The Extraordinary Gift of Common Species: Rethinking the Charismatic Species Paradigm

A female Canada Goose (Branta Canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015
A female Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) preens herself near her nest located in the tussock at left in the foreground. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015

By Richard Telford

Can we view the ubiquitous eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) with the same sense of wonder or spirit of inquiry with which we view more exotic animals—the African elephants (Loxodonta exoptata and adaurora), for example, or the gray wolf (Canis lupus)? This question (paraphrased, here) was posed by Dr. Laird Christensen to our Field Journaling class at Green Mountain College in the summer of 2012, and it is a question upon which I have since often reflected, both on the individual level and on the larger scale. The latter two species in the preceding comparison are largely seen in conservation circles as charismatic or flagship species, which the 1995 United Nations Environment Program’s Global Biodiversity Assessment defined as “popular, charismatic species that serve as symbols and rallying points to stimulate conservation awareness and action.” By stimulating such awareness and action, the reasoning goes, both the charismatic species and the larger systems they inhabit can be preserved, benefitting life at all scales. When done right, it is a win-win approach.

An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.
An advertisement by the World Wildlife Fund featuring prominent charismatic species.

In many courses in the GMC Environmental Studies graduate program, we analyzed campaigns that featured charismatic species as a kind of holdfast with which to anchor public support for broader conservation efforts. While I came to accept the value of this approach, I often found and still find myself conflicted over it, as it creates a hierarchy in which megafauna are disproportionately valued to the exclusion of virtually all other organisms within staggeringly complex systems of life. Is this a sustainable long-term approach by which to conserve the Earth’s biodiversity? What does such a hierarchical approach say about the way we value life? What does it teach the next generation of conservationists?

While charismatic species can evoke strong response from the public, building support for important conservation actions, the majority of the public will never have any direct interaction with these species except perhaps captive specimens in zoo settings. Thus, support is elicited for a cause from which the general public is largely removed, and that support is often built principally on aesthetic factors, absent a full ecological context. Such support, in my view, is inherently limited in what it can accomplish on a greater scale, and it is likewise potentially short-lived. The reliance on charismatic species to drive conservation efforts may in fact have the potential to undermine those efforts by reducing the public’s personal investment in them to an unintentionally detached, flavor-of-the-month mentality. I do not mean to suggest that charismatic species have no conservation value; on the contrary, their potential to generate both personal and financial investment is well-established. Instead, I am suggesting that such support does little on a larger scale unless it is framed by a more developed set of personal connections to the natural world, connections that are forged by consistent, direct experience framed by a fuller ecological context. It is the common species that inhabit our day to day lives that have the power to forge and meaningfully develop those connections, much more so, I would argue, than exotic species that elicit a strong but potentially fleeting response.

The cover of Rachel Carson's 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.
The cover of Rachel Carson’s 1955 book The Edge of the Sea.

Rachel Carson, in the preface to her 1955 book The Edge of the Sea, writes, “To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalogue its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating at its shores—blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.” Here, Carson’s “eye and ear of the mind” represent the deepest connections to nature that we can make, but to make those connections of the mind we must first stand on the beach; we must run fine sand between our fingers, gaze upon the complex interactions of tidal pool life, feel the blast of wind that has shaped the land for millennia, hear the roar of the surf breaking on the coast. To fully value natural systems, we must fully immerse ourselves in and interact with those systems. It is the common species, rather than remote and exotic ones, that allow us to do so in the most meaningful and efficacious way for long-term conservation of the Earth’s biodiversity.

This summer, our yard has been the site of a flurry of nesting activity among the common songbirds that spend their summers in our region, particularly the American robin (Turdus migratorius) and the eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). This winter, my six-year-old daughter and I made a robin nesting platform, which we attached this spring to the standing remnant trunk of a once-towering eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) at the edge of our yard. That platform remains vacant, but a pair of robins did in fact nest in the unfinished soffit of an adjacent shed. During early summer, we watched the parent birds harvest worms from our yard and shuttle them to the growing nestlings. Several weeks ago, late in the day, with the nestlings close to fledging, I carried my daughter up on a ladder inside the shed to view them for a moment. We slipped quietly in and out in less than five minutes, but the view of the downy nestlings with mouths stretched upwards has remained and will remain in my daughter’s memory. That image—framed by the coming dusk, the cooling air, the waning buzz of carpenter bees mixed with the rising evening bird chorus—can shape her connection to the natural world in a way that no virtual image of a more exotic species can. In fact, such experiences can potentially provide a transferrable, interpolative context for more exotic species for which a direct experiential context may be less accessible or altogether absent. When we understand the complex interactions of one natural system, we can at least imagine the like processes of another system.

A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated
A top view of a female Widow Skimmer(Libellula luctuosa). The complex venation of dragonfly wings can create up to 3,000 isolated “cells” in the membrane of each individual wing, Copyright: Richard Telford, 2014

The North American Association for Environmental Education, defining “Standards of Excellence” for environmental education in 2010, noted, “Providing opportunities for the growth and development of the whole child, opportunities to develop a sense of wonder about nature, and earnest engagement in discovery about the real world are the foundation for learning in early childhood.” For my children this summer, the opportunities to build such a foundation have been manifold, provided by common, readily accessible species: a returning mating pair of nesting Canada geese (Branta canadensis); scores of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus); an eastern garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) rescued from the center of a country road during our drive to swimming lessons; common whitetail (Plathemis lydia), twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), and other dragonflies hunting the overgrown ecotone that separates our cut yard from the surrounding forest; turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) shadowing the ground in soaring, dihedral flight; eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) sidling along our garden fence. All of these common summer residents of our region have evoked in our children and in us that sense of wonder that is so crucial to the long-term preservation of the natural world. We have viewed each as an integral part of a marvelous, complex, and unified system to which, in reality, we are adjunct, despite are disproportionate capacity to degrade it. In understanding that system more fully, we cannot help but understand ourselves more fully too.

I have previously written about the complexities of forming and developing a conservation ethic, both in ourselves and in others, and I am fully convinced that such an ethic is shaped primarily by direct, daily actions and interactions. Personal investment in a handful of exotic species, absent these meaningful daily interactions with common species, is not enough to forge and develop that ethic. Such an ethic, which can guide our daily choices in the spheres we influence, can contribute to the conservation of the earth’s biodiversity in a way that remote investment in a handful of compelling species cannot. As Robert Michael Pyle observes in The Thunder Tree, “What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” The appeal of charismatic species taps a laudable impulse and can be a valuable conservation tool in its own right, but the effectiveness of that tool is inherently limited. When we open ourselves to the charisma of and deep connection to common species, and foster that openness in others, we enrich our lives on the individual scale and optimize the efficacy of conservation efforts on the broader scale. By doing the latter, we can likewise enrich the lives of generations to follow.

Backyard Produce Delivers the Farmers’ Market to Your Front Door

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By Maymie Higgins

No apology comes with the admission that I have an aversion to shopping, even for the necessities. Though I work from home and my car often sits in the driveway for days without being started, I still dread the weekly grocery shopping trip. I am a domesticated and introverted homebody who has no difficulty entertaining myself for days without ever leaving the house. Who needs external activities when you have a home full of pets, gardening, books and comfortable furniture? But one cannot live healthfully on dry goods alone, nor should one rely entirely on frozen and canned foods to fulfill the dietary recommendation of 5-7 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

In addition, grocery stores are adding more locally grown and organic produce, but the availability is unpredictable for many reasons. Growing seasons, weather and regional challenges in arranging timely transport before food spoilage are just a few factors that influence availability and price. And those are all factors of influence before grocery store chains gain possession of the produce for distribution to their individual stores. So while things are improving there, I prefer a way to improve the odds of eating locally and organically grown produce without having to shop in several stores, the farmers’ market or in those high end expensive health food supermarkets. Eating healthfully should not be a privilege reserved only for those with significant financial means, so I personally boycott health food stores. Every dollar spent on any good or service is a vote. I would rather give my votes to more equitably available methods of obtaining healthy food while also living bioregionally.

There are many businesses dedicated to delivering produce to your door step. I recently joined Backyard Produce, based in Cary, North Carolina, and signed my husband and myself up to receive the family of four variety box each week. We eat a lot of produce, especially during the summer months when so many tasty options are available. So far we have enjoyed local potatoes, corn, squash, zucchini, mushrooms, blueberries and tomatoes. When a locally grown option is not available, organically grown from other regions is made available. At regular intervals, there are also locally baked goods or locally raised meat and eggs available.

Backyard Produce delivers fresh produce in an insulated box with a frozen bottle of water to preserve freshness.
Backyard Produce delivers fresh produce in an insulated box with a frozen bottle of water to preserve freshness.

Backyard Produce offers a weekly subscription service for one of five of the following basket sizes:

Super Duper: 15-17 items. 120 points.
Extended Family: 12-15 items. 100 points.
Family of Four: 9-12 items. 80 points.
Just for Two: 7-10 items. 60 points.
Flying Solo: 5-7 items. 40 points.

Each week, customers have the option of accepting the variety box that is chosen as the standard selection for that week or can go online and customize their selection, based on the points allowed by their weekly subscription service. I accepted the variety box for the first two deliveries but have since customized the weekly selection. Backyard Produce emails their customers each week as a reminder that the online ordering page is available for a set period, after which time anyone who has not customized their order will automatically receive the week’s variety box by default. 297889_567629489930176_314893898_n

Now, every Tuesday morning I set my previous week’s box and packing materials on the front porch (reduce, reuse, recycle) and a few hours later it is replaced with a box full of goodies that not only make my family healthier but also support no less than twenty-three local farmers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. That is a win-win!

If something like this appeals to you, you need only search the internet for “home delivery of local produce” and you will likely find dozens of providers in your region. Share your experiences in the comments here and let us know how you are supporting local farmers while supporting good nutrition for everyone in your household.

Another typical weekly variety box from Backyard Produce.
Another typical weekly variety box from Backyard Produce.

One of the World’s Largest and Oldest Sustainability Projects

By Maymie Higgins

After the difficult winter of 2015, many of us have our hearts and minds transfixed on outdoor gardening activities. In my gardening research, I came across a huge success story in the world of sustainable living. I hope this information will inspire you, as it has me, to begin using a fertilizer brand for your lawn, vegetable and flower gardens that comes from the oldest recycler in the United States.

Over more than 85 years, the City of Milwaukee has undertaken one of the world’s oldest and largest recycling projects. In 1913, the City of Milwaukee created a sewerage commission to clean up the city’s waterways. By 1919, The Milwaukee Sewerage Commission’s laboratory formally adopted a new process for responsible recycling of biosludge. By 1921, all municipal sewers were connected to this system and processed in a central location at Jones Island, on the shore of Lake Michigan. In 1923 construction began on the first large-scale activated sludge plant in the world.  In 1925, the Sewerage Commission concluded that the disposal problem they faced could be solved by producing and marketing fertilizer. In 1974, the Jones Island Wastewater Treatment Plant was named a National Historic Engineering Site by the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center
Jones Island in 1926. Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Specifically, this new sewerage treatment process was the production of solids – the microbes left over from the treatment process and there was one problem. There were 50,000 – 70,000 tons of dried microbes left after the process and no one thought it responsible or even prudent to dispose this volume of waste and potential valuable resource in the landfill.  So the Sewerage Commission joined forces with the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture, where Professor Emil Truog and O.J. (Oyvind Juul) Noer began investigating uses of activated sludge as a fertilizer.

Noer determined that the average nutrient analysis of the material was 6.2 percent total nitrogen, with 5.17 percent being water insoluble nitrogen (83% WIN); 2.63 percent available phosphate (P205) and 0.4 percent soluble potash (K20). In his literature review, Noer found that the available nitrogen generally resembled so-called high-grade organic nitrogenous fertilizers and gave superior growth results compared to manures and chemical fertilizers of the time.

Noer experimented with field crops and vegetables and on golf courses, the use of this organic nitrogen fertilizer and found it superior and one-third the cost of other fertilizers commonly used at the time. Also, there was no danger of burning the turf even with over-application and it produced a dark green dense turf without causing excessive top growth. Noer knew he had a commercially viable product when word traveled throughout several golf clubs.

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Courtesy of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and Michigan State University Turfgrass Information Center

Following are examples of how Milorganite has adopted to market changes over the years. In 1926, most of the Milorganite was sold in bulk, but by the mid-1930s it was also packaged in 25, 50 and 100 lb. bags. In 1955, packaging changed to offer 40 and 80 lb. bags and again in the 1970s as 20 kg bags were introduced with the movement to metric in the U.S. Today, Milorganite is sold in a distinctive 36 lb. bag and a 5 lb. bag exclusively for the retail market, 50 lb. bags for the professional market, and reusable bulk bags for large area applications.  The blending market continues to be important as other companies find the nutrient analysis to be a valuable addition to their products.

Milorganite continues to help fund many important research projects at universities across the country including projects that study nutrient leaching and run-off, the effects of different fertility regimes and sources on irrigation requirements, and the effect of Milorganite phosphorus in the environment.

Milorganite summarizes its success as follows:

  • Since 1926: 9.5 billion lbs of waste diverted from landfill to re-use
  • $308 million dollars generated, providing tax relief for residents of Milwaukee
  • 8 million tons of Milorganite sold
  • Milorganite is regulated by the EPA and complies with the most stringent requirements
  • Milorganite uses alternative energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, and digester methane.
  • The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) is leading the nation in “Green” solutions.

For more information and to determine where to purchase, you can visit Milorganite’s web site. You can watch this video to learn more about the product as well.

Recreate Your Commute

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Excitement builds for the kick off of Bike to School Day in Santa Cruz, California. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

by Shauna Potocky

How long is your commute?

How many hours do you spend traveling to and from work, school or completing your errands? What if this time could be transformed into something that actually invested in your own well being? What if your commute time translated into health-benefits, saved you money—maybe even made your community a little nicer—by helping clean the air or reduce traffic congestion. Would you be interested?

Walking, running, skating, bicycling or using human-powered modes of travel are known as active transportation or non-motorized transport (NMT). When people empower themselves with these types of transportation options, individuals as well as communities see remarkable outcomes.  These outcomes are studied and evaluated,  such as through the work of Todd Litman of the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute, and via this work the benefits become increasingly clear.

Take the example of bicycle commuting: this single mode of transportation has the ability to produce positive change by freeing people from single vehicle transportation. It opens the door to providing physical exercise—burning approximately 500 calories an hour, while saving money directly related to gasoline costs, vehicle maintenance, registration, insurance and parking expenses. In addition, cycling is commonly used as a recreational activity, so there is the added benefit of cycling actually being fun, getting people outside and being practical.

Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.
Bike commuters at their way to the Santa Cruz Bike to Work / School event . Photo courtesy Dan Coyro, Sentinel Newspaper via Ecology Action.

How does bike commuting improve communities? Studies have demonstrated that by choosing to bicycle commute individuals have a direct and positive impact related to reductions in air pollution, traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) provides this incredible example as reported on their website, “On average, WSDOT adds more than 20 miles of new sidewalk, trails and paths each year. A recent federal study showed that when bicycle and pedestrian safety increases, total vehicle miles traveled is reduced by an estimated 156.1 million miles over the course of a year. These investments can mean savings of more than $23 million in fuel costs, and 67,000 metric tons of reductions in CO2 emissions.”

In addition, bike commuting can have even broader and longer-term positive impacts related to community planning. As communities embrace bike commuting as a viable option for individuals, they may invest in additional bike lanes, bike paths separated from roadways, bike commuting programs, bike lockers, and initiative options that further enhance cycling as a long-term transportation goal. Great examples of cities that have impressive bike commuting cultures include Santa Cruz, California and Portland, Oregon just to name two. Both areas take pride in their robust cycling infrastructure and community, which has embraced and grown truly passionate about cycling.

Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz.
Museum exhibit celebrating the cycling community, culture and handmade bicycle frame builders of Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

As positive outcomes increase, communities often build on these successes, resulting in expanded investments or programs, which further benefit bicycle commuters as well as other stakeholders. Consider the success of Rails to Trails initiatives, which seek to transform train/rail systems into multi-user travel corridors that often include pedestrians, cyclists and recreational user groups. For an excellent example of a program designed to build community engagement—consider the popularity of Bike to Work days, which occur in cities and communities throughout the United States as well as internationally. Bike to Work days inspire people to take to the bike—either as a newcomer or as an experienced rider and provides encouragement, safety messaging and often food as positive ways to reinforce the effort.

Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.
Bike to Work Day in downtown Santa Cruz. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action.

One surprising or often unseen benefit to community investment in non-motorized transport projects is that ultimately they help to create more “efficient and equitable transportation systems” as reported in the study released in February 2015 by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

How can a transportation system become more equitable? Investments that improve active transport such as walking or cycling actually translate into benefits for individuals who rely on these modes of transportation due to socioeconomic factors or physical capabilities. Thus, when a community invests in transportation modes outside of motorized use, they create benefits for user groups beyond the regular commuter. It is a true win-win for citizens and the community as a whole.

Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky
Safety signage as well as designated pedestrian paths or bicycle lanes enhance safety and awareness for all citizens. Photo courtesy of Shauna Potocky

What if breaking into a new commute mode is daunting? Find some encouragement here! There are great resources to help get you started. Ecology Action, a pioneering organization in Santa Cruz, California has one of the most successful and inspiring Bike To Work programs around. Their site has plenty of resources, advice, tips from the pros and more to help inspire a ride to work or school by bike.

Ecology Action is an excellent example and role model for getting people inspired to make a shift in their commute—and they are just a starting point. If you are interested in taking a more active approach to your own commute consider your options and then do some homework. Depending on the mode of transportation you would like to try—whether walking or bike commuting, you may want to search for resources in your community.

Specifically for bike commuting, some employers, schools and communities offer bike purchasing assistance programs. Many bike commute programs also offer assistance with helmet purchases or bike light advice. A trip to your local bike shop can also be a great first step—experienced staff can help answer questions on what kind of bike you need or what maintenance your current bike might benefit from—in order to make your first miles smooth. In addition, they can provide advice on the proper fit of a bicycle as well as your bike helmet.

Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed to help more people use alternative transportation modes.
Community Bike to Work or School events encourage riders of all levels to take to the bike. Surveys help organizations measure participation and learn about potential barriers that can be addressed, thus helping more people embrace alternative transportation modes. Photo courtesy of Ecology Action

Perhaps having a commute partner will help make those first few miles easier. If that is the case, not to worry, some organizations, such as Ecology Action, help provide connections through Bike Buddy programs. In addition, asking friends, family or looking for riding partners via your work, school or local bike shop can be great places to start as well.

So as the days get longer, the weather gets warmer and Spring emerges, consider all the ways you can recreate your own commute. You never know how it might just transform you and your community.

You never know where your commute might just take you!
You never know where your commute might just take you! Photo courtesy of Kirk Keeler

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 www.solarimpulse.com.
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 http://www.solarimpulse.com.

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.

People, Wildlife and the Environment by Norman P. Knott, 1969

By Neva Knott

Today, March 11, 2015, would have been my dad’s 98th birthday. My dad, Norm Knott, worked at the Washington State Game Department (now Washington State Fish and Wildlife) for 30 years, starting there right out of college with a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology. After retiring from the Game Department, he worked for the United Trust Territories in Micronesia and then for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I have the privilege of owning his desk. There is one drawer of it I cannot bring myself to empty, the drawer that holds files of his that contain artifacts such as the essay below. In it, he expresses the need for human understanding of ecological principles in making the human world. Here are his words, written on August 4, 1969, in honor of his life and in thanks for his teaching me to love the natural world:

In a human society the values are those assigned by the people in relationship to and arising from their needs and desires. Certain of these needs as food, water and shelter, are obvious. Certain of these needs and desires are in-obvious but fully as compelling as those which form a wintering flock of wildfowl into a flighted V, following a chartless path to their summer breeding ground.

The pursuit of the obvious, and the lack of protective recognition of the in-obvious environmental requirements of man has repeatedly placed societies in the position of becoming self-destructive. The prophet Isaiah, in the 19th verse of the 49th chapter of his book, sets forth: “For thy waste and thy desolate places, and the land of thy destruction, shall even now be too narrow by reason of the inhabitants.” If we are to assure that our land not become too narrow by reason of the inhabitants, we must openly and publicly recognize and admit that we, as people, are the end-product of the multi-million-year evolutionary process which caused people to leave their home territories and invade the unfriendly wilderness. To our ancestors and to us, philosophically, nature was and is yet a multi-formed enemy to be conquered and harnessed as a benevolent servant.

We must recognize that in our zeal to master the wilderness, we have developed seemingly endless techniques and mechanical abilities which we have used and still employ with absolutely no thought to, or understanding of, the ecological consequences. We continue seemingly without caring what havoc we wreak.

We must openly admit and bring about open recognition of the fact that the individuals of this society, and hence society as a whole, need and in fact must have, not alone a gross national product, but also an opportunity to hear the spring song of a bird un-caged; water of supply and suitability for toe dabbling or fishing; a deer for seeing or tracking; a beach for the surf to wash; a tall tree for the breeze to whisper in; clean snow for children to put a to tongue.

The sound of the beach wave muted by the burden of used toilet paper and discarded picnic plates may well be the voice of affluence, but even though a muted voice, it calls loudly for us to seek in common endeavor, assurances that this will not become a land of our waste and of desolate places, nor our land of destruction.

When we can stand on the westernmost beaches of this nation, we must know that we cannot follow the creed of Horace Greeley, but rather we must learn to live in balanced harmony and respect with our environment.

Private resource developments are usually of a single-purpose nature and always have a single-purpose goal of financial gain. Government, to properly serve the public it represents, must face the responsibility of formulating and enforcing bold programs of resource management for the retention and enhancement of the human environment. The role of government in resource and environmental management must not be a role of duty.

By omission, present laws and programs of resource management do not reflect recognition of this seeming role. In many respects they serve as a fetter to management rather than permitting administrators to apply their knowledge and experience. In general, resource and environmental legislation is designed to effect the management of single resources for special interest groups. Departmental programs and administrative policies under such legislation are biased for the unilateral approach. There is, usually, only external and defensive interest, purpose and involvement in planning and effecting integrated programs.

When the laws that exist and which have as their purpose the service and protection of the people, are such as to preclude or in some cases make unlawful effective progress toward a common solution of the problems concerning the people, it must be past time to review the concepts which projected society and its laws to this present status. It must be time to review past results and to determine what future values we shall seek.

To approach the goal of better human environment requires both knowledge and understanding. Regrettably, there is probably less knowledge concerning the ecology of man and his environmental requirements than there is concerning cottontail rabbits or pine trees.

Environment has become a popular catch phrase emblazoned on many banners, however, it would appear that there is little understanding of ecological concepts or the reasons for the environmental deterioration of our cities, suburbs, and scenic countrysides.

Fish and wildlife are sensitively adapted products of their environments. If their environments are protected in a manner suitable for their livelihoods, many of the environmental needs of man will simultaneously be met.

Because of the comparative lack of social and artificial interferences, the best way to achieve a basic ecological concept is through the understanding of the relations between wild animals, plants and their environments. Once this understanding is achieved, the relationship of man with his environment is more readily understandable.

It may well be that if the knowledge and skills of the ecologically trained and experienced fish and wildlife personnel of this nation are fully utilized and their recommendations more clearly followed, the benefits to the human environment could become primary. A deliberately accelerated national program of environmental education and wildlife management could possibly gain sufficient time to permit a more detailed analysis and understanding of human habitat requirements.

Nature, Wondrous and Fragile: The Correspondence Of Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale Preserved in the Edwin Way Teale Papers

Please follow the link below to a piece written by EE blogger Richard Telford for University of Connecticut:

Nature, Wondrous and Fragile: The Correspondence Of Rachel Carson and Edwin Way Teale Preserved in the Edwin Way Teale Papers.

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.

Orangutans and the Great Ape Conservation Fund

By Maymie Higgins

Earlier this month, I wrote about Sandra, an orangutan at the Buenos Aires Zoo and a landmark ruling on animal rights. I am following up with more information about the natural history of orangutans and additional positive stories of the environment from which they directly benefit.

Orangutans can live 60 years or more. Their diet includes eggs, insects, leaves, wood, bark, stems, seeds, grains, nuts, fruit and flowers. All wild orangutans live in tropical rainforests, spending almost all of their time in the trees, where they build nests in which to sleep. Bornean orangutans live on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. Sumatran orangutans live on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, restricted entirely to its northern tip due to deforestation.

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources
Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

The Sumatran orangutan is almost exclusively arboreal. Females virtually never travel on the ground and adult males do so only rarely. By contrast, Bornean orangutans (especially adult males) will often descend to the ground. Both species depend on high-quality primary forests but Bornean orangutans appear better able to tolerate habitat disturbance.

Orangutans are seriously threatened by logging (both legal and illegal), wholesale conversion of forest to agricultural land and oil palm plantations, and habitat fragmentation created by the formation of logging roads. Orangutans are also illegally hunted and captured for the international pet trade but, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, this appears to be more a symptom of habitat conversion, as orangutans are killed as pests when they raid fruit crops at the forest edge.

Be of good heart. Orangutans have many champions. Here is one example.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Great Ape Conservation Act and since then Wildlife Without Borders, through the Great Ape Conservation Fund has helped in protecting the orangutan population on the island of Sumatra. This is done by increasing law enforcement to combat poaching and mitigating human-orangutan conflict.  Wildlife Without Borders is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation that works with partners worldwide to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, and maintain the integrity of ecological processes beyond our borders, for present and future generations.

In 2011, with a Congressional appropriation of $2.2 million and additional funding through the USAID/CARPE program, the Great Ape Conservation Fund awarded 51 grants totaling $3,869,265, which was matched by an additional $4,538,640 from partner organizations. The funds are used to support conservation efforts for several ape species throughout Africa and Asia and also to provide support to families of park rangers who gave their lives protecting apes. Funding also supports prevention and prosecution of poaching and other wildlife crimes.

In 2013, the USFWS awarded 30 new projects and two amendments to existing projects from the Great Ape Conservation Fund totaling totaled $2,081,120, which was matched by $3,161,108 in additional leveraged funds. Field projects in 17 range countries in Africa and Asia were awarded grants. Following is a description of some of the grants used specifically towards conservation of orangutans and orangutan habitat.

  • Reintroduction and monitoring orangutans in Kehje Sewen Forest, East Kalimantan.
  • Long-term home range patterns and the effect of habitat disturbance on Sumatran orangutans.
  • Reintroduction project for rehabilitant orangutans in West Kalimantan.
  • Protection of endangered ape populations in Sabangau, Central Kalimantan: An integrated conservation-research program in collaboration with local communities.
  • Bornean orangutan and forest habitat conservation through customary forests.
  • Increased environmental awareness and human-orangutan conflict mitigation.
  • Conservation of orangutans and critical habitats in Sabah.
  • Conservation of orangutans in the Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape (outside existing protected areas) in Sarawak.

Many other organizations are helping to protect habitat, which is the single most effective way to prevent extinction of orangutans, as this National Geographic video explains:

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/embedded/orangutan_kalimantan/src/

How can you be a champion for orangutans too?

It’s easy! Avoid use of products with palm oil or use only products with palm oil that was obtained from RSPO certified sustainable sources. You can find out how simple it is to do this by reading my other piece about orangutans, How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol.

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.