Fifty years after well-known birder Roger Tory Peterson and British naturalist James Fisher documented their travels to wild places across North America in their book Wild America, naturalist and writer Scott Weidensaul decided to retrace the journey to see how things had changed.
He said his friends and colleagues expected his account would be pretty depressing.
"Things have been lost, that is true," Weidensaul said by phone from his home near Schuylkill Haven, Pa. "But what really surprised me is how energized and optimistic I came away feeling. We have made enormous progress in 50 years ... in terms of the mindset."
Along with his expertise as a naturalist and his reputation as a writer and educator, it is that hopeful outlook that appealed to the program committee at the Howard County Conservancy, said Meg Schumacher, executive director. "He still finds a lot of room for optimism, and that's really important," she said.
Weidensaul will present slides and speak about his book, Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul, at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the conservancy's education center in Woodstock.
"I have been a naturalist since I was old enough to walk," said Weidensaul, 49, who has lived most of his life in the Appalachian mountains of eastern Pennsylvania.
"I was forever dragging stuff home," he said. He recalled that his mother would dread finding small animals and other bits of nature in her son's clothing, and his father had to institute a rule that any snakes in the house must not be venomous.
Weidensaul studied fine art along with biology and natural science in college and planned to be a wildlife artist. His skills instead led him to write a nature column for the local newspaper, which turned into a career as a reporter.
In 1988, he switched to freelance writing about nature topics, including for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Harrisburg Patriot-News. He also wrote more than two dozen books since then, including ones on bird migration, species extinction and the Appalachians.
Over 20 years, he has done more and more of his own research as what he calls a field ornithologist, as opposed to an academically trained one. He has spent many years banding hawks each fall to help track their migration patterns, and he directs a program studying saw-whet owls. He is also part of a wider project to follow western hummingbirds as they establish a new migration route in the East.
"I love sharing this stuff with people," he said.
He said a topic such as bird migration is a "gee-whiz" phenomenon that can get people's attention. For example, he said, the bar-tailed godwit, a tiny bird, more than doubles its weight in preparation to migrate from Alaska to New Zealand and then flies about 7,500 miles for seven to nine days straight.
"If you can't make that stuff interesting, you have to hang up your word processor," he said.
When he revisited the locations documented in the 1956 book, he said, he wanted to see "what has changed for better or worse in conservation."
He saw the ill effects of pollution, development, invasive plant and animal species and climate change. But he also found that some areas remained wild, and he said he believes the culture has changed for the better in terms of environmental awareness.
A host of examples from the 1950s, including unchecked dumping of pollutants into waterways, widespread use of pesticides, plans to dam the Colorado River, and no limits on people shooting at migrating birds, would be considered outrageous today, he said.
Now, he said, "We are reaching a phase where people are willing to make sacrifices, or at least willing to consider them. ... If we look ahead 50 years, I think we will see a strengthening of the environmental ethic."
Schumacher said Weidensaul's approach fits perfectly with the Conservancy's mission of fostering and understanding and an appreciation of the environment. "If people can understand more about the environment, it's going to affect how they live their lives," she said.
People are encouraged to reserve the $10 tickets in advance by calling 410- 465-8877. The Conservancy is at 10520 Old Frederick Road. www.hcconservancy.org.