Here’s a speech I gave in my hometown, Bedford, New York, for the Westchester Land Trust’s annual annual Leon Levy environmental symposium, at the Bedford Historical Hall, on March 6, 2010. It’s called
“Westchester, Bedford, and the Education of a Conservationist”
For every person, the place where you grew up becomes your inner universe, the focus of memories and dreams for the rest of your life. You take it with you, wherever you go, and my heart will always be in Bedford, although I haven’t lived here in twenty-five years and have come to regard myself as a citizen of the world, a free-floating consciousness whose home base– Montreal for the last 12 years– is of secondary importance. I grew up in Bedford Village in the nineteen fifties, up to the age of 12. I can still play every hole of the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club’s course in my head. There is a cave in the cliff right behind this venerable hall that used to be one of my boyhood hangouts. It leads out to a little ledge on a 10-foot wall that we lowered ourselves down with manila rope we bought at Scharlach’s paint and hardware store in the village.At Christmastime there used to be a live creche in front of the Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco whose figures stood so still that the only way you could tell they were real people was the plumes of breath that escaped from their nostrils into the chilly night air. That hospital has a lot of associations for me. I was born there, so was my sister, my first two boys were born there, and my mother and father died there. Loudon Wainwright III, the singer-songwriter who grew up across the street from me, wrote a haunting song about Northern Westchester Hospital, where his mother also died. It’s called Hospital. I was listening to it on Youtube the other day, and by the end of it I was completely choked up. We all have memories about our childhood, about the world that was first presented to us, and we tend to remember it as a wonderful, golden world and to suppress the bad stuff. But Bedford was a particularly golden microcosm in the golden Eisenhower years after the war, and I would not have become the person I became, or chosen the particular heroic narrative for my life that I did, if I had not grown up there. The greatest gift a child can have is to be exposed to the natural world and to have the freedom to explore it, and fifty years ago there were no fences or high walls with surveillance cameras in Bedford. Davie Holderness, the kid across the street, Roger Austin, Stevie Burbank, and the other boys I grew up with, and I had the run of the township. We fished every river, stream and pond, we knew where there were was a pond with a little island with hundreds of black snakes dripping from the branches of its bushes,where a huge old snapping turtle lay waiting in a stream for something tasty to drift past his open jaws. One time when I was maybe 9, I was poking around in the woods by myself I sat down on a log and three curious little chickadees, cheeping excitedly, hopped nervously from branch to branch until they were right over me. I could feel the intensity of the life all around me and was flooded with a kind of joyous sense of connectedness and kinship, that we were all here alive together, in our different bodies and ecological niches, on our separate life journeys. Everything became radiant. A child’s mind doesn’t make the distinction between itself and the outer world. So I was definitely getting spiritual transmissions in the woods, and to this day forests are where the magic and mystery of nature especially come to life for me, where I go to find peace and to recharge and reconnect with the primordial forces that are in all of us. Later in my life I would meet people for whom such ecstatic experiences of oneness with the other forms of life here are commonplace : Indians in the Amazon, pygmies in equatorial Africa, San bushmen in the Kalahari Desert. But such mystical breakthrough, such momentary animistic affirmations that we are all essentially the same, had little acceptance in the culture I grew up in, little currency in the Western rational-scientific materialist world view, so I kept them to myself. All the ingredients of paradise were in this beautiful town, at least for a kid.
The accident of birth also played a big role in who I ended up becoming, as it does with all of us. I was born into a family of emigre Russian explorers, naturalists, and natural scientists, going back to the 17th century. After the Second World War my dad and my mom, pregnant with me, bought an old colonial house with a barn and an acre and a half on the western edge of Bedford Village. It was and still is the first house after the apartment building with the movie theatre as you go out of town on Route 22, the Old Post Road, toward Bedford Hills and Katonah. It had belonged to a plumber named Tolman, and there were all kinds of beautiful ornamental trees on the property– catalpa, weeping willow, deodar cedar. Mr. Tolman had once done a job for a nursery and been paid with seedlings. My parents had been persuaded to come up to Bedford by Helen Frick, the austere, reclusive, nature-loving daughter of the Pittsburgh steel baron Henry Clay Frick. Aunt Helen, as we called her, had an old farm on the road to Armonk and was a close friend of my dad’s mom and her brother, who was the director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. She had invited my parents for the weekend and they had fallen in love with Bedford. Behind the house was an old barn that my dad converted into a sort of museum of his uncle, the museum director, after he died in l949. It was full of his amazing paintings and his rare books. Uncle, as we called him– his real name was Andrey Avinoff, had been a famous butterfly collector in Russia before the Revolution. Vladimir Nabokov immortalized him in his novel, The Gift, and he had been one of the first foreigners to enter Tibet– in l912; he was searching for new species of Parnassius, a gauzy, tailless genus of alpine Papilio. Both a scientist and an artist, Avinoff was a polymathic, polyvalent Davincian genius who possessed a level of erudition that doesn’t exist any more. He and my dad had made the definitive collection of the butterflies and moths of Jamaica in the thirties. There’s a little irridescent blue butterfly only found in the western interior of the island that was named Shoumatoff’s hairstreak after Pa.
My dad was a mechanical and industrial engineer. He commuted to Manhattan, where he designed paper mills that were built in places like Rumania and Yugoslavia, but he was also very knowledgeable about butterflies and was the president of the New York Entomological Society. Sometimes he would take me down to the American Museum of Natural History for the Entomological Society’s monthly meeting. In those days Houghton Mifflin was putting out the Peterson Field Guide series. Alexander Klotts, one of the museum’s research associates, was doing the field guide to the butterflies. Klotts was particularly interested in Baltimore checkerspots, a small dappled orange and brown species that feeds on turtlehead, and he paid me five bucks for every Baltimore checkerspot I could catch him. Butterflies were abundant in Bedford 50-60 years ago because a lot of the land was still open fields and meadows, which have since grown back into woods. There were tiger swallowtails, including the black-phase male, spicebush swallowtails, pipevine swallowtails, and black swallowtails; meadow frittilaries, great-spangled fritillaries, atlantis fritillaries, and aphrodites. Probably the rarest species in town was the tawny emperor. In the family tradition, I caught butterflies and mounted them on pins and made watercolor paintings of them.
Davie Holderness was my main fishing partner. We caught brown trout, rainbows, pickerels, sunnies, perch, shiners, large-mouth bass, catfish. We went up to Kinkel’s quarry on Baylis Road and jumped from its 50 foot wall into the cold green water and found huge sheets of mica, dodecahedral crystals of blood-red garnet, slivers of smokey quartz and shards of green beryl– emerald. One of the smaller quarries had a solid wall of rose quartz, that is still the deepest rose I have ever seen, even in Brazil. Befrodwas a fecund environment, the heart of the richest hardwood deciduous forest on earth, with 4200 species of higher plants from ferns on up.
My dad was also the president of the Bedford Audubon Society, which was the first local chapter of the National Audubon Society. He used to take my brother Nick and me out on the Christmas bird count. Twenty years later, Nick became the president of Bedford Audubon, and I was the secretary. The first chapter of Garden Club of America was also in Bedford, many of the women in my parents’ generation and the ones before being serious gardeners. There were many beautiful gardens in town. Louise Bechtel, a children’s book editor who was a close friend of the poet Wallace Stevens, had a maze garden of high clipped rose bushes on the corner of Baldwin and Succabone Roads that I loved to play hide and seek in. Bedford is also where the Nature Conservancy was started, with the preservation of the virgin hemlocks in Mianus River Gorge. My parents’ friends, Jim and Alice Todd, and the Hollisters of Greenwich (whose red-headed daughter I later met on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic) were among the people who started it, and my dad helped Miss Frick create the 620-acre Westmoreland Sanctuary from the bulk of her farm. He designed the house for the resident naturalist and was the sanctuary’s first president. So Bedford was one of the crucibles of the American conservation movement, which I didn’t realize until much later. The upper stratum of the town in those days was old east-coast American gentry. Some families like the Van Rensselaers, the Todds, the Renwicks, and the Lounsburys had been living here since colonial times. There was a group of erudite, highly evolved people in Bedford, who had the sense of noblesse oblige, stewardship, and service, and a deep reverence for nature, and they were the ones who are responsible for the abundance of sanctuaries and wildlife preserves in town. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bedford had more protected acreage than any other community in the country.
It’s really heartening to see that this ethos is still alive and well, with people like Leon Levy leaving his 383-acre preserve to South Salem, and Nancy and Jerry Kohlberg donating to this organization conservation easements on their magical seventy-acre Cabbage Hill Farm in Mount Kisco. The American rich are some of the most philanthropic wealthy people in the world, and many the ones who have lived in Bedford have given back to society the in estimable gift of preserved land. Sometimes I wonder if I did the right thing becoming a writer. How much good can even the most powerful writing do for the world, compared to protecting a beautiful piece of it ? What more direct and permanent contribution can there be ?
The other great dimension of my childhood was that we lived on the edge of Bedford Village, so I could go out the door and head for the woods behind our property and be in nature, or I could go into the village and say hello to all the merchants and the guys in the fire department and buy some candy or a comic book, a fishing lure, or a packet of postage stamps, which I was collecting, at Trela’s, the ramsackle stationery store whose aisles were stuffed with all the stuff a kid could ask for. My little mind didn’t make the distinction between man and nature, or Bedford’s social strata. I moved freely and naturally between the down to earth working class, the shopkeepers, the upper middle class, and the patrician hilltoppers. I just immersed myself in everything and loved it all. Having both the natural and human worlds so handy I think played an important role in my developing a more Shakespearean vision of nature that includes man and his works, than the Thoreauvian one that has predominated in the American conservation movement and separates man and nature. This in my opinion is a false dichotomy. It was important in the early days when the national parks were being created and agriculture and industry were eating up and flighting the landscape, and boundaries had to be created– the hand of man stops here, from here on this land is forever wild and untouchable– but in truth it’s all nature, the material world in a constant state of flux and transformation. We’re all in the same boat, and it’s going down, unless we become better stewards and stop destroying it. Unfortunately the prevailing attitude in our society seems to be seems to be “profit without honor,” as one of my mom’s friends described the emerging materialism of the Me Generation in the seventies, the nouveaux riches who were moving into town and displacing the old families. This is not only a problem in our culture. I was just in China, whose 230 million strong baofahu or “suddenly wealthy” in the new capitalist dispensation are clamoring for objet and orsnamants of ivory, which are traditional symbols of status and power. This is driving the slaughter of about 100 elephants a day in Africa. A woman with IFAW, the International Foundation for Animal Welfare, who is trying to make the baofahu aware of the terrible cost of their ivory tschotskis, told me, “Tracing Chinese cultural history back a few thousand years, respect for nature and compassion for other beings are values that have been cherished in religious beliefs, as cultural heritage and guiding principles. The concept of ‘living in harmony with nature’ was reflected in art, literature and up until the beginning of the last century, China still had rich biodiversity in many regions. People lived sustainably with the long term view of leaving something for future generations. Unfortunately, the political turmoil of the last hundred years in China have decimated most of these beliefs. Wars, foreign invasions and occupations, civil conflicts and then Mao political movements stripped away basic trust between people, compassion and empathy and long term view. Today, there is no dominant religion in China. The society is ruled by one principal only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything including other people and the environment, let alone animals.” China is unquestionably going to be the next global superpower in the next twenty years, and it takes a couple of generations for the baofahu, the “suddenly wealthy” in any society, to realize the importance of protecting the natural world, to develop an appreciation of natdure’s beauty and preciousness and fragility, and the sense of stewardship. But the problem is, we don’t have a couple of generations. It may already be too late. We are already seeing major systems breakdowns and the irrecuperable depletion of biodiversity. Extinction rates are now a thousand times higher than they have ever been in the geologic past. This it why Bedford, what its enlightened residents did here fifty years ago and are continuing to do, is such an important model for the rest of the country and the world.
Every child who is lucky enough to be exposed to the natural world is naturally curious and unconsciously nourished by it, and I was no exception. I came of age in the turbulent Sixties, when there was a major countercultural revolution that rejected the comfortable conformity of the golden Eisenhower years, the postwar suburban life, so attractive on the surface, whose dark underside John Cheever plumbed in his short stories. (I came to know Cheever in his last years, when I was living in Katonah. He and his wife Mary, who lived over in Ossining, came over for dinner one Saturday night. Cheever was the Chekhov of Westchester, and if you want to get a sense of what Bedford was like when I was growing up, of Bedford in the golden age of conservation, his stories are a good place to start.) Bedford was hit hard by the Sixties. Children of the best families ran off to California and joined communes or ashrams, one daughter eloped with the local gas station attendant, my own kid ran off to Mexico the day before she was supposed to come out at the Club.
My own life trajectory was dramatically rearranged by the Sixties. After graduating from Harvard in l968, I was hired as a reporter by the Washington and was being groomed to be its Moscow correspondent, but instead, in the spirit of the times, I “dropped out” and in 1970 my “old lady” and I became the caretakers of an abandoned farm in New Hampshire, where I started writing songs and spent a lot of time wandering stoned in the woods. It was there that, as my mother put it, “nature hit me.” I bought a pair of binoculars and Peterson’s field guide to the birds and painted watercolors of the birds I saw, then I taught myself the trees, the wildflowers, and the mushrooms. After nine months I was ready to drop back in. But where, and how ? I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t want to write about politics or the Cold War. I had sold twelve of my songs to the manager of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Muddy Waters, and I was supposed to go out and perform them and follow in the footsteps of Bob Dylan, but my voice sucked, plus I didn’t want spend the rest of my life in smoke-filled dives playing the same songs over and over. I had dropped acid on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, my heart had bled for the beauty of the universe, I was fully, sensually awakened and alive to the beauty of nature. So what was I going to do ? The only thing that made sense to me was the new ecology movement. I could become a naturalist in the family tradition, a transcentalist dropout like thoreau, a nature writer. Which I still am, but a nature writer who also writes about people, a writer who is interested in the nature of things, how things got to be the way they are, a teller of Just So stories. Around this time I discovered the work of John MacPhee and Peter Matthiessen, and they became my new role models.
My brother Nick, who is four years older, by then was the curator of the little nature museum on the Pound Ridge Reservation. He had gone Oxford to study Chinese and had burnt out on the wild bohemian scene and spent two years regrouping up in the fire tower on Cross River Mountain. Now he was doing amazing things with his school and weekend programs at the museum. On one his field trips the participants discovered an old Indian bear petroglyph right in someone’s back yard. Nick, too, is an artist, and he depicted his vision of Westchester as a large mandala, four feet in diameter, with a series of concentric rings, each cut into 12 sections, one for each month. The outer ring contained the seasonal cycle of natural events, the blooming dates of flowers, the arrival and departure dates of the migratory birds, the emergence of bears from hibernation, when the oaks sagged with acorns, etc.. It had the most entries. The next ring was the seasonal cycle of the native Munsee Delaware people, who were the original inhabitants Westchester, on whom my brother had done a great deal of research. It coincided with the natural events that were important for them and had maybe half the number of entries. The next ring traced the seasonal cycle of the old Yankee farmers, of which only a few were still left in Westchester. It had only half as many entries as the Indians’ ring. And finally, in the center, the suburbanites’ seasonal cycle, which consisted mainly of cutting the lawn, raking the leaves, and shoveling the snow. This mandale opened a lot of people’s eyes to what was really going on right under their noses. Nick had only been at the museum for a couple of years, and he already had a cult following of kids, teenagers, and adults. I thought what he was doing was admirable, so when I heard in l971 that the Marsh Sanctuary was looking for a resident naturalist/executive director, I leaped at the chance to follow in his footsteps.
The Marsh Sanctuary had two pieces. There were 40 acres right on Route 172 just out of Mount Kisco. It had an old overgrown Greek-style amphitheatre that Isadora Duncan had once danced in and a beautiful old overgrown garden full of all kinds of rhododendrons and lilies that had been put in in the early 20th century by Martha Leonard, the cultivated, artistic daughter of Colonel R. W. Leonard, for whom Leonard Park is named. The other piece was a marsh with clumps of sedge and cattails and alder and swamp maple in which Stanley Grierson, the local naturalist when we were kids who used to bring snakes and turtles to school, had discovered an extremely rare Muhlenberg turtle, which being an endangered species, played an important role in the early fifties in the diversion of Route 684, which had not yet been built, several miles east, so that instead of going through both parts of the Marsh Sanctuary, it went right between the Westmoreland and Butler sanctuaries, subjecting them to the whoosh of rushing traffic forever after.
The Marsh Sanctuary was named not for the marsh, but for 13-year-old Cornelia Marsh, who had died of leukemia. Her parents, Norman and Cornelia Marsh, had bought the two pieces of land and made them into a sanctuary in her memory. The death of his young daughter had deranged Norman, and he had been committed to the mental hospital up in Wingdale. His wife Corny– Cornelia Van Renssalaer King Marsh– was one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever known. She was seemingly impervious to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and had this naughty conspiratorial drawl and was killingly funny on a regular basis and I absolutely adored her. She would always come on my Sunday morning bird walks, and although her eyes weren’t good enough to make out birds any more, whenever we saw one she she would exclaim, “oh isn’t that fantastic.” Her son Langdon became the head of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The Marshes were a great nature-loving family.
With the help of Corny and half a dozen ladies in the Bedford Garden Club, I weeded out and restored the ampthitheater and the garden, and some students from SUNY Purchase put on Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first theatrical that had been done there since something like l918. We built a boardwalk with black locust posts and red oak planks out into the marsh and at the end of it put up an observation tower where you could sit and have a bird’s-eye view of what is happening in one of Westchester’s wetlands. I started a lecture series and got a lot of interesting people to come and give talks. Homer Vergil Pinkley, an ethnobotanist at Harvard, talked about his doctoral research on the plants used by the Kofan Indians of Ecuador. Plants travel faster than man, he said, and as proof of this he handed me a seed from one of the tree the Kofan used. To this day I have not made it to the Kofan, whose world has been decimated by Texaco’s oil drilling and a horrendous spill that is off the media radar but whose effects will continue to be felt for generations. The native people whose way of life and world was destroyed were recently awarded 19 billion dollars in damages, which they will never collect. The oil companies’ lawyers will see to that.
The curator of cryptogams, or non-flowering plants, at the New York Botanical Garden, led a mushroom walk, and Julio de la Torre, who came from a distinguished family of Cuban naturalists and lived in New Canaan, gave a talk on owls, followed by nocturnal walk in which he called screech owls out of the trees to within a few feet of us with his booming operatic baritone. Timothy Plowman, a colleague of Homer Pinkley’s, talked about the Erithrolylaceae, the family that includes the coca plant, which he was the world expert on, and the two of us went botanizing in the sanctuary for a whole day, making the first inventory of its flora. For Plowman, an incredibly knowledgeable botanist, our local flora was a breeze compared to the tropical forests he was used to working in. He discovered a vine in the marsh called Dioscorea villosa that had never been found in Westchester before.
There are lots of discoveries still to be made in this county. One afternoon, in a sheltered nook near the top of Cross River Mountain, I found a tree that had me completely stumped. It turned out to be a rare coarsely dentate variant of black tupelo, whose leaves usually have straight margins. Westchester was about as far north as black tupelo trees get, and you only see them in swampy lowlands, so what was this tree, and a coarsely dentate variant at that, doing on top of the highest moutain in the county ? I wondered. There were two possibilities : either it was a relict from the Pleistocene Epoch, around ten thousand years ago, when the climate was dramatically warmer and southern flora like the black tupelo ranged much further north, or a bird had defecated a seed of the tree which it had eaten further south, say in New Jersey, while it was on its way to its summer nesting grounds up in Canada.
In any case, what I now realize, is that neither the social or the ecological systems of Westchester are written in stone, any more than they are anywhere. They are in constant flux. The idea that there is this steady state of equilibrium where everything is harmonious and is going to be great if we can only get back to it, is an illusion. The social illusion that I grew up in, the golden Eisenhower years, Cheever’s last book about which was called O What A Paradise It Seems, was swept away by the countercultural revolution, the rise of divorce and the women’s rights movement, then a whole new group of megabucksters and movers and shakers came in and there was a complete demographic turnover in the town, as I wrote about in Vanity Fair in the late nineties. The Bedford I grew up in fifty-sixty years ago and returned to in the seventies, no longer exists, although physically compared to most places it is remarkably unchanged, thanks to the many sanctuaries and large properties and the four-acre zoning, which some find exclusionary. But local institutions like Chamberlain Motors on North Bedford Road, where my dad bought a succession of used Studebakers, and Fox and Sutherland’s stationery and book store in Mount Kisco, are only a fading memory. One doesn’t have to be a Buddhist to realize that nothing is permanent. One only has to have lived long enough to have experienced the impermanence.
On the ecological side, we were noticing on our Sunday bird walks southern species that had rarely been seen in Westchester like the tufted titmouse, the Carolina wren, and the turkey vulture. One morning we were walking on the rocky ridge behind the amphitheater, which had dozens of massive dead but still standing chestnut oaks, when a juicy cluck directed our attention to a mid-sized woodpecker that was boring a hole into one of them. It was a red-bellied woodpecker. A first sighting for Westchester County ! This was in the spring of l972, as I recall. Just this morning, thirty years later, a red-bellied woodpecker came to my host’s feeder on Mianus River Road. The species has become established and nothing to get excited about in Westchester.
What’s with all these southern species suddenly appearing in our county ? I asked the experts at the American Museum and the Audubon Society (whose executive director, Tom Keesee, lived on Sarles Street and was on our board), and their explanation was that the interglacial warming period that had been going on for thousands of years, since the last ice age, had not yet ended, but it was due to, in fact overdue. At any moment it could end and we could be plunged into the next ice age. These interglacials were cyclical events and the current one had been going on longer than any of the previous ones. Around this time Time Magazine front-paged a story about the imminence of next ice age. Nobody had heard of global warming or the greenhouse effect except a few climate scientists who were taking readings of atmospheric co 2 in Hawaii and at the Brookhaven Laboratory in Long Island. What was really happening– or this is the current narrative– is that the cumulative effects of decades of industrial emissions finally kicked in around l970, causing a vertiginous rise in temperatures around most of the world, the famous “hockey stick” on the charts, which continues to this day and shows no signs of abating. Today turkey vultures can be found all the way up in the Laurentians, 400 miles north. The poleward movement of species across the board– terrestrial, marine, plant, animal– is the best indication that global warming is real. They know what’s happening. But does this mean that our emissions are reinforcing and prolonging the interglacial, and delaying the onset of the next ice age, or that the ice age still hasn’t started to happen, and when it will, it will override their effects ? You see a lot of numbers being thrown out, a lot of science reinforcing the theory, but no one really knows. The Russian scientists I talked to when I was doing a piece on the thawing of the Arctic’s icesheet and permafrost, have been looking at the growth and retraction of Arctic ice much longer than we have, and they told me that 104 astronomical phenomena are also in play, besides human emissions, but I remain a firm believer in the human hand in global warming. That it is playing a major role in the rising global temperatures still seems the best explanation. Whether or not one is a believer seems to have become almost a lifestyle choice. If you live in Vermont and drive a Volvo and listen to NPR, you are probably going to be a believer. If you live in Texas and drive an SUV and listen to Rush Limbaugh, you’re going to think it’s a liberal conspiracy. If you live in Bedford, you have some sensitivity to the natural world and are probably a believer. But Donald Trump, I know for one, who bought the old Eugene Meyer Place in Mount Kisco where Qadaffi stayed, is still not convinced.
I in fact became one of the early converts to the greenhouse theory. In l975 I took a nine-month leave of absence from the Marsh Sanctuary to write a Sierra Club book on the Amazon, the ultimate destination for someone interested in nature, which I had long wanted to get to. One of the first things I saw when I got there was a huge out of control fire on the King Ranch in the state of Para, much bigger than the entire township of Bedford, pouring thick black smoke into the sky for as far as the eye could see. The rainforest was being converted to pasture so we could have our burgers. The conflagration was so hot and intense that huge trees were being sandblasted into the air and landing upside down, their flaring buttresses looking like the fins of crashed rocket ships. Untold species were going up in smoke, being wiped out before they were even discovered. It was obvious that this and all the other fires in the Amazon– the one on the Volkswagen Ranch was said to be bigger than Belgium– had to be having far-reaching impacts, and when I got back to the States in the spring of l976, I contacted George Woodwell, one of the pioneers of atmospheric carbon research, and he explained to me what the greenhouse effect was all about.
Great news was also awaiting me : the New Yorker magazine wanted to excerpt my Westchester book, and it was going to be edited by the same editor as my heroes, Peter Matthiessen and John MacPhee. In l978 I became a staff writer of the magazine and was given carte-blanche to go anywhere in the world and write about whatever I wanted to at whatever length it seemed to warrant. I took full of advantage of this fantastic situation and in the years followed wrote about the pygmies of the Ituri Forest, a rare lemur in Madagascar, the historical basis of the Amazon women legend that gave rise to the Amazon’s name, the Genealogical Society of Utah, an arm of the Mormon Church, which has gathered the names of some four billion people who lived and died on this planet– the closest thing to a primary record of our presence here that exists. The New York Times called me “consistently the farthest-flung of the New Yorker’s far-flung correspondents.” In l986 I wrote a piece for the newly resurrected Vanity Fair on the murder of Dian Fossey that was made into the movie “Gorillas in the Mist” and starting writing for that magazine, which I continue to do to this day. My most recent pieces were on the ridley turtles of the Gulf of Mexico, which were already critically endangered before last summer’s oil spill, and whose future is now even more precarious. And a few months ago I traveled to nine countries in Asia and Africa to do a big piece on elephants, poaching, and the ivory trade. What we know about elephants is, I was told by a woman who has been observing since l900 the several thousand forest elephants who come out into a big clearing in the tropical forest of the Central African Republic, is
“like the Wright Brothers when they were still trying to design a plane that would stay in the air.”
In 2001, just a few weeks before 9/11, I started a Web site called DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, which is dedicated to raising consciousness about the species and cultures that are fast-disappearing all over the world. It is now dipped into by people from 90 countries a month. You’ll find over a thousand pages of all sorts of writing I’ve done over the years. I have also written ten books, most of which are cultural and natural histories like the Westchester book : about a state (Florida), a river basin (the Amazon), a capital city (Brasilia), and a desert region (The American Southwest). At this moment I am trying to give the Dispatches their own print-on-demand Kindle and Ipad downloadable publishing arm called Babes in the Woods Press. Among the first offerings will be The Meaning of Nature, a history of the meaning of the word nature from Homer’s Odyssey to the modern malady, nature deficit disorder. Then I’m planning to write a book called Rethinking the Species Interface, about the imminent breakdown of what has been called Adam’s wall, the barrier between us and the other animals, which will be the next big thing in ethology, the study of animal behavior. If anybody wants to help get this press off the ground, or wants me to write a Dispatches about a particular issue they are concerned about, you are welcome to contact me at AlexShoumatoff@gmail.com. At this point in my career, it is no longer about me. I am here for the world. I will doing what I can with my writing for the world’s embattled biological and cultural diversity until I drop, which will probably be in the next 10-15 years.
Whenever the opportunity comes to interact with young people, I grab it. When I was at the Marsh Sanctuary in the early seventies, I taught Middle School science for two years at my alma mater, Rippowam Cisqua. I was supposed to teach some canned science course where the kids did chemical experiments and dissected frogs, but decided instead that it would be much better to give them basic literary in the glorious flora and fauna they were living in and with. I taught them 38 kinds of trees, took the kids around in a little bus and showed them things like the solid wall of rose quartz in the quarry on Bayliss Lane, so they could get an idea of what a pegmatite, an igneous intrusion with precious and semi-precious crystals, is. Each kid had to write a 50 page report on the human and natural history of their property that had to include an interview with a local old-timer. The kids ate it up. Any kid who is exposed to nature will eat it up. I’m still in touch with some of my former students, who tell me this course made a big difference in their lives. One of them, Willie Janeway, is the current head of the New York State Department of Education. Another, Justin Cronin, is an up-and-coming novelist. Fox picked up the movie rights to his vampire trilogy.
So my question is, why isn’t basic literary in your local fauna and flora not a mandatory part of school curriculums in America ? Anybody who is exposed to the beauty and intricacy of nature becomes a lifelong ally in the battle to save it. They get it. We need to build a critical mass of people who get it if this planet is going to have a chance. All science comes from the basic human desire to understand what is out there, so the logical place to start is learning to identify the different plants and animals wherever you are. The plate-lipped, penis-sheathed Mekranoti Indians of the Amazon, with whom I spent a month in l975, had names for eighteen species of bee, which they could recognize on the wing, but their word for the number ten, which they hardly ever used, was the impossible amaikrut amaikrut amaikrut amaikrut amaikrutikeke.
I’d like to end this with the story of the Green Property, which was a real object lesson for me about the forces that preserving natural habitat is up against. Between the part of the Marsh Sanctuary with the amphitheater and the part with with the marsh was the 240 acre old Cook estate, which was picked up in the seventies by a developer named Green. He wanted to put 60 units on it, which he was allowed to by Bedford’s four acre zoning law. But he wanted to cluster the units and leave most of the property open, which I thought was great, because it had some of the last big meadows in northern Westchester, which had rare species like the blunt-leaved milkweed and all kinds of butterflies. But Bedford wouldn’t let him do it, because it hadn’t yet realized how beneficial clustering can be for preserving open space. So Green decided to annex the property to Mount Kisco, which didn’t have a problem with clustering. This made sense because Mount Kisco was just down the road and would be providing the police and power and fire-fighting facilities, so why should it get the property taxes ? Plus Green was offering the sanctuary forty acres abutting the marsh and a significant amount of money– a hundred thousand dollars, as I recall– if we gave him access to the property through the skunk cabbage swamp below the amphitheater, which was far away enough that our dramatic productions wouldn’t be disturbed. So I wrote a glowing endorsement of Green’s proposal in the Patent Trader (which is no longer with us) and the property was annexed to Mount Kisco, which promptly rezoned it for 350 units and office space the square footage of the Chrysler building. I had no idea they could do that and was beyond livid. There ensued a 30 year battle over the future of the Cook estate between Bedford, which had the means to fight such a travesty, and Mount Kisco. Green, whom holding on to the property was reportedly costing a million dollars a month, died, and another developer bought the property. As I understand it, a compromise was finally reached in which the originally proposed 60 units were built, and they were allowed to be clustered. While my heart was with Mount Kisco, an earthy place redolent with Westchester’s rich Italian and Irish and more recently Latino immigrant history, the village was clearly not ready to be entrusted with such a magnificent and important piece of land. The people of Kisco were good-hearted, but administration of the village was short-sighted and ignorant. It usually takes a few generations of money before a family develops the conservation ethic and the sense of stewardship, but this is not always the case. Biophilia, as E.O.Wilson calls the love of nature, is something we are all born with. It just has to be brought out, which is why education is so important. One of the Marsh Sanctuary’s biggest supports, who never missed a bird walk, was my dear friend Stan Bernstein, a sheet-metal worker involved in ductwork, air conditioning, heating, and ventilation, who grew up in the Bronx and used to camp in the Pound Ridge Reservation, which is how he was introduced to the natural beauty of northern Westchester and gradually extricating himself from the Bronx was living in Mount Kisco with his family. Stan got it, and those who do have to make a big effort now to open the eyes of those who still don’t. Not by being preachy or sanctimonious or taking the moral high ground, but by simply enabling them to be exposed to the natural world, and letting it work its magic. The way to stop China’s consumption of ivory is simply to enable the Chinese to experience the elephants. Many of them don’t even know the elephant has to be killed to get its “teeth,” or xiang ya, as the tusks are called. Preservation and education are the two best weapons for combating what a friend of mine in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse : greed, selfishness, ignorance and indifference. So those of you here today who are involved in these endeavors, I salute you. There can be no nobler calling. And anything I can do to help get the word out, please don’t hesitate to contact me.