Balancing Shock and Optimism in a Time of Declining Attention Span

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

“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

The cover of the Winter 2015-2016 issue of SE Journal. Photo origin: Save-Elephants via Wikimedia commons.

My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne's article, "Life or Death for the Harp Seal." Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

The cover for the January 1976 issue of National Geographic, which featured Dr. David M. Lavigne’s article, “Life or Death for the Harp Seal.” Lavigne considered the possibility that annual Canadian seal harvest might drive the harp seal (Pagophilus groenlandicus) to extinction.

Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.

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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.

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

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 Holling 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.

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

Amplifying Life: Macro Photography and Our Vision of Ourselves

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. Photograph 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. Photograph 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). Photograph 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. Photograph 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). Photograph 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.

Featured image: An Oriental Beetle (Anomala orientalis). Photograph by Richard Telford, Copyright 2014.

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.

Before Rachel Carson

Edwin Way Teale's ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

Edwin Way Teale’s ground-breaking article published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before Rachel Carson began serializing Silent Spring in The New Yorker in June of 1962.

By Richard Telford

When Rachel Carson contemplated the writing of Silent Spring, it was naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale to whom she wrote to see if he thought what she later termed “the poison book” was viable; he encouraged her, and their correspondence would continue throughout the writing of the book that would so profoundly change the landscape of American—and global—conservation. Teale was acutely aware of the need for such a book, as he had written a ground-breaking article on DDT published in the March 1945 issue of Nature Magazine, seventeen years before the serialization of Silent Spring would start in The New Yorker in June of 1962. In his article, Teale painted a dire picture of the potentially catastrophic results that indiscriminate DDT use would wreak on the natural world. Even the magazine’s editors dedicated a full page of commentary to Teale’s article, noting, “We commend for serious and mature consideration the leading article in this issue of the magazine. It is, we believe, significant in thought and implication, even beyond the subject it discusses—the new insecticide, DDT.”

In his article, Teale, while acknowledging the critical role of military use of DDT in the European and Pacific Theaters during the Second World War, expressed the fear that “lackwit officials after the war […] will be off with yelps of joy on a crusade against all the insects.” Such a crusade, Teale argued, would produce “effects [that] would be felt for generations to come.” He continued, “A winter stillness would fall over the woods and fields. There would be no katydids, no crickets, no churring grasshoppers or shrilling locusts, no bright-winged and vocal birds. Trout and other gamefish, poisoned by the DDT or starving as the insects disappeared, would die in the lakes and mountain streams. Wildflowers, in all the infinite variety of their forms and shades, would gradually disappear from the openings and the hillsides. The landscape would become drab, clad in grays and greens and browns. […]. No drought, no flood, no hurricane could cause the widespread disaster that would follow in the train of the annihilation of the insects.” The parallels to the opening chapter of Silent Spring, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” are striking.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the "bright-winged and vocal birds" that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT.  Rachel Carson likewise feared a "spring without voices." Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

A northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), one of the “bright-winged and vocal birds” that Edwin Way Teale feared would be silenced by indiscriminate use of DDT. Rachel Carson likewise feared a “spring without voices.” Photo Copyright 2012, Richard Telford.

This is not to suggest that Rachel Carson stole what should have been Edwin Way Teale’s thunder as a prominent crusader against the indiscriminate use of DDT; there is no evidence to suggest that Teale himself ever held that view. On the contrary, their correspondence suggests the opposite. Instead, the object lesson here is that one individual cannot, through his or her own isolated efforts, cause seismic shifts in public thought, policy, and action, environmental or otherwise. Instead, the profound shift in the public’s view of DDT suggests that only a complex bulwark of thought and action, built through the efforts of many “voices in the wilderness,” can allow for one voice to fully articulate, facilitate, and subsequently come to represent such a profound change.  Street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s concept of “the decisive moment” seems aptly applicable here. This does not in any way diminish the work that Rachel Carson did. On the contrary, it illustrates her capacity to capitalize, both consciously and unconsciously, on the opportunity latent in that groundwork laid beforehand. This she did to the great benefit of generations to follow but at great cost to herself personally and, in some circles of thought, to her long-term legacy.

In his 1958 book Darwin’s Century, anthropologist and gifted natural history writer Loren Eiseley argues the presence of just such a pattern in Charles Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution. Eiseley painstakingly elucidates the influence on Darwin of the work of many scientists and great thinkers who preceded him, such as Gregor Mendel, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, James Hutton, Sir Charles Lyell, and others, as well as the work of his contemporaries such as Thomas Huxley and Alfred Russel Wallace. Essentially, Eiseley argues, many components critical to evolutionary theory were already established at the time Darwin set off on the H.M.S. Beagle. However, none of his predecessors or contemporaries “saw, in such a similar manner, the whole vista of life with such sweeping vision.” Because of this, Eiseley concludes, “Darwin’s shadow will run a long way forward into the future.”

It is important to note that, aside from Teale, there were other early, prominent critics of the indiscriminate use of DDT, including American essayist E.B. White, as well as Richard Pough who, among his legion accomplishments in land and bird conservation, served as the Nature Conservancy’s first president. White had written passionately against the indiscriminate use of DDT in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker in May of 1945, citing both Teale and Pough as sources. Carson would later write to E.B. White in 1958, suggesting that he write an article addressing concerns over the proposed spraying of DDT to control gypsy moth populations on Long Island. He declined to do so but suggested that she might write it herself for The New Yorker, setting the stage for the subsequent serialization of Silent Spring in the magazine four years later.

After Rachel Carson’s death in 1964, E.B. White, in a tribute written in “Talk of the Town,” clearly recognized her role in centralizing and giving prominent voice to the mounting concerns over indiscriminate DDT use. He wrote, “She was not a fanatic or a cultist. She was not against chemicals per se. She was against the indiscriminate use of strong, enduring poisons capable of subtle, long-term damage to plants, animals, and man. No contributor to these pages more effectively combined a warm passion for nature’s mysteries with a cool warning that things can easily go wrong.”  Rachel Carson had captured and later came to represent a decisive moment in the twentieth-century conservation movement.

Of great interest is the fact that the work of the early DDT critics may have gone unnoticed by Carson. In a footnote to her 1997 book Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, Linda Lear notes that “there is no indication that Carson knew of White’s 1946 editorial when she wrote her 1958 letter to him.” Similarly, Sidney Landon Plum of the University of Connecticut has noted that there is likewise no clear evidence that Carson read Teale’s 1946 article in Nature Magazine. This may be hard to conceive of in 2014 in our highly digitized, instant-access society, but it is not so hard to believe in an American society preoccupied with the violent rise and costly defeat of the Axis Powers. It is also quite possible that Carson did see one or both pieces, especially given the prominence at that time of their respective authors and publications; the evidence of this, if it ever existed, may simply be lost to time. In the end, though, it hardly matters. The lesson is the same. If we wish to advocate for the environment, and by doing so advocate for ourselves and future generations, we must recognize our potential roles in constructing a bulwark for meaningful change. No contribution to that bulwark is too small.

Like Pough and Teale, and to a lesser degree White (who is now remembered largely for his children’s books and selected essays, and little at all for his environmental advocacy), we must realize that we, as contributors to the larger bulwark, will inevitably fall in the shadow of prominent figures like Thoreau or Darwin or Carson. This, however, does not diminish the importance, even the necessity, of the slow, steady, and often forgotten work that precedes meaningful change. Cartier-Bresson coined his phrase from a statement he attributed to seventeenth-century French Cardinal de Retz: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”  These decisive moments are not flashes of brilliance absent of context.  We can all contribute to them and, to the degree that it is possible, must endeavor to do so.

Windows to the World



To survive we’d all turn thief and rascal, or so says the fox, with her coat of an elegant scoundrel,
her white knife of a smile, who knows just where she’s going . . .
                                                            — from Margaret Atwood, Morning in the Burned House

By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

            She was biting on her hind leg for what seemed like a long time to a church congregation who had long stopped listening to the minister. The fox, sitting, pondering, on the grass was not interested in the two hundred people behind the glass wall who look out upon the Mississippi River every Sunday morning. She (I surmise) was more interested in the river, the rain, and the brushy hedge than disturbing the Unitarian zealots in the pews. To be accurate, we are more radical about rivers and beasts than God; most of us find the divine in the serendipity of a foxworthy glimpse.

Having been the attention victim of many foxes and coyotes, some with their furry young ones, the minister knows that he must wait until the parade of creatures darts away out of sight. Then we can go back to listening to his sermon. But we are thinking of that fox. We are relishing that fox. We anticipate with all the joy in the universe when that fox (and it would be prudent to remember that over twenty-five years that I have attended this church that myriad generations of creatures have appeared and disappeared) will again appear with a longer tail or a brighter coat or three cuddly pups that we know need a safer home than the one they now possess.

The Mississippi River passes along the downtown Memphis river bluffs; therefore, this hairy creature is an urban fox that must contend with tourist traffic, tornado threats, lost musicians, barbeque eaters, flooding waters, basketball lovers, and festival crowds.

I bet she contends with the raccoons and their packs that dance through our city like gangs from West Side Story. The children of the fox and the raccoon are both called cubs, but a fight between them would not be pretty, their claws and teeth like switchblades.

She takes her delight in feeding herself, the husband, and the kids with park leftovers, not yet ravaged by pigeons or city rats. She gobbles up a pigeon or a squirrel while basking in the late-day rays of the sun setting over that big river water. She might find the divine in the flow of water or in that sun or in that rat. I believe in my heart that she finds, as I do, that squirrels are the henchmen of the devil; they are nasty rats with cute tails. Their marketing plan, however, has been too good down through the ages: humans tend to want to cuddle squirrels and shoot foxes, even if there are very few chicken coops around downtown.

To see wildlife in any city’s downtown, many believe, is an unexpected and joyful gift. Many people also believe that their spiritual life takes place at The Church of The Outside. Foxes, I pray, do as well.

Daughter of the Earth and Water: A Syllabus for Environmental English


By Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Better than all treasures/That in books are found . . .

–from To A Skylark by P.B. Shelley

When Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) needed some inspiration, he read the works of meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864), whose essay on clouds evolved into the classification system that weather professionals use today. The weather was Mr. Howard’s hobby, but he loved nature and wrote about science. The world was Mr. Shelley’s hobby, but he loved science and wrote about nature.

Fewer and fewer of my students become English majors. Their brains are immersed in science and math and technology; they want to become doctors and engineers. Many of them achieve their goals which are good for those of us who need the research done before we pick up our prescriptions that keep us alert enough to go to work and before we play outside in clean and sacred spaces.

Remember, and I shudder to write this, when these students leave my class, they may never read another poem or short story for the rest of their lives. What a world we live in when students spend most of their time on their phones or video games and do not go outside and look up or breathe fresh air or hike in the woods or notice clouds. How can we understand poetry if references to natural wonders are lost on the reader?

So, this year, I thought I would work with the HOSA (Health Occupation Students of America) teacher and devise a syllabus of topics that would immerse them in science and math, capturing their minds while I tried to capture what was left of their literary souls. Here is this year’s assignment and reading list:

Find the scientific, mathematical, and/or medical themes in your reading: patients’ rights, doctors’ rights, holistic medicine practices, right-to-die issues, AIDS, environmental justice and influences, Alzheimer’s, the role of government in health issues, addiction, poverty, medical care, philanthropic care, memory, sick societies, and preventative care.

Summer Reading, 2013-2014

Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen (nonfiction)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston (nonfiction)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (nonfiction)

Outside-of-Class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

August: Poboy Contraband by Patrice Melnick (nonfiction)

September/October: The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas (collection of essays)

November/December: Small Wonders by Barbara Kingsolver (collection of essays)

January-February: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA fiction) and

                               The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa (short fiction)

March-April: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (fiction)

In-class Reading during the School Year, 2013-2014

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

Wit by Margaret Edson

King Lear by William Shakespeare

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Long Day Journey’s Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

and one million poems and song lyrics and short stories

Okay, maybe not a million, maybe not even Shelley, and if I could, I would have my students subscribe to the paper editions of The Sun and Orion every year, to be able to appreciate the beautiful photographs and the exquisite nature writing. Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, on watching a grasshopper up close and personal is the first poem I teach every year.

For college students, the following syllabus is a little more academic as well as full of experiences: they choose an environmental justice issue to research. They volunteer hours to their new cause. And, this is the delicious part, we can have class in the open or in lab or a greenhouse or a park or a farmers’ market, at the botanic gardens, or in the science building.

Course Title: Environmental Activism: Discovering the Literary Influences

Course Objectives: 1) To analyze social, political, economic, cultural, historical, and spiritual factors that shape writers’ ideas about nature. 2) To discuss the literary art of nonfiction in environmental texts. 3) To consider environmental writers in choosing models for activism.

 Syllabus of Readings

Week 1: Inter-relationships: humans and the environment

Introduction to Course, A planned walk

Loren Eiseley, “The Angry Winter” from The Unexpected Universe

Robert Root, “Place” from The Nonfictionist’s Guide

Annie Dillard, “Heaven and Earth in Jest” and “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

E. B. White, “Once More To the Lake” from Essays of E.B. White

Week 2: Bioregionalism

Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place” from The Sense of Place

Barry Lopez, “The Stone Horse” from Crossing Open Ground

Week 3: Environmental Justice

Eileen Gauna, “An Essay on Environmental Justice: The Past, the Present, and Back to    the Future” from Natural Resources             Journal

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic” in A Sand County Almanac

Week 4: Effects of Globalization

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed

Week 5: Resources and Conservation

Wendell Berry, “Conservation is Good Work” from Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community

Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons” from The Practice of the Wild

Joe Wilkins, “Out West” from Orion Magazine

Week 6: Overconsumption

Eric Schlosser, “Your Trusted Friends” from Fast Food Nation

Bill McKibben, ” Green from the Ground Up” from Sierra Magazine

Week 7: Pollution and Toxic Exposure

Kristen Iversen, Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats

Week 8: Agriculture and Food

John McPhee, “Oranges” from Oranges

            Michael Pollan, “What’s Eating America” from Smithsonian

Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating” from What Are People For?

Elizabeth Ehrlich, Miriam’s Kitchen

Week 9: Concerns about water

Midterm Exam

Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea

 Week 10: Indigenous Cultures

Leslie Marmon Silko, “Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination” from The Ecocriticism Reader

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh

Week 11: Visions of present and future environmental conflict

Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder

Week 12: Grass-root Movements and Setting New Courses

Wallace Stegner, “Wilderness Letter” from The Sound of Mountain Water

Edward Abbey, “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” from Words from the Land:Encounters with Natural History Writing

Bill McKibben, “Where Have All the Joiners Gone?” from Orion Magazine

Week 13: Visions of Future Sustainability

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Week 14: Final Week

Thich Nhat Hahn, “Bathing a Newborn Buddha (Washing the Dishes)” from The Sun My Heart

Turn in Activism Project Paper, Final Exam

I did not get to Long Day’s Journey Into Night this year because of time, but I prefer to leave my students, not in the foggy coastal clouds of morphine addiction, but, instead, in the essence of the literary celebration of nature, just as Howard left Shelley in the throes of wind patterns, water cycles, and cloud forms.

All students of the world need recess where they can look up at a clean sky. All students of the world need to read the words that try to capture that beauty, a 10,000-year-old task, attempted by writers who understand that human beings struggle with the immensity of outside.


Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

Rich- LI Sound 1973

The author as a budding naturalist, Long Island Sound, 1973


I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do.

Atticus Finch to his son, Jem, in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960

Few literary models of courage are more affecting than Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s protagonist attorney tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping Mayella Ewell, a young white woman, in segregated Maycomb, Alabama in 1934.  Atticus knows, of course, that he has lost the case before it has begun, but on principle, and to instill a sense of fairness and justice in his own children, he accepts the case.  On its face, he loses the case, but there are small signs, hopeful signs, that he has effected the beginnings of profound change.  That change will be long in coming, but it must, Atticus knows, begin somewhere.

The racial divisions of segregated America in 1934 offer an apt point of comparison for the current polarization of views on the present environmental crisis.  It goes far beyond the acceptance or non-acceptance of climate change.  It is evident in the burgeoning floor plans of American houses, in the disposable mantra of American consumerism, in the power of large corporations to purchase governmental influence through highly paid lobbyists, in the invocation of terms like “tree hugger” and “liberal” as pejoratives, in the widespread ignorance of or indifference to the crisis’s scope, and in the accelerated and catastrophic loss of biodiversity worldwide that has led Richard Leakey, Richard Lewin, Niles Eldredge, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others to argue that we are, knowingly or unknowingly, perpetrating the sixth extinction.

Just today, in our local paper, a letter writer declared climate change a “political hoax,” admonishing a previous week’s writer who thought otherwise, “Take your head out of the plastic bag it must be in and start breathing…it will do your brain cells a world of good.”  Such ignorance wears me down, but I think too on the fact that in 2014 Tom Robinson’s case would result in acquittal, if it even went to trial, and I am reminded of the human capacity to change for the better, often in spite of ourselves.  Like Atticus Finch, I take courage from the belief that such change is not completely out of reach.

In his 1946 essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell describes how the advent of the 1936 Spanish Civil War gave to his writing and to his life a purpose that had been previously absent.  He writes, “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”  It likewise seems nonsense to me that any serious writer of prose in 2014 can ignore the profound and irreversible changes we are imposing on the world’s natural systems; nor can we ignore our growing emotional and intellectual disconnection from those systems.

Just as the direction of Orwell’s writing changed irrevocably in 1936, I find myself unable, these days, to disconnect my writing from the ecological crisis that surrounds me.  How aptly that crisis is reflected in the materialism and waste of our age, in the largely vacuous social media blitz in which we envelop and lose ourselves. Whereas Orwell wrote in the face of Franco and Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini, potential destroyers of all previously known social, political, and moral order, we find ourselves writing in the face of ourselves, a global citizenry that, often without malice or even awareness, directly threatens the Earth’s natural order as it has previously existed for millennia.  We must inevitably write against an enemy who is, in fact, ourselves.

For Christmas in 1975, when I was six years old, my father gave me a copy of Jo Polseno’s 1973 book Secrets of Redding Glen: The Natural History of a Wooded Valley, which, though a children’s book, is extraordinarily rich with insight.  On the flyleaf my father wrote a short inscription: “A guide for our naturalist.”  Polseno’s story of “a glen where the wild geese fly and the salamanders live” fired my curiosity.  His rich prose and Audubon-styled paintings placed me as an observer at the center of a complex, beautiful landscape; it was a role I innately understood, as is evident in the inscription my father wrote.  As Rachel Carson famously noted, how easily a sense of wonder takes hold of the child’s mind, and how easily we willingly forego it in adulthood.  At the age of forty-two, when I contemplated a return to graduate school to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies, I once again thumbed through Polseno’s book, both for its substance that had moved me so much as a child, and for the inscription in it that expressed such foresight.

In “Why I Write,” George Orwell articulates four “great motives” for writing prose: 1) Sheer egoism, 2) Esthetic impulse, 3) Historical impulse, and 4) Political purpose.  Despite his own profound sense of political purpose in writing, Orwell cautions the reader not to incorrectly conclude that his “motives in writing were wholly public-spirited.”  All writers, he notes, are vain; however, when the writer “struggles to efface one’s personality” from the work, he argues, writing of real value can emerge. It is this kind of writing to which I aspire.  As Orwell did in 1946, I offer my own four motives for writing:

1)      Of necessity: I am unable to stand by and watch the systematic, unchecked loss of the world’s biodiversity.  Though at times I feel paralyzed by the enormity of the effort required to help arrest the trajectory of the sixth extinction, I cannot give up hope.  This is as much a selfish attitude as it is an altruistic one, as I do not care to live in a world resigned to its own doom.

2)      For aesthetic reward:  The act of writing allows me a heightened, sharper view of the world.  It forces more intense observation, a slowing down of time that otherwise rushes past.  Writing strains me to find and fashion language that may, if I am persistent, capture at least an iota of the natural beauty that surrounds me.  Even if I cannot capture it for others, I can see it myself.  Here again is the duality of motive so central to Orwell’s argument.

3)      For posterity:  I am convinced that only through the collective small acts of a caring minority can we arrest the present environmental crisis. Meaningful writing is persuasive, and it is needed to convince at least a portion of the unknowing or indifferent citizenry that anthropogenic climate change is no hoax.  Such writing, at its best, can awaken or reawaken curiosity, can provoke empathy, and can inspire advocacy for the natural world.

4)      For my children:  Gazing at a group of turkey vultures circling in dihedral flight, or a magnificent specimen poplar, or a dew-soaked orb-weaver web stretched between saplings and lit by early morning light, I cannot help but want for my children to be able to see these things too, both with me in the present and long after I have returned to the earth.  Here, I suppose, my motives are once again dual in nature, selfish in that they are framed around my determination  to give to my children a biodiverse and sustainable world, and unselfish in that I would wish these things for all children, and for all people generally.

Alan Paton, in his deeply moving 1948 novel of South Africa, Cry, The Beloved Country, argues that moral conviction is the only foundation upon which we can build a purposeful life and meaningfully address the world’s most grave crises, of which our present environmental crisis is a stark example.  At one point, Paton writes in the voice of Arthur Jarvis, a young, white South African man who cannot morally accept the segregationist polices that would officially become Apartheid shortly after Paton published his novel.  Paton writes, “I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only what is right.  I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie.”  The belief that the preservation of biodiversity must trump our individual wants is just such a star, and I anchor myself to the conviction that writing with purpose is one way in which that star can be followed.

Naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, in the final pages of his 1978 book A Walk Through the Year—the last book he would publish in his lifetime—wondered “if the time will ever come when such a book as this will seem like a letter from another world.”  At present, it is hard to ignore the feeling that we are hurtling toward just such a time, but we can mitigate that feeling through deliberate, collective action, through the written word and otherwise.  Such action may not be expedient, but it is right.  In an age of such ecological uncertainty, what other compass can we follow?

Reading the Winter Landscape

Intersecting needle ice beneath the footbridge at Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Intersecting needle ice beneath the footbridge at Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

By: Richard Telford

In his 1978 book,  A Walk Through the Year, Edwin Way Teale writes with eloquent simplicity, “Summer diversifies; winter simplifies.”  In mid-January, after a light overnight snow, I spent a full morning walking the southern half of Edwin and Nellie Teale’s Trail Wood, now the 168-acre Edwin Way Teale Memorial Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, administered by the Connecticut Audubon Society. I hoped to take advantage of the simplification of the winter landscape in order to better understand natural processes that are often hidden or even absent in the spring, summer, and early fall.  Even in the heart of a particularly cold winter, the landscape teemed with life, with the remnants of ended life, and with the precursors of life to come.

View from the footbridge, Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

View from the footbridge, Stepping Stone Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Cutting through Firefly Meadow, due south of the Teales’ former 1805 center-chimney Cape Cod home, I crossed the small footbridge leading westward to Juniper Hill, the site of Edwin’s modest writing cabin, which he modeled after Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. The footbridge spans a spillway the Teales named Stepping Stone Brook; during times of overflow, it drains the one-acre pond the Teales had dug in the summer of 1964.  Standing on the footbridge, my eye was drawn to the striking geometry of ice formations along the pond’s edge, the ice at this end of the pond kept thin by the moving water.  Lines of needle ice ran parallel to one another like tightly packed feather barbs, intersecting at sharp angles with like formations, dendritic ice filling the open angles at these intersections. Polygonal forms etched the near surface—trapezoids, right and scalene and isosceles triangles—geometric expressions of the crystalline structure of ice.

Climbing Juniper Hill, I headed north along Shagbark Hickory Trail.  I had hiked this trail one week earlier with my five-year-old daughter and had been surprised to see what looked like an eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) perched on a thick hickory branch that crossed the trail roughly twenty feet overhead.  Viewed through 10×50 binoculars, the coloration pattern seemed unmistakable, though the blue was slightly more slate in tone and the feathers were fully puffed out, making it look overly stout.  To my further surprise, I saw two more specimens in neighboring trees. Upon arriving home, I combed through my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds and could find no obvious alternatives.  Further, Sibley’s illustration of a bright adult female variation seemed a good match.  Subsequently, I found the following passage in the December 23 entry in Teale’s A Walk Through the Year:  “A bluebird of December […] flies above me over the snow-covered fields as I trudge home in the early sunset of this shorter afternoon. […]. Throughout the winter each year a few of these gentle-voiced singers drift about our Hampton region.”   On my return trip to Trail Wood on this winter morning, I hoped I might repeat the previous week’s sighting, but the bluebirds were absent, as were any others with the exception of a lone pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) drumming unseen in the distance.

Needle ice with dendritic formations in a seasonal pool along the Shagbark Hickory Trail, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Needle ice with dendritic formations in a seasonal pool along the Shagbark Hickory Trail, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Continuing north, I found a small pool, roughly three feet in diameter, its shallow bottom lined with a monochromatic bed of white and scarlet oak leaves (Quercus alba and coccinea). Thin ice coated the surface, and here again was the mosaic of needle ice and dendritic formations, a reminder of the symmetry of natural systems. Beneath the ice, leaf litter and other organic detritus, broken down by fungi and various microorganisms, enriched the pool with nutrients.  Algae coating the leaves did so further.  With spring, these pools scattered throughout Trail Wood enlarge with melted snow and spring rains, transforming them into breeding sites for obligate and facultative species such as the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), distinguished by its yellow polka dots,  and the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), often seen in its juvenile land-dwelling red eft stage. These small pools dot Trail Wood’s landscape like earthen kettles, made visible in winter by the leafless understory.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaves blow in a light winter breeze, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) leaves blow in a light winter breeze, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Approaching the Old Colonial Road, an east-west trail that is a remnant of Colonial-period horse travel in all its forms, I imagined the travelers who had crossed this way in the course of daily business, travelers who led hard-scrabble lives that likely lent little time for exploration of the kind in which I engaged that brisk morning.  Teale notes in his 1974 book A Naturalist Buys an Old Farm that as of 1959, “The ground was still packed hard from the wheels of wagons and carriages and, some say, stagecoaches that once traveled over this long-abandoned way.”  In fact, one remarkable feature of Trail Wood is the unusual variety of Colonial-period stone walls, many of which reflect not only utility but aesthetic artistry.  These walls now provide extensive habitat, and for the New Englander they feel as much a natural part of the landscape as the mature canopies that have succeeded the once clear-cut fields. Here in my walk I was treated to the soft, baby-rattle sound of the light gold leaves of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), a sound familiar to any winter hiker of broad-leaf deciduous New England forests. The American beech is the only deciduous New England tree that does not drop its dried leaves until the following spring.  Gazing in all directions, I could observe beech trees in all growth stages, their ubiquity reflecting the species’ shade-tolerance; only the winter landscape affords such a view.

The beaver lodge in the Far North Woods of Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

The beaver lodge in the Far North Woods of Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

After a brief traverse east along the Old Colonial Road, I headed north, quickly encountering Hyla Pond, a vernal pool named for its annual breeding population of Hyla crucifer, the spring peeper.  Following Hyla Rill, the small stream that fills the seasonal pond with outflow from the three-acre beaver pond to the north, I reached the latter site after a ten-minute walk.  Here too the winter landscape offered many insights. The double-humped beaver (Castor canadensis) lodge at the pond’s center rose from the stump-laden, snow-dusted ice.  The damn at the pond’s southwestern edge elevated the water’s surface four or more feet above the neighboring ground, an extraordinary feat of engineering.

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum) near Beaver Pond, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Tree clubmoss (Lycopodium obscurum) and southern ground cedar (Lycopodium digitatum), commonly referred to as fan clubmoss, sprouted from extensive root networks, forming colonies along the pond’s perimeter.  Both plants, despite their conifer-like appearance, are considered fern-allies according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because, like ferns, they reproduce via spores.  These two clubmosses blanketed the spaces between bigtooth aspen and red maple stumps, many covered with layers of shelf-type fungi; nothing goes to waste in natural systems.

These lopped stumps that yield both food and shelter to the resident beavers in turn become habitat to various saprobes, which, by hastening the decomposition of the dead woody material, replenish soil nutrients, cycling energy for future generations of scores of organisms.

Coyote scat with white-tailed deer fur, bone, and dried cartilage, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Coyote scat with white-tailed deer fur, bone, and dried cartilage, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

The walk south from the beaver pond to Woodcock Pasture, just west of the Teales’ former home, contrasted former life with life to come.  On the trail I found a nearly disintegrated coyote (Canis latrans) scat loaded with dense clumps of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) hair mixed with fragments of bone and dried cartilage, a common site at Trail Wood. Crossing Fern Brook, I noticed a single shoot of skunk cabbage rising from the water, an early sign of spring.  Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) can flower as early as February, in part because it is thermogenic, meaning it can raise its temperature above the ambient temperature.  In findings published in Science in 1974, R.M. Knutson reported that skunk cabbage can maintain an internal temperature up to 15 degrees Celsius in an ambient temperature of -15 degrees Celsius.

A lone skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) shoot rises out of Fern Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A lone skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) shoot rises out of Fern Brook, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Further on, I found a few remnant shards from a white-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculate) nest tangled in the matted winter pasture grass.  Crossing behind the old Cape Cod home, I walked west to the remnants of Edwin’s former observation blind, crossed Hampton Brook near a Colonial-era spillway, and walked up to Monument Pasture, so named for an early twentieth century rounded fieldstone monument erected by a former field hand named Hughes in honor of himself.  At the eastern edge of the pasture, in an early successional buffer of red maple (Acer rubrum), pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) and black birch (Betula lenta) heavily choked by pervasive oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), I found the rain-rotted and crumbling envelope of a white-faced hornet’s nest.  In summer this nest, enfolded in layer upon layer of snarled vegetation, would have been an unseen phantom, a benefit both to the colony itself and to any unfortunate would-be intruder.  White-faced hornets are wisely feared for their stalwart defense of a wide nest perimeter.  After crawling through dense tangles to photograph the nest, I emerged only to be given one final gift from the winter landscape.  A pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) circled in tandem for a fleeting moment before turning eastward, their distinct profiles finally vanishing along the seemingly barren horizon that was not barren at all.

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flies over Monument Pasture, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flies over Monument Pasture, Trail Wood, Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Robin in a Puddle

By Neva Knott

I often read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, as a way to begin writing. Sunday, I read her essay, “Emergency Case,” in which she explains that many writers feel they need a crisis to get the creative juices flowing. My struggle with writing and creating is not that I need an emergency; rather, it’s the opposite. I am always seeking calm within myself so that I can sit to write. I do not find the writing energy in mishandling my life, living drained and angry, feeling like I’m moving past real life. Though, as I read “Emergency Case,” I thought of the small emergency of getting lost yesterday…

I was driving up to a forest site near Hood Canal to conduct an interview on a community forest site. I was lost, because the forester I was to meet had given me the wrong name of a road. I called him several times, to the point he became exasperated with me. Finally, we agreed I’d park and wait for him to drive out to the main road to find me.

I pulled over from this emergency as Natalie might call it, and walked with my dog up a logging road.

First, I saw the bones, picked clean by predators, eroded clean by weather, but still pliable and not yet beginning to deteriorate. A short set of vertebrae and four rib bones. The ribs were long and their curvatures slightly elegant.

As we walked on, up the slight hill, we came upon a circular puddle, obviously made by a motorcycle rider going around and around. In the water pool of the tire tracks stood a robin, drinking the muddy water. Smallish, singular, but bravely in the pond. This little bird intrigued me. Aesthetically, I think it was the mix of a natural creature in a man-made space out it the woods–in an otherwise humanly uninhabited  place.

Walking down the incline, I looked left. Up on a bank I saw more of the carcass. Rest of the vertebrea and part of the pelvis. Big bones, bigger than human, deer, or dog. My guess–elk. I saw no other smatterings, no fur or sinew. I paused to wonder at the kill, always intrigued by these markers of the circle of life, then walked on.

I thought, as I often do, of how easy it is to embrace life and witness small examples of the vastness of it, just by getting out of the car for a minute or two.