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.

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.