For whatever it’s worth, I feel I owe an explanation to many of you who are concerned about my well being during my upcoming fast. It’s something I feel I must do, and I hope that after wading through these pages, you’ll have a better understanding of how I’ve come to this decision.
There’s a history here, and as I compose this message, I realize I’ll have to provide you with something I was hoping to avoid: An autobiographical sketch, which if nothing else you may use as a cure for your insomnia. Fasting is an exercise that is—for lack of a better word—inconvenient. I feel I must go to some trouble to give you the reasons why I’m giving up eating for an extended period, despite the fact that, aside from its necessary role in the maintenance of the body, it’s one of the joys of life.
So please bear with me.
At age 11, I ran an iron spike through my heel in a display of boyish exuberance and was off my feet for several days. A kindly neighbor thought to give me something to read during my convalescence. It was a dog eared, taped-together, pocket size edition of The Red Book of Birds of America.
I was hooked from the git-go.
On the very first page was the portrait of a loon—a poor one compared to others I was later to see—but with the backdrop of an open-water wilderness, including a forested shoreline, cattails, and other features of an unspoiled wetland. There was immediately stamped on my impressionable psyche a burning need to see, experience, and learn more about this magnificent representative of Nature in the Raw. As I leafed through the pages and other images of bird life were revealed to my attentive eyes, my awe and wonder grew. I soon realized there were a good many more birds in the world than the limited number in my little volume, and life would not be worth living until I had copies of The Blue Book of Birds of America, and The Green Book of Birds of America. These were advertised in the frontispiece of the Red Book, and I nagged my parents unmercifully until to my everlasting joy, they appeared in my stocking the following Christmas. Further nagging managed to score me a pair of 3X binoculars, and not wishing to press my luck with Mom and Dad, I turned to my Grandfather.
Fortunately for me, Grandpa Cook was a soft touch, and as a result of my impassioned beseeching, I received a copy of what was for the time (1940) one of the definitive ornithological works of the day: Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson. (The book, I understand, is now a collectors item, and though having being leafed through thousands of times, my copy is only a little the worse for wear, and still usable as a reference).
My interests in birds expanded to include pretty much the rest of the animal kingdom. Using whatever references were available, I learned what I could about the creatures I chanced across during regular hikes to the many woods, fields and streams around my home in Hopewell, Virginia. Hopewell was—and is– a blue collar town—the self proclaimed chemical capital of the South—and just about every adult male wage earner, including my father, worked at either Dupont, Solvay Process, Hummel-Ross Fiber Corp, Tubize (a maker of rayon) or Hercules Powder Company.
Many locals hunted and fished in the area, which included—in addition to large tracts of forests and open fields– the confluences of the James and Appamatox Rivers and their semi-tidal marshes. But few had much detailed knowledge of the native flora and fauna. Most people in Hopewell and vicinity would have thought a scarlet tanager was a brand of paint, and every snake one came across was either a copperhead or a water moccasin. Not being able to discuss my interests with a fellow nature afficianado was somewhat lonely and frustrating. Indeed nature study was considered an offbeat pursuit among the city’s mixed population of Armenians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Jews; all of whom had gravitated to the area during the World War I era, when Dupont, in its search for cheap labor, had lured them thither with the promise of jobs. But as my family was loving and supportive, I wasn’t too put out by some of those within the Hopewell culture that tended to regard me as an oddball. Harmless, to be sure, but an oddball nevertheless.
To fast forward the reel, my passion for knowledge of the natural world was subordinate to a number of things as time went on; the usual hormone induced adolescent chaos, and as America entered the WW II era, surges of patriotism in my youthful breast. This led to my enlistment into that honored institution, the U.S. Army.
And as fate would have it, an experience in the military led to a resurgence of my interest. A fellow GI sold me a pair of 7X50 binoculars. I’d never beheld any wild thing through anything stronger than a three power binocular, and like the first peek at the pages of my first bird book, it was instant fascination.
We were at the time on a troopship in the middle of the Pacific, and I was able to follow with greatly enhanced vision the flights of the shearwaters and petrels in the wake of our vessel. Nothing, I mused at the time, was more romantic, dreamy and awe inspiring than the sight of these feathered vagabonds, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, dependent entirely on their remarkable aerial prowess and their ability to exploit nature’s maritime provender. They were epitome of untamed nature, and the sight of these winged creatures in this water wilderness was a soul-stirring experience which inspired awe and wonder–and reinforced my appreciation for the marvels of Creation.
My reawakened interest was sustained throughout the voyage, and received another boost when we arrived in San Francisco Bay. While fellow GIs crowded the railings for the first sighting of land and civilization since leaving Yokohama, I was ogling the bird life through my 7X50s. Gulls, cormorants, pelicans, most of which I’d seen only in books, passed within view in a never ending parade.
And as luck would have it, we were sent to Camp Stoneman, a military base somewhat off the beaten track and populated by forms of wildlife other than GIs with hormones, prior to discharge. Jack rabbits frolicked within a stone’s throw of the mess hall, and the open stretches surrounding some of the buildings were the foraging grounds for horned larks and other open country bird life. With a couple of good field guides acquired during a weekend in San Francisco, I set about adding to my knowledge, and when finally I was discharged and en route home on the train, I bird watched through the window from California to Virginia.
With the GI bill bankrolling my education, I enrolled as a journalism major at Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University). At the end of my sophomore year I was recalled to military service with the outbreak of the Korean War.
Once more, fate intervened to get me back on track. Carolyn Derby and I had met in an economics class at RPI and were married six months later–after I’d been sucked back into the army. Knowing of my then latent passion for nature study, she persuaded me, after the army let me go, to enroll in Cornell as a conservation education major. Not only did she handle the paperwork to confirm my eligibility for continued veteran educational benefits, but she took an office job to supplement our meager income. Carolyn changed my life for the better in many other ways, but that’s another story.
My course work at Cornell mesmerized and enthralled me for the next two and a half years. I studied ornithology under Doc A.A. Allen, a boyhood idol of mine and a frequent contributor to the National Geographic. I enrolled in just about every course the conservation department had to offer, and learned to identify the common vertebrate animals of the northeast and most of the common plants. As part of an Ichthyology course, we were required to I-Dee most of the fish species of the Great Lakes drainage basin, and our instructors were often able to collect over 20 species from nearby streams with only a couple of sweeps of the seine. I reveled in the biodiversity of our corner of the planet as it was in the 1950s, and during summer jobs as the nature study person at summer camps, and later as a classroom teacher in the public schools, I was fulfilled to the utmost in sharing my knowledge with others and adding to my own education.
In those days, the nature enthusiast could expect a different form of wildlife with every turn of the path.
Revisiting my former stomping grounds in Virginia after graduation from Cornell and a few years experience as an educator, I greeted as old friends the blue grosbeaks, the warblers–prairie, hooded, and Kentucky, along with the cricket frogs, fence lizards, box turtles; the list goes on and on. High in the autumn skies, large flocks of nighthawks were common sights as they drifted southward to their wintering grounds in Argentina. In Penn Yan, New York, over the years of my longest and most rewarding tenure as a science and biology teacher, I frequently conducted informal, after hours field trips to the gorges and gullies of the area. Under almost every rock, as well as in the tiny rivulets that trickled through these meandering natural trenches, there was usually a salamander or salamanders of one kind or another, plus other interesting life forms.
That was yesteryear. For a former naturalist whose interest in and concern for the natural world has spanned over half a century, the loss of so many once common and beloved species has been traumatic and depressing, depressing to an extent that has resulted in a loss of enthusiasm for a field of study that had stoked my fires in bygone years.
My boyhood haunts, where I came to know the grosbeaks, warblers, and other once abundant members of the creature kingdom have been converted to shopping malls and housing tracts. A fisheries researcher would be hard put to collect more than two or three minnow species from the same waters that yielded twenty or more in my student years. The proliferation of motorized traffic in eastern Virginia—only one of many examples of how so-called progress has impoverished our lives–has all but decimated the populations of box turtles, snakes, and other creatures that have not learned to look both ways before crossing the highways. Air, soil, and water pollution, along with other forms of environmental degradation, have robbed us of our natural heritage and birthright, namely the infinite variety of life forms that once flew through our skies, swam in our waters, and enriched our space with their beauty, their voices, and their strange and fascinating ways.
In the year 2009, I am, and have been for several years, an environmental activist.
I have exchanged my academic interest in the world of nature for a commitment to see that some of it is left for succeeding generations to study and enjoy. My sorrow over the changes that self aggrandizing humanity has wrought have resulted in my decision to fast, and I will do so, as indicated in my statement, in a very public place before those with the power to bring about needed reform.
But I’m not without hope. I’m inspired and energized by the young people here at Climate Ground Zero, who at great personal risk are carrying on a campaign to stop mountaintop removal by nonviolent direct action. Despite the awesome challenge of climate change and other threats to the global ecology, there’s a new awakening among people and a renewed commitment to save Mother Earth from the excesses of our own species.
I’d like to be a part of this commitment.
Rock Creek, West Va.
Nov. 20, 2009