Can We Save the Botany Degree?

Fall ferns at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, CT, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Fall ferns at the Trail Wood Sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

By Richard Telford

On October 17, 1959, less than six months after moving to Trail Wood, the beloved private nature sanctuary where he would spend the rest of his life, American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale wrote the following entry in his private journal:

We are presented with life memberships in the Baldwin Bird Club and   given a fine vasculum for collecting plants. So we round out our long association with this nature group—over a period of more than 20 years.  Now we ‘have other lives to live.’  We watched them go with thankfulness in our hearts that we could stay.

I first read this passage two summers ago while researching Teale’s early days at Trail Wood with the generous support of the University of Connecticut, where Teale’s papers are permanently housed in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center. At the time, I was examining the extraordinary transformation that occurred in the lives of Edwin and his wife and collaborator Nellie with their move to Trail Wood, a site Edwin would subsequently declare to be “our Promised Land” (September 8, 1959). Teale chronicled this transformation in The Hampton Journal, 1959-1961, the first of four 500-page unpublished observation journals he kept at Trail Wood over a period of twenty-one years.

The vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959, celebrating the Teales' arrival to Trail Wood. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959, celebrating the Teales’ arrival to Trail Wood in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Before moving to the next entry in the journal, I completed a quick Google search for “vasculum,” a word with which I was wholly unfamiliar. In this context, I found, it referred to a tin box used to collect plant specimens. A quick image search yielded two predominant groups of vascula: those of a utilitarian kind, painted in various shades of olive drab; and those of a decidedly aesthetic bent, identical in construction but tole-painted with intricate designs or featuring scenes of nature or idealized Victorian children engaged in nature study. Most examples appeared dated to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period when the popularity of amateur nature study was at its apex.  Quick searches of eBay and Amazon yielded a handful of antique vascula for sale but no new examples. Even the Carolina Biological Supply Company yielded a dead end. This surprised me. How, I wondered at the time, could the need for some kind of specimen case for botanical collecting have simply evaporated? The question lingered, but, pressed for time to complete my reading of The Hampton Journal, I abandoned this research side trail and returned to the Teales’ early life at Trail Wood.

Shelf fungi on a mature hickory along The Lane at Trail wood, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. In the background two problematic invasive species are visible, oriental bittersweet and burning bush. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Shelf fungi on a mature hickory along The Lane at Trail wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the former home of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale. In the background two problematic invasive species are visible, oriental bittersweet and burning bush. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Recently, however, I felt compelled to revisit this side trail after reading a slew of articles about the precipitous decline of formal botany study at the collegiate level. Allie Bidwell, writing for U.S. News and World Report, for example, cites a study completed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Botanic Gardens Conservation International, which found that, in 1988, “[…] nearly three-quarters of the nation’s top 50 most funded universities offered advanced degree programs in botany. But by 2009, more than half of those universities eliminated their botany programs.” The study further found that the number of undergraduate and graduate botany degrees conferred during that time declined by 50% and 41% respectively. An article published by Great Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society in its magazine, The Garden, declared in a January 2012 headline, “Death knell sounds for botany degrees.” The article’s author, Sally Nex, noted the planned closing of the botany degree program at the University of Bristol in 2013, the last program of its kind in Great Britain. Has the study of botany nearly vanished from university campuses? Not exactly. It has, however, largely been shifted to a place under the degree umbrella of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and such a shift necessarily dilutes the study of any highly specialized field to a handful of elective courses at best.

The writing cabin of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, located on the one-acre pond below the main house at Trail Wood, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The writing cabin of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale, located on the one-acre pond below the main house at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the private sanctuary  where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

This past summer, while I was orienting a visiting artist to Trail Wood as part of the Edwin Way Teale Artists in Residence Program, I entered Teale’s writing cabin, which was built on the edge of the one-acre Hidden Pond the Teales had drilled in 1959 not long after their arrival. The writing cabin, built to match the dimensions of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, provided Edwin a place to isolate himself from the stream of visitors, often uninvited, and the telephone. The Connecticut Audubon Society completed a restoration of the cabin last summer so that visiting artists could, as Edwin had, have a place for quiet study and contemplation. As I entered the cabin, I spied an olive drab, semi-cylindrical metal case with a steel strap loop at either end. I knew immediately what I was looking at, and a set of pressed plastic labels on the lid of the case confirmed my suspicion. They read: Edwin and Nellie Teale/The Baldwin Bird Club/1959. It was a deeply moving moment for me, the kind I so often have when reading Teale’s private journals; in this case, the entry I had read the previous summer seemed to materialize before my eyes, and I stood silent for some time.

A close-up shot of the label of the vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959. The presentation celebrated the arrival of the Teales to Trail Wood, their private sanctuary in Hampton, CT. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

A close-up shot of the label of the vasculum presented to Edwin and Nellie Teale by the Baldwin, Long Island Bird Club in 1959. The presentation celebrated the arrival of the Teales to Trail Wood, their private sanctuary in Hampton, Connecticut. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Seeing the Teales’ vasculum that midsummer afternoon, I thought back to my research side trail of the previous summer; to the absence of new vascula for sale; to the decline of botany; and finally to Edwin Way Teale’s declined legacy, which I have written a good deal about over the last two years. All of these phenomena, and a host of others, are linked by a common thread: our epidemic disengagement from the natural world, and our immersion in a virtual and often vacuous and unsatisfying one. While the decline in collegiate botany study may in part be explained by the greater financial earning power of other specializations, a factor cited in some articles on the decline, this answer simply is not adequate. A study completed by Kathleen Wallace of Washington and Lee University found that, during the same period that botany study precipitously declined, the number of students declaring philosophy and religious studies majors increased by 153%, exceeded notably by declared visual and performing arts majors, a group which increased by 293%. These latter fields are hardly seen as having high earning potential, yet they have experienced significant growth. Thus, the financial argument against botany study, with its high earning potential in the pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors, among others, seems dubious.

The view from naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

The view from naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the private sanctuary where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

I am convinced, instead, that we have largely lost the capacity to appreciate exhaustive hours of patient observation, to find wonder in complex and always-evolving taxonomical systems and the larger contexts they inhabit, to see ourselves as just one component in a marvelously complex system of life, and to understand that our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of that system as a whole, with no part of that whole being insignificant. It is to these lost capacities, in my view, that botany study is succumbing, as the field of natural history did before it, only the pace seems accelerated, just as the pace of the world around us, speaking societally, likewise does. In his 1948 book Days Without Time, Edwin Way Teale writes, “The centrifugal force of civilized life draws us out thin, stretches us to the ultimate of our resiliency. Days out-of-doors give us release. They permit us to contract back to the center of life.” More and more we feel drawn thin, but do we, societally, still have the capacity to seek out that “center of life,” or even to realize how desperately we need to do so?

For a variety of reasons, the loss of botany study, and, for that matter, the loss of any area of specialized scientific study, should ring alarm bells for us. In practical terms, botany study, in light of the accelerated pace of anthropogenic climate change, grows more critical daily, as we seek, for example, to address food scarcity while trying to mitigate the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. Botanical knowledge is likewise an essential component of land and resource conservation, as well as ecological restoration. Mapping botanical changes in the coming years will help us to understand and, hopefully, respond effectively to climate change, but who will be equipped to do this if the current trend continues? Finally, the pharmacological applications of botanical sources, even in the present time, are staggering in scope and number, and their collective effect on public health cannot be fully quantified here. We must consider, as well, that the sheer volume of these applications is likely exceeded by those we have not yet discovered, but, if the pipeline of future botanists is slowed to a trickle, who will make these discoveries? Who will suffer in their absence?

A corner of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's study at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, the sanctuary where he spent the last 21 years of his life. Atop the shelf sits a stack of pressed botanical specimens believed to have been collected at the site. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

A corner of naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s study at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, the sanctuary where he spent the last 21 years of his life. Atop the shelf sits a stack of pressed botanical specimens believed to have been collected at the site. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

As part of the bequeathal of Trail Wood to the Connecticut Audubon Society, Nellie Teale, who outlived Edwin by thirteen years, requested that Edwin’s study in the main house be preserved exactly as it was at the time of his death in 1980, and CAS has honored this request. In a corner of the study, at the intersection of two bookshelves, there is a large, bound stack of plant pressings done by the Teales, presumably at Trail Wood. These have not been examined, out of concern over their fragility and the fear that poor handling could destroy a wealth of botanical knowledge of the site. Still, in ten to twenty years, who will have the training to handle these specimens or the knowledge to understand their significance? Amplify the concerns for the long-term preservation and use of this small, site-specific collection to the challenges faced by large-scale, institutional herbaria, and it further highlights the dire implications of a wide-scale loss of formal botanical study. It is a crisis on many levels, but it is not an irreversible one.

The single most critical step needed to avert the full demise of botany as a specialized branch of study at the collegiate level is the incorporation of more substantive botany curricula from the earliest days of primary schooling through the final days of secondary schooling. This curricula should follow best practices in environmental education, many of which revolve around direct engagement of the learner with the study subject. Children need to get outside, loupe and field notebook in hand. It is not enough, however, to simply drop them into a lush botanical landscape. Instead, they must be immersed in age-appropriate field work that connects them to their subject. As children grow older, this field work can and should be aimed at identifying problems and positing solutions. It might involve ecological restoration or the completion of a flora survey with a specific goal. It must, at all levels and in all tasks, contextualize the study subject to the greater whole of the natural world and to the individual learner as well.

Two of the author's children sitting on the steps into naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale's writing cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, CT, where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

Two of the author’s children sitting on the steps into naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale’s writing cabin at Trail Wood, in Hampton, Connecticut, where Teale spent the last 21 years of his life. Copyright: Richard Telford, 2015.

We can likewise engage our own children in botany study, filling the inevitable gaps of a public education system burdened with manifold demands from as many parties. Should we consciously drive them toward careers in botany? Not necessarily. However, we can and must instill in them the value, the wonder, and the joy of close study of natural phenomena. We must aim to show them, firsthand, the interconnectedness and the interdependency of the complex life system of which we are only a small, though disproportionately influential, part. Though the potential demise of formal botany study has garnered much recent attention, it is only a symptom of a larger ailment rooted in a set of societal norms that value speed over deliberateness, gratification over patience, answers over inquiry.  It seems inevitable that other fields of study are following or will follow a similar trajectory, driven by like forces. However, we can change that trajectory through the actions outlined above and others. Doing so will require a significant shift in thinking, but that shift can be driven by the realities of anthropogenic climate change that demand it. That shift, while helping to address those harsh realities, can also reawaken in us the joy and wonder that we so easily lose in the flurry of our days. And thus we win on two counts, neither of which can we afford to lose.

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.  The author likewise wishes to thank the staff of the Northeast Programs office of the Connecticut Audubon Society for providing full access to Edwin Way Teale’s home and writing cabin.

Discovering the North American Pawpaw Tree

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author's pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fruit of the North American pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) in the author’s pawpaw patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The powerful forces of forest succession threaten always to engulf the 18th-century stonewalls that surround our 1770 center-chimney farmhouse. During the restoration of the house, we largely gave up trying to stem the encroachment of the surrounding forest. However, several years ago, we began in earnest to work to control that encroachment, in great part due to an alarming increase in the number of Lyme ticks in our yard, which resulted in two of our three children being positively diagnosed with Lyme disease. Reducing moist, shaded areas along the edge of a yard through tree cutting, in conjunction with short-cropping the grass and the removal of leaf litter and other detritus, is a critical component in the war on Lyme ticks (Ixodes scapularis) that has become critical to country living in the northeastern United States. I have previously written about the Lyme disease crisis—a word I don’t use lightly.

This past spring, I began cutting back saplings, creating a ten- to twenty-foot buffer along the outer edges of our stonewalls. At the same time, I began clearing and grass-seeding the inner buffer of the wall that separates our front yard from the road. When I first bought the house in 2003, I had noticed a small stand of trees along that wall that looked to be some kind of tropical ornamental that could survive New England winters. This seemed likely, given the line of Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) that lined the eastern edge of the yard. The stand on the south road-edge featured alternate broad leaves as long as sixteen inches stem to tip. They seemed conspicuously out of place amidst the maples, hickories, oaks, birches and elms that, along with eastern white pines and hemlocks, define the surrounding forest. Though I had often intended to identify this tropical oddity, I had not done so by this past spring. In the effort to clear the front wall, I began to cut the stand down, and, at the same time, began limbing an adjacent venerable eastern white pine, also a major shade source.

In the spring of 2014, to celebrate the arrival of our third child, a friend had given us a gift certificate for the annual native plant sale offered by the Eastern Connecticut Conservation District. As we mulled over the catalog choices, a particular fruit tree caught our attention, the North American pawpaw (Asimina triloba), which was purported to produce a fruit similar in appearance to bananas but with a flavor and texture more akin to mango. We were intrigued and initially decided to buy a bucket sapling. We reconsidered, however, for two reasons. First, owing to years of successional encroachment, we lacked a light-sufficient, open space in which to plant it. Second, the catalog noted that pawpaw flowers produce an odor similar to that of rotting meat. With conjured visions of a tree that mimicked, albeit on a smaller scale, the most famous of the “carrion flowers,” Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum), we were reticent to plant one too close to our house and opted instead for a group of native butterfly attractors.

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw's tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

In both the foreground and the background, young pawpaw (Asimina triloba) saplings rise near the trunk of a mature tree, demonstrating the pawpaw’s tendency to reproduce quickly, forming large patches. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Fast forward to the early summer of 2015. Having cut about half the trees of the unidentified exotic stand along our front wall, I began to rake out the carpet of leafy detritus and natural mulch that had built up beneath them over decades, unearthing the fragmentary evidence of former property owners: assorted canning jar fragments and several rusted lids, old nails, an 80s-vintage orange foam Big Mac box, assorted hardware encrusted in rust, and, most interesting of all, a faded but still-legible plastic plant nursery tag that offered the life history of and planting tips for the pawpaw tree. The light went on. Gathering a handful of brown, nickel-sized seeds scattered among the leafy debris—mystery seeds that I had noticed every fall but never investigated—I went in the house and completed a quick Google image search for “pawpaw seeds.” With that first search confirming what I expected to see, I completed subsequent searches: “pawpaw leaf,” “pawpaw flower,” “pawpaw bark,” each subsequent search adding additional confirmation. We were the proud owners of a substantial pawpaw stand, more commonly referred to as a pawpaw patch, half of which I had just cut down.

John James Audubon's rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

John James Audubon’s rendering of a male and female yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in a North American pawpaw tree.

Despite my own ignorance of the pawpaw as a native North American tree, according to an article by José I. Hormaza, published by the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, its presence in North America was documented as early as 1541 by a member of the De Soto expedition. Hormaza likewise notes that members of the Lewis and Clark expedition relied almost entirely on wild pawpaw fruit for subsistence over several days in September of 1806. In his book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, Andrew Moore writes of the cultivation of pawpaw trees by several Native American tribes in the pre-Columbian era, noting that tribe members “carrying seeds in satchels rather than their stomachs” likely replaced the traditional dispersal of pawpaw seeds by then-extinct prehistoric megafauna. John James Audubon, in The Birds of America (1827-1838), features the yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) in the context of a detailed rendering of an insect-damaged pawpaw tree with a cluster of overripe fruit. Hormaza likewise notes that Thomas Jefferson cultivated pawpaw trees at Monticello and even sent both seeds and plants as official ambassadorial gifts to France in the late 18th century. Still, the pawpaw, as suggested by Andrew Moore’s book title, seems largely to have fallen victim to obscurity in the American public consciousness. So perhaps it should not be surprising that I could step out my front door for thirteen years, look directly at our pawpaw patch, even admire its downward-facing crimson flowers in spring, and remain ignorant of its natural history. Still, I am a bit surprised given my predilection to wanting to be able to identify the species of all kinds that occupy our woods.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author's patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

A pair of pawpaw fruit deep within the branches of mature tree in the author’s patch. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford.

This summer, with our pawpaw patch thinned and the pine boughs that once shaded it cut back, the more mature of our trees have produced a respectable fruit crop. As I write this, it is still too early to harvest them, but we are eager to do so in mid to late October. They certainly produced fruit in other years, as evidenced by the seeds we would turn up in our fall raking, yet never once did we notice the fruit that followed the spring flowering. This is certainly due in part to the color of the fruit being, at least in our specimens, nearly identical to their leaf color. Even now, with our new awareness, it takes careful looking to see most of the fruit. Still, our failure to see the fruit of previous summers is also just as certainly a product of the fact that we as human beings, collectively speaking, often simply do not see what we are not looking for. And I am reminded in all of this that our minds can always be more open, our senses keener, our curiosity stronger. Natural history writer Edwin Way Teale, in his 1937 book Grassroot Jungles, notes, “Among the tangled weeds of the roadside or in the grassroot jungles of your own back yard, you encounter strange and incredible forms of life.” He later notes, “The more we know, the more we see; our adventures increase with knowledge.” When we are suddenly struck by our lack of such knowledge, as I was with my “discovery” of our pawpaw patch, we can be critical of our own ignorance, or, instead, we can be grateful for the rich and unquantifiable range of knowledge that is offered to us by the natural world. I choose the latter.

Summer Leavings: Finding Ourselves in the Turning of the Seasons

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

A dead eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) nestling left in the nest at the end of summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author's 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

The eaves along the east side build-out of the author’s 1770 farmhouse, where, prior to the installation of fascia boards, American robins built five nests this past summer. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

Several years ago I removed the rotten eaves of several sections of our 1770 farmhouse and began to reproduce them with like materials. I extended the rafters, cut and installed soffits, even drilled holes for louvered vents to be installed at the project’s conclusion. During this time, we completed tests for lead paint throughout the house, tests that yielded levels so high that we cleaned and packed all of our belongings, found a temporary apartment, and moved ourselves and our sixteen-month-old daughter out of the house in less than ten days. We would remain out of the house for nearly a year, during which time we undertook a full lead abatement followed by a comprehensive interior restoration. Nonessential projects were put aside, and, in the years that followed, the eaves were left open, waiting for fascia boards to seal them. In the interim, the soffits provided ideal nesting platforms for a host of backyard birds—ironically with no greater use than this summer, just as I had bought the materials to finally finish the project. On the west side of a circa-1850 build-out of the house, American robins (Turdus migratorius) built five nests, none of which was ultimately occupied, while, on the east side of the build-out, eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) built two nests, from one of which two sets of nestlings were fledged by mid-August. The other remained unoccupied.

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

A yellow-legged meadowhawk (Sympetrum vicinum), also referred to as the autumn meadowhawk, a late summer dragonfly in southern New England. Copyright 2015, Richard Telford

When it was clear that the robins had ultimately raised their broods elsewhere (at least one in the rafters of our open garden shed), I cleared the abandoned nests and began cutting, painting, and installing fascia boards on the west side of the build-out. In mid-August, when the phoebe parents had ceased their constant foraging of our backyard, I checked the nests and, finding them empty but for one dead nestling, I cleared them out and finished the eaves there as well. I wrote last month of my children’s deep interest in the lives of our backyard birds. Finding the dead nestling, I did not hesitate to show it to them. In fact, in it I saw an important opportunity. We have worked hard to give our children a deep appreciation for the natural world, and such a deep appreciation must, at least in part, be predicated on understanding what we, as a society, often characterize as the harsh realities of nature’s cycles. To appreciate fully the way in which utterly helpless phoebe nestlings metamorphose into strikingly dexterous and proficient aerial hunters in less than a month, we must understand the short odds of their surviving the fourteen to twenty day nestling period. Without such knowledge, the depth of our appreciation is inherently limited. Thus, it is important that we resist the ready impulse to frame our children’s sense of wonder for the natural world, and also our own, in one-dimensional, incomplete terms.

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

The remnants of a tent caterpillar nest formed by a silk-wrapped leaf of a scarlet oak tree. Copyright 2015: Richard Telford

Several months ago, I wrote for The Ecotone Exchange an “Homage to the Month of June.” In it I reflected on a time when, as long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […].” Now, in late August, reflecting on the dead phoebe nestling, it seems a time for a different kind of homage, as the husks of once-abundant summer life amass around us: the shed exoskeleton of a dogday harvestfly (Tibicen canicularis); a cinched, gauze-enfolded scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) leaf that formerly housed eastern tent caterpilars (Malacosoma americanum); the brittle, browned-out flower heads of red clover (Trifolium pratense), once vibrant, now melding with the yellowing stalks of upland pastures. Then, too, absences abound, which, like their counterpart abundance emerging in June, amass just as exponentially as summer gives way to autumn, then winter: The midsummer dragonflies, the eastern pondhawks (Erythemis simplicicollis) and twelve-spotted skimmers (Libellula pulchella), no longer hunt the pond and field edges; the summer fledglings that remained and foraged for a time near their nests are gone, too, some to migration, others to predation and starvation; absent, too, are the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), the American copper (Lycaena phlaeas). In late August, past summer’s prime, we witness the remnants of lives ended, both in evidence and by absence, but we see, too, the foreshadowing of lives yet to be lived. We see clearly how one life must give way to another, how each organism sews the seeds, in one form or another, of its generations to follow. Placing ourselves in this context, it is inevitable that, in the passage of the seasons by which we mark time, we see an analogy for the passage of our lives.

As we do with so many aspects of the natural world, we impose our own hierarchies on the seasons, attach our own meanings to the life processes that define them. British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his 1819 poem “Ode to the West Wind,” paints fall and winter as times of decline and death, writing in the poem’s opening stanza, “[…] thou breath of Autumn’s being,/Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead/Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing […].” By the poem’s end, however, Shelley writes of the hope fostered by the coming spring: “O Wind,/If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” American naturalist writer Edwin Way Teale likewise saw spring as a time of hope and renewal while he struggled with prostate cancer from 1974 until his death in 1980. In an April 1977 journal entry, he writes with deep gratitude for the news that hormone therapy seems to have momentarily checked the progress of the cancer: “More months to work on my book—more months to enjoy the spring! How hard it would be to receive bad news in the spring!” American poet William Stafford, in his short poem “Fall Wind,” writes, “Pods of summer crowd around the door;/I take them in the autumn of my hands.” Later, the speaker of the poem “shiver[s] twice:/Once for thin walls, once for the sound of time.” As summer winds down, it is hard not to wallow in a sense of decline, but the end-of-summer leavings challenge us to do otherwise. In the fragile husks of life extinguished, life still abides, and we are reminded that in nature change is constant, life is fragile. We are reminded as well to shed our imposed hierarchies and relish both the beauty and the harshness of each season, allowing both to feed our sense of wonder in equal measure.

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.

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.

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

By Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amplifying Life: Macro Photography and Our Vision of Ourselves

By:  Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before Rachel Carson

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

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

By Richard Telford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Write

By:  Richard Telford

Rich- LI Sound 1973

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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