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An American Child
THE EDUCATION OF A LIBERATION ECOLOGIST
by John Nichols
It's a mystery to me how anybody among us develops a social conscience. We are raised in a so-called democracy whose Declaration of Independence informs us that all men are created equal. But our economic system is predicated on ruthless competition that trains most everybody, including writers, to be relatively heartless predators. A majority of us blithely accepts the inequalities that define the system, even though, in our more reflective moments, we understand that our attitudes and our lifestyles are driving the system toward an environmental apocalypse increasingly ordained as all the elements of our consumptive folly merge into a single overriding catastrophe. When I say "environmental" I mean human community as well as everything else. All life on earth is natural, no exceptions.
Today I am told repeatedly by shrill voices on the "lunatic fringe" of the media and the environmental movement that these are the worst of times. That may be true. Yet during the first five years of my life, which began on July 23, 1940, close to sixty million people were murdered worldwide, and the manufacturing capacity of much of the "civilized" world was bombed until the gears ceased to mesh, even the grandest of wheels stopped turning, and most of the cities that housed the apparatus lay in rubble. By the time of my fifth birthday the planet was a graveyard and an environmental disaster. To emphasize the point, my nation incinerated the people ofHiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons.
During those five years I lost my French mother, Monique Le Braz, to endocarditis (in 1942) and my father temporarily to the Pacific campaign, where he spent time in the Solomon Islands, Okinawa, then China. When he returned from overseas he was married again, and the three of us set about to construct a civilian life in a postwar boom era that would grow fat on the Marshall Plan and other reconstruction juggernauts aiding the conquered nations. That climax consumerism eventually segued directly into the ecodisaster facing us today. My father, the veteran, was so gun-shy that I was forbidden to own a cap pistol, even though my heroes in 1946 and 1947 were among America's favorite gunslingers: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hopalong Cassidy. On Easter Day 1947, my parents finally relented and gave me the desired six-shooter. They felt sorry for me because I was laid up with the mumps. Shortly thereafter I caught my dad by surprise, firing a jolly round of caps behind his back when he least expected the attack. He swiveled instantly and knocked me across the room, which was a wakeup call of sorts.
War (including cold war), and the relentless preparation for it, was a major foundation of the eco-apocalypse that has been fashioned during my lifetime. The only way to avoid war is for people to treat each other as equals. The socioeconomics of such an equality would be a great blessing for the "natural" world.
Of course, my liberal parents did not consciously raise me to be a bigot, a greedy consumer, a warmonger, or a fanatical environmental parasite. But they came from the North American middle class that by default perpetuated those values at a time when our victorious nation was gearing up for a bout with untrammeled prosperity. Fortunately for me, my father and his dad were also professional naturalists who gave me a curiosity about beetles, lizards, and herring gulls that would eventually cause me to pause when I considered, from a more in-depth perspective, the spending habits of my fellow Americans.
The creed underlying their brand of naturalist could best be summed up in a statement by John Muir: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." The inference is that we must develop a macroscopic overview of life in order to both understand and solve our problems. From an early age, I had the good luck to be influenced in this direction.
My most powerful memories of early childhood derive from life at my grandparents' summer home at Mastic, on the south shore of Long Island. The house was an old colonial number built by the father of our direct ancestor, William Floyd, who signed the Declaration of Independence for New York State. The house was surrounded by over six hundred acres of wild forest and saltwater marshes. Even the nonnaturalist grown-ups around me were interested in turtles, herons, and butterflies. My father collected mice and other small mammals for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and I often followed him on his trapping rounds, pouching the little critters. My grandfather (and namesake), John T. Nichols, was curator of recent fishes at the museum and a significant ornithologist. As a boy I often visited his office, where I ogled shelves of pickled frogs, salamanders, and sticklebacks lodged among old briar pipes and dented fedoras.
So from the start I was encouraged to marvel at living organisms with more than the usual amateur enthusiasm. On July evenings, family members sat very still on the Mastic veranda listening, with an almost rapturous intellectual serenity, to whippoorwills beyond the lawn. I don't think any of these people penned shrill tracts against the environmental and social devastation caused by the surge of postwar capitalism that soon dominated American life, but they gave me a love of towering woodcocks, praying mantis eggs, and monarch caterpillars munching milkweed leaves. Their ecosympathies were basically proletarian and made me aware of alternatives to our nihilistic lust for prosperity. To be a true nature lover, you must question the status quo that destroys nature at every turn. I have always blessed my family for laying that groundwork.
My father liked comforts, but in his checkered career as a businessman, a CIA spook, a student, and a professor of psychology, he never went after the gelt: we lived a pretty simple life. Far more interesting to my dad were the behavioral patterns of mourning doves that could give insight into human aggression, insight that might one day help lead to peaceful solutions of human conflict. Pop was a compassionate man with a sense of biological proportions, appalled by his own angers and, particularly in his later years, dismayed by our collapsing ecosystem. Please keep in mind that ecosystem means inner-city Philadelphia as well as Glacier National Park. A hopeful future requires that we develop a "social ecology."
"The trouble with me," my dad once said, "is that I was brought up to believe in a stability of existence that just doesn't exist." He understood that that hypothetical stability is the central prevarication driving most Americans in their hopeless pursuit of lucre, equity, things. He also knew that the more we consume, eager to be "secure," the more we undermine every level of resource and community that sustains us.
Pop was born in the William Floyd house at Mastic in 1916 and he returned there often during his chaotic life that had been deeply traumatized by his young wife's death and a world war. I vaguely remember his protests when the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission saturated Mastic with DDT in the late 1940s, rubbing out many mosquitoes, bumblebees, songbirds, and other life-forms on the place. Fields and forests were butchered to make people "comfortable" and "secure." For a family of naturalists that must have seemed a nasty bit of senseless doggerel from the miracle of postwar technology—"stability" indeed.
I don't recall anyone in my immediate (childhood) family fighting for civil rights. Probably my parents voted for Ike and Dick. My grandmother, Cornelia Floyd Nichols, had a couple of low-key servants at her summer place and admitted to me in my early manhood that she was a racist and "too old to change." Grammie certainly did not wear this prejudice as a badge of honor on her sleeve, but she was directly descended from the Signer, William Floyd, who had also held slaves. Such contradictions run counter to my family's ethical and naturalist traditions and, to some extent, render those traditions neutral. Similar contradictions are the central tragedy of our nation, where there is a vast difference between the destructive capitalism that drives us and our democratic ideals.
During the 1950s, when my dad worked for the CIA, he did not tiptoe around in a trenchcoat and black hat casting anticommunist broadsides against the evil empire of Soviet expansionism. Yet in papers I found after his death, he mentioned that his job was to keep "the communists from taking over the complete direction of our lives." He believed force was needed to deter force. And he likened superpower politics to scientific explanations of life: "For matter to exist the free flow of energy must be impeded." As a cold war scientist, he hoped to control the arms race so that Armageddon could be avoided at all costs. He believed that secrecy helped maintain human confidence in "détente," a false stability like the one that had characterized his childhood. At the same time, he understood that every penny we spent for atomic weapons as "protection" triggered similar expenditures (and paranoia) in the Soviet Union, making us increasingly less secure. "The trouble with empirical science," he once told me, "is that scientists pretend make-believe is unreal." Dad must have realized the contradictions inherent in his own job were untenable.
Later, when he became a psychology professor most interested in achieving world peace by understanding the communication of human emotions, Pop's message demanded the need for social responsibility. That had always been an important component of his naturalist's creed.
Neither my father, mother, nor grandparents had much serious interest in sports. But because I date one of my first important steps toward egalitarian beliefs to an incident (triggered by an athletic contest) that occurred in second grade at my Westbury (Long Island) elementary school, I must dwell a bit on sports. A kid named Emerick Tedesky walked up to me and asked if I was rooting for the Yankees or the Dodgers in the World Series. This had to be October 1947. Ignorant of baseball (and all other sports, for that matter) but not wishing to seem stupid, I replied, "The Dodgers." Emerick Tedesky punched me in the nose and I went down like Bambi on ice, thoroughly befuddled. But when I regained my feet, my life had been transformed. I wanted revenge, of course; but I also hated the Yankees; and I was a Dodger fan for life. A week later, catching Emerick by surprise, I shoved him down the schoolyard steps, giving him a bloody nose.
In 1947 the Yankees had already long been considered a monolith, and the Brooklyn Dodgers were a talented but bumbling team. They also had Jackie Robinson up for his initial year in the bigs, and he became my first and most enduring sports hero. I don't know if Emerick Tedesky hated the Dodgers (and had punched me) because the Brooklyns were playing a Negro, but that may have been one of the subliminal messages imparted to me by his mean little fist. In any case, his blow made the world a much more complicated place, and it also opened up a universe of fabulous adventure. Within moments I had developed interests in hockey and football also, rooting for the New York Rangers and the Giants; and I began to read line scores and collect baseball cards with downright venomous intensity. Getting smacked in the face gave me heroes like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, as well as Pee Wee Reese and Maurice Richard. With one punch that obstreperous kid had propelled me toward integration.
I have witnessed with heartbreak all the racial conflict in sports subsequent to my rude 1947 initiation, and one thing I do believe: Emerick Tedesky helped to cast my fate with the wretched of the earth. Be reminded that ozone, elephants, and hummingbirds, as well as Rwandans and migrant workers, are to be included in that category.
My father spoke Russian and French. My maternal grandmother, Maggie Robert Le Braz—"Mamita"—a French resident of Barcelona, spoke French, English, and Spanish. Unfortunately, after my mother died (and until I reached the age of twenty), I could not visit relatives in Europe because of a conflict between the U.S. and European sides of the family. Nevertheless, aware of my origins and intrigued by my father's linguistic skills, I was as fascinated at an early age by foreign languages and other cultures as I was bewitched by small mammals and pickled fishes. My father played exuberant guitar and sang Russian and French folk tunes as well as classic English ballads and cowboy melodies. I began a collection of foreign newspapers. Relatives who'd been abroad sent them to me. With saved allowances I purchased French, Spanish, and Portuguese blats at New York's foreign newsstands. Though unable to read them, I was a fanatic little manic-obsessive and pored over those newspapers, which were among my most precious possessions. I spent hours absorbed by a Dick Tracy comic strip in Arabic. Once, when I was twelve years old, I bought a thick paperback that promised to teach me German through pictures. From a clever assortment of cartoon stick figures at work and at play I taught myself to say: "Das ist die braun hut. Die braun hut ist auf meinen knie." I wanted to speak multiple languages like my dad and my French grandmother and ultimately I succeeded, although not until after college. But very early on I had the desire for these complex linguistic connections to everything else in the universe.
My French grandmother, Mamita, was the daughter of a well-known writer from Brittany, Anatole Le Braz—my maternal great-grandfather. Anatole Le Braz wrote books about Breton culture, some of which are still in print eighty years after his death. Most Brittany towns have an Anatole Le Braz street or place or some small plaque recognizing the importance of his work. Not until the summer of 1960, when I finally visited my grandmother in Barcelona, did I receive the gift from her of a book by Anatole. The paperback was a precious introduction to my foreign identity, albeit an unreadable one at the time. That his literature spoke of a people often at odds with, and subjugated by, the dominant French regimes escaped me then but would grow in importance later. My great-grandfather was a bourgeois and by no stretch a revolutionary, but his work speaks for the underdogs.
Anatole Le Braz had three wives: the first two died on him without a breath of scandal involved. His final helpmate was an American woman, Mary Davison, whose brother, H. P. Davison, a business partner of J.P. Morgan, had—to put it politely—an elaborate mansion at Peacock Point on the north shore of Long Island near Locust Valley. The Davison family was prominent in Republican politics, and H. P.'s son, Trubee, did a stint as president of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. He got my mother a job at the museum, and that's where my father and Monique met. Because Anatole Le Braz had been married to Mary Davison, whenever Mamita visited America after Monique's death she stayed at Peacock Point. I was sometimes allowed to visit there like a child from a Dickensian blacking factory on holiday at the Taj Mahal. We are speaking here of a baroque mansion, located on Long Island Sound, with its own internal telephone exchange, elevators, indoor and outdoor tennis courts, stables, elaborate lawns, gardens, gazebos, croquet playing fields, and a fleet of chauffeured station wagons. Over fifty servants were on hand to coddle the socialites and politicos. Mamita—who herself had "only" three servants in a modest Barcelona apartment—was ecstatic at Peacock Point. During my first visits there I was held in big-time thrall by the fairy tale. But some time after the Emerick Tedesky incident, I developed an attitude about Peacock Point, embarrassed by such conspicuous consumption and by the servants' role in it, too.
It made me uncomfortable to be waited on. Often twenty or more family members chowed down at Sunday luncheon in the Big House, presided over by my great-aunt Kate, also known as Goggie (the widow of H. P. Davison). All kinds of waiters and waitresses, led by the head butler, Frederick, deferentially passed out the finger bowls and the sorbets between courses. It soon became my habit, when I arrived at Peacock Point, to burst into the bustling kitchen where noisy servants treated me with a kind of boffo joviality. I suppose I wanted to mollify them—with my friendly gestures and by crossing into their world—for having to wait on me in such humiliating formal circumstances on the other side of the kitchen door. Then I dashed off to hit tennis balls with a stable boy on the grass court beside the swimming pool.
So I believe that on my father's side of the family, the narrowing of social purview created by privilege was offset by the naturalist proclivities of Mastic's owners, and also by their historical roots. It is important to me that my great-(times five)-grandfather, William Floyd, signed the Declaration of Independence for New York State. This document is a revolutionary credo whose most memorable sentiments were translated almost verbatim in 1945 by Ho Chi Minh to begin the Vietnamese declaration of independence as well. In my family, roots were paramount and daily evident at Mastic dating back to the early 1700s. My stepmother's Gleason family from Vermont was educated, vigorously aware, and widely connected to its origins also. Anatole Le Braz and his heirs took care of that sort of continuity on the other side of the pond. I will mention also that my great-aunt Susan Nichols Pulsifer, my namesake's sister, once wrote a book of family history called The Witch's Breed, tracing the Nichols side of my dad's people back to an ancestor, Susanna Martin, who, after an unfair trial in 1692, was hanged for being a witch in Salem, Massachusetts. A transcript of that procedure, still extant, indicates she was condemned largely for being a feminist several centuries before Betty Friedan reared her insistent head.
My connection to that sort of history is not to be sneezed at. I suppose it could have molded me into an unbearable snob, but I think instead it became an important part of the macroscopic overview that made me almost fanatically conscious and proud of being an American. Were we all so well documented, maybe everybody would become a revolutionary social ecologist. When you hail from a family that acknowledges its own history as mine does, you are prone at least to believe in the rights of history for others and for the land. Perhaps that is a reason I ultimately wound up in Taos, New Mexico, where many of my Native American friends inhabit terrain and dwellings that have been in their families for centuries, and the Chicano community across the valley irrigates its fields from acequias built by direct ancestors three hundred years ago.
My father entered the CIA during the Korean War in 1951. While he spent many months in Alaska "monitoring Russian broadcasts," my mother, two brothers, and I festered cheerfully in Wilton, Connecticut. Eventually we headed with Pop for rural Virginia, driving through a deserted Washington, D.C., at 2:00 A.M. on the January 1953 night after Eisenhower's inauguration. Colvin Run was a tiny town on a Route 7 highway spur about forty minutes west of Washington. There were two general stores and a grange hall, period. We rented a nice house on a couple of acres in dairy farm country. Northern Virginia was rural, then, and it was segregated. I went to the all-white Forestville Elementary School and attended eighth grade in the white-only Herndon High School. Although black people were all around us, I almost never saw them.
One man by the name of Harv used to show up on the grange hall steps across from our general store. There he waited. The store had everything: homemade ice cream, penny candy, OshKosh B'Gosh overalls, bread, and vegetables. Sorry, however: no Negroes allowed inside. In fact, the owners often slipped segregation pamphlets into my grocery bags, and I studied them carefully: I was twelve years old.
Harv waited patiently on the grange hall steps for a white person to come along and buy him things in that establishment. "I am the child of a slave," he told me. Harv had white hair, few teeth, and spoke real slow. The store owners' daughter, who suffered from cerebral palsy, often lay in a crib in the store. Her parents loved and cared for her; in that respect they were both an inspiration. Also, they sure were good to me. But the segregation pamphlets they handed out were venom at its worst. And you can bet, no matter what document had been signed long ago by William Floyd, that Harv never did set foot inside their wonderful store.
Our garbage man was black. Once a week he picked up the trash in his old truck and hauled it away. A day came when Mother lost her engagement ring and frantically reached the conclusion that it must have fallen into the kitchen wastebasket moments before I emptied it outside on collection day. So we drove to the collector's house. Picture an unpainted and weathered wooden home whose windows lacked panes of glass. The porch was lopsided, and we could see under the house because it was raised on short stilts, delta style. A man, a woman dressed in rags, and some barefoot kids gathered on the porch, astonished to see white folks arriving in a big Buick. All around the house, dwarfing it, framing it, damn near ingesting it, were mountains of garbage, heaps of trash, festering mounds of refuse.
It could be this part of my story is apocryphal: Mother and I got out and were ushered to a spot in one pile where we dug around feverishly, searching for the engagement ring, while those flabbergasted people watched. If somebody had taken a photograph and sent it to Norman Rockwell, I wonder could he have done it justice?
I remember Whites Only signs in Virginia restaurant windows, segregated drinking fountains, the "colored" balconies of movie theaters. Boy Scouts were lily white, and our friends 100 percent Anglo-American. Toward the end of my eighth grade year at Herndon High (in the spring of 1954), Brown v. Board of Education became the law, desegregating our nation's schools. Next day my friends showed up on campus toting baseball bats, tire chains, brass knuckles, and a simple but ingenious weapon: potatoes with razor blades imbedded in one side to be thrown at Negroes if they dared to integrate. I neither participated nor protested: I observed and avoided confrontation. But I think I was beginning to feel that life was gonna get complicated.
At the age of twelve I began working summers for a gentleman farmer friend of the family, Goodwin Locke. That's when my writing career commenced. On his lush piece of land this dear man grew tomatoes, asparagus, raspberries, and mushrooms. A large spick-and-span chicken coop supported an egg operation. We candled the eggs in a basement and caponized young chickens using a large hypodermic needle to inject a white hormone pill into the loose, scruffy neck skin of male birds. I spent long hours with a pressurized cannister of nicotine poison strapped to
Excerpted from An American Child Supreme by John Nichols. Copyright © 2001 by John Nichols. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
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