Monday, August 3, 2009

TRUE TALES FROM THE EAST - 9. Friends (Part 3)


And then there is my friend John. I headed to rural Cortland County, New York (pop. 48,302, 96.3% percent white, median home value $74.700). This is where John grew up. After his marriage fell apart years ago he bought a tiny 1840s-era farmhouse with room out back for a big garden and fruit trees. Then he fell in love with Jennifer, the official local dairy princess, they got married and have lived happily ever after.

John, a Ph.D. biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, retired about a year before me. He was my role model for retirement. The last few years of his career he and Jennifer lived in a Honolulu high rise with John managing pollution clean-ups in the North Pacific. Bright lights, big city. What a contrast to the back-to-the-earth lifestyle of upstate New York. But when he retired they returned to the frozen north without a backward glance.

All those questions I raised with David about northern New England's lifestyle challenges? John and Jennifer -- they love it all. They are becoming one with their homestead, canning and freezing local vegetables, fruits and meat; tapping trees for maple syrup; splitting firewood; keeping a local bird list; reading; watching movies and the Weather Channel; and occasionally traveling to see John's grandchildren on both coasts.

I met John the same way I met Rick and David, through Great Lakes environmental work. John and I first crossed paths in 1978 on a U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker in late-winter on the frozen river below the Soo Locks. I had tagged along on a fact-finding trip to see the potential impact of that part of proposed all-winter shipping.
John is another of those unsung heroes of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River environment. Where some of us used politics and media, John used science and biology (and some fancy internal politics) through his federal agency to undermine the winter navigation proposal.

John (right) and Abbie Hoffman - 1983

We became fast friends and it's lasted a lifetime. John was a trusted advisor through my entire career, especially at some key moments. Only one time did I ignore his advice, which was: "Don't hire her. Don't let her ruin the National Wildlife Federation like she ruined the Fish and Wildlife Service."

I was in charge of the search process to hire a person to run NWF's conservation programs, the "senior vice president for conservation programs." And our head hunter wanted us to hire the woman, Jamie, who had been John's boss and head of his agency during the Clinton Administration. I resisted but finally relented for an interview with the search committee after all the other candidates fell flat. We were impressed and, as they say, the rest is history. And an ugly history it was, though that's a story for another day. She certainly didn't ruin NWF; others deserve credit for that. I've always wondered how different things would have been had I stayed with John's advice.

During my recent visit with John and Jennifer it rained but we went bird watching anyway. They live on a deserted gravel road with almost no traffic and have seen more than 100 bird species on their walks. Best for us were the bob-o-links, black-white-yellow grassland birds, nearly done nesting already in June and ready to head 6,000 miles back to South America.

We drove to a little bird preserve and found dozens of one of my favorite birds just arrived from Brazil called the veery. This tawny, robin-like bird has a call that sounds like a flutist falling down a well ( It's a signature sound of the New England forests in spring. John, Jennifer and I soaked it in.

And so my trip to the East neared its end. My scorecard:

Friendships forever lost: 1

Friendships apparently lost: 1

Friendships rescued: 2

Friendships renewed: lots

"You know what they say. They say it's all good." -- Bob Dylan

Next: "Art & Landscape"

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