color palettes almost certainly exceed reality.  Do we, as Edwin Way Teale and others have—in great part due to equipment limitations—briefly place insects in the icebox to induce torpor?  Do we bait the wilderness to bring its inhabitants to us?  While these and other choices can define our approach to photography, they also define the ethic with which we approach the natural world.  Thus, the acts of exploration and discovery of the natural world through the camera lens are, first and foremost, acts of self-exploration and self-discovery.  Regardless of the technological era, they always have been and always will be.

The Author wishes to thank the staff of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut, where the papers of Edwin Way Teale, including his correspondence with Rachel Carson, are permanently housed and generously made available to the public.

Building the Museum: Engaging Children with the Natural World

The museum in the author's basement, circa 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford

The museum in the author’s basement, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

In the late 1970s, unbeknownst to our parents, my brother Will and I used a can of white, oil-based exterior house stain to paint on the short wall of our cellar what my brother, four years my senior, had calculated to be a life-sized silhouette of an Ankylosaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur dating to the Late Cretaceous period.  My mother’s first awareness of something being afoot came with her discovery of the stain-drenched brushes soaking in the bathroom sink shortly before dinner guests were to arrive.  To their credit, our parents could see the spirit of discovery in such endeavors, despite the inconveniences they might bring.  The Ankylosaurus a la Sherwin Williams was, in reality, just one of a number of acts of scientific discovery that took place in our cellar, some being more illustrious than others.

Another view of the cellar museum in the author's childhood home.  Copyright, Richard Telford

Another view of the cellar museum in the author’s childhood home, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

I wince even now, more than three decades later, when I think about the host of frogs that took the one-way trip—despite our earnest intentions and efforts otherwise—to the subterranean aquarium we set up in several old fish tanks, or the formaldehyde-saturated dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias) that circulated for years around our cellar in its thick, two-ply plastic bag, never to be dissected—my intended but later abandoned state science fair project.  In spite of such false starts and misguided efforts along the way, our cellar was a thriving classroom, both for ourselves and for other neighborhood children.  The creation of our life-sized Ankylosaurus was not an isolated endeavor; instead, it was the visual centerpiece of a much larger undertaking—the creation of our own cellar-housed science museum.

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author's family in the late 1970s.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author’s family in the late 1970s. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Several fortuitous events augmented our museum’s collection.  The first was a brief visit from a second cousin of my father’s who had a two-day layover in New York before leaving for a long stay in Germany.  Several months after her visit, she sent a large package from Germany to thank us for our hospitality and to encourage our interest in natural history, which had been evident to her during her stay.  The package contained a dilapidated box packed tightly with a museum-caliber collection of seashells.  For each specimen, there was a small, typed paper label containing its respective binomial nomenclature identification.  How this collection was acquired, we never knew, as we never heard from its sender again, but it took its place among our growing holdings.

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977. Copyright, Richard Telford

My brother and I were likewise fortunate enough growing up to have been taken to numerous science museums and centers.  During this period, most museum gift stores offered for sale Kodachrome slide sets of their collections and of related phenomena.  We had acquired quite a few of these sets over the years, and many were displayed in our museum on an inexpensive light board or projected through our Kodak Carousel projector on a contraband bed sheet stapled to a floor joist.  There was also a plaster cast of a latter Triassic Period Coelophysis footprint, made by us at Connecticut’s Dinosaur State Park.  The remaining tables featured local specimens of all things natural, mostly dead or inanimate, but some living as well.  We rounded things out with an Edmund Astroscan telescope, a four-vaned solar radiometer (which can still be bought at Edmund Scientific for $11.95), and an assortment of items from our kitchen junk drawer.  Our displays were laid out on simple plywood tables our father had made to serve as platforms for our model trains.  Signboards and related posters lined the walls. Thus, our museum at 73 High Ridge Road was born.

To the trained curator, the organization of our collections was nebulous at best.  A diorama with assorted sandbox dinosaurs—a staple of my childhood—might be flanked by a set of NASA Landsat image slides on one side and a lethargic pickerel frog (Rana palustris) housed in a mesh-covered fishtank on the other.  But that, truly, was the beauty of it. When children build the museum, no matter what the scale or whom the intended audience, they are not hemmed in by the strictures of the adult world.  Nor should they be.  For children, building the museum is an act of exploration, of engagement; it is a natural manifestation of their innate sense of wonder.  In the compulsive drive to deliver to children of all ages what we now loosely term “a 21st century education,” i.e. an unfettered immersion in the newest instructional technologies that cannot and does not consider the whole child, it is precisely these impulses in children—to explore, to engage, to wonder—that we must take great care not to dull down or blot out.  The risk of doing so is terribly real, and the evidence of this unintended result of our best educational intentions is soberingly apparent and has been aptly illustrated in insightful works such as Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia, and Mary Rivkin’s The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside. These innate impulses must be fostered, honed, and celebrated.  For a child, building the museum, whatever shape it may take, can achieve these ends.

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

In Gertrude Chandler Warner’s 1949 book Surprise Island, the sequel to her classic The Boxcar Children, the protagonists, the four Alden children, build a museum filled with bird nests, seashells, dried seaweeds, and paper cut-outs of the natural phenomena they observe on the island where they are spending the summer.  While reading this part of the book with my five-year-old daughter, I told her about the museum of my childhood, and she promptly asked if we, too, could build a museum.  Over several months we have collected a variety of items destined for our museum: robin egg fragments, a dragonfly wing, abandoned bird nests, assorted shells we have collected along the Connecticut and New York shorelines, and a host of other items. We too have had some fortuitous finds, such as a vintage, divided candy box filled with small seashells organized by species; this we bought at a tag sale for three dollars, and we will divide its contents into small grab bags for each of the children in my daughter’s first grade class.  This is important, as our museum represents something of an evolution.  Ours will go on the road to my daughter’s classroom, and perhaps, as my daughter gets older and my two young sons enter school, it will keep evolving and growing, as good museums do.

By the time my mother sold the house of our childhood in 2003, the last remnants of white trim stain had long ago sloughed off the damp north wall of our cellar, leaving no physical trace of our Ankylosaurus or the museum for which it had been the centerpiece.  The legacy of that museum, however, is a vibrant, living one that, through my own children, may well outlive its creators.  It is too easy these days to blindly place the proverbial eggs of our children’s future in the technology basket.  It is likewise too easy to despair over the disconnection from the natural world that so many children experience now, and to accept that disconnection as a necessary by-product of our present age.  As David Sobel has noted, we must allow children “to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”  Building the museum is a great way to begin doing so.