Saturday, 5 March 2011

Natural associations

John Hay
Photo: Grace McCandless

Reading the many appreciations in the American press of the life of Cape Cod naturalist John Hay, I was reminded of the obituary that I wrote for the British naturalist Miriam Rothschild back in January 2003, published in The Oundle Chronicle.

Somewhere, I thought, it ought to be online even after all this time, but all I could find was a tiny footnote in a Wikipedia entry "Dame Miriam Rothschild, obituary". Oundle Chronicle (The) which led me to

Clicking on that link led to a strange page listing everything from a Clearance Event at a Harborough furniture super store to an invitation to watch free movies online, with guarantee of "Huge Variety and Premium Quality 100% Legal and Safe."

Such is the anarchy of the world wide web where one's finest literary efforts can suddenly find themselves relegated to a dung heap in outer cyberspace.

Dame Miriam Rothschild with Professor Richard Dawkins during a visit to Oundle School Chapel in 2001

I met Dame Miriam on several occasions when she was helping me with research for a book I was writing. I always felt what a shame it was that she so seldom visited "that great school Oundle" - to use the words of its former pupil Arthur Marshall, only a few miles away from her home in Ashton, Northamptonshire. She would have opened the eyes of so many of its pupils even wider than usual with her flights of zoological fancy interspersed with thoughts from writers ranging from Proust to Nabokov.

One in particular - that looking down a microscope at a flea's vagina was akin to experimenting with a hallucinogenic drug - would have startled some of the teaching staff. Though in retrospect, looking back on my own reflections shared with pupils in the classroom, it was no more shocking than my theory that Flaubert's depiction of the heroine's sexual pleasure in his novel Madame Bovary seems to emphasise yet another difference between men and women.

For those who'd like to read about Dame Miriam, including my US readers who might like to know about her relationship with the film star Clark Gable and the 351st USAAF Bomb Group, I re-typed my obituary in another blog post for March 2011 at It's long, but what an amazing life. I enjoyed writing about it. Perhaps I'll send the piece off to Wikipedia to be recycled.

Miriam Rothschild's book Butterfly cooing like a Dove (1991) combined her passion for zoology with her love of literature and the arts.

Miriam Rothschild's life was largely spent in Northamptonshire rather than Devon. She did tell me about the aftermath of a bombing raid in Plymouth during World War Two, when her laboratory was completely destroyed. And it's in one of her books inspired by the natural world, Butterfly cooing like a Dove, that she writes evocatively of the view from the Marine Biological Station where she was a student.

"In those days I fancied no seascape in the world could hold a candle to Plymouth Sound, with its glittering pathway to the sun, its gorse-capped line of distant cliffs, its infinitely varied sky with bleached sails floating on the horizon, and, nearer the shore and docks, a crazy concourse of craft ranging from massive battleships down to the tiniest spluttering motorboat and tear-away skiff."

Reading about John Hay and his literary musings inspired by the beauty of Cape Cod, I wondered about whether we have any Devon-based writers inspired by this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty around Budleigh Salterton in which I'm lucky to live. I shall look out for them.

Well, after that longish preamble, here's the obituary penned by Rich Eldred. I am grateful to Robert F. Dwyer, President & Executive Director Cape Cod Museum of Natural History for providing me with the photos of John Hay.


The late naturalist John Hay - a life well lived

John Hay.
Photo courtesy of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History
“As he became more and more interested in nature, he saw himself and mankind as part of nature, not separate from it,” said Beth Finch, a conservationist and longtime friend of John Hay who died Feb. 26.

Author, naturalist, activist, visionary John Hay, formerly of Brewster, died Saturday at his home in Bremen, Maine at the age of 95.

“He was the grand old man of conservation in Brewster for a very long time,” reflected Mark Robinson of Compact of Cape Cod Conservation Trusts. “I got to know him in the late ’90s when he and (his wife) Kristi were working on placing Dry Hill’s 50 acres under a conservation restriction. I really enjoyed that project because of them.”

Hay co-founded Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in 1954, penned 18 books, served on Brewster Conservation Commission at its inception in 1961 and pushed the purchase of hundreds of acres in his beloved Stony Brook Valley, an environment he immortalized in his first book, “The Run,” published in 1959.

“It’s a great loss,” said Richard Wheeler, a former museum trustee. “I treasured that relationship. He was a wonderful, warm, bright, funny human being. He took his work seriously but he never took himself seriously.”

“He was never run-of-the-mill anyway,” reflected longtime friend and conservationist Beth Finch. “They built a simple house and they lived a very simple life. They had a wood stove, which they frequently had to use during power outages. They were wonderful, wonderful neighbors. Dinner parties at their house were something to remember. They were the new kids when West Brewster was the artistic hot spot of the Cape. Artists and musicians lived in this ‘unfashionable’ part of Cape Cod.”

Hay was born in Ipswich in 1915 and grew up in New York City. His grandfather, John Milton Hay, was President Lincoln’s personal secretary and later served as Secretary of State under Teddy Roosevelt. Young John summered on his grandfather’s estate, “The Fells” on Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.

“That’s where he came to love nature. He spent a lot of time on the pond in a little boat and it became a passion for him – being outdoors,” Finch said.

His father, Clarence Hay, was curator of archaeology at the Museum of Natural History in New York. John Hay graduated from Harvard and at the time was drawn to poetry so he “apprenticed” with the poet Conrad Aiken, who lived in rural West Brewster. He wrote poems and cleared wood on Cape Cod and soon purchased what turned out to be 18 acres off Red Top Road for $250, just prior to World War II.

He and his wife, the former Kristi Putnam, settled there in 1945, raised four children and would stay until 2004. Over time the property grew to well over 50 acres.

“He had a wonderful garden and Kristi raised chickens. When he first came here he thought he’d make a little money raising rhododendrons. That didn’t work out but the woods have rhododendron growing in the most unexpected and beautiful places,” Finch explained.

Hay had helped edit an Army newspaper, The Yank, during the war and afterward he worked as a freelance reviewer, poet and writer. In 1954, along with friends Ruth and Admont Clark, Kathryn Berrian, Ann Thatcher, sculptor Henry Holl and Scott Corbett came up with the concept of a natural history museum.

“My wife and another friend were at a PTA meeting and the gist of the meeting was how to keep the elementary school kids off the streets,” Admont Clark recalled. “On the way home they were talking about that and said why not start a children’s museum so they could find out about natural history?”

Initially, it was called Cape Cod Junior Museum, and was housed on the second floor of the old town hall. By 1958, the trustees had purchased 37 acres next to Paines Creek and the museum was housed in a collection of tents. Hay served as the museum president from 1955 to 1980. He brought in top people to teach and pen monographs, many of which are still in print.

“In the early days, people would come in and say, ‘Where’s the museum?’ Every time they did that he’d put his arm straight out and do a full 360. That says a lot about him. He wanted people to get out and study nature firsthand,” Wheeler said.

More than half a century later those ideals are still carried on.

“Basically everything John taught going back to the early ’60s when the museum was in a tent, and a roadside attraction, is still being taught now,” said museum director Robert Dwyer. “While we have exhibits inside the museum, the real story is outside in the surrounding area. All of that is something we’ve really followed for the 56 years we’ve been in existence.”

Hay soon followed his own advice and wrote his first and most beloved book “The Run,” chronicling the lives of herring and the people of Stony Brook Valley.

“As he became more and more interested in nature, he saw himself and mankind as part of nature, not separate from it. He spent a lot of time just walking in the woods, sitting and watching. He thought about the oneness of things,” Finch said. “He was one of the earliest people to talk about such things, let alone practice it. When he wrote ‘The Run,’ he was almost putting himself in the place of the fish.”

Other books and many awards followed.

“He was a founding member of Brewster Conservation Commission in 1961 and was the chairman through the 1960s,” Robinson said. “All of the marshes the town acquired – Quivett, Stony Brook, Namskaket – were the direct result of his working those through town meetings.”

His own property, Dry Hill, is under a conservation restriction. Other land was donated to the town and conservation trust.

“He was extremely foresighted,” noted Finch. “He encouraged the museum to buy land so they could have a place to go that was safe forever. I think he was very shy. He was more comfortable out in the woods walking somewhere than at board meetings.”

“The last time I did see him,” Robinson recalled, “it was a beautiful fall day and he had gotten a ride to Cold Storage Beach in Dennis, which he loved even though he could hardly see, and he was walking back at Route 6A and Stony Brook when I happened by and picked him up. I said, ‘John, that’s an awful long walk’ and all he said was, ‘What a brilliant day’ – it didn’t bother him.”
He and Kristi moved full time to Maine, where she died in 2007.

“He lived in that house up in Maine on a little finger of water. It was almost like a Robert Frost poem,” reflected Wheeler, who visited him there. “But that’s where his roots were. He said Cape Cod was crowded now. Cape Cod isn’t Cape Cod anymore.”

But it lives on, in the pages of “The Run” and in his other books, and it will always be there for us to visit thanks to his generosity in preserving it with his pen.

Books by John Hay

A Private History - 1947 - (Poems)
The Run - 1959
Nature's Year - 1961
A Sense of Nature - 1962
The Great Beach- 1963
The Atlantic Shore - 1966
The Sandy Shore - 1968
In Defense of Nature -1969
Spirit of Survival -1974 - (About Terns)
The Undiscovered Country - 1981
Natural Architecture - 1984 - (Poems)
The Immortal Wilderness - 1987
The Great House of Birds -1987 - (Editor)
The Bird of Light - 1991
Beginner's Faith In Things Unseen -1994
In The Company of Light - 1998
The Way to the Salt Marsh - 1998
Mind The Gap - 2004

Reprinted with permission from The Cape Codder newspaper

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