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Wild Women

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"I liked the idea of looking for role models," says Madelyn Holmes, author of American Women Conservationists. The 59-year-old Burlington writer and historian wonders why, in modern education, there's "not such an emphasis on teaching about heroes. I ate up biographies when I was a child. It gave direction to the dreams I could have."

The "heroines" profiled in American Women Conservationists didn't perform any feats of physical derring-do, but they blazed metaphorical paths through the wilderness. Rachel Carson, the most famous woman in the book, is often credited with launching the modern environmental movement. Her 1962 book Silent Spring warned Americans of the dangers of pesticides in their food and groundwater. Helen Nearing, a 20-year Vermont resident, pioneered the organic gardening and "back to the land" movements in the 1950s. Upper-crust New York matron Rosalie Edge was largely responsible for the 1938 creation of Washington's Olympic Natural Park. And Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a hard-edged Florida journalist, called public attention to the importance of wetlands when she wrote a popular history of the Everglades in 1947.

The book also uncovers a history of earlier women conservationists and nature writers, some quite obscure -- such as Susan Fenimore Cooper, daughter of the famous author of Last of the Mohicans. "Women were there at the beginning," says Holmes. "If you were sitting in the middle of nowhere in the 1860s, of course you would be interested in what's outside the window. It didn't require a high level of schooling."

For well-bred ladies in the 1800s, birdwatching -- an acceptably genteel hobby -- could be the entrée to early environmental activism. Holmes profiles Florence Merriam Bailey, sister to the founder of the U.S. Biological Survey, who wrote bird guides and convinced her fashion-conscious Smith classmates not to wear feathers on their hats.

At the other end of the social spectrum is Mary Austin, a Midwestern girl who found her vocation when her husband's work brought her to Death Valley. Austin published lyrical descriptions of the desert and its Native American inhabitants. She eventually embraced a turn-of-the-century bohemian lifestyle, writing approvingly of one of her fictional desert denizens: "She had walked off all sense of society-made values."

In the early 20th century, when nature study first became a priority in American public schools, female teachers such as Anna Comstock wrote textbooks and built curricula based on their experience as amateur naturalists. Yet, a century later, Holmes says, the only women she could find in anthologies of American nature writing were Carson and Austin. "The anthologies are still playing catch-up," says Holmes. She points out that many of the modern female conservationists she surveys at the end of the book, such as Terry Tempest Williams and Anne LaBastille, are household names.

"What impressed me overall was the passion. I admire the kind of focus these women had," Holmes says. She admits that she admires it all the more because she doesn't share their singlemindedness: "I'm just all over the place in terms of my interests."

That "lack of focus" makes for an intriguing resumé. During the Vietnam War, Holmes spent a Fulbright year in Malaysia, reporting on women's issues for the Christian Science Monitor. In the '70s, she found her "way into the conservation issue" when she interviewed market gardeners for a Master's thesis in agricultural economics. Living in Europe for more than a decade, she studied the survival strategies of small farmers in Denmark and Switzerland. In the '90s, Holmes became director of publication for the now-defunct Council for Basic Education, a lobbying group for academic rigor in K-12 schools.

Holmes got the idea of writing about women conservationists in 1995. Working in Washington, D.C., she was frustrated by the omnipresence of politics and the lack of avenues for concrete action. While the book has no relationship to her job with the Council, Holmes sees it as educational. "I would hope it could be used in high school," she says.

Students might discover a local conservationist heroine. When Holmes and her husband moved to Burlington in 2001, she looked around for a subject who could give the book "local appeal." She ended up asking Prudence Doherty, an archivist for the University of Vermont's Special Collections. Doherty suggested Mollie Beattie. One of the more illustrious alumni of UVM's School of Natural Resources, Beattie, who died in 1996, served as Vermont's commissioner of Parks, Forests and Recreation in the '80s. In 1993, she became the first woman to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Holmes is heading to China this February to spend a year teaching English, and she hopes the experience will yield material for another book. Meanwhile, she's been bringing American Women Conservationists to the community in a series of book talks.

What might pioneering conservationists like Carson think of the current state of the American environmental movement? "Very depressing," says Holmes, expressing a common sense of disillusionment. "It did seem like at the end of the Clinton administration, there was momentum." But while she's discouraged about the national situation, Holmes is optimistic about local conservation efforts. "I think it's so much more possible and positive to look at what we can do to save land in Vermont," she says. Burlington's Intervale -- where she gave a book talk last summer -- "is a wonderful example. I don't think we have to feel defeated."

A similar determination to prevail is evident in the final issue of Wild Earth. For 14 years, the Richmond-based international quarterly journal was a lively forum for wilderness conservationists. In his final editorial, published in the Fall/Winter 2004 issue, seven-year editor Tom Butler is candid about the factors that made the journal close up shop. "Our marketing efforts remained consistently lame," he writes. "Our business acumen never came close to matching our intellectual curiosity... The journal's paid circulation never exceeded 7000."

American Women Conservationists: Twelve Profiles by Madelyn Holmes, McFarland & Co., 2004. 202 pages.

Still, Butler expresses his hope that a new journal with a similar mission will rise from Wild Earth's ashes. In the current political climate, he maintains, a "wilderness think tank" is part of the intellectual "infrastructure" that the environmental movement needs to build in order to win the hearts and minds of voters. He looks forward to a time when conservation might once again enjoy broad bipartisan support, as it did in the '70s.

Meanwhile, Butler's working on a new project that reminds us that, when the government drops the ball on conservation, individuals sometimes step up to the plate. He's writing the text for a coffee-table book tentatively entitled Wildlands Philanthropy: An American Tradition. With images by acclaimed Mexican landscape photographer Antonio Vizcaino, the book profiles 50 sites that were saved by "private wealth protecting public values," including California's Muir Woods and Maine's Baxter State Park. It's funded by a San Francisco foundation that has helped create national parks in Chile and Argentina.

Butler says the book is "terrifically exciting. Wildlands philanthropy has a central role in conservation history, yet it's virtually unknown." Like Holmes, he hopes to show readers that public environmental education begins with "heroes" -- or, at any rate, determined nature-lovers who refuse to let America's rugged wilderness vanish into the past.

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