“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”
My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.
Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.