On A Force Of Nature

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20 minutes of reading

Arthur Melville Pearson and I are at the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation offices where Arthur works as the Director of its Chicago Program. The Foundation supports land conservation, artistic vitality, and regional collections for the people of the Chicago region and Lowcountry of South Carolina. From the enclosed balcony on the 26th floor on which we sit, we see the glistening Chicago River and occasionally two peregrine falcons hovering in search of prey. In the midst of the city, we are pleased to see that magnificent creatures and natural areas are in evidence. It is a good place to begin our discussion about Arthur’s biography of George Fell, a man who dedicated his life to reminding future generations of the necessity of preserving the presence of nature in our lives.

JB: Your biography of George Fell, a remarkable figure in the history of natural land conservation in the latter half of the twentieth century, was just published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Is Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement, your first full-length book?

AP: Yes. I’ve written a numbers of articles, but this is my first book.

JB: How did you choose George Fell as a subject for a biography?

AP: Well, he sort of chose me, or at least Jerry Paulson did. Around 2002, I got a call from Jerry Paulson, an old friend whom I had known through the Wetlands Initiative. Jerry was then the Executive Director of the Natural Land Institute of Rockford, Illinois. I knew of the Institute, of course. And Jerry knew that I had been writing about conservation over the years. He said, “Hey, we’ve got a fiftieth anniversary coming up and we’d like to honor our founder, George Fell. Would you like to write a short biographical piece on him?” And I said, “Sure. But who is George Fell?” I had never heard of Fell in all the years I had been writing about conservation. As I came to find out, George was not someone to call attention to himself. Anyway, unsure exactly what I was getting myself into, I just dove in by reading about George for the Natural Land Institute.

JB: And what did you write for this essay?

AP: I wrote a brief biographical piece, about twenty-five pages, that is nested within A Legacy of Natural Lands that talks about the fifty-year history of the Natural Land Institute—all of its preserves and what the organization is doing now. In the middle is my honorific to their founder. It’s about George’s early years, his founding of The Nature Conservancy, the Nature Preserve Commission, and the Natural Land Institute—the highlights of an extraordinary life and an extraordinary career that lasted nearly half a century.

JB: Fell died in 1994. So you did not know him.

AP: I did not.

JB: But you did come to know Barbara Fell, his wife, to whom you have dedicated Force of Nature.

AP: Yes. I came to know Barbara well. In fact, I dedicated Force of Nature to her. There’s a book by Stephen Fox published by the University of Wisconsin Press entitled The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy. He makes the interesting observation that the history of conservation is largely the history of men who did things. But with few exceptions—Rosalie Edge, for instance, who helped preserve Hawk Mountain out East—there are few women who have been given their due when it comes to conservation history. And you suspect that many more women had active roles, but in ways that haven’t been celebrated or sufficiently mined. With Barbara, I found that the record is clear. She was a partner in her husband’s conservation effort and instrumental in his success. The book is primarily a biography about her husband, but it does include her contribution. I just wanted to take the extra step and honor her contribution as a woman to the conservation field by also dedicating the book to her memory.

JB: In the early years, before Fell was officially responsible for creating what we now know as The Nature Conservancy, he and Barbara lived in Washington, DC. And they had little to no money. But she kept them going.

AP: Absolutely. She was the one who took full-time work as a doctor’s assistant to earn enough money to keep the rent paid so that George could devote himself full time to his nature preserve work. As Barbara described it, they were in this together. It wasn’t a sacrifice. It was just what they did. Their arrangement was that she was going to make enough money for George to devote himself full time to what he needed to do to start The Nature Conservancy.

Arthur PearsonArthur Pearson

JB: And this was in the early fifties. You title your biography Force of Nature, a phrase often used in talking about individuals who do extraordinary things. You describe Fell as a force of nature in both a literal and figurative sense, a creator of conservation organizations that have long outlived him. Your book allows us to see Fell’s “force” as a temperament that created things but that often led him to leave the organizations to others who disagreed as to how those organizations should be managed. You write that one of his board members said, “George didn’t want oversight; he wanted endorsement.” Is Fell’s single-mindedness typical of others who have created organizations that care for natural areas?

AP: As I also point out in the book, there are a number of other conservation luminaries who were exceptionally strong willed in their convictions. In order to defy the odds, to create something that doesn’t exist, to make something happen that a lot of people have talked about but haven’t had the wherewithal to actually make happen—all this requires that you have a determination, a tenacity that can manifest itself in different ways. David Brower, for instance, was very much a firebrand, a strong-willed personality who drove the evolution of the Sierra Club by force of will.

George Fell, I think, was at the other end of this spectrum in terms of his temperament. He was incredibly methodical, patient, tenacious—he just never stopped no matter what the obstacles. He was like water. Water is going to find its way eventually. And this is one of the things I admire most about George. He tried for five, six, seven years to get a nature preserves act passed in Illinois. It didn’t happen. And then he thought, “Okay. I’ll go to Washington, DC, and get something like that started at the national level,” which is exponentially harder. And he did it in the founding of The Nature Conservancy. And when that chapter ended with his untimely parting of the ways with the Conservancy, he returned to Illinois and worked for several more years to finally get the state natural areas legislation pushed through. Talk about sticking with it.

I think many people at several points would have said, “I tried. I can’t do it. It’s too hard. It’s not going to happen.” George just never quit. Unless you have that determination, as George himself said several times, it’s just not going to happen. Well, he had it. The flip side, though, is that once you actually achieve your goal of creating something, that single-minded determination can be pretty difficult to live with. That’s where George struggled. Throughout most of his career, he wasn’t a good compromiser. He wasn’t a good diplomat.

JB: In a not-for-profit organization such as The Nature Conservancy and other institutions that he founded, one has to be fairly sociable. You describe Fell as being fiercely independent. And he oftentimes had to move from the head of the institutions that he founded because he wasn’t able to raise the money they needed to survive.

AP: George understood the need to raise funds, but it wasn’t his particular gift. In the early years of The Nature Conservancy, it was Richard Pough, the Conservancy’s third president, who proved the natural fundraiser. “Pough, rhymes with dough” is how one writer described him. He was gregarious. He could raise money just as easy as falling out of bed in the morning. That was his gift, his vital contribution to the early days of The Nature Conservancy.

George, on the other hand, was adept at putting the structure in place, the bones of the organization—the chapter system, the membership system, those kinds of things. This is where the real dynamic nature of The Nature Conservancy was so fascinating in the early days. You had two powerful, tectonic forces in George Fell and Richard Pough. Personality-wise, they were polar opposites. In a perfect world, they would have been a strong complement to each other. As it turned out, they ended up in strong conflict. At the end of the day, one of them had to go. George went to great lengths in his own stubborn way in trying to maintain his position, but he lacked the diplomacy skills to navigate this kind of thing.

JB: We see today in many not-for-profits that presidents and directors are chosen by board members not only for their leadership skills, but also for their ability to raise money. It seems that Fell, early on in his life, wanted just to be working in nature. He was adamant that he should be on the riverbank, on the prairie, in the woods. When he and Barbara were married, they travelled all over Illinois looking for natural areas that were in serious need of preservation. He wasn’t a people person. He preferred spending his time on the land.

AP: Yes. I don’t want to be too much of an arm-chair psychologist, but I would say he was a classic introvert. So was George’s father, a prominent psychiatrist who was most happy when he was out cataloguing all the native plants in Winnebago County, Illinois.

You get the sense that George yearned to have more of a relationship with his father. There is some indication that they did a little botanizing together. As best as I can discern, George came to love the native plants that his father loved as a way to be closer to his father. This shared botanical passion is a bond that continued to connect them during the remainder of George’s father’s life.

JB: In fact, George was so independent that he didn’t follow in his father’s military footsteps during World War II. George made a decision to be a conscientious objector, even though he was a healthy young college graduate. You write that he was out in nature quite a bit, that he met the physical requirements for a soldier. Why didn’t he serve?

AP: This is where, as a biographer, you have to be careful. How far can you go in projecting why your subject did or didn’t do something? There’s not enough material to say definitively why he chose to be a conscientious objector. We know for a fact that he was anti-religious, so it wasn’t on religious grounds that he objected. His sister related that she supposed George simply had a moral or ethical belief that killing people was wrong. George himself never revealed why he opted out of military service.

In any event, that must have been a very hard thing for a young man to do, to make that kind of big decision in defiance of a father who had been an officer during World War I and had served on the National Medical Advisory Board of the United States Army during World War II. And by and large World War II was a popular war in terms of the nation being behind it. If you weren’t for the war, you were branded all kinds of really bad things. And George was willing to take that on, which ultimately speaks well of him and his independence. When he believed something was right, he stuck to his guns, no matter what the rest of the world thought.

JB: But he was put in a situation during World War II, as many conscientious objectors were, in which he had to contribute directly to the war effort. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

AP: The whole notion of being able to have conscientious objectors during World War II was that for the first time in this country, the purpose was to be able to provide alternative means of national service. Some of those objectors were the first smoke jumpers who helped put out forest fires, which was very dangerous and risky. Many volunteered their bodies for medical science to study the effects of DDT, typhus, and starvation. So it wasn’t that they lacked bravery or that they didn’t want to help. They just wanted to do it in a way that they believed to be ethical. George’s way of helping was to find ways of dealing with soil erosion. At first blush you might think, “Really? Soil erosion? That’s national service?” Well, we have to remember that this was soon after the devastation to farm country caused by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. To continue to have renewable resources, we had to do a lot better job of conserving our soils. That’s what George signed up to do over the nearly five years he spent in Civilian Public Service camps.

JB: Do you think that that experience helped to equip him with his organizational skills and vision?

AP: As noble as the whole idea of having alternative service for conscientious objectors was, in practice it largely turned out to be a means for the federal government to keep conscientious objectors out of sight and out of mind. As the war progressed, there was less and less work to do. It was just, “Go to these camps. Be quiet. Don’t cause any trouble. Leave us alone.” George was frustrated by not being able to help as much as he knew he could. So, one thing the experience reinforced for him was a very low opinion of government.

Another thing George took away from this experience was the revelation that he was a born organizer. Constitutionally unable to sit still and do nothing, he spent huge amounts of time trying to improve the operations of the camps by rewriting by-laws and organizing strikes for better conditions. He learned by doing, to try to make a difference even though few others seemed to care.

JB: As Fell’s biographer, have you yourself been influenced since you began to study his life and work? You and I have been friends for many years, and I know that you personally have been involved in natural land areas for a long time, most recently at the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie south of Joliet.

AP: I think that trying to understand someone—what motivates them, what defines them, and what they stand for—you can’t help but to reflect on yourself. In the course of writing the book I have come to find several areas of commonality between George and myself that have helped me to empathize with him. I am of a more introverted nature. So I recognized that in George. In my younger years, I was my own kind of stubborn and strong-headed person, without enough experience to be right about much of anything. This is the way it has to be, damn it, and I’m going to make it happen. Mostly what I accomplished with that kind of mindset was a lot of bumps and bruises to myself and probably to others as well. Those were not always my finest hours.

I think that George, too, had to suffer some of those bumps and bruises in pursuit of what he wanted to do. I think he had a particularly hard time with the idea that being right doesn’t necessarily make you right—you still need to convince enough people to go along with you. George struggled with that. Time and time again, he couldn’t stop being right all the time about absolutely everything with no compromise possible.

One other thing I like to think I share with George is having become a little wiser over time. I really admire that George eventually found a way to stop insisting that it was his way or the highway—with the Natural Areas Association, for instance, an organization that he just knew had to be structured in a certain way. But when his colleagues said, “No, we want to do it a different way,” he said, “Okay.” It might have taken a while to get there—he was in his sixties or seventies by then. But as a person, as a human with his own character arc, if you will, he finally got to a place where he could still be strong in his passion and his ideas but also allow others to have their say for the greater good.

JB: In getting inside the head of the subject, the biographer discovers both the positive and the negatives of that subject. Was Fell—other than in the instances that we already have talked about—detrimental to his own ideology?

AP: Sometimes in the short run, yes, when he got into conflict with even close friends and allies because of his stubbornness, his unwillingness to compromise. George lost more than a few battles but ultimately won the war through sheer perseverance. He structured The Nature Conservancy in such a way that it was able to grow into what it is today, which is the world’s largest conservation organization. If he had given it up and taken an alternative way that others suggested as to how it should be structured, I’m not sure it would have survived. Richard Pough wasn’t into structure. He just wanted to do deals. And I think that if The Nature Conservancy had just wanted to do deals without any strong bones, it might not be in existence today, or it would look very different. So George, in sticking to his guns, sacrificed what might have been a long, storied career with The Nature Conservancy. But he left in place the infrastructure to make certain that what it was going to grow into was built on a rock-solid foundation.

Pretty much the same thing occurred with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. George fought hard to put in place a solid structure, but he also cultivated an equally strong culture. Over the course of the twenty years with the Nature Preserves Commission, he recruited exceptional people and spent a lot of time getting them up to speed and letting them know just how important they were to the organization. The structure and culture remained, even after George left. As testament to the strength of what George was able to put into place, in spite of the struggle the state is having today in fully funding the Nature Preserves Commission, it’s still there. It’s still effective. It’s still doing its work.

JB: Arthur, you are now working as Chicago program director for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. Tell us a little about that.

AP: Mine has not been a straight-line career by any imagination. I spent many years as an actor in regional theatres around the country. I loved it, but at some point, I wanted to change gears. I’d always had a passion for nature and thought maybe I could write about it. I gave it a go and was fortunate that people wanted to publish my work. It was a happy accident, if you will. But through my writing I got to learn a lot more about conservation. For me, it was kind of a happy accident, too, that these two things—arts and conservation—are also what the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation supports. Through my work at the foundation, I feel exceptionally grateful that I get to help advance two causes that I deeply love.

The Fell biography is something I did on my own, but obviously it very much relates to some of the work that I do at the foundation. At the end of the day, George, you, me, all the conservation organizations the foundation supports—all of us want fundamentally the same things when it comes to land conservation. We want to protect the preserved areas that we can; we want to expand them to the degree that we can; we want to buffer them; we want to make a meaningful connection between them—all toward the goal of having a more sustainable network of vital lands for all the plants and animals that depend on them for their very lives, and, of course, for us, too. Not just for the joy and beauty they afford us, but also—if you really push it—for our survival on this planet. You know, the argument that always comes up from those who don’t understand this is, “So what if we don’t have spotted owls, is the world really going to end?”

JB: Aldo Leopold, whom you talk about in the biography, was a huge influence on George Fell. In A Sand County Almanac, posthumously published in 1949, Leopold explains just how thoughtless such a question is when he defines the Land Ethic. Like Fell, Leopold was pretty single minded as well.

AP: You do need a single-mindedness in these efforts. I don’t want to exaggerate, but they are, in a sense, herculean efforts. Almost all the prairie in Illinois was plowed up to grow corn and soybeans. It takes a lot of energy and determination to save what little remains in the face of much of the world saying, “What does it matter if we plow a couple of more acres? What does it matter if we lose a species?” To stand up and say that it does matter, that we’re going to fight for these things, is important.

JB: Arthur, we’ve talked about Fell’s origins in Illinois. It’s interesting, I think, to note that after Fell left the organization that he created in Washington, DC, he served as the Secretary of the Illinois chapter of The Nature Conservancy, part of a chapter system that he insisted would be vital to the survival of the Conservancy. You write in your epilogue of why the organizations he founded continue to thrive on a national level.

AP: It is important to point out that George is not solely responsible for everything that has happened in the development of The Nature Conservancy over its long history. Many other people have made vital contributions. Nonetheless, the infrastructure that he put in place was fundamental. He insisted on the chapter system when few thought that it was a good idea. Today, there is a chapter of the Conservancy in every state, which helped set the stage for jumping the pond, as it were. Over the past half century, the Conservancy has grown into an international organization, underpinned by its strong chapter system and extensive membership base. In a related way, the strength of the Illinois Nature Areas Preservation Act, which established the first state system for protecting natural areas, provided the template for others to follow suit. Today, there are now nature preserve commissions in almost every state.

JB: Let’s shift a moment to talk about George’s academic career, which, as you point out, helped him to begin to understand nature as a professional. But you note that he wasn’t an outstanding scholar as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, nor as a graduate student in ecology at the University of Michigan. Could you elaborate on what you conclude about his academic work? Did his temperament make him a bit unpopular with his professors? I didn’t get the impression that he was lacking in intelligence at all.

AP: Again, that’s another area where as a biographer you can go only so far in reading into the documentary evidence. There are many reasons that one does not do particularly well in undergraduate work. I hope that no one ever writes my biography and asks, “Really? This is all you managed to accomplish as an undergraduate?” It doesn’t follow that someone as accomplished as George Fell had to have been an outstanding student. It took him awhile to find his way. He had to get through both the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan and get through the conscientious objector years. And even then, he wasn’t sure exactly what it was that he wanted to do.

And this is where I think it is important to emphasize his partnership with Barbara. It wasn’t until he met his future wife that he finally found focus. I’m not exactly sure what that dynamic was. But the record is clear that until he met her, he was a little bit adrift. After he met her, he was laser-focused, and they were the perfect team. Barbara would argue with me on that. She said to me, “I never had anything to do with that. George was the genius. I never had anything to do with it.” But there is no denying that she was critical to his success. Theirs was a true partnership.

George Fell at Bell Bowl Prairie 1968

JB: And later on, George became a relatively astute investor in the market. Did he inherit some money from his father?

AP: No. Barbara was always adamant about that. What money they had they earned entirely on their own. But, yes, the few dollars that they did make, George invested wisely. As adept as he was at identifying lands of strategic value to buy, he was equally adept at identifying which stocks to invest in.

JB: Aside from investing, how did he make money?

AP: He had only one job that he was hired to do in an organization that he didn’t found. Soon after he was married, he was hired by the Soil Conservation Service but did not survive the probationary period. It wasn’t because he wasn’t capable. It’s just that he wasn’t sufficiently experienced in farming. Ultimately, the only way that he earned a little salary, after working for years for no pay, was through The Nature Conservancy and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Even then, most of what he earned he plowed back into the organizations that he founded because the most important thing for him was to get more land protected, to get more land protected, to get more land protected.

JB: But then he made very well informed decisions about investing.

AP: Yes. He did earn additional money through his investments. But what wealth the Fells accumulated was due as much to their being exceptionally frugal. They didn’t buy anything that they didn’t need. They never owned a new car. A used one was fine, especially since George performed all the maintenance himself. They preferred to go to Good Will rather than buy new clothes. In short, they felt that people buying too many things in general was indicative of the challenge of preserving natural areas. The more we are a commercial and consumer society, the less we are going to value the things that are important, such as natural areas. This was their conservation ethic. They didn’t just talk about it. They walked the talk in a way that many people would find challenging.

JB: Yes. You include a photograph of George in 1948 with a pre-war Plymouth. He was a good mechanic, and he fixed the seats so that they would lie flat so that he and Barbara could sleep on them in the car outside natural preserve areas in order not to have to spend money on a hotel.

AP: Yep. And before there was pre-packaged food, they ate baby food on their trips. They put a case of baby food in the trunk to avoid the cost of eating in restaurants when they were on the road.

JB: Arthur, is there anything you would like to add as we conclude this interview?

AP: Perhaps only this: in my opinion, the book fills a gap in our nation’s history of conservation. George deserves his place alongside the likes of Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and others. His contribution was that important. But what’s next? How do we build upon his legacy? Who is the next George Fell? Who’s going to give us the next big idea to take conservation in a new and exciting direction? After all, we can’t buy much more natural land, right? There just isn’t that much left, especially in Illinois. So what is the next thing that we need to do in order to protect the natural lands that we love? Might it be some creative interface between natural lands and working lands? The Nature Conservancy has been active on this front. What might that mean here in Illinois, where 75 percent of our land is farmland? Is there an opportunity to do farming in a more holistic way that will help support conservation values? Is that where conservation needs to go next?

JB: Your book, as I read it, is a contribution to starting a discussion of how we might find the next George Fell.

AP: I believe knowing our history is always a good practice for being on the lookout for what’s next, knowing that it’s going to take much the same kind of tenacity, of taking the long view and taking a few knocks. Perhaps one way of identifying the next wave of conservation is to look around and see who it is, who’s bumping and bruising a bit. Maybe that’s the individual to whom we need to pay more time and attention, to see where he or she is going to lead us.

Photo Credits:
Arthur Pearson photo: Susan Clark
George Fell at Bell Bowl Prairie, photo curtesy of Natural Land Institute.

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  • James Ballowe

    James Ballowe is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English at Bradley University. Since retiring from university teaching and administration, Jim has written a biography of Joy Morton and a monograph history of the Morton Arboretum.
  • Arthur Melville Pearson

    Arthur Melville Pearson is CEO of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History, working—as he has throughout his career—at the nexus of art and conservation. He is the author Force of Nature, the award-winning biography of George Fell, founder of the Nature Conservancy and the entire Natural Areas Movement. In his free time, he has created more than 40 nature-inspired stained glass works for his historic home in the Pullman National Monument. For more information, http://arthurmelvillepearson.com/.
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