"Coloring the Conservation Conversation--One Word at a Time!"

Friday, November 4, 2011

Falling for New York

Just a few days ago I found myself deep in the deer woods, reveling in the majesty of the autumn morning, hoping for the chance to take a deer, but really there just to be.  The serenity of a place with so many non-human beings re-centers me.  The time in solitude with songbirds and all the other wild things is where I am boiled down to some essential syrup.  Most often, I do not exit the woods with game, but I do leave with something that nourishes the soul more than any back-strap ever could. I’m inclined more and more to go just to sit sometimes with no intent to do anything except be there.  Again, expecting nothing usually brings a bounty.

But I am also realizing that in order for the time in the woods to remain meaningful, those of us who enjoy time “out there” have to get the word out to the masses who may not have had the chance to see what we see or feel what we feel.  Increasingly, I’m being asked to talk about this very thing. Universities, colleges, bird clubs, conservation groups and even churches have called. Nature is everywhere and for everyone.  It’s not just about wilderness but about connecting folks who have been ignored in the traditional conservation movement to nature wherever they are—city or country. And so from the woods to Wall Street I went.  Well, not quite Wall Street but close enough I suppose.  A couple of days ago I headed to New York City for the first time in my life.  Yes, I do travel folks and I have even seen skyscrapers before but somehow, I’ve always flown around, or over the “Big Apple.” As others visit Harlem and Manhattan, I’ve opted for the Huachuca’s and Montana. But then when the call comes from someone I admire as a truly progressive leader of the conservation movement, you answer.  David Yarnold, the new president of the Audubon Society asked me to come to New York City to speak at a luncheon honoring former Secretary Carol Browner and the Toyota Corporation of North America for their commitment to conservation.  How could I say no to such an honor? And so I climbed down from my tree stand, traded in the camo for a coat and tie and headed north to the land of concrete canyons.

As the day approached for my first trip to Gotham, I got the standard admonitions about eye contact, speaking when spoken to and not looking up—all counter to what I’m used to.  What harm could there be in looking a New York warbler in the eye,  pishing to a silently skulking sparrow or watching a red tail hawk soar over Central Park?  Oh well, I guess I need to get out more.

My first impression was that I was not made for Manhattan. People were moving fast but the taxis were moving at something a couple of notches short of warp speed.  I think that maybe there needs to be one of those amusement park warning signs on every yellow cab!

 My mission in NYC was to talk about an initiative that the Audubon Society and Toyota Corporation dreamed up a few years ago. “Together Green,” is a nationwide, grassroots effort to do conservation in a new way.  By choosing forty Together Green Fellows each year for  five years and endowing them with $10,000.00 each and the freedom to implement innovative conservation projects in their local communities, Audubon and Toyota hope to  “Act Today and Shape Tomorrow”  by releasing the passion of people to protect nature through the 200 fellows who will come from the program. Toyota’s commitment of twenty million dollars—yes, that’s $20 MILLION—is the proof in the pudding: “putting your money where your mouth is” with a capital “M”! (See more about Together Green here: http://www.togethergreen.org/)

As one of the inaugural Together Green Fellows, I went to the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) near Shepherdstown, West Virginia in the autumn of 2008 to attend a week of training with the 39 other Fellows and take a crash course in putting our projects together for implementation back home.  The diversity of people there –racially, ethnically, gender-wise, professionally and philosophically was astounding. It was a true stew of souls from the four corners of the country and points in-between. I was instantly inspired by the diversity and single-minded commitment to a purpose that would make this thing a revolution in the conservation world where so many talk the talk, but seldom walk the walk when it comes to the “D” word. More on that later—a manifesto perhaps!

A brief aside, for those of you who have never visited the NCTC—DO IT! (http://nctc.fws.gov/#  ).  It is an example of government dollars well spent.  It is essentially a national shrine to the conservation of America’s natural resources.  In the serene setting of the Shenandoah Valley and the Potomac River, the words and works of conservation luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Rachael Carson and Ding Darling are palpable as the bite of autumn’s chill in the October air.  I woke in the mornings to walk along the river spying bald eagles and migrating warblers before the work of the day began. 
Walking along the Potomac with Tom Hissong (c) and Dan Kunkle (r)
That work—intimate discussion groups, intense dialogue about sensitive issues of race and relating to the environment and how we move beyond convention to make conservation relevant to everyone everywhere, was exhilarating and exhausting. I’ve never enjoyed working so hard with laughing, crying, hugging, and yes, some arguing a part of each day.  But it was all necessary to break down barriers and clear the path for communication and collaboration. My project “The Color of the Land,” an effort to re-discover and re-connect southern African-American rural property owners to a sustainable land ethic, was one of the first forty ideas to be seeded on the American landscape as a Together Green effort.

 At the end of the 5 days there I felt as if I’d not met strangers, but simply been reconnected to kin I’d somehow lost touch with.

(You can meet them here:http://www.togethergreen.org/People/fellowsarchive.aspx?year=2008) .

Since then 120 more fellows have come into the fold.  The efforts of the 160 have been multiplied by millions of dollars, tens of thousands of hours worked, thousands of acres of habitat conserved and just as many new hearts and minds infected with the ideas of connecting people to nature in new ways.

2008 Inaugural Class of Together Green
And so I was in New York to talk about the Together Green experience at the annual Keesee Conservation Award Luncheon. What an honor!  With so many great projects and even greater people, that I was asked to speak for the Together Green Initiative, moved me deeply. After a somewhat sleepless night in the city thinking about the day to come, the hour had finally arrived for the luncheon. A short ride from my hotel and a doorman greeted me at the Metropolitan Club, one of the oldest in the city.  Now I’m used to lecture halls and have even talked in some rather spacious auditoriums but I was not prepared for the imposing scale of grandeur in this place.  Marble columns stood as tall as the loblolly pines I’m used to scaling in my climbing stand.  The floors reflected the light of the chandeliers and sconces like a marble lake reflecting the light of pendant stars. On the ceilings and walls, figures of mythical figures floated on a fresco firmament.  This was way beyond a “little” bird talk.  Memo to self…buy a new suit!
Dining Hall at the Metropolitan Club, Manhattan, NYC
I was introduced to Audubon staffers and New York notables. I was shuttled back and forth across the room to meet the Audubon President, Mr. David Yarnold and then the COO of Toyota North America, Mr. Yoshimi Inaba.  I reconnected with old friends like the Audubon director of the Together Green effort, Judy Braus.  During the luncheon, former Secretary of the EPA, Carol Browner, was awarded for her efforts to protect the environment.  I sat at a table with a Rockefeller talking about the importance of our national parks and the value of hunting in conservation. She promised to introduce me to one of T.R.s relatives who is writing a book on the subject.  Next to her, sat the Director of New York City Parks—the “King” of Central Park, who between bites of poached salmon talked about conservation in the metropolis. I was as they used to say, “In high cotton”.

After a video chronicling the phenomenal conservation career of Secretary Carol Browner and the presentation of her award, I was up.  Pushing away from my linen clothed table and the leftover lunch my slightly nervous stomach wouldn’t let me eat, I rose and strode eagerly to the stage, smiling as I weaved through the forest of dignitaries.  Another couple of steps and I would be there, delivering perhaps my most important message. Like I’ve done so many times before in the woods when I’ve taken the shortcut off the well-worn trail to hop nimbly over a log or across a ditch, I ignored the steps on the opposite side of the stage to reach the podium.  Mistake. BIG mistake. This time, the nimble woods hop turned into a clumsy stage flop.  I tripped. Perhaps it was the creased and cuffed dress slacks that restricted my normally graceful Levi-legged leaps or the slick soles of the loafers that betrayed me when the lugged soles of my boots would have saved me.  Before I knew it (and thankfully before I let fly with some perfectly inappropriate wood’s words) I caught the toe of my shoe on the edge of the stage and tripped—pitching forward awkwardly (but I think athletically so) to catch myself with my hands from a full frontal face plant.

And no---there are no pictures of the spill and I hope no YouTube videos to show!

Yes, in front of the who’s who of conservation, I fell.  Well, I didn’t fall down completely but I fell enough to have to crouch animal-like in front of lots of people and enough to elicit a room full of reserved groans. It all happened so quickly but it seemed as though I was posed there on all fours like a suited brown bear for an eternity. So it was not a good start. It was terrible in fact. I’m not sure any of the blood that rushed to my face could possibly show through my brown skin but there was nowhere to hide.  Even the most advanced cloak of camouflage that hides me from the wary eyes of whitetails couldn’t hide me. Rising to a human-like state of bi-pedalism, I pulled myself together and stepped as confidently as a person who’s just “bonked” (my wife’s words), to the microphone.  Surveying the audience and the solemn faces of all these important people there was a second of silence. Having just swallowed the largest dose of embarrassment and humility I said the first thing that came to mind. ”Wow, my first day in the city and I’ve already fallen for you all!” The somber silence became laughter and the solemnity turned to smiles. The ice thus broken and with nothing further to lose, I spoke from the only place still intact, my heart.  From that point, I think I did a decent job of delivering the “word” to the crowd.  Afterwards, many of the attendees found me to offer congratulations. Both Audubon and Toyota were highly complementary of the message and have insisted on having it for publication. Mr. Inaba and David Yarnold seemed very pleased. Already humbled by the opportunity to speak there, the little pratfall on the most important stage of my conservation career to this point was the whipped topping, cherry and rainbow sprinkles on the big ol’ humble pie.  More humbling still, was the reception of the words I’d spoken. 

“It has always taken individuals committed to the cause—Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Rachael Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr.—after all, environmental rights are civil rights--to put ideas into action. Heart and mind cannot be exclusive of one another in the fight to conserve anything. The effort to save is by definition value-laden and requires feeling something about it.”

“We know now that it will take more than us listing the species we see or talking to the same crowds about the same things to truly move forward. Aldo Leopold wisely advised us to consider every “cog and wheel” in his Land Ethic that also tells us to consider ourselves a part of nature, not separate and apart from it.  The human animal is just as important as any other.  We cannot strive to save the habitats of birds, without convincing young people of color that the clean water that the eagle requires for fishing  is the same water that they drink;  the same air  the warbler wings through is the same air they need to breathe; the same trees that the Baltimore Orioles hang their  nests in are the same trees that sustain their lives.  We cannot ignore poverty, ethnicity or politics to think that everyone will see the same beauty in the birds and wild places we all love.  We must act together in new ways to empower new people to conserve nature for the new generations yet to come…”

I had seven minutes to tell the story of something that has fundamentally changed my life--and maybe the way forward in connecting nature to a more diverse audience in the future.

“You see a person standing before you whose thinking has been fundamentally changed by the innovation of the Audubon Society and the Toyota Corporation. You see an individual whose blackness melds into green because of an idea to change the way we do conservation. In my evolution I have re-discovered my heart and the passion that has always burned hotly for the wild things and places that have shaped my life…As our passions were allowed to flourish in the context of conservation planning to “Act Today and Shape Tomorrow” all of us merged into one Together Green Super-Organism.  Our hearts—growing by 40 souls a year--beat as one in communities across this country.  Our hands are linked together to move soil, band birds, plant gardens and create habitats all over America.  Our eyes see a different world coming and stare intently into the future intent on making a difference.  Our ears listen to the millions of voices once ignored who deserve a voice in how conservation gets done. We are Together Green and as our lives have been changed by this wondrous force of vision and passion that Audubon and Toyota support, we have changed the way conservation happens.”

In the end, the fall was maybe one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. Any pretense I had of perfection spilled out with the tumble. Drew meet Drew—plain human and fallible soul. Several folks said it was the best speech they'd had in the nine or ten years of the award. I sensed a true appreciation for the words that I tried to deliver sincerely and from my heart.  It was after all, not about me (see you later ego!).  It was about all of those Together Green Fellows out there making a difference that I was honored to represent.  It was about Toyota, a titan of the automotive industry making a commitment of a significant sum of money, even in the worst of economic and public relations times, to something they believe in.  Toyota adheres strongly to the philosophy of Kaizen—constant improvement, that bodes well for the industry and the environment if more folks would take it to heart as they seem to do. It was about The Audubon Society, a giant born and rooted in the bird conservation movement whose courageous leadership sees that it has to be about more than the birds to move conservation into the future. It was about all of us moving forward to make nature and the environment a priority for everyone.

Hmmm…I wonder if they make a 4 wheel-drive Prius with a deer rack? Maybe there’s a new hybrid Tundra pickup in the research and design department?  Just sayin’…

Later and Peace,


  1. So very proud of your work and the recognitions you have received! Great blog posting, especially since we haven't been able to talk in detail about your trip. Have you considered posting your speech here?

  2. You continue to inspire me. Thank you for speaking honestly and from the heart- a deep green heart.

  3. Oh. My.

    I am so going to channel this post. I was at a Girl Scout trainers meeting today and this was one of our topics, how to include everyone A) who wants to be included, and B) those who need wildlands but might not know it yet. Great insight.

    And I 'go fishing' for the same reason--if I'm lucky I won't actually have to mess with anything on my hook, but what an excuse to go stand in a river!

  4. Thank you Drew - words I needed to hear and at just at the right time. I remain so proud of you and learn so much from your experiences.


  5. Nothing in my life has ever affected me the way the TogetherGreen Fellowship has, and no one has inspired me more than you, Drew. I am very fortunate to be a TogetherGreen Fellow, and am especially fortunate to have been in the same class of Fellows with you. You continue to inspire me and all of us who come to know you. In a world full of conservation threats, it is so inspiring to know you, the other Fellows, and the TG team at Audubon. No one could represent us all the way you do. And no other program could provide so much hope. Thank you for being Drew!!

  6. I am posting this for Dawn York.

    Thank you to Dan, my favorite TG fellow and dear friend, and to you for sharing this inner workings of your brain, heart, and soul Drew. I always wondered how you tick, how you go on day in and day out with your passion and motivation to continue inspiring others. After my Fellows project was over in 2009 I continued to be highly involved with Eagles Island, my Together Green project, but at a lesser role. Why did I do that? How do I find the time to continue what I thought I would set out to do in those rooms at the NCTC? You've inspired me since the day I heard you first speak. I hope to hear you again and again, not only in person or on a blog, but in my heart and brain. As it is people like you that keep people like me going day in and day out. Thank you Drew, for sharing what all of us want to share but don't know how to put into words. I miss you, your fellow TogetherGreener, Dawn