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!