In 1159, Bernard of Chartres said,
“We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
This enduring and frequently quoted phrase illustrates an important lesson from history: that we continue to learn from visionaries and high achievers. If we seek wisdom, we can easily elevate our knowledge by ‘standing on the shoulders’ of great men and women who lift us up. In America, and globally, we have legendary environmental giants who have paved the way for others. These individuals have left a legacy for us to build upon, and with each generation we see much further than ever before. With that in mind, I would like to share some brief profiles of just a few “giants” that are notable for their timeless consciousness enduring actions to protect the environment. Perhaps you will think of individuals that have influenced you.
As one generation merges to the next, it is important to remember the stories of our past and to share stories of wise elders living among us. Our Forces of Nature project is a labor of love building on this concept.
Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817 – May 6, 1862)
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Thoreau was an American poet, author and philosopher. He was also an abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor and historian. He was a man of simplicity that documented his deepest thoughts and concerns about the environment and his relationship to it.
He is best known for his book, Walden, and his essay, Resistance to Civil Government (also known as Civil Disobedience), which is an argument for disobedience to an unjust state. His works are relevant and still read today. Thoreau’s philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced people like Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.
John Muir (April 21, 1938 – December 24, 1914).
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”
A naturalist and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States, John Muir wrote numerous books, letters, and essays about the Sierra Nevada range in California. He was raised in a very religious family, but found his “God” in wilderness — in nature. He shared his zeal with everyone he met through his work. Muir’s writings and his ecological thinking has influenced many environmentalists in the past century. Muir was influenced by the writings of Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and he referred to himself as “a disciple of Thoreau.”
Muir has been referred to as the “Father of National Parks” and the National Park Service celebrates his life with a short documentary. John Muir strongly advocated that Yosemite become a National Park, and on September 30, 1890 Congress passed a bill that essentially followed Muir’s recommendations. He was also notable as a co-founder of a local “alpine club” for mountain lovers, which later became known as the Sierra Club. Muir was its first president and both he and the Sierra Club were known for their epic fight against the installation of the Hetch Hetchy Dam, a battle that was lost.
Theodore Roosevelt (October 27, 1858 – January 6, 1919)
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Theodore, or “Teddy,” was the 26th President of the United States. He was a Republican, a naturalist, explorer, hunter, author and soldier.
He was the youngest president ever, sworn in at the age of 42. Theodore was a sickly, asthmatic child who was homeschooled and loved studying natural history. He embraced a strenuous life to overcome his childhood illnesses and his physical weakness. He studied science and biology at Harvard and was a published ornithologist. He began in politics only one year out of Harvard and while still in law school, he was elected to the New York State Assembly where he became a leader of the reform faction of his Republican Party. He was vice president under President McKinley and after the president was assassinated, Roosevelt ascended to the office of the President of the United States. He was reelected the next term. Roosevelt was famous for the slogan, “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
One of the first things that Roosevelt did when he became president was to ask congress to curb the power of large corporations (called “trusts”). For his aggressive attacks on trusts over his two terms, he has been called a “trust-buster.” He was also sympathetic to union workers and later helped to reform food policies by passing laws such as the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and the Pure Food and Drug Act. The Meat Inspection Act banned misleading labels and preservatives that contained harmful chemicals. The Pure Food and Drug Act banned impure and falsely labeled food and drugs from being made, sold and shipped.
Roosevelt was one of the first Presidents to make conservation a national issue. He favored using America’s natural resources, but opposed wasteful consumption.
Franklin Roosevelt (January 30, 1882 – April 12, 1945)
“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”
A Democrat, he served for 12 years (four terms), the only president to do so. FDR as he was known, led our country out of the depths of the Great Depression and war. As a young man he contracted polio and when president, he directed the March of Dimes to study the disease and they eventually helped to develop a vaccine for polio.
Franklin Roosevelt is well known for his presidency during the Great Depression. His campaign called for government intervention in the economy to provide relief, recovery, and reform. His activist approach and personal charm helped to defeat Herbert Hoover in November 1932 by seven million votes.
By the time he was inaugurated the country had slipped into a deep depression that worsened, causing factory closings, farm foreclosures, and bank failures. This was the greatest crisis in American history since the Civil War. Roosevelt created the New Deal to help put people back to work, he closed banks temporarily in order to halt foreclosures and worked with congress in his first 100 days to create new agencies to help his administration deal with the crisis. Agencies such as the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) were created to employ young men. Other new agencies assisted business and labor, insured bank deposits, regulated the stock market, subsidized home and farm mortgage payments, and aided the unemployed. These measures revived confidence in the economy. Banks reopened and direct relief saved millions from starvation.
New Deal legislation also included the establishment of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) which provided jobs not only for laborers but also artists, writers, musicians, and authors, and the Social Security Act which provided unemployment compensation and a program of old-age and survivors’ benefits. Many of these works from the WPA still exist and some of these unique public buildings and works of art are endangered and may soon be sold to the highest bidder. FDR has been an inspiration for many leaders who care about democracy and helping the common man. One of our elders, Gray Brechin, Ph.D. is working hard to protect New Deal works of art and architecture in his project the Living New Deal.
Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 –April 21, 1948)
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
A beloved author, scientist, ecologist, forester and environmentalist, Aldo Leopold is best known for his book, A Sand County Almanac. His consciousness about the natural world has captivated many environmentalists and conservationists. Like many, his love of nature began as a child when he would be outdoors at every chance, cataloging birds near his home. His high school teachers praised him for his high moral standards. Later, his writing helped to engender environmental ethics and land conservation in a wider audience. He has been called founder of the science of wildlife management.
While in high school Aldo continued to study and learn about the outdoors, he spent time mapping and studying wildlife. He received a graduate degree from the Yale Forest School. Leopold’s early career was in forestry. Although he was raised in Iowa, his first assignments were in the Forest Service’s District 3 in the Arizona and New Mexico territories. He wrote the first comprehensive plan for the Grand Canyon and proposed the Gila Wilderness Area, the first national wilderness in the Forest Service system.
Aldo Leopold went on to become the first Professor of Game Management in the Agricultural Economics Department at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
He was so influential that his children followed in his footsteps to become well known naturalists. His legacy, the Sand County Almanac, was finished just prior to his death. True to his kind character, he died while helping a neighbor battle a wildfire.
Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964)
“Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature.”
Rachel Carson was born in a small town to a poor family in Western Pennsylvania. She credits her mother for instilling in her a love of nature, and for encouraging her intellectual curiosity and education. Rachel studied zoology and marine biology at Johns Hopkins University and Chatham University. She was hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the Depression. She supplemented her income by writing natural history articles for the Baltimore Sun. Rachel had a fifteen-year career in federal service and rose to become Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rachel shared her love of the sea in her books Under the Sea-wind (1941), The Sea Around Us, and the Edge of the Sea (both in 1955). Her seminal work was published shortly before she died; the book, Silent Spring (1962). In her 50s, she became interested in the widespread use of pesticides and tried to get others to write a book on the topic. When there were no takers, she decided to write the book, Silent Spring. She applied her skills in biology to educate the public about widespread use of pesticides and the effects on humans and the environment.
Silent Spring received unprecedented attention. The pesticide industry and agricultural interests tried to discredit her, but the book became a catalyst for environmental responsibility. Ms. Carson agreed to testify before congress about the need for pesticide regulation, and was terminally ill with cancer at the time of her testimony. She was so convincing that it led to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides, and it inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In addition to great writers and public servants, there are those that have the good fortune and the social and moral consciousness to contribute financially to our world and our environment.
John D. Rockefeller (July 8, 1839 – May 23, 1937)
Every right implies a responsibility, every opportunity, an obligation, every possession, a duty.
John D. Rockefeller was born of humble beginnings, with a father that was a botanist who sold elixirs. His mother kept up the home for the six young children as the father was frequently away. Young John was entrepreneurial as a boy and always found ways to make money. He took a ten-week business course, studying bookkeeping, and at 16 years of age became a bookkeeper for a small produce commission. As a young man he partnered with another man, Maurice Clark, and they raised money for a business in the produce commission. After that John and Maurice built an oil refinery in the burgeoning industrial area of Cleveland, Ohio. This business expanded and soon John’s brother was also building refineries. This business later became known as Standard Oil and made the Rockefeller’s wealthy.
From his very first paycheck, John Rockefeller was charitable, first to his church, then to educational and public health causes, but also to science and the arts. He was also known to contribute to Union causes during the Civil War. In 1884, he provided major funding for a college in Atlanta for African–American women. This became Spellman College. His legacy of educational funding is long and diverse. In 1901, he founded the Rockefeller Institute
John was also the benefactor for one of the most magnificent groves of redwood trees on the planet. The Rockefeller Forest is the largest remaining contiguous old-growth coast redwood forest in the world. The oldest tree in the forest is 2200 years old and the tallest tree is 363 feet high. The area was discovered by white men in Northern California in 1850. In 1917, a group of prominent men traveled to Humboldt County to see the trees. When they found that these trees were not protected, they founded the Save-the-Redwoods League to preserve examples of these forests.
The Rockefeller Forest was purchased from the Pacific Lumber Company in 1931. John D. had taken a tour with the Save-the-Redwoods League and purchased the land with a pair of million-dollar donations from Rockefeller and matching funds from the state. This magical forest is not to be missed on a trip to Northern California.
Forces of Nature Giants
This list could go on and on, as there are many giants among us. Our environmental elders have contributed to saving San Francisco Bay, [Sylvia McLaughlin]; preserving public access to the California coast, [Bill Kortum], protecting whales from extinction, [Joana McIntire Varawa], preserving large and important blocks of land in every state, [see our land savers playlist], fighting to protect forests and trees, [our trees playlist], educating against the intrusion of artificial light into our dark night sky, [Christina Desser], many legal battles, including the landmark Mono Lake public trust case, [Joseph Sax, Jim Canaday, Tony Rossman] and so many more. I hope you will explore our stories and share them.
We want to close by thanking our supporters who understand the value of sharing the wisdom of elders and the wonderful history of the environmental movement from the late 20th century. We still need additional support to continue our project. Contributions and recommendations of important elder “giants” are appreciated.