“Home at Last”
Have you ever received a paperback for Christmas from your mother-in-law that landed you a fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich?
My journey to the Carson Center was more like an odyssey—long and circuitous. Spending my first three years of life on a farm my grandfather owned in southeastern Massachusetts, with ponds, meadows, rocks, horses, poison ivy, four houses, two sisters, and many cousins, I was steeped in the outdoors from birth. When my parents moved to the north shore of Long Island, New York, the woods behind our house and the waters of Long Island Sound became my new outdoor playgrounds.
When I was eight, my parents purchased an old farm and 75 acres as a summer getaway on the island of Islesboro, five kilometers off the coast of Camden, Maine (featured image, above). With a mile of shoreline, a small collection of boats, and many trees, I fished, rowed, sailed, and built trails. I spent much of my time alone and got to know my natural spaces and the creatures who inhabited them.
Meanwhile, education kept me always moving. Elementary school in Lloyd Harbor, New York; middle school at Friends Academy, a Quaker school 25 kilometers away; high school in Deerfield, Massachusetts; an undergraduate degree at Amherst; two MS degrees at Stanford; a PhD at Cornell; and a two-year stint at an engineering consulting firm in Boston along the way. Each place was magical in its own way: the taste of the ocean at Long Island Sound; the river and peaceful farms of Deerfield; the remarkable Triassic geology of Amherst with 250-million-year-old dinosaur footprints in the rocks; the coast ranges, redwoods, and active earthquakes and landslides of the San Francisco Bay Area; the waterfalls and trails of Ithaca (and our “Ithaca is Gorges” trademark)—always building on memories of the rugged Maine coast.
Place was a powerful influence on me, but so were my parents.
My father loved the outdoors, and I followed suit. Our family often took camping trips. When my mother died of breast cancer shortly after my fifth birthday, my father took my sisters and me camping and hiking in the high peaks of Colorado for a month, moving our tent each week to experience a new place and new adventures.
At 15, I traveled with my father to Baxter State Park in the central Maine woods to camp and hike for a few days. This became an annual trip, and over the next half-dozen years we backpacked the Appalachian Trail in one-week trips from Katahdin south to central New Hampshire, about 500 kilometers in total. I went to graduate school to pursue master’s degrees in geology and geotechnical engineering. My father stayed on as a trail maintenance volunteer for the next 25 years, stopping at 79 only because his second wife had become ill. He climbed Katahdin for the last time at age 74, passing the torch to his grandson Eric, who was making his first of many ascents at 11.
My stepmother loved the outdoors, especially gardening and birds. She encouraged me to participate in Boy Scouts, and I found my niche at summer camp: first during three stints in eastern Long Island, then at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, followed by seven summers as a camp counselor all throughout high school and college. I grew to love working with kids, teaching them about the outdoors, and being outside for months on end.
When I met and later married Nancy Morton, little did I know that I would also inherit a mother-in-law who would profoundly influence my relationship with the environment. Ruth Morton is a smart, principled, and dedicated woman who sees through rhetoric and thinks clearly about cause and effect. Her quiet influence has been a model for me and countless others and, along with the constant encouragement of my wife Nancy, gradually sensitized me to ways I could apply my interest in science and youth to climate change and other global environmental challenges.
After completing my doctorate in civil and environmental engineering at Cornell, Nancy and I found that the people, environment, and work opportunities in Ithaca were more attractive than anywhere else we could imagine. And so we stayed on for “a few more years.” I directed a soils engineering lab at the university, where I taught, wrote proposals and software, and played a lot of squash with a colleague from Bremerhaven. Arnim encouraged me to apply for an Alexander von Humboldt fellowship, and during my 14 months at the Technical University of Munich from 1987–88, I met a researcher at a Humboldt gathering who told me that “in 20 years, climate change would become the biggest challenge facing the planet.” That brief, cocktail-hour comment found an unlikely home inside of me—gestating, unforgotten, for nearly two decades.
On returning to Ithaca, I happened on the opportunity to direct a group of dedicated citizens who were trying to start a science museum in Ithaca—a mini-version of the Deutsches Museum, which I had visited often during my year in Munich. Here, at last, was the confluence of three things that had always appealed to me: children, science, and building things.
In 2005, my mother-in-law gave me a copy of Lester Brown’s book, Plan B, which had a profound influence on me, an “ah-ha” moment that convinced me that environmental issues were where I needed to be putting my attention. In 2007, I received a second Humboldt fellowship, and by this time—20 years later—climate change was indeed in the news every day. I spent three months at the Deutsches Museum under Helmuth Trischler and visited 50 science museums in 10 European countries to see how they were addressing the issues of sustainability and climate change. Al Gore won the Nobel Prize for An Inconvenient Truth as I was writing up my European experience. The monograph that resulted from my work helped frame a major exhibition on climate change at the Science Museum in London. More importantly, I became convinced that we need a new generation of youth, dedicated to attacking the daunting issue of global climate change, and unfettered by failed previous attempts and the baggage of business as usual.
Retiring from the Sciencenter after 26 years as executive director in 2017, I received a third Humboldt fellowship. This one took me to the Rachel Carson Center, in the quest for evidence that early experiences with nature in the preschool years have a profound influence on environmentally significant behavior in adults. The work that started there is ongoing; the goal of the research is to support policies that expose children to nature early in life, when young brains are wiring themselves rapidly, at a rate of one million new neural connections every second.
This work, begun in Munich with the generous support of the RCC, the Deutsches Museum, and the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung, kick-started what has become a third career, this time in early childhood development and its relation to environmentally significant behavior in adulthood. In support of the change in focus, I moved my Cornell affiliation of 40 years from Civil and Environmental Engineering to the Department of Human Development upon returning to Ithaca from Munich in early 2018.
At first blush, my forays into civil engineering and museum development might seem like large, sweeping detours. In retrospect, of course, each episode built a solid foundation for what was to come next. It feels good to be immersed in youth, education, and environmental issues once again.
Thank you, Rachel Carson Center, for helping me to find my way back home.