Happy Birthday, Wilderness Act!

Fifty years ago today, the Wilderness Preservation Act was signed by President Johnson.

Below is a recycled post from last winter about two of the people who helped get the Act passed.

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The Wilderness Preservation Act

This year the Wilderness Preservation Act turns 50. It’s worth remembering that Wilderness Areas were not a given—they were hard-won by a few passionate and determined people.

 

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Mardy and Olaus Murie – Voices for Wilderness

This week’s post is about two people, Margaret (Mardy) Murie and her husband Olaus Murie. Their love of nature—especially the arctic wilderness—drew them together to share a life of adventure and activism. And they both played key roles in the passage of the Wilderness Preservation Act and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The main source for this story is the book “Arctic Dance”, The Mardy Murie Story.” 

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I did this watercolor of the Northern Lights from imagination.

 

Love and Adventure

It all started in the wilds of Alaska nearly a century ago…

In 1916, In the frontier town of Fairbanks, Alaska, a fourteen year-old girl was saying goodbye to her mother. She was excited and a bit nervous to be taking her first journey on her own, a trip on the Valdez Trail to her father’s home in Southeast Alaska.

Mardy and her fellow travelers were bundled into enormous wolfskin robes for the trip across the Alaska Range in an open, horse-drawn sleigh. Mostly, they traveled at night when the snow was easier, and they stopped to rest in roadhouses along the way.

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Horse and Sleigh on the Valdez – Fairbanks Trail, 1911-1920. Photo Library of Congress.

 

After what seemed like weeks in the sleigh, she transferred to a wagon, then train and steamship, finally arriving at her father’s island home in Southeast Alaska.

It was there, during a summer of exploration and outdoor life in the remote inlets, bays, and forested islands, that Mardy’s love of wilderness was born.

To most fourteen year-olds today, spending a summer roaming free in the wild would probably be the adventure of a lifetime. But for Mardy, it was just the beginning. While still in college, she met an arctic biologist, Olaus Murie, a tall, handsome blue-eyed arctic biologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). He was doing research on caribou and other wildlife.

Olaus was a strong and gentle man who had spent most of his life in wilderness and was an expert in arctic survival, wildlife, and the native language. His interests were scientific, but he was a gifted artist as well, and spent much of his free time in the backcountry drawing and painting his observations of nature.

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Olaus Murie. Photo U.S.F.W.S

 

While they were becoming acquainted, Mardy and her mother went to visit Olaus near Mount KcKinley where he was working. It was there that their friendship deepened into love as they spent five days “tramping about in a rosy haze in those enchanted mountains.” The two of them realized they were perfectly matched: a shared love of adventure and wilderness life.

Mardy completed her business degree and was the first woman graduate of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska Fairbanks). She and Olaus married in 1924 in a log chapel in Anvik, a remote village on the Yukon River. Mardy’s mother and the rest of the wedding party arrived to the wedding by sternwheeler.

 

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Mardy and Olaus shortly after their wedding in August 1924. Photo U.S.F.W.S

 

For their honeymoon, the two of them set out on a three-month, 550-mile riverboat and dogsled trip up the Koyukuk River to the Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle. Mardy, dressed in furs and skins from head to toe, had to learn how to mush her own sled pulled by seven Siberian Huskies.

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Olaus and Mardy wearing their trail furs. Photo U.S.F.W.S

 

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Mardy and her dog-team mushing on the trail. Photo U.S.F.W.S.

 

They camped in a canvas tent warmed with elk hides or stayed in shelter cabins. Olaus conducted caribou research and did sketches and paintings, and Mardy wrote in her dairy and fell in love with the arctic wilderness.

Mardy wrote of a day on the trail as they approached a shelter cabin:

“…the sky is midnight blue and fully spangled with stars, and the moon is rising brighter and brighter behind the pointed trees. In the north, a flicker of green and yellow; then an unfurled bolt of rainbow ribbon shivering and shimmering across the stars—the Aurora. The dogs begin to speed up; we must be nearing a cabin; yes, there it is, a little black blotch on the creek bank. The air is cold and tingling, fingers are numb…

 

A little later, when warmth and light and food and our few possessions had made the tiny cabin our home for another night, we listen to that ‘whoo, hoo, hoo-hoo’ from the forest; it makes a day on the arctic trail complete.”

 

Margaret (Mardy) Murie, “Two in the far North”

 

As their epic honeymoon ended, they each felt they had found their perfect life. From then on, they spent as much time as possible together in the wilderness. The next year, Olaus was sent back to the Arctic to explore the remote headwaters of the Old Crow River. By this time they had their first son, Martin, who was just ten months old. But Mardy had no intention of being left behind, so she packed up the baby and the three of them went on another wilderness adventure.

This time it was summer, a season that can be even tougher on arctic travelers than winter, with hordes of mosquitoes, and the warming weather turning the ground to a soggy sponge-like mess below their feet. Instead of mushing a dog-team for transport, they poled up the river in a tiny scow—their crankshaft having broken on the third day of their trip. Mardy made a little tent on the deck of the boat for the baby, where he was tucked securely into a wooden box.

In “Arctic Dance”, Mardy is quoted describing her daily routine in their camp:

“I used empty five-gallon gasoline cans for the dishes and for clothes, where the cans would be cut down through the center and the sides rolled back to make a handle. You can put in on the fire and warm some water for the diapers. And the diapers you just hang over the willow bushes. And in the other tin you prepared food and did all of the next day’s preparations.”

 

But the little family was undaunted by the hardships and challenges of the wilderness. They sang, grew closer, and reveled in the expansive, unspoiled world that teemed with wildlife.

“At my back…stretched the limitless tundra, mile upon mile, clear to the Arctic Ocean…we threw off our headnets, gloves, and heavy shirts, and stood with the breeze blowing through our hair…We could see, far out over miles of green tundra, blue hills in the distance, on the Arctic Coast, no doubt. This was the high point; we had reached the headwaters of the Old Crow. After we had lived with it in all its moods, been down in the depths with it for weeks, it was good to know that the river began in beauty and flowed through miles of clean gravel and airy open space.”

 

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Mardy in camp. Photo U.S.F.W.S.

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Olaus in later years, sketching on the deck of a boat. Photo U.S.F.W.S

 

At the end of their second trip together, Mardy felt as comfortable with wilderness life as Olaus, and they continued to travel and have adventures—something they would do their whole lives.

In 1927, Olaus was offered a position in Wyoming, and the growing family moved to Jackson Hole. Olaus continued his work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and he and Mardy became key players in the early conservation movement. Among other things, they helped found the Wilderness Society, and had a hand in the passage of the Wilderness Act and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They both authored books and won prestigious professional and environmental awards.

 

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Olaus and Mardy in later years. Photo U.S.F.W.S

 

 

Olaus died in 1963, but Mardy continued to be active in the wilderness preservation movement until her death at age 101 in 2003. She wrote articles, gave speeches, testified before Congress, and was invited to the White House when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964. She worked until late in her life, and was dubbed the “grandmother of the conservation movement” by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.

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Mardy Murie, left, as President Johnson signs the Wilderness Act. Photo U.S.F.W.S

 

Today, the Murie ranch in Wyoming operates as an Environmental Center.

Without the passion of committed people like Mardy and Olaus, today our Wilderness Areas might be developed, asphalted, and choked with traffic.

The fight for Wilderness is not over. Today, our federal lands are under increasing pressure for oil and gas development, as well as other high-impact uses such as motorized recreation.

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Do you have any thoughts about wilderness, adventure or preservation? Please leave any thoughts or comments. I love hearing from you!

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References and Links

Olaus and Mardy Murie: Alaska’s Passionate Protectors

Arctic Dance, the Mardy Murie Story, by Charles Craighead and Bonnie Kreps

The Wilderness Society

The Murie Center

The Wilderness Act and the Preservation Movement

The Wilderness Act turning 50

Two in the Far North, by Mardy Murie

Passive Use – a Thin Green Line

In Seattle, nature-advocates are awakening to the fact that our treasured natural areas are not as protected as we thought they were. Turns out, the brilliant Green of the Emerald City is fading, at least in the eyes of many.

Here is a post I wrote for The Seattle Nature Alliance on the subject. It was posted the day after Seattle voted to approve a controversial funding method for our parks.

An ancient Bigleaf Maple.

An ancient Bigleaf Maple in Discovery Park.

 

Passive-Use, a Thin Green Line

Now that we’ve marched down the aisle and pledged our eternal and undying love for Seattle parks, one question remains. Will we love our parks to death?

Seattle is changing fast. Our population is exploding, neighborhoods are densifying, traffic is just plain nuts. We’ve come up in the world, which is wonderful. But, city life takes its toll and we’ll need greenspaces to keep us healthy and happy. We’ll also need careful planning so we don’t ruin the very nature we value so highly. Seattle only has 15% of park land that remains natural—one of the lowest percentages among American cities. The other 85% has been developed for active sports or landscaped.

The Seattle Nature Alliance is deeply concerned that Parks is managing natural areas to satisfy recreational desires rather than for ecological health and for our deep, human need to connect with nature. The Natural Resources Division—not the Recreation Division—should manage natural areas using urban ecology standards, not shifting recreational trends. The use should fit the resource, not the other way around.

Traditionally, Seattle park natural areas have been managed for wildlife habitat, passive recreation and natural beauty.Passive recreation means reserved for the general population: the non-motorized, non-mechanized, unhelmeted majority. Passive use is the central idea behind our national Wilderness system—conceived to protect nature for wildlife and the nature-experience for all people. Today, passive use is a thin green line between the remnant wild and the effects of development, over-use and ecological degradation. Without it, paradise would have been paved—or trampled—long ago.

The Parks Department is moving toward multi-use: slicing up natural areas like a pie and serving pieces to specialized user-groups. It’s been happening quietly—not as part of a   stated policy change, but rather through specific project proposals. Two years ago West Seattle was stunned to learn a commercial canopy zipline was planned for Lincoln Park’s mature forest. Recently, many Beacon Hill residents were upset to learn Cheasty Greenspace—one of Seattle’s last undeveloped natural areas— is proposed for a mountain bike skills course, with concept maps showing jumps, drops, and free-ride zones throughout the maturing forest. Now, there are vigorous protests and deep community divides.

Multi-use threatens to turn natural areas into community battlegrounds, with everyone scrambling for their own slice of the pie. Specialized user-groups are often supported by well-organized, well-funded, nationwide groups or even corporate sponsors with financial stakes in the specialized-use itself, giving user-groups an outscaled voice. The general population is left unrepresented, an easy target written off as NIMBY, grumpy neighbor, anti-bike, anti-sports, or anti-fun.

And, trying to accommodate multiple user-groups into a greenspace can easily exceed the limits of what nature can handle.

But, when park natural areas are reserved for the general population, every person has equal access. It is the fairest, most democratic way to manage our most precious remnant wild. It ensures nature remains accessible for all people while protecting wildlife habitat from over-use and ecological degradation.

Nature is not merely a setting to recreate in. Natural areas are living systems, and all people deserve an opportunity to explore and find wonder there. By spending quality time in nature and getting to know our fellow living creatures, we find our own place in the world. This is essential to human health and well-being.

Perhaps it’s time to split the Parks Department in two, as proposed for Bellevue parks by their former director Lee Springgate. We’d have a Seattle Department of Recreation Parks, and a Seattle Department of Natural Parks.

 

Seattle Nature Alliance enthusiastically supports that idea. It’s time.

Be our Ally! Drop by our Facebook Page and give us a “like”

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Sources and References:

Seattle Parks and Recreation data, as supplied to the Trust for Public Land, City Park Facts, 2014

Cheasty Mountain Bike Project Concept Plan

Lee Springgate Open Letter

Best Practices for Natural Areas, Seattle Parks and Recreation

 

 

 

 

 

Wet Labs at Magnuson Park

A few months ago, my clients at the U.S.G.S. contacted me for some interpretive signs at Magnuson Park.

The topic was: Wet Labs.

 

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No, not those kind. (Although, with Seattle’s first Dog Swimming Beach, Magnuson Park has plenty of those, too).

The U.S.G.S. runs the Western Fisheries Research Center with state-of-the-art Wet Labs to study fish. The facility is located adjacent to the park, but part of their equipment is inside the park, so they wanted me to create 2 new signs to help visitors understand a bit about their work.

The Center originated more than 70 years ago through the efforts of Dr. Frederick Fish, a visionary scientist who pioneered improved methods of studying Pacific Salmon.

(With a name like that, I hope he had a good sense of humor.)

Here are the signs I wrote, designed and illustrated. They will be installed soon.

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This sign will be installed near a new pump station. The USGS figured park visitors would see the pump and wonder what it was, so they took the opportunity to educate them a little about their work at the Center. Seattle’s Magnuson Park was a pre-World War II era Naval Airfield and is now a huge complex of sports fields, tennis courts, trails, beaches, wetlands, and a Dog Swimming Beach.

 

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This sign will be installed near a reconstructed wetland complex which provides rich wildlife habitat. Cleaned and recycled water from the lab helps keep it wet year-round.

 

If you visit Magnuson Park, watch out for the wet labs! Both kinds.

 

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The Pieter Claesen Wyckoff Story

The name “Wyckoff” is familiar to many Seattleites. The family has a long history of entrepreneurialism and philanthropy in the Northwest, particularly in the arts and the environment.

The family name is also famous nationwide for its interesting history, being traceable to the early roots of America, to the very moment one young man, Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, stepped onto the muddy shores of New Amsterdam in 1637.

Pieter was my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather. (see family tree photos at the end of the post)

Here is a bit of Pieter’s story. (Excerpted from an earlier post.)

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Voyage to the New World on the Ship Rensselaerswyck

In 1636, when Pieter was a young teenager, he left Texxel (near Amsterdam) on the Dutch Ship Rensselaerswyck. There were 38 passengers on board, many of whom were signed as indentured laborers or contract farmers to a wealthy Dutch diamond merchant named Kiliaen Van Rensselaer. They were on their way to Fort Orange (Albany, New York) and the settlement—also called Rensselaerswyck.

The entire trip took over six months.

It was a difficult trip, even by the standards of the day. For the first seven weeks, the captain’s log tells of one bad day after another.

Crossing the Atlantic in the 17th century was a dangerous ordeal.

 

Arrival at New Amsterdam (now New York City)

After months at sea, finally reaching New York Harbor must have seemed like sailing into heaven for the passengers of the Ship Rensselaerswyck. It was March 4th, 1637—more than sixth months after the ship had left the Netherlands.

I sketched this watercolor showing how New Amsterdam (New York) might have looked in 1637. At that time, New Amsterdam was still years from becoming the neatly laid out Dutch village shown in historical illustrations (most of them depicting the view twenty years later). The ship in the foreground is the Rensselaerswyck (I could not find definite reference for the ship itself, but there’s a good chance it was a Dutch fluyt). Click on the picture to get a larger view.

 

Fort Amsterdam and a windmill stood on a small hill surrounded by a scattering of rough buildings. There was no proper pier—people arriving by ship would have been rowed to the shallows to splash up the muddy shore on foot. It was a primitive settlement, and the few hundred inhabitants surely had no idea of the growth spurt their little town would undergo in the next few decades—let alone that this lonely outpost would one day be the financial center of the entire world.

The same view today:

An AppleMap view of the original site of New Amsterdam – today Wall Street in lower Manhattan. The Fort was located behind Battery Park.

 

 

Up the Hudson River to Fort Orange

After a spending a few weeks in New Amsterdam, the Ship Rensselaerswyck sailed up the Hudson River on the last 150 miles of its journey. On April 7, 1637, they reached Fort Orange—a tiny fortified settlement that had been hacked out of the towering pines a decade or so earlier. It was the last outpost of Dutch civilization.

To young Pieter and his fellow passengers, it must have seemed farther away than the moon.

A rough watercolor sketch I did from imagination, showing the view from the banks of the Hudson River looking south toward Fort Orange (present day Albany). The entire fort was enclosed by a wooden palisade. Outside the fort, there was a scattering of dwellings on the river bank.

 

This is the view from roughly the same spot today.

 

Behind the fort, millions of square miles of wilderness sprawled across the continent, inhabited by the Native Americans that had lived there for thousands of years, and hordes of wild animals, birds and fish and other creatures. The location of the fort along the river was key—the waterways were the main travel routes for both wildlife and the people that hunted them. The Europeans were astonished at the abundance of fish and game in New Netherlands.

Elk, bear, mountain lions and wolves were abundant in the area. The only game animal with a larger population today is the whitetail deer.

 

In 1637, the Europeans had no concept of how big North America was—there was even still some debate as to whether the earth was flat or round1. In his 1655 book, Adriaen van der Donck wrote that “several of our people have penetrated far into the country to at least seventy or eighty miles from the coastline.

Judging from the climate and the huge numbers of wildlife and migrating waterfowl, van der Donck concluded that the “land stretches for hundreds of miles into the interior…”

He would have been surprised to know it stretches for several thousand miles!

The main business at Fort Orange was beaver. The Mohawk tribe hunted the animals throughout the highlands and brought down thousands of pelts to be traded for European axes, kettles, glassware, knives, and before long, guns and alcohol.

Eventually, beavers were hunted to the brink of extirpation.

This painting from 1662 shows wealthy Dutch businessmen wearing beaver felt hats. Rembrandt van Rijn, courtesy of the Rijkes Museum.

 

 Pieter Claesen Wyckoff starts his life as a laborer

The 38 passengers of the Ship Rensselaerswyck were either farmers or laborers on a tract granted to Kiliaen van Rensselaer, a wealthy diamond merchant residing in Amsterdam. The estate, also known as Rensselaerswyck, stretched for about nine miles along both sides of the river from the Fort and inland a distance described as “two days’ journey.”

Simon Walischen was a Master Farmer and a lease-holder with van Rensselaer. He was favored by being given his choice of the laborers on the boat, and he chose Pieter. As master, Simon would have total control over Pieter’s life for the next six years. In addition to Pieter, there may have been other laborers assigned to Simon.

A watercolor sketch I did imagining Pieter facing his new master.

 

After arriving at the Fort, they would have left by rowboat or small sailboat to Simon’s assigned land, a large tract of previously cleared land on what is now Papscanee Island in Albany.

I did this watercolor sketch imagining the type of house they would have lived in. These types of primitive dwellings had no chimney—the smoke simply rose out from gaps in the thatch.

 

At least initially, they probably lived in a crude pithouse with a roof of planks or logs. Eventually they might have built a log and thatch hut, or even a small plank house.

Pieter stayed with Simon until the age of eighteen, then he collected his wages (a total of 375 guilders for 6 years) and left to rent his own farm on the Rensselaerswyck estate. He married Grietje Van Ness, the daughter of a prominent family, and later the two moved— possibly to a location near New Amsterdam or elsewhere on lower Manhattan Island.

At that time, New Amsterdam was a growing trading and port settlement, controlled by the Dutch. The map below shows New Amsterdam a few decades later, in 1660.

The Castello Plan, a map from 1660 that shows a detailed depiction of New Amsterdam. Today, this is lower Manhattan, the financial and government center of New York City. You can see the layout of Fort Amsterdam, built in 1625 by the Dutch on the upper left side of the town. On the right side of town is the wall, officially built to protect against attack by the Indians, or “wilden” as they were called. Wall Street takes its name from this wall. Image from Creative Commons.

 

 

In 1652, Pieter signed a contract to “superintend the Bowery and cattle of Pieter Stuyvesant in New Amersfoort” (Flatbush, Brooklyn)—which was a West India Company- owned tract— and Pieter and Grietje moved to what is now known as the Wyckoff Homestead and Farm, the oldest structure in New York City and a National Historic Landmark.

In the mid 1600s Brooklyn and the rest of Long Island was still mostly wild country. There was a small settlement called New Amersfoort—centered a couple of miles to the southwest—that had been started about 20 years earlier as a farming community. At the time Pieter, Grietje and their 3 children moved in (they ended up with 11 kids eventually!) there were about 15 settlers living in New Amersfoort.

I imagine Pieter’s farm might have looked something like this:

I did this watercolor sketch imagining what Pieter’s farm might have looked like in the 1650s. At that time the house (now the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum) would have been a small, simple thatched hut. There may also have been a barn or hay barracks, a pigsty and other outbuldings. At first, they probably grew mostly grain.

 

Pieter became one of the most prosperous and influential citizens, buying land, serving as magistrate, and helping establish the Flatlands Dutch Reformed Church (now the juncture of Flatbush Avenue and King’s Highway). He adopted the invented name “Wyckoff” when the British took over New Amsterdam.

Pieter and Grietje had eleven children, all of whom married, had children and went on to live somewhat prosperous lives.

Here’s the very same house as it looks today. It’s now a museum, a National Historic Landmark, and officially the Oldest Structure in New York City. It’s located in the heart of Brooklyn.

Photo of the Wyckoff House, courtesy bridgeandtunnelclub.com, http://www.bridgeandtunnelclub.com/bigmap/brooklyn/eastflatbush/wyckoffhouse/index.htm

 

Apple Map view looking down on Brooklyn with Manhattan in the distance. The Wyckoff House is shown in the red circle.

 

Climbing on the Family Tree:

The family lineage from Pieter to me:

Pieter Claesen Wyckoff, born 1625

Cornelius Wyckoff (one of 11 children!), born 1656

Simon Wyckoff, born 1683

Cornelius Wyckoff, born 1715

George Wyckoff, born 1745

George Wyckoff, born 1795

Cornelius Wyckoff, born 1820

(From here the lineage goes on the female side)

Maloda Wyckoff, born 1853 (my great-great grandmother)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maloda’s daughter Edna Moore, born 1876 (my great grandmother)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edna’s daughter Frances Muller, born 1908 (my grandmother)

 

 

 

 

Frances’ daughter Barbara King, my mother

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Denise Dahn (me…long ago at age 22)

 

 

 

Read more about the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House

http://www.historichousetrust.org/item.php?i_id=14

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/21/nyregion/21houses.html?_r=0

http://hvva.org/hvvanews5-4.htm

Explore historic New Amsterdam:

http://www.virtualnewamsterdam.com/page/page/1846100.htm

Explore New York City before settlement:

http://welikia.org/about/overview/

To read the entire ship’s log from the voyage: http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~clifflamere/Misc/MI-LogRenWyck.htm#Part%201

To read some of the ship’s correspondence: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nycoloni/rnscores.html

To read more about Fort Orange on the New York State Museum site: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/albany/loc/fortorange.html#farmers

 

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NOTES:

1. “A Description of New Netherlands”, pages 6 and 70, by Adrian van der Donck, first published in 1655, and re-translated by Dederik W. Goedhuys.

 

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Sources Include:

“A Description of New Netherland”, by Adriaen van der Donck and first published in 1655. Newly translated by Diederik Willem Goedhuys.

“The Island at the Center of the World”, by Russell Shorto

“New York”, by Edward Rutherfurd

“Daily Life in Holland in the Year 1566″, by Rien Poorttvliet

“White Servitude”, by Richard Hofstadter (article on-line)

“Dutch and English on the Hudson”, by Maud Wilder Goodwin (available on-line via project Gutenberg)

The Rise of Pieter Claessen Wyckoff, Social Mobility on the Colonial Frontier, by Mortom Wagman.

The Wyckoff Families of Old Canarsie Lane, by Mae Lubizt.

The Wyckoff Family in America, Published by the Wyckoff Association in America

Lucie Chin and Joshua Van Kirk, the Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum

Van Rensselaer Bowier Manuscripts: Being the Letters of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer

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Eat Prey, Love – the Sequel

There has been an update since I originally posted “Eat Prey, Love” in the fall of 2012! Journey not only has a mate, but a new family!

Read about it here.

 

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A Lone Wolf called Journey

Journey was a lone wolf that crossed into California in 2011. He was the only one left from the scattered—or poached—Imnaha pack in eastern Oregon, and the first wild wolf in California in nearly a century. Since then, he’s probably been looking for a mate and scouting out his territory. Being alone for so long, he probably had a harder time hunting larger prey like elk and lived mainly on smaller animals like beaver or rabbits.

I hope Journey has found his mate and gets his family. Most of all, I hope he learns to hunt wild prey, rather than sheep or cattle—a sure death sentence.

I hope we can learn to respect wildlife for being themselves rather than as trophies, entertainment, or pseudo-pets. I hope we will make a place for wildness.

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From Eat Prey, Love, originally posted October 25, 2012

 

Can we make a place for wildness?

A lone wolf called Journey was California’s first wild wolf in nearly a century. Now, he’s back in Oregon, possibly with his new mate.

 

Wild or Captive? It makes a difference

Many wildlife biologists no longer favor the term “Alpha” in describing wolf behavior. Even the idea of a “pack” is somewhat outmoded. These old ideas were originally made popular by biologist L. David Mech in 1970. As he explains on his website, his original research was done on captive wolves, and has since been updated with field research on wolves in the wild—with quite different results.

While captive wolves do behave in the alpha-dominance model, it is not common in the wild. I’ve heard it likened to how humans behave when forced into captivity, like prisons or concentration camps. Social norms break down. Things get savage.

In contrast, wild wolves live in family groups of related individuals: the parents, called the breeding pair, and their offspring, which include the current years’ pups and possibly older siblings from one or two previous seasons. The breeding pair are the leaders, not because they fought their way into their high status position through force and dominance, but simply because they are the parents. Parents know best, right?

It makes a subtle but important difference in how we view wolves. Their social behavior is not centered on dominance, but on family. Wolves live and work together cooperatively based on age and experience, with the older ones teaching the younger ones how to be wolves. When they’re ready, the youths leave the family to find a mate, establish a territory, and make a family—their own pack.

 

What does it mean to be wild?

I flip open my ipad and check my Google alert on wolves (October, 2012). The top article is from Wisconsin, where the first wolf hunting season in 38 years started a few days ago. A father-son team of trophy hunters snared the first wolf, a young female, in a legtrap. They had seen her struggling as they approached with their rifles, finally shooting her in the head to complete the hunt. Her pelt would be their trophy, hanging on their wall to remind them of their proud accomplishment. They get to be the alpha dudes, the true top predators, thanks to superior hunting skills—and a little help from modern technology.

The next article tells of a college girl who takes her wolfdog (85-90% wolf, 10-15% dog) to campus with her. The photo shows her and the muzzled wolfdog gazing into each others’ eyes, and the girl receiving a huge juicy-looking tongue kiss. The caption says she majors in wildlife science and occasionally sleeps with the wolfdog.

These two cases really run the gamut. The first is about dominance through violence, and the second, well, it is a form of trophy-ism, too, just on the other extreme. A little too Fifty Shades of Graywolf, from the look of it.

I wonder why we need to treat wild animals in these ways, either to prove our own supremacy, or as proxies for decent relationship-material? (Or worse, for cheap entertainment, as in some circuses and creepy You-Tube videos.) I’m not saying that trophy hunters—or college girls who love wolves—should be kicked out of America. But what about simply appreciating wildness? Do we have a place for that, as well?

It’s only recently we’ve learned how important top predators—like wolves—are in natural ecosystems. When they are gone, they are missed—not just by us tree-huggers, but by other living things like trees and plants and pollinating insects, and birds and even the prey species, eventually. Living with wildness is messy and complicated and will take serious cooperation and effort and money from all of us, but it will be worth it in the long run… if we want to leave something decent behind us when we are gone. A habitable planet, for example.

 

To learn more about wolves and conservation in the Northwest: http://www.conservationnw.org/

To keep on Journey and his latest doings: http://www.oregonwild.org/fish_wildlife/bringing_wolves_back/the-journey-of-or7

To read an article about top predators and their effect on ecosystems: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203630604578072693046060834.html