“We are warmed by fires that we did not build”

David Klinger first came to Camp in 1972 as a “kitchen boy.” His time on the island encouraged him in the environmental field. When he wrote this essay in the spring of 2001, he worked at the U. S. Fish & Wildlife’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, as a writer and editor.


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My thoughts often drift back to Hog Island and the Maine Audubon Camp. When they do, I recall the way in which John Steinbeck wrote of his own special place in nature, Montana, in his journal, Travels With Charley. “With Montana,” Steinbeck remarked, “It’s love, and It’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

Three decades since my Hog Island tenure, it sustains me in ways that I continue to discover.

I’m reminded, too, of the old proverb, “We drink from wells that we did not dig, and we are warmed by fires that we did not build.”

I spent but one summer on Hog Island as, what in 1972 was called, a “kitchen boy” and, alternately, a “student assistant.” In thumbing through Frank Graham’s The Audubon Ark and other sources, I’m struck by the number of folks who launched their environmental careers from the Audubon Camp kitchen and who went on to make significant marks in conservation: Rupert Cutler, Duryea Morton, Stephen Kress, dozens of others. Some enterprising graduate student should undertake a study of the Maine Camp’s dish room — perhaps the most productive kitchen in the history of American conservation.

Three decades since my Hog Island tenure, it sustains me in ways that I continue to discover. I am still drinking from a well I did not dig. I am still warmed by fires kindled over the course of a single summer. It’s love, and I’ve been in it for 30 summers.

I managed to accumulate a great store of knowledge from the classes I sandwiched in between my early dishwashing and latrine duties. This trove of unorganized data remains with me even today. I can still name most of Hog Island’s ferns and can analyze the contents of a sandy bottom dredge trip. I understand the life cycle of Leach’s storm petrel. I can correctly measure the carapace of a lobster.

That I can has something to do with the caliber of instruction provided at the Maine Camp in that era. Grace Bommarito opened a whole new world of fungi and ferns to botanical novices. Steve Kress’s excitement about Atlantic puffins and black guillemots was infectious. I realize now what a precious education in natural science I was getting for free.

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I also was gaining a practical immersion into the concepts of public responsibility and service — heady stuff for a 17-year-old. “The opportunity for individual growth this summer is tremendous, not only in the field of natural history, but also as a person. I would hope your greatest satisfaction would come from being of service to others,” camp director Dur Morton wrote me in his 1972 invitation to join the staff. Dur’s expectations of his staff were set intentionally high. I’m still aiming at those camp standards in my life today.

I continue to learn about Hog Island. Tom Schaefer’s thesis The Epic of Hog, since has taught me a great deal about the early history of our island. Another, Gina Zwerling’s recent Residential Adult Ecology Education, reiterates the camp’s vast potential. Anyone wanting to understand the Audubon Camp’s past and its future should peruse both.

I hope the Maine Camp never abandons its commitment to the high standards in natural resource education — and its emphasis on responsibility and service to the world — that I encountered in 1972. I trust it will never lose sight of its seminal role in the history of the conservation movement. We walk the same trails where Roger Tory Peterson birded in the 1930’s and where Rachel Carson gained her inspiration in the 1960’s. I don’t understand how anyone could spend time on Hog Island and not be fundamentally affected by this significance.

I’ve wondered, however, whether we’ve come close to risking both our intellectual standards and our historical grounding as the Audubon Camp struggles to reinvent itself. Fashions in education come and go. Priorities at National Audubon appear to have strayed elsewhere in recent years.

We cannot allow the camp program to drift nor its educational mission to atrophy. Hog Island must never be allowed to become simply a cheap summer idyll on the Maine coast. We have too much work left to do at this place.

I think the savvy and committed folks at Maine Audubon realize what a treasure has been entrusted to them. We are indeed fortunate that this place is in such good hands.

I hope the finest educational traditions at Hog Island can be sustained as we endeavor to improve and upgrade the camp’s physical plant. Conversely, I trust we can keep the learning program relevant to today’s needs and priorities while resisting any temptation to over-modernize the camp into an unrecognizable shadow of its early self.

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I believe that Maine Audubon can strike this balance. I hope so.

Hog Island should always remain an “island apart” where the non-essential trappings and concerns of the modern world are left by the mainland dock. Our clocks should run slightly asynchronous to today’s digital society. The floors of the Port Hole always need creak a bit, the books in the Fish House should retain a faint smell of mustiness, and correspondence should arrive at the Bridge by hallway pigeonholes, and not necessarily by e-mail. Our daily island routine, now and in the future, should be governed by nothing more than the rhythms of the tide and the clang of the camp bell.

Partners in discovery

Hog Island. The Audubon Camp in Maine.

The mere mention of these names brings an instant flood of memories of special people, scenes, and life-changing events which remain with me no matter where I roam on this planet. For me, and others like me, Hog Island was the first real introduction to the “Audubon Family,” that mix of Audubon members, program staff, and others from Maine to Hawaii who have a shared passion for the natural world and who respond with a knowing smile or nod when you wax enthusiastic about a warbler, puffin, or mushroom sighting on Muscongus Bay or some other natural spot. These members of the “Audubon Family” are kindred spirits, not only in exploring, enjoying, and wondering at the marvels of the natural world, but also in seeking knowledge about the processes and flow of human experiences. Hog Island provides a wonderful place to look inward as well as outward.

He turned to me and said, “I can’t believe that I’ve been around for fifty years and never knew that all this existed!”

For some of us, our experiences on Hog Island have had a significant impact on our professional lives by sparking an interest in teaching, conservation action, or research, or in renewing our spirit to return to our work with new energy and dedication. Often this inspiration came through interaction with one or more staff members or special guests during our sessions. I, for example, was privileged to hear inspiring presentations by former Audubon president Carl Buchheister, renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, and more recently, teachers and researchers such as Steve Kress. These people have provided me a mixture of historical perspective, technical knowledge, natural history, and poetry drawn from the rich inspiration of the natural world.

It was through my first involvement with the Camp in Maine in 1974 that I came to know Duryea Morton, then camp director and Vice-President for Education for the National Audubon Society. I vividly remember Dur’s way of interweaving the inspirational writings of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder into his opening night slide program on the beauties of Hog Island and Muscongus Bay for the newly-arrived campers. In particular, Dur stressed the need for each child in the world to have at least one adult to be a companion in the exploration and appreciation of the natural world, and that image has remained with me ever since.

During one of my first summers working with Dur, a father and daughter came to the camp, at the daughter’s request, as a celebration of her graduation from college. Several days after their arrival, I was on a boat trip with the father, a business executive in his fifties. Midway through that trip, he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe that I’ve been around for fifty years and never knew that all this existed!” Since then, this event has reminded me that sometimes adults need “child-like” experiences in the natural world to help support and sustain their own “sense of wonder,” particularly if their own childhoods were not rich in natural adventures or experienceshas.

Following three summer seasons as a bird life instructor at Hog Island, I was hired for a position at the Audubon Center in Greenwich, working as a teacher/naturalist during the school year and director of the Audubon Ecology Workshop for teachers during the summer months. Over the 23 years I have worked with those programs, not a week has gone by when I haven’t drawn upon lessons and inspirations I received during my time at the Camp in Maine. In many cases, our programs have enabled urban teachers to enjoy “childlike” experiences in natural settings, helping them to be more aware and better prepared to be partners in discovery of the natural world with their own students.

Luckily for me, I have been able to return to Hog Island periodically to lend a hand as an instructor for ornithology or family camp sessions. These opportunities have continued to prove how regenerative this special place can be. This past summer, during the family camp, while I was working with campers ranging in age from 9 to 69+, I watched once again, with pleasure, as Hog Island’s unique setting and natural wonders brought to life Rachel Carson’s words about the importance of sharing and sustaining a sense of wonder in both the young and the old.

Ted Gilman first came to the Maine Camp in 1974 as an ornithology instructor. When he wrote this essay in Fall 1999, he was working for NAS as education director at the Audubon Center in Greenwich, Connecticut.

A golden summer

When we moved to Maine in 1961 we were already members of the National Audubon Society and eager to explore the natural areas around us. But what were the living components of the marshes and mudflats? What were the names of their inhabitants? How did they behave individually? How did they relate with other species to build complex ecosystems? Our chance to find some answers came when we learned about Hog Island.

Farida led us to a “secret cave,” where in the dim light for the first time in our lives we gazed with wonder on a patch of luminous moss.

Signing up in the summer of 1964 at the Audubon Camp in Maine (the installation has changed its name, though never its basic mission), we discovered right away that it was a serious place. The camp offered two-week sessions in those days, and we left the island during that period only on field trips. Bart and Ginny Cadbury ran a tight ship. Meals, boat trips, hikes, labs, evening programs came and went as precisely as Muscongus Bay’s tides.

We still look back with pleasure on the staff that summer. Joe Cadbury was our leader on birding trips. His mnemonic devices for remembering the calls and songs of birds still remain with us. The goldfinch may seem to say one thing or another depending on the listener, but we know that in flight it clearly says “Potato-chip?”

Farida Wiley was our botanical oracle. Thousands of people must have followed her on morning nature walks into New York Central Park during the many years she was on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History, but we had her to ourselves on Hog Island for two full weeks. A part of our time then was spent guessing the nature of the treasures that she promised to show us before we left. Finally the momentous day arrived: Farida led us to a “secret cave,” where in the dim light for the first time in our lives we gazed with wonder on a patch of luminous moss. (Was it Schistostega osmundacea, Bart?)

And there was a young storekeeper at the camp that summer, a high school student named Hank Tyler who had an extraordinary gift for natural history. Afterward, when Hank found himself a seasonal position at the little museum on Grand Manan, he would stop and see us on his way to that magical island and help us figure out the identify of some plant that had us stumped. We have always been proud of Hank’s rise as one of Maine’s most eminent biologists and conservationists.

The lessons we took away from Hog Island truly determined our future. For some years we volunteered to run a summer nature program for the children in our community — those kids affirm to this day that the goldfinch DOES say, “potato-chip.” From that experience was to come the series of children’s books we wrote during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Meanwhile our ties to National Audubon grew and we both served for many years on the Audubon staff, one of us with the magazine and the other with the Audubon Adventures program.

A patch of luminous moss is only part of the glow we catch sight of when we look back on that summer of ’64.