Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Before Earth Day

Another one of those books I bought at ASEH and am just finishing is Before Earth Day: The Origins of American Environmental Law, 1945-1970 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009) by Karl B. Brooks.

Brooks argues that historians have placed too much emphasis on the environmental laws of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. Instead, Brooks studies the period between the end of World War II and Earth Day and finds many important precedents. Little credited federal laws (the Administrative Procedure Act of 1946 and the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act of 1946, for example) and numerous state laws enacted in the late 1940s and early 1950s formed the foundation of post-war environmental law. Two things happened in this early period. First, states enacted many laws, proving the theory that they were the laboratories of reform. While some of these laws pushed the federal government to take a more aggressive stand on some issues, many made their way to the court and judicial review. Second, executive agencies empowered to administer environmental laws (on both state and federal levels) received greater authority to make changes and new regulations without having to go back to the legislative bodies. Thus, laws begat more laws, more judicial review, and more regulations. The process repeated itself until the accumulation of new codes required some adjustment. This is where Brooks sees the important legislation of the 1960s and 1970s coming in. They were not revolutionary responses to Rachel Carson, but critical clarifications to an existing body of law. As a byproduct, he makes a case that Eisenhower was good president on environmental matters.

My biggest question for this book is why start in 1945? As James Tober argues in Who Owns the Wildlife (1981) a substantial body of law related to wildlife developed in the late 19th century. There was a Supreme Court case, Geer vs. Conntecticut (1896) that ruled wildlife essentially belonged to the state. The decision of Missouri vs. Holland (1920) upheld the federal power to enforce wildlife regulations. And there were important laws throughout the early twentieth century affecting the environment and wildlife in particular, many of which empowered the executive agencies to form regulations. What affect did these laws have on the post-war evolution of environmental law?

Monday, November 21, 2011

William Temple Hornaday and the Progressive Era Nature Study Movement

Finally clearing out some of the books I bought at the ASEH conference in April, and just finished Kevin Armitage's The Nature Study Movement: The Forgotten Popularizer of America's Conservation Ethic (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009).

Armitage examined the Progressive Era nature study movement and concluded that it was a primarily a romantic movement (not a scientific one), that questioned modernity. I see that this is especially true of men like Thornton Burgess, William Temple Hornaday, and Ernest Thompson Seton, just to name some of those I am more familiar with. Although Hornaday was the dean of American zoologists during the thirty years he served as director of the Bronx Zoo (1896-1926), he was hardly a devoted scientist. In fact, he waged a personal war against what he considered the corrupting influences of the Teutonic scientific method. He criticized the academic scientists for removing nature study from the field and taking it to the laboratory, and for replacing buckskins and guns with lab coats and microscopes. Hornaday's scientific ideal was more grounded in a 19th century generalist movement. He felt the proper experience of wildlife took place in the outdoors where one observed animals whole, not in parts.

Yet, Hornaday had a very quirky attitude. While denying a certain fashion of science, he still maintained he followed the scientific principles and methods. He strongly criticized Reverend William Long and the nature fakers for ascribing unnatural skills to animals. But, no one anthropomorphized animals more than Hornaday himself. He ascribed a wide variety of human emotions to animals. Wolves were criminals, for example. Read his Wild Animal Interviews (1928) for a series of fictional conversations he had with animals. It is great stuff, and quite humorous (he was a funny man, a trait often overlooked in accounts of him), but it is not science. In Minds and Manners of Wild Animals (1922) he attempted to rate animal intelligence. Although maintaining he followed the scientific method, it is obvious that his data resulted not from verifiable tests, but from a lifetime of accumulated observations and anecdotes repackaged as objective truth. All this could be overlooked more easily if he had not spent much of his career attacking other people's views of science.

Hornaday's entire wildlife conservation program was based on the assumption that modernity, through improved firearms (pump and automatic shotguns) and transportation (automobiles) improved humanity's killing exponentially, while animals breeding remained an arithmetical calculation. Yes, that was a Malthusian view. Hornaday believed there would be no wildlife by 1950 at the rate at which human killing capacity improved.

Armitage does an excellent job of tying together various strands of the nature study movement. Back to rural living, bird day, gardening, woodcraft, etc., all receive their due. And he also explains how this nature study movement fit so well with the new curriculum of progressive education, as developed by John Dewey and others. Our generation is not the first to feel their children do not spend enough times outdoors. Hornaday had little interaction with Dewey or the progressive educators, but followed some of their ideas. Over 44 million people visited the Bronx Zoo during Hornaday's tenure as director. Many of them were school children who came on field trips. In this way Hornaday's zoo was one of the greatest contributors to the nature study movement.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review of Wind Across the Everglades (1958)

In Wind Across the Everglades a game warden named Walt Murdock (played by Christopher Plummer) confronts plume hunter Cottonmouth Smith (played by Burl Ives) in early 1900s Florida. It is based loosely on the experiences of Guy Bradley, an Audubon warden who was killed by a plume hunter (also named Smith) in 1905. The Smith in the movie does not kill the game warden, although he made several failed attempts to rig a "natural" death. The cinematic game warden differed from the real one in ways other than that he survived his confrontation with his Smith. As where Bradley was a native Floridian familiar with the 'glades, Murdock is well educated northerner (often referred to as a "Yankee" when not called "Bird Boy") who came to Miami to teach natural history at the high school. He was fired literally as soon as he gets off the train because he pulled some plumes off one a woman's hat. This immediately draws him to the one Audubon representative in Miami who convinced the judge to release Murdock to serve as a warden in the Everglades. The views of the business community are crystallized in two individuals. One wants to profit from the plume trade, the other wants to drain the Everglades to make room for development. In contrast, Murdock becomes instantly infatuated with the swamps and rejects both of these positions.

In many ways I find the market hunter Smith the more interesting character. He leads a colony of violent outlaws, the misfits of society who believe their lifestyle is both the ultimate expression of individualism and a form of protest against modern society. Smith holds sway over this community as a sort of king. He is lord of nature and man in the swamp. He dispenses justice as he sees fit, punishes transgressions, and holds the power over life and death. In the end he miraculously decides to bring the "Bird Boy," as he calls Murdock to Miami and risk prosecution, but as he went to grab his hat he was bit by a snake and died with a buzzard circling overhead. This is a Hollywood movie after all!

Having read a great deal on the Progressive Era wildlife conservation movement, I really enjoyed this film. I think it captures a lot of the indifference that existed to the plumage issue at the time as well as the crusading spirit that motivated the early conservationists. By casting Murdock as a "Yankee" in the south, it also captured some of the conflict between local and outside values over nature that exist in conservation battles. But, I think the depiction of the market hunters is a little off. Many were family men following a tradition of their fathers and who shot game (for plumes or meat) to make extra money. This is not  to defend them, but by and large they were much more ordinary than Smith's counter-cultural Robin Hood's band of the Swamps.

If I was teaching an environmental history class I think I would try to incorporate this film into the syllabus somehow. It could be a good vehicle for discussion on the points I enumerated above. As far as the film is concerned, the cinematography is phenomenal, especially given the date. There are many great scenes of wildlife and swamps, and there are no computer generated heron flocks in this movie.