Friday, September 16, 2016



This is the third post (see "Migratory Bird Treaty," "Klamath River Reclamation") that highlights children’s author Thornton Burgess’ role in early 20th century conservation

Impressive and welcome as the recent announcement was that Boston will host a climate summit with China in 2017, it is even more impressive to learn that eighty-five years ago a Boston businessman, Copley Amory, personally organized and sponsored an international forum to evaluate environmental changes.

I learned about the remarkable 1931 Matamek Conference on Biological Cycles when I was researching biographical material on naturalist and children’s author Thornton W. Burgess. In the course of writing Nature’s Ambassador, I encountered no historians or scientists who were knowledgeable about the event, but Burgess had attended the unique conference as a guest of his great friend Dr. Alfred Gross, an ornithologist at Bowdoin College. In the preceding weeks the two had been surveying birds in Labrador, and Burgess wrote about both the survey and conference in his autobiography Now I Remember. 

From Amory’s commercial operations in Labrador, he knew that periodic fluctuations occurred in populations of certain species of fish, birds and mammals, impacting people dependent on them for a livelihood. As a successful businessman, Amory was accustomed to addressing problems. Confronted with an environmental issue, he assembled the best minds with the best information in order to examine and analyze the situation. 

"[The conference] was unique in that it brought together for a full week in that remote place on the edge of Labrador scientists from Scotland, England, Germany, Canada and the United States,” wrote Burgess, “the leaders in several fields of science that might contribute directly or indirectly to the solution of the problem to be considered.”

 Among the prestigious attendees were ecologist Dr. Charles Elton, zoologist William Rowan, and ichthyologist Dr. Harry Kyle. Also present were Dr .H.E. Anthony of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. W. Reid Blair of the New York Zoological Society, Dr. Charles H. Townsend of the New York Aquarium, and Aldo Leopold, a well-known philosopher, author and conservationist.

 The conference convened at Copley’s lodge about 300 miles northeast of Quebec near the mouth of the Matamek River. In his journal Burgess noted that his friend Alfred Gross was so confident few would show up at such a remote location that he hadn’t even begun working on his presentation on diseases of the ruffed grouse.

 However, they arrived by the boatload. Although Thornton Burgess was himself a highly respected naturalist, he felt “small, insignificant, wholly out of place and character" among the eminent scientists and scholars assembled by Amory. However, Burgess was amazed to discover nearly all of the scientists knew who he was, knew his books and daily newspaper columns, and, more importantly, appreciated his effort to use children’s literature to promote environmental education and nature study.

Burgess apparently did not attend the sessions, or at least he did not write about them. However, he took every opportunity to chat informally with the scientists, and later corresponded for years with several of them. In the evenings everyone gathered together for a drink (much anticipated since this was during US Prohibition) and convivial conversation. "There was much swapping of experiences in remote places all over the world; telling of anecdotes and adventure."

Ultimately Burgess was called on to contribute to the gathering with a bedtime story. Chagrined, but good-naturedly he agreed, though with one requirement: his elite audience members must imagine themselves to be the age of his usual audiences who were generally younger than 10. He prefaced "Buster Bear's Sugar Party" by asking if any of the eminent scientists knew how much baby bears weigh at birth; Dr. Reid Blair responded appropriately in character.

Burgess noted in his autobiography that later that year Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale University had stopped in with his family to see Burgess in Hampden, MA. During the visit he asked the author to re-tell the bear story he had told at Matamek. After Burgess complied, Huntington admitted he was curious to see if he would re-tell it exactly the same way, which apparently Burgess did.

 Dr. Huntington’s detailed report on the 1931 Matamek Conference on Biological Cycles was published in the September 4, 1931 issue of Science, Vol. 74, No 1914, page 229. It is now available on the internet, as are full proceedings of the conference. 

Biologists and environmental historians should find this information fascinating … and, writers, consider it further proof that unimagined treasures might await your diligent research!    


Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Since I’ve let three post-less months pass without so much as a lame or cryptic explanation, it might be appropriate to offer some form of clarification. 
Why did I start writing a blog in the first place?
After four and a half years of research, writing, and editing Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess, my book was published in 2013. Then another process began: publicizing it. "You have to get on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Goodreads!" advised fellow writers, book sellers, and the consultant my dear children hired. "You have to write a blog!" Ok, ok, ok. So I dipped my toes into the murky, unknown waters of social media.
I’ve discovered I actually like writing blog posts. But it’s a time thing. Some bloggers can post one paragraph and be done with it, but for me they become small, time-consuming, carefully considered essays. Maybe I’ll shorten them in the future. Maybe not. You say what you want when you want how you want. That approach may not collect thousands of followers, but still, for a writer who works six or seven days a week, the pressure is off.  I’ve enjoyed blogging about poetry, children, friends, the Migratory Bird Treaty, November, coastal erosion, and of course the extraordinary naturalist and children’s author Thornton Burgess.  But I still haven’t devoted much space to another favorite subject: the art and craft of writing. 
Writing has always made sense to me. Words and sentences were the microscope with which to examine life when I was 10, reporting on recess, my Citizenship grade, after-school softball games, and James Vick, Gary Crawford and the other cute boys at Oakton Elementary School in Virginia. (Those colorful diaries in the "Said and Done" heading are mine.) For years, however, I worked as a stringer with a byline in a daily newspaper without considering myself “a Writer.”  I wrote. But that didn’t make me a Writer.  After I got assignments with national magazines and Fodor’s Travel Guides, that inherently changed.  I was and have remained a Writer.
It occurs to me that, similarly, although I have written a blog for three years, that activity does not make me a Blogger. Perhaps that too will change, but my Writerly Persona apparently has fairly demanding standards. 
What’s my plan?
For a year and a half I’ve been researching material for a new book, a tremendously exciting authorized biography on a scientist widely known as the father of nautical, or underwater, archaeology. As I continue working on this project, I'll put up some posts on it. I’ll continue posting about Thornton Burgess, children, etc. Watch for some articles on the writing life and process. I'll try for more consistency.  
Consider “Said and Done: A Writer’s Blog” to be a work in progress.
And THANK YOU for reading it!     Christie

Monday, August 29, 2016


No crystal ball could have prepared me for a day in which I would have two grandchildren in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and two grandchildren in Reykjavik, Iceland. Kai and Jorin have just started school in Dar Es Salaam where the family moved this month. We skyped by phone this week. How’s school, what are you studying? I ask Kai, age 10.

 Among his subjects is Swahili. Intrigued, I asked what words he had learned. “Jina lakoni Kai,” he said. “My name is Kai. And ‘Jina lakoni nani?’ That’s ‘What is your name?’” I practiced, and enjoyed the rolling sounds I could make. Then I talked to Jorin, age 7, who informed me that “hujambo,” in Swahili is “Hello.”

 The next time I get together with Robby, nearly 9, and Gwendolyn, 7, they will tell me all about Icelandic caves, waterfalls, and thermal vents that erupt 30 feet into the air, and the endless sunlight and maybe Viking museums in Reykjavik where they are vacationing before school starts in Massachusetts.  They both promised to bring me some black sand from the beaches.

The world gets smaller on a day like this, and my heart gets bigger. And more thankful for the wonderful children their parents are raising. And for the fine, sweet days this year when they were not out exploring the planet, but we were all together at Nana's house for summertime delights! 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


For those who lauded the recent historic signing of agreements that would by 2020 bring down four hydroelectric dams blocking salmon and steelhead migration and depleting thousands of acres of wetlands on the Klamath River in Oregon and California, it is worth noting that in early 1926 – ninety years ago, to be exact –children’s author and naturalist Thornton Burgess called on his Radio Nature League listeners to protest drainage of the Lower Klamath and the environmental devastation it caused.

 A Cape Cod native who settled in western Massachusetts, Thornton Burgess is best known as the prolific 20h century author of 70 children’s books and 15,000 newspaper columns. In fact, the writer was a deeply committed conservationist who used his animal stories and a pioneering radio program to advocate for game limits, fair hunting practices, steel leg trap restrictions, anti-littering, and wetlands protection, among other issues.

Established in 1925, Burgess’ Radio Nature League on WBZ in Springfield, Massachusetts was instantly successful, gaining nearly 5,000 members within three weeks. Membership required pledging to “do everything possible to preserve and conserve all desirable American Wildlife, including birds, animals, flowers, trees, and other living things; also the natural beauty spots and scenic wonders of all America.”

As a radio host he involved the public in collecting ruffed grouse specimens for parasitic studies, and solicited ornithological data on snowy owls, mocking birds, and other species for scientific research and environmental education.

One of the earliest members of the Radio Nature League was Burgess’ friend William Lovell Finley. A respected nature photographer, biologist, and Oregon’s game commissioner, Finley had written Burgess:  “The Radio Nature League is the child of a big idea. It will encourage greater love and interest in the out-of-doors. Please enroll our family of four.” 

The two men may have met when Burgess attended Finley’s talks in Boston for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, but perhaps Finley’s children had introduced their father to the writer’s popular animal stories. They had much in common for both were professional lecturers, photographers, and contributors to the prestigious Nature magazine. In fact, Burgess and Finley were making plans to collaborate on a children’s book that would utilize Finley’s superb inventory of nature photographs and a Burgess story about a young visitor to the West and the theft of a condor egg. Apparently their literary project did not materialize.

However, on January 27, 1926, Burgess invited William Finley to speak on his half-hour Radio Nature League program about the environmental impact of the federal government’s drainage of Lower Klamath Lake. In order to provide water for agricultural needs, magnificent sprawling wetlands were drained, destroying an essential habitat for resident and migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway and other wildlife. According to the Oregon Historical Society (, “Birds of a Feather”), by 1915 the waterbody was reduced from 80,000 acres to 53,600, and by 1922 all that remained of the lake was a 365-acre pond.

After Finley’s talk, Burgess told the audience he was sending a petition to protest Klamath Lake conditions to Hubert Work, Secretary of the Interior, and promised to forward any letters or signatures he received. The immediate and overwhelming response shocked him.

 “A week ago Finley was here and I had him tell his Klamath Lake story on the air,” he wrote to his good friend ornithologist Dr. Alfred Gross at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. “I followed it by the statement that I was going to send a petition to the Secretary of the Interior, asking him to turn the water back into Klamath Lake. I invited those who were listening in, who felt this was the thing to do, to send in their names to be added to that petition. They have poured in so fast I have not had a chance to count them. I know that already I have between two and three thousands, if not more.” (Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess, p.177)   

For months after Finley’s Radio Nature League talk on the Klamath, Burgess continued to receive and forward signatures to the Secretary of the Interior. He noted to Austin Clark, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, that one petition alone contained more than 1,000 names.

The regulatory history of the Klamath River is controversial and evolutionary. State, federal and tribal agencies continue to wrestle with complex rights and conflicting needs for the Klamath’s water. In 2016, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell authorized removal of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River as a first step in the largest river restoration project in American history.

How interesting to realize that a children’s writer used mass media in the early 20th century to promote environmental protection for this great western waterway and the fish and wildlife that depend on it!  

Furthermore, it is intriguing to speculate that public opinion intentionally generated in 1926 by Thornton Burgess may have provided some degree of momentum for President Calvin Coolidge’s 1928 decision to restore a portion of Klamath Lake and establish the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge.













Friday, April 8, 2016


The 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty has been a powerful piece of American conservation legislation for 100 years, but few know about the important role a children’s author played in its passage. 


Journalist and Good Housekeeping editor Thornton W. Burgess never expected to be a children’s author.  But after his first book, Old Mother West Wind, was published by Little Brown in 1910, other titles followed and soon attracted a voracious audience. Combining a strong writing background with his deep love of nature, Burgess poured out children’s books and daily newspaper stories that catapulted him, Jimmy Skunk, Reddy Fox, Grandfather Frog and dozens of other characters into the hearts and homes of readers throughout the country. In less than 10 years Thornton Burgess was credited with reaching “millions of children” with his predominate theme of respect and stewardship for nature.

At that time, one of the most influential men in American conservation was Dr. William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, now the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was a fiery, often abrasive wildlife activist, author, and lobbyist widely credited with saving the American buffalo.

Burgess lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, but often traveled to New York on business. One day he decided to visit Hornaday at the zoo in hopes of getting an endorsement for his bird sanctuaries program (see future post). He was swiftly dismissed by the busy administrator. When another opportunity arose, however, Burgess wrote to Hornaday, describing his massive following of readers and nature club members. (A newly-formed Burgess “Bedtime Stories” club sponsored by the Kansas City Star attracted 50,000 members in three weeks.)

Hornaday was impressed. He sent Burgess a warm, complimentary letter with a copy of one of his recent articles and an invitation to meet for lunch at the Zoological Park. The writer’s gift in touching children and parents with his nature stories translated into a resource that Hornaday prized: “Truly you have in your hands tremendous power,” he told Burgess.

That year, 1916, Hornaday and others were working hard to achieve passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty. When Thornton Burgess asked how he could help with the effort, the conservationist had a ready answer:

“I think you can score a good point by describing ‘the Gauntlet of the Guns’ that a wild duck runs when spring shooting is in vogue, all the way from the Gulf to Canada. In the days of spring shooting, I often wonder how a duck could get through alive, and how any duck could find feed and get a little rest on the journey without being killed. The picture of Mrs. Duck running the ‘Gauntlet of the Guns’ rather appeals to my imagination.” (Letter, WH to TB, Feb. 23, 1916)

This suggestion became Burgess’ blueprint. Between March and May 1916 he wrote daily newspaper columns that depicted with pathetic, heart-wrenching detail the plight of migrating birds. Hornaday wrote to Burgess, saying, “I noted with great pleasure your treatment of Mrs. Quack and her troubles; and I rejoice when I reflect upon the amount of good work your stories are accomplishing for the maintenance of the migratory bird law and the treaty” (Nature’s Ambassador, p. 152). The columns were published the next year as a collection titled The Adventures of Poor Mrs. Quack.

The Migratory Bird Treaty passed on August 16, 1916. A few months later, Hornaday wrote Burgess with jubilant thanks and described the effort to pass the treaty.

“…the result [of your work] was overwhelmingly manifested two months ago when we had a show-down in the United States Senate with the enemies of the migratory law. They put up a great fight. They spent a lot of money and a lot of effort in lobbying in Washington and in their public campaigns, but we smote them hip and thigh and gave them the worst licking any bunch of enemies of wildlife ever received. They were beaten in the Senate with their efforts to destroy the migratory bird law appropriations by a vote of 52 to 8…”

“But the crowning triumph was the Senate’s treatment of the international treaty with Canada for the protection of all the migratory birds north of Mexico, clear to the Arctic Ocean. The attitude of the Senate was of course clearly foreshadowed in the vote to sustain the migratory bird law; but even with all that that we were not prepared for the lightning stroke of progress which sent the treaty triumphantly through the Senate in four days! (NA, p. 152)

How important is the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty? “Its success in saving birds and providing a basis for future action is still impressive,” wrote environmental historian Kurkpatrick Dorsey in The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy. “It is still in force and environmentalists and governmental agencies still use the enabling legislation as the basis for action… Internationally, conservationists used the MBT as the starting point for the 1936 Migratory Bird Treaty with Mexico, the 1940 agreement with Latin American states, a 1971 world convention on wetlands protection, and other treaties with Japan and the USSR (DCD, p. 241).

An interesting facet of the Migratory Bird Treaty, Dorsey says, is that it was “a child of sentiment,” not the product of international dissention: it arose from a desire to save birds. When William Hornaday profusely thanked Thornton Burgess’ for his “valuable service to the migratory birds in the production of this [Mrs. Quack] series for your great multitude of readers,” there is no question that he was acknowledging the role a master story teller played in influencing public opinion to secure passage of a cornerstone of American conservation legislation.

                                                    *  *  *  * 

Author Christie Lowrance is giving a talk on naturalist, children's author, and radio pioneer Thornton Burgess at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston on May 18, 2016 at 7 p.m. (see link). Her biography Nature's Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess will be available.


Thursday, March 31, 2016


One of the best things about a party, food and drink aside, is the potential to encounter new people, new ideas and information, or new perspectives. Even if you know everyone who comes, you can’t anticipate what recent or past experience might be on their minds, from starting a new job, buying a dog, seeing a marriage counselor, or scheduling bypass surgery.  

Recently I attended a party with well over 100 people, all primed for the 5th annual Easter egg hunt at Rob and Kimberly’s house. Mimosas and Bloody Marys were prudently provided for the adults who would accompany dozens of children in search of 1,015 plastic eggs filled with goodies. I sipped a beverage and chatted in the kitchen with a family friend while waiting for the critical mass of children to coalesce before they were loosed into the sprawling back yard.

Gethin is an interesting guy, mid-40ish, lanky tall with curly hair and the kind of English accent you fleetingly think might be Australian, well-matched with a delightful woman, his wife Megan. They’re the sort of people you enjoy asking “So, how are things?” because the answer will always be something you’d never thought of doing/reading/buying/watching/pursuing.

Thinking he would get a kick out of hearing about a book I recently re-discovered, I launched into a lively description of Fire in the John by Alfred Gingold, a relentlessly funny spoof on the men’s movement of the 1980s, specifically on Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly. I anticipated Gethin joining me in merry ridicule of the attitudes and practices the book described, and even related details I’d heard about one group that spanked a member as he re-enacted the birth process.

I realized I had not heard Gethin laugh and glanced up at him. To my astonishment I saw that not only was he not laughing, he looked serious, even grave. Sensing the possibility that I had inadvertently caused offense, I asked, “Are you familiar with this stuff?” “Yeah, I am,” he said. “Sometimes the rituals are helpful.”

I was completely taken aback. There was no one in this crowded, animated room I would consider less likely to sympathize with the men’s movement as I understood it than Gethin. When I tested him, saying surely there was no justification for spanking a grown and unhappy  man, he said, still not smiling, the group must have been applying the principles wrong.

Clearly it was time for me to listen, not talk.      

I learned that Gethin was working on a documentary on the extraordinary effectiveness of certain sensitivity practices in, of all unlikely places, Folsom Prison. He described life-changing reformation of dedicated murderers and lifers walking out of three years in solitary confinement, of hardened, brutal gang leaders weeping in response to the opportunity to be loved and understood.

 The release of hatred and violence he had witnessed seemed as unimaginable as walking through a solid wall. In fact, he had watched walls being walked through by looking at selfhood and manhood in a different way, a way I had laughed at. 

“You said something earlier that made sense to me,” he said. “You said you felt you were meant to write the book you are working on right now. And I feel I was meant to produce this documentary.” We looked at each other and smiled, in part, I think, at the realization that this was an unusual conversation, a first in a way. Still smiling, we shook hands, not as party guests having a fine chat, but in solidarity as story tellers, in acknowledgment that, in fact, we loved the responsibility of bringing truth and perspective into the wider world. He would tell the story of prison inmates reclaiming their souls and I would tell the story of a nautical archaeologist excavating ancient shipwrecks. We smiled at the appalling amount of work that lay ahead of both of us. 

However, on this chilly pre-Easter morning, we were called to a far more simple task, and we turned to it, walking outside to watch young children racing across a sprawling back yard in search of one thousand and fifteen plastic eggs.

Friday, February 12, 2016


With Valentine's Day approaching, I'm reminded of the privilege I had as a writer to witness a special love story, and would like to share it again... 


A few years have passed since I accepted the invitation of my neighbor, author and columnist Jim Coogan, to give a talk to the Sandwich Men’s Club on my book Nature’s Ambassador: The Legacy of Thornton W. Burgess.  Good questions followed the presentation, but one stayed with me: “What kind of man was Thornton Burgess?” 
It was not a difficult question to answer. You don’t spend four and a half years researching and writing about one individual without getting to know your subject as well as, if not better than, family. It’s a question I had to wrestle with when organizing Burgess’ biography. Understanding his personal and
 professional relationships, character, and personality had to precede writing about his illustrious career path as a renowned writer and naturalist. 

As I stood before the audience, thinking how to best describe Thornton Burgess, much ran through my mind. I immediately pictured him as mid- to late life photographs showed him: a substantial man, six feet tall, glasses, pleasant, amiable, with a certain lightness about him that suggested a ready sense humor. I thought of the man who understood young children so well and wrote stories for them for more than 50 years, who cared passionately for the welfare of wild animals.

“He was a gentle man,” I began and went on to elaborate on that and other qualities.  Later, however, I realized that I had failed to mention one vitally important trait in Thornton Burgess, a trait easy to miss in a man whose professional output and success had been so visibly his measure.

He was, in fact, a man who loved deeply. My confidence in that comes less from knowing the height of his happiness in love than knowing the bottomless depth of his sorrow in love’s loss.

 Thornton Burgess was married twice. In 1905 he married Nina Osborne, 24, an adorable and popular young woman who shared his love of the outdoors enough to agree to a tent camping honeymoon in the Adirondacks. He called her his “little girl,” and indeed she looked it. Four hundred people attended their wedding and about half that number came to the reception at their home. Ten months later the same minister who had presided over the joyous wedding conducted a funeral service for Nina who had died the day after giving birth to a baby boy. Unbearably anguished and distraught, Burgess was unable to attend. Within a year he had married the woman he adored, witnessed or learned of her death, and become a father.

Written about eight months after Nina died, journal excerpts quoted in Nature’s Ambassador depict his loss:

“I have scattered a few flowers on the grave of Her who was the light of my life and who only a year ago so bravely and cheerfully looked forward to her hour of traivel [sic]. I shall try at least to be cheerful. I owe it to my friends. But O I am so lonely…

“It is thirty-three weeks tonight since my little girl entered the larger life and still I cannot reconcile myself. Still I cry “Why? Why? Why? Why is faith so poor a comforter?”

“Thirty-eight weeks ago tonight that my little girl was taken ill. I’ve lived years. I wonder when and where I shall meet her. God help me to guide her boy right.”   

He had no choice but to rally. There were bills to pay and mouths to feed, for his mother Caroline and infant son Thornton W. Burgess III were dependent on him. Five years later he remarried to Fannie Johnson, the widow of Burgess’ colleague at Phelps Publishing and the mother of two teenagers. In the decades that followed, the Burgesses provided a reliable core of financial and emotional support for their three children and 10 grandchildren.

When Fannie died from various health problems in 1950, Burgess, then 74, was completely devastated. “My Lady (his nickname for her), my beloved, passed at 9:15 and my heart is broken,” he wrote. “I am utterly desolate…”

In the effort to hold himself together, he found refuge in three activities: writing, driving out into the western Massachusetts hills, and visiting friends and familiar places on Cape Cod. But beyond these diversions he grieved to the depth of his being.

Reading through his journals I began to notice something unusual in the entries that followed Fannie’s death. Each one started with the same words: “I’m glad I belong to you - my Lady.”  

Surprised by the repetition, I turned to the next week. Every entry began exactly the same way. I continued turning pages and discovered that week after week, month after month, for a full year, Thornton Burgess began his journal with those tender words of Fannie’s that reminded him of their lives together, words he wrapped around his twice-broken heart like a poultice: “I’m glad I belong to you.”

Burgess was remarkably generous to his family members, supporting them as family had supported him and his mother in their poverty in Sandwich. He forgave infuriating (and costly) youthful transgressions. He was a loyal and lifelong friend to many. And his love of nature and wildlife, the heart of his dozens of books and thousands of stories, lectures and radio programs, was sustained from childhood into his final days.

By all accounts, Thornton Burgess was a man who loved deeply.