It has been an intense month y’all. School’s out and summer-brain’s settling in for most of the population under 18, Ohio (and much of the Midwest) has been renamed New Atlantis, and we’ve all been trying to figure out how to be more human to each other- sometimes failing tragically and occasionally succeeding beautifully. While it’s my hope to make H&H timely, relevant and reverent when appropriate, to be honest I’m having a hard time processing all this HIS/HERSTORY and FEELZ.
While I sit here alternately crying, cheering, puking and sorting out my thoughts about this complicated animal we call ‘America’, there’s one thing which never fails to make me swell with patriotic Knopian pride: parks and wildlife refuges.* While the National Park Service suffers from the same ambivalence as the rest of our awful/wonderful weirdo-country, the parks themselves remain, for me, a reliable source for good vibes. As the great Miss Knope herself said, “Parks are for everybody” and, I would add, every creature. As a double plus bonus, the history of our parks, preserves and refuges is filled with bad-ass babes who made them so. One of these powerhouses, was Rosalie Barrow Edge.
Rosalie Edge (neé Barrow) has been called “nature’s most effective protector since John Muir.” Mabel Rosalie Barrow was born in 1877 in New York City to wealthy parents. As a young girl of privilege growing up in the 19th century, Rosalie’s childhood was fairly uneventful and filled with education focused primarily on becoming ‘the cultured wife of an important man. From all accounts**, the first three decades of Rosalie’s life fit the expectations of her of the times. She married “successfully” to a British civil engineer, had two children and divided her time between America and ‘the Continent,’ doing whatever it was Proper Ladies did on ships (I imagine it involves a lot of tea and needlepoint.)
Everything changed in 1913. On one of the Barrows’s many trans-Atlantic voyages, Rosalie met the Lady Rhondda, a prominent and outspoken woman who used her position and privilege to champion British suffrage. Rosalie referred to their meeting and subsequent conversations as “…the first awakening of my mind,” and by the time the Barrows returned stateside, Rosalie was ready to put her own ample resources (both monetary and intellectual) towards the US Suffrage Movement.
In the 1920s, when not working to smash the male-dominated political machine, Rosalie became deeply interested in amateur bird watching. In 1929 this passion became a cause to champion and her life’s work. While in Paris with her children, Rosalie received a pamphlet (the early 20th century tweet), called ‘The Crises in Conservation.’ According to the publication, not only were over 20,000 bald eagles being slaughtered in Alaskan territory, a tragedy in its own right, but the leading protection agencies of the time had been totally silent. Rosalie was stunned: “For what, to me, were dinner and the boulevards in Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?”
Shortly after returning home, the riled-up Rosalie founded and ran (until her death in her mid-80’s), the Emergency Conservation Committee (ECC). In the early 20th century, the leading view of “conservationists” was to protect only those species with economic value. In contrast, the forward-thinking ECC aimed to protect all species so that they didn’t become rare, preserving biodiversity for generations to come. According to Rosalie, conservation was an everyone-problem. Though not formally trained in science or ecology, she quickly sought to fill the gaps in her own education. A great example of the power of self-guided learning, she tracked down, questioned and learned from the leading biologists and wildlife professionals, eventually becoming an expert in her own right on birds of prey, species diversity and the dangers of pesticides.
In her early 30’s, Rosalie set her sights on one of the biggest offenders of the time- The Audubon Society.
Yes, that Audubon Society. What’s that? You only know them as do-gooder bird folk who put out beautiful publications and fight for the preservation of all bird species and habitat? That’s thanks, in large part, to our friend Rosalie. While the present-day Audubon is one of the leading voices for Environmental Good, in the 1920s they were a veritable nest of vipers. Not only were their methods of study questionable, the directors at the time were totally in cahoots with wildlife harvesters, doing shady things like ‘renting’ out sanctuaries to ‘Nature Enthusiasts’ (i.e. fur trappers) and pocketing the money.
Rosalie joined the Society, then, combining her Proper Manners with claws sharpened on suffrage, her expertise on the natural world and her quick-wit, tore down the establishment from the inside. She would attend the meetings, smile and listen politely to presentations, and in open sessions ask good questions which the leadership, uncomfortably, couldn’t answer (A 1948 New Yorker article later referred to her as “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.”). Though they tried to remove her several times, Rosalie refused to leave. In 1930 she filed and won a suit to obtain the Society’s membership mailing list. Soon after, all 11,000 members received notices detailing the Audubon’s atrocities. Within four years the former directors were forced to to leave, the deals with commercial interests were cut and the Audubon became the upstanding organization it is today.
For the rest of her life, Rosalie continued to fight for the cause of birds and biodiversity, leaving a legacy including:
- The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary – the world’s first refuge for birds of prey.
- Led a grassroots campaigns to create Olympic National Park and King’s Canyon National Park
- Successfully lobbied Congress to purchase 8000 acres of old growth pines on the perimeter of Yosemite that were intended for logging
- Influenced the founders of the Wilderness Society, The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund and, in a way, anyone influence by Silent Spring (author Rachel Carson obtained much of her research on DDT through the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary)
But my favorite thing about Rosalie’s story is how heavily amateurs play feature roles- The photograph that inspired Rosalie to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was taken by an amateur, Her two campaigns to open Olympic and Kings Canyon were grassroots efforts, and even Rosalie herself was almost entirely self-taught. Formal training and education are awesome, but it’s also reassuring I think to recognize that whatever your background, you too can make an impact.
How to Lend Your Voice and Power to Others
*(an incomplete list)
The other rocking thing about Rosalie’s story is that she didn’t try to change her position but rather she used her position and her influence to fight the system from inside the system (like Commissioner Jim Gordon!). I don’t want to put too much pressure on you, but you should know- no matter who you are, what your background or identity, somewhere, for someone, your voice has power. Setting aside the Big and Complicated matter of finding your voice/power, here, in Rosalie’s own words, are a few ways that you can use your awesomeness for Good:
- ““When we suffrage women attacked a political machine, we called out it’s name and the name of its officers so that all could hear…” Have you ever been at work or hanging out with friends when out of nowhere someone makes a joke or comment that seems innocent enough but which also seems like it might be offensive to someone b/c of some part of their identity (i.e. race, gender, religious beliefs, etc) and you don’t want to seem rude so you cringe inwardly and let it slide? Cut that out! You don’t have to be strident (Rookiemag has a great article about ‘calling in‘ as opposed to calling them out). Odds are very good that the offender has no idea what they said might be harmful and would want to know (think of it as broccoli in the teeth of your best friend). Help them, and us as a species, become kinder and more self-aware.
- “…we got ourselves inside the recalcitrant organization if possible and stood up in meeting…” There’s lots of SCIENCE that shows people make change in their lives, in large part, because of relationships. I might read negative anonymous reviews of a restaurant and take them into consideration, but one glowing positive review from a friend who says “no, trust me, it’s awesome” is usually enough to outweigh them all. So don’t just criticize whatever it is you’re trying to change, really get to know them. (This empathy emphasis goes both ways too, especially when working with a marginalized community- learn not just the weaknesses but also the strengths and needs of your friends and enemies and then figure out where your own fit)
- “…we gave the matter to the press, 1st doing something that it should make news.” There are a lot of negative things to say about social media (and as a curmudgeon, I’m sure I’ve said them all)- but it is also a powerful tool. Remember the Arab Spring? Even Rosalie and her crew knew there’s power in numbers, especially if those numbers are informed. I think the key takeaway here, to keep your important message of change from getting lost amidst new babies and LOLcats, is the second part- that whatever it is you share, tweet, like, etc be partnered with action. Nuthin’ gets done without some doin’.
And, because I started with the intent of something light and fluffy (Parks! Birds! Jaunty Hats!) and ended with major political upheaval, here’s a ridiculous picture of a baby falcon and a sunset for you to ponder while celebrating your power. You’re welcome.
*check out Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods for a hilarious tale which includes plenty of stories featuring NPS disfunction.
** and by all accounts, I mean those which I can access quickly and on the internet- though I do try to site sources, give credit and keep this column as profesh as I can, this gig is purely for fun.