Naturalist May Theilgaard Watts and Julie Nadelhoffer discuss "Reading the Landscape of America"
BROADCAST: 1969 | DURATION: 00:56:50
Julie Nadelhoffer and Illinois naturalist May Theilgaard Watts discuss the changing landscape of America and the conflict between nature and development.
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Studs Terkel I'm visiting a very remarkable woman, Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts, the naturalist emeritus--I love that word--of the Arboretum at Lisle. She's a very distinguished ecologist, and an excellent book. I love to call your book "Tasting the Landscape"
May Theilgaard Watts That's an idea!
Studs Terkel Yeah, tasting and her book published by McMillan is a really poetic work--
May Theilgaard Watts That gives you a chance to spit some of it out.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, Mrs. Watts, we're in your home right now in Naperville and we'll be talking around you here and friends of yours, and this house, that is over 100 years old has photographs and lithographs and I said they sort of jump at us, they seem so alive. And I love your roses of Provence outside the front door.
May Theilgaard Watts Yes. And I like the roses of Provence especially because of their connection with the past, and kings and queens of France and all their story. And the story that, you know, they can tell to you.
Studs Terkel But I was thinking--I'm sorry. You were talking
May Theilgaard Watts They are the most often used in the language of flowers. You know about the language of flowers?
Studs Terkel No, tell me about the language
May Theilgaard Watts Well, you see, in the Victorian age when everyone was very genteel and nice and prissy, then they didn't commit themselves to notes, but they gave a little "tussy mussy," which was a tight little bouquet in which every flower meant something. And now I could give you, if I was a young man, I could get Julie a rosebud from out there, and she--and this would mean--in my right hand, right side up. Left hand is all different. And this would mean "Your youthful charms lead me to fear" that's the thorns, "But I hope." Now, she might not be pleased with me even if I had put a pansy with it, which would have meant that it leads me to gentle thoughts of her. But even so, she might not really like me, then she would give it to me back, and give it back to me in her left hand upside-down, or she would take the leaves off and leave the thorns on, that'd mean your fears are justified, or she, really, if she did like me, she give back with the thorns off and leaves on, that would mean your hopes are justified.
Studs Terkel You know, Mrs. Watts, as you're talking, and so poetically, too, I think of you sort of as a lady cavalier. You know, I think of you living another time, yet living in 1969 today, you're surrounded by beauty here. At the same time, this beauty is being trespassed upon by people known as developers, by that which we call "progress" with quotes about it. I think about your thoughts. You, in one of the booklets on landscape, you spoke of discovering a footpath near an abandoned railroad and you remember, you were in Kent, in England, and would you mind how what, what does a footpath mean to us? What
May Theilgaard Watts Well, I think footpaths entered my life early because, you know, "The Song of the Lark" has a girl on a footpath, listening to a bird, working outdoors, and this is everything that it represents. Oh, I'm all right, and the--
Studs Terkel What's happening here is we're caught standing, we're suddenly taken with, I'm taken with your conversation. So--
May Theilgaard Watts So, then we went to--you see, "The Song of the Lark", all my life when I was a child represented something much to me, it represented everything. And then I began to see footpaths in England, and they were so remarkable because then suddenly you were in England, otherwise you're just out every, all the other tourists on the highways, and highways, you know, are nothing in England, they're all the same. You know, in no country. And the--so, I discovered footpaths and I went mad on footpaths, and followed them and found out that you can ask someone on the bus for a good one. Or you can get several little booklets that tell you where they are. Or you can just drive along the road and see a little sign that says, "public footpath." And I walked on many and found out that this way you go across buttercup fields through beech woods, and you are the important thing. It's as much a highway as our other highways are here. And in fact on a golf course in England, there was a sign warning the golfers not to interfere with the walkers. Can you imagine that? And this amazed me so.
Studs Terkel And here our walkers are warned in some cases they might be trespassing.
May Theilgaard Watts Oh, yeah, always trespassing. Of course, as you see, our landscape was first cut up in squares and then people walked on them. But that landscape was first walked on and, so, people walked the way they came. Well, it was the way to the church, the way to the pub, or the way to anything, but then I came home I decided we need these footpaths, but I looked at our landscape and I decided, "It's hopeless. There is no place." And then one day I crossed the old abandoned right-of-way of the electric railroad.
Studs Terkel That's near here.
May Theilgaard Watts Yeah, and it runs across west from Chicago. And then it's a big V, one to Aurora and one to Elgin, and we all started getting enthusiastic and exploring it, and we worked for it, wrote letters, and the "Tribune" helped us, and other people helped us, and we had good publicity and a fine corps of people working for it, and we got the lease on this.
Studs Terkel You say you, the people.
May Theilgaard Watts We--our committee, our board.
Studs Terkel Got the lease to make
May Theilgaard Watts Got a 12-year lease to have it for a footpath.
Studs Terkel And this would go how far, this footpath?
May Theilgaard Watts Our part is 27 miles. This is in DuPage County, but we're--Kane County is probably going to add their part, which is what we hope they will.
Studs Terkel So what happened?
May Theilgaard Watts What happened is that we have the 12-year lease. We have lots of things. We have a trail guide with marks telling where interesting things are, that anyone can get. We have a bumper sticker, we have memberships and a great many members. We have a good working board and we have had a great many field trips, which have invited the public.
Studs Terkel Did you have difficulty--now, perhaps we talked about this matter of who would be opposed or any one person or what, to
May Theilgaard Watts People aren't opposed alone, you see. They
Studs Terkel They hide behind a bulldozer.
May Theilgaard Watts They are--we had some hard things happen. Maybe the two worst were that Wheaton paved our footpaths through their town. They had a right to pave their part of it through the town, so we only have 10 feet, but they paved the whole thing and marked it for cars for parking. And this was a great shock to us.
Studs Terkel They said you can walk around the cars.
May Theilgaard Watts They said that they would--they had a big orange stencil of a human footprint, about a foot long, which they offered to put down in orange paint through the parking place to show where the footpath went. And they--
Studs Terkel What's the, [giving?] of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood?
May Theilgaard Watts That's right.
Studs Terkel Was that Grauman's Chinese Theatre?
May Theilgaard Watts That's right. Then we had trouble with Elmhurst's building a sewer and the sewer company finding this a good place to dump all their excavation dead clay from, but Elmhurst is really remedying that now. And the Chamber of Commerce, the Junior Chamber of Commerce has taken that over and is really doing a good job.
Studs Terkel Well, what I remember about in reading about your prairie footpath in a couple of the magazines, the same article, is one moment when one of your representatives walking on the footpath, and men are there with bulldozers, and the men told your representative to get out of the way.
May Theilgaard Watts That's
Studs Terkel Yet--
May Theilgaard Watts Ordered them off. We had the lease and they were
Studs Terkel Now, don't we come to something interesting here, and I'm sure they do, that people don't really assert their rights, do they? That somebody is there with a machine and says, "Get off," and people get off.
May Theilgaard Watts Yeah, but how do you do this? Unless you're an elected person holding office, you're toothless, and they need teeth, need to bite. But sometimes you can bite other ways. I'm trying to bite a little now.
Studs Terkel Yes, I know you are. Mrs. Watts, talking to Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts, marvelous ecologist, the word, we'll come back to this matter of ecology and the matter of environment and your battle to save whatever is humane of it, you know. The matter of these footpaths again. It was a phrase called "right by immemorial custom."
May Theilgaard Watts Yes. I couldn't believe that they really respected footpaths the way they do in England, though they have had done some bad things to their, by not walking on them in some places and letting them go back to the owners, but the--I couldn't quite believe them, so I went down to the British counsel when I came home that first time and asked to know about it, and they brought out all the legal things that they had which explained that it's the right of immemorial custom. And then I pursued this to find out how long it takes to make an immemorial custom. Well, what long would you think?
Studs Terkel How long is memorial custom?
May Theilgaard Watts No, long is it? I would have thought it was, you know, 100 years, 1,000 years--it's 20 years.
May Theilgaard Watts I could have made
Studs Terkel So here's a right, then, the right of the walker, the pedestrian, because earlier you were saying something about the person being the center of it, rather than, let's say, of the obvious thing, an automobile or a bulldozer being the center of it. So the right of immemorial custom has not really been asserted, then, has it?
May Theilgaard Watts Well, we never had such a thing here. You see, in England, first all the land was open. There were no fences. And people walked from their little cottage, their little town down to the town, to the church or whatever, and they followed the contour and their footpaths and they made the footpaths and it was real. Here, and then later on when the fences were put up, they are great respecters of tradition, and this was a tradition. And, so, people can walk forever where they have walked. But we, on the drawing board had our landscape divided into squares and given to people and fences put up ,so we can only walk by jerks around square corners.
Studs Terkel Rather than walking in the natural way, circle that we might [foot?], I mean the world itself being a circle or a sphere, we walk in squares.
May Theilgaard Watts Well, we have to, except that on our footpath we don't have to and we're seeing several other footpaths tending to come to light. You know, the North Shore has one on the old right-of-way up there.
Studs Terkel But there's something else about this footpath that attracts me very much, your prairie footpath and what the other may be. You speak of it in the natural course of events, people talk of places where you go for holidays. You're speaking now as part of one's daily
May Theilgaard Watts That's what I feel. That it should--I'm interested in this not as a vacation site, not a place to go to, but a place to use in your daily life. And I, what I'm trying to do is to work up an enthusiasm for saving the bits of used landscape that we've used and abandoned. For instance, alleys. Alleys are really lovely in some places in these whole towns and you see the people like the garbage collector, they won't use the alleys anymore, his machinery is too fine. He goes down the street, and the alleys are--and there's no nice peddlers yodeling on them, no old rags man and things like that that we had on the alleys, but there they are, and they could--every town could have a walkway that was an alley, and it'd have to have obstructions at the end so that you couldn't drive
Studs Terkel If I follow you, Mrs. Watts, you're not saying we have to go back to what was, we never can, you're saying to preserve that which is good to enrich our life today.
May Theilgaard Watts To use again what has been used and is no longer needed for that use. It's all very well as conservationists to buy mountains, to buy great stretches. This can go on. But this--you always go to in a car, and then you go in little edges of it. Footpaths and alleys and I have a new--and old cemeteries are thrown-away bits that we can salvage and that can be lovely. But I've got a new enthusiasm. Would you like to hear about that?
May Theilgaard Watts Of a thrown-away thing which I think is thrown away which has been used and now it's for nothing, really, and that is the median strip.
May Theilgaard Watts Median strip on the big highway, on the great highways. I would like to see the government--it'd have to be, because this gonna work out, it's going to go from ocean to ocean, and what's going to happen is that we we're going to take these median strips and we're going to do nothing to them. That's all. And you see what's going to happen then is, that because we no longer mow them, we no longer put black dirt on them, we no longer pay heavy money for bulldozers to smooth them all, for mowers to run on them, for all kinds of seed and everything else, and cleaning up, because we're just gonna let them stand there and let nature do what nature does to land, which will end up by our having--it'll start, of course, a ragged kind of a thing with the pioneer plants, but eventually, and we can all watch this happening, eventually in a long time we will have so that you can go from the East Coast, start among--I suppose we start in Maine, start among spruces and firs, come down among beeches and maples, come across among sugar maples and oaks, then across through oaks, then across to big bluestem prairie, then across to shortgrass prairie, then through the--maybe some desert, maybe some sagebrush, then the foothills of the mountains, then up over the stages of the mountain, down the other side into a rich valley, up the other side of the mountain, down the other side, out on the coast, and everything--this will be a real strip of America, a real--America, it won't take anything, it won't cost us anything, it'll save money and we won't have the glare of oncoming lights to look at.
Studs Terkel Mrs. Watts, casually you describe something quite poetically, you describe from your trip this moment, from Maine to the West Coast, so many varieties of natural beauty that, of which we're unaware, [unintelligible] here it is, that which either ignored or being destroyed, and the middle of it, coming back to your prairie footpath, is man. His foot print. I think you said somewhere quite poetically, it's the footprint of man that determines the landscape, or it has, until--
May Theilgaard Watts Yes, we can't ignore the fact the man is here. This is a tendency sometimes for ecologists to play the game as someone has said, "Let's pretend man isn't anywhere," you know, and it's all pure nature. Nature and man in connection working together are really quite a handsome thing, and wilderness--
Studs Terkel A good-looking couple.
May Theilgaard Watts Yeah. That's right. And the wilderness is something else. But we--near the cities we can't have wilderness.
Studs Terkel Of course, this leads to your very beautiful book, "Reading the Landscape", that came out a number of years ago, a few years ago, but is quite six or seven printings, is quite contemporary in 1969, McMillan had published. It's quite beautiful and it deals with ecology. Perhaps the word ecology itself--this is what, this is the science involving environment, man
May Theilgaard Watts Yeah, the total environment. Considering everything that enters into it, and that, of course, includes climate, rainfall, fires, man, animals.
Studs Terkel Your book is subtitled, you know, "Reading the Landscape", by May Theilgaard Watts, the subtitle "An Adventure in Ecology" and it is--in the very beginning you really talk about the history, at the very beginning there is a good reading on the land, first-hand reading involving those symbols, I mean, the records, the records are written in forests and fencerows, in bogs, in playgrounds and pastures and gardens and canyons, and tree rings. The records were made by sun and shade, by wind, rain, fire, by time, and by animals. In the sense here you're talking about the whole history of man that is here with us, but your book is also, not a rebuke, but it's also a warning, too.
May Theilgaard Watts Yes, I suppose in a sense, though I don't think it's ever any use to aim directly at conservation. If you aim in by the side door up into it, having people become familiar and interested with things outdoors, they will be conservationists. You never need to say that word. Anyone who really knows the things and the adventures involved in them and the record that they leave will be, will take care of them.
Studs Terkel But aren't these records, isn't this history being obliterated?
May Theilgaard Watts Yes, it is, but not by the people who know about them.
Studs Terkel I know, but that's when we come to the question now about, let us say, so many of the young living in cities now, or for that matter, in the country, too, since maybe there's little difference now more and more with development between city and country.
May Theilgaard Watts The country of course, in many places has become great factories where a lot of farms have gone into one and they've ceased to have that connection of a man with the soil. So it's quite a different thing.
Studs Terkel Not too many miles, just a couple of miles from where we're sitting right now in your house more than 100 years old, there's a development occurring, and two of your friends and I just passed by it and we saw the ugliness of it, and it's just within, within--well, not a stone's throw, maybe if Grover Cleveland Alexander had a baseball pitcher threw the stone, it'd be a stone's throw, but not too far from here. And your thoughts on this?
May Theilgaard Watts Well, the thing is that these houses set in these developments seem ugly because we build so many of them at one time. Otherwise, we would just say old styles have changed, and now people don't have to have trouble getting heat through the house, and they don't have to build a tall narrow house like this one. They can spread it out. And, so, they all do. And, so, we all have the same kind of house. And that is, would not only be a different style of a building creeping into the others in a town, except that suddenly we build thousands of them. And this makes a problem, doesn't it? Thousands of them with thousands of roofs with the rain washing off into and not having a chance for it to soak into the soil anywhere and be fed out slowly. This is another thing that my long strip of climax formation from CDC is going to make a soaking-in place for water, you see, that pretty soon there won't be any place, everything is covered with cement.
Studs Terkel So this median strip that you're talking about, this is, you see it as feasible.
May Theilgaard Watts Oh, yes. I'm going to fight for
Studs Terkel Of course, you're going to fight, quite obviously, I have to return to this beautiful book, "Reading the Landscape", because in a way it's also a history. You know the William Blake poem, you see, whatever it is, the world in a grain of sand or [unintelligible] and you see it in each flower, I can't go through all the chapters, I mean, as you talk for example, I remember I made notes here about the forest antique shop in the Smokies and you suddenly speak of the history of man that you saw there in all these places. How did you come to yourself? I think we should know about May Theilgaard Watts, yourself, how you came to the communication you have with nature.
May Theilgaard Watts Well, it started so early in my life because my father came over from Denmark as a trained gardener. They trained them there with Latin names and so forth, and I gardened with him, and he taught me Latin names before I learned common names, and I've always had a garden and I've always walked a lot and been outdoors a lot, but I think the big factor in my relation to the larger aspects of the landscape would have to be Dr. Henry Coles of the University of Chicago, who was the number one landscape in America and who taught us all to read the landscape. I'd just gone on doing that, that's all.
Studs Terkel You call it "reading the landscape."
May Theilgaard Watts Well, that's because you see, you see the past and the present and can foresee the future, and it's all--you see it, you read it from what is there and what has been there, which is shown in what is there, and I don't see why this isn't reading as much as reading words.
Studs Terkel What will happen, I'm reading this one particular sequence here I have marked, you were quoting Emily Dickinson, Truths, as a truth's superb surprise," and you dealt with, you were talking about the carnivorous flowers, if I remember right,
May Theilgaard Watts Well, that's just a phrase that seems to me so, so delightful--ain't. It's just a different way of saying what we have often said so in so many common ways. Ain't nature wonderful, and isn't knowledge a wonderful thing. But the truth's superb surprise, that's something, to be able to put words together like that.
Studs Terkel In your wanderings and observations that became the basis for this book, "Reading the Landscape", also you talk about the history of man, almost never--it goes back every particular sequence to bogs and the story of the bogs. I'm just--these are notes I'm reading, and the insects themselves and you speak, you and Rachel Carson, of course, both have spoken of the balance that is now in jeopardy, of course.
May Theilgaard Watts Of course, this is what ecology looks at, is things getting along together, and that is a balance. But everything, nowadays I think, has to include man in its reading.
Studs Terkel Well, suppose we talk about this, your own thoughts now while you're seated here in the year 1969 in your house, you know, surrounded as we are, we hear trucks outside, cement mixers, digging away, and it's not as you say, it's not nature alone, but man and nature, quite obviously, and someone says to you, I'll be the--was about to say, devil's advocate, I'll be the developer's advocate. And I'll say, "Well, you can't stop progress." What do you say to that?
May Theilgaard Watts I say, "Progress is not a word that's synonymous for change. Change is not necessarily progress." We all mostly seem to feel that any change is progress. You know, we found out that progressive schools were not necessarily--had no right to the name, they were simply changing, they weren't going any further, and the whole word, I don't accept that as a description of what's happening. I don't accept standing still, either, as a noble thing, but the thing is that if we do something because we decide to do it, that's something, and it can be progress. If we do it simply because everyone is doing it, like picture windows, like our styles, our fashions in dogs, our fashions in flower arrangements, our fashions in the plants we grow around the foundations of a house, our fashions in cars, if we do it just to be doing the right thing, be socially acceptable, then it may be change, maybe doing a new thing, but that's not progress.
Studs Terkel As you're talking, Mrs. Watts, I was just thinking, something you said rather significant, doing it because we want to do
May Theilgaard Watts 'Cause we have decided to.
Studs Terkel Ah, now we come to something, isn't this really the key, or one of the keys to what you're talking about, that there's sort of impo--man accepts the depredations upon him, the trespassing upon whatever chance he has for beauty, and not rather than he becomes the thing. The thing takes over, and you're saying that if we want change is good if we determine it, the individual himself.
May Theilgaard Watts The trouble is that an individual has become a small thing in the face of man's extension of his arm by means of such tools as such as power tools, as earthmovers, that can be where one man without any more decision than the man asking for a footpath can do so much more with the landscape, because he's got all these extra hands with extra length to the arms and all that power and besides, money is invested in there, you've got to get the use out of it.
Studs Terkel We're talking about investment,
May Theilgaard Watts So that many times the bulldozer becomes an object determining the landscape.
Studs Terkel As you're talking, see, it's funny, you and I right now are talking into a tape recorder, and this tape recorder is not evil, it's good, because you and I are talking, and people will hear you, and your thoughts can be preserved on this tape. This is good. And here's change, it's good, because you and I are determining how this is going to go. [pause in recording] And you're talking about our lives being determined by a bulldozer or a snowmobile or developer, and yet, in your community, there's a young couple you know, quite remarkable, the Nadelhoffers, who have lived in this community for generations, this family, and yet there seems to be seeking to preserve some of the beauty of nature as against home, as against institutions, as against commerce, and against developers.
May Theilgaard Watts Well, what would you say we're against, Julie? Don't you want to ask her?
Studs Terkel Well, perhaps include--I think we should include Julie Nadelhoffer, perhaps Herb, who's outside at the moment, this whole matter, because I know that Julie and Herb Nadelhoffer are quite remarkable and they have this--several acres. Julie, do you mind joining us, because this is connected to Mrs. Watts' comment, too.
May Theilgaard Watts I think that what they're trying to do is a wonderful thing.
Studs Terkel Now, here is your farm. That's in four generations of Herb's people and something's been happening in the community. It needn't be a question of specific names or anything, just the nature of what your hope is.
Julie Nadelhoffer I don't think we are against anything. I think we're trying to be artists and create with what we have, and make it possible for other people, everyone to be involved in this creative process so we can find out what human needs are and translate them into architecture and open space and education and something that's we use modern technology to build the buildings and modern architects to come up with some kind of concept that will last for a while. I don't, we don't know quite what it would be.
Studs Terkel I suppose you could, because you're talking now in terms of the particular--I was going to say, a state. The farm. Now, your husband Herb's folks, four generations now or so, isn't it, the oldest here. And, yet, this area has been surrounded suddenly as it would seem by almost a town superimposed, an artificial community upon it by developers.
Julie Nadelhoffer Yes. And they want the old to go because it stands in the way of progress or maybe we're, we pricked their conscience. We represent older values and we're in their way. They like the land that we're hanging on to, they'd like to get it developed, they'd like to get the assessed valuation.
Studs Terkel Developed, what does that meant (sic) when they say get it developed, development?
Julie Nadelhoffer Well, when they put houses on the land, then it increased the, increases the assessed valuation, and the more expensive the structure, if it's a house, if it's an expensive house, it gets more assessed valuation, if it's a supermarket that's even more, if it's an industrial plant that's even better, or a high-rise apartment building, that's wonderful because then the people in the community can raise more tax money to operate their schools and to operate the village government and pay the officials and all the, take care of all the services that are necessary for this many people living together. These are things they didn't think about when they came out here for whatever reasons they came rushing pell-mell out.
Studs Terkel In contrast to this, these values quote unquote they're talking about on the taxes, money for this, money is the key word, really, money. In contrast, here's this hundred or so acres.
Julie Nadelhoffer Hundred and seventy-seven. And then Herb has talked to the neighboring landowners, so it comes to about 450.
Studs Terkel And what you and Herb have in mind is something else that you talked about, something like an educational park of some sort.
Julie Nadelhoffer Well, I think fundamental is just to think, think about what we're doing with this land before we do anything. As Mrs. Watts said, that there might be two individuals involved, the man riding a bulldozer or the foreman who is giving him orders, and--
Studs Terkel The stalwarts, this almost seems like a holding action, yet we know a great many people, tremendous number of people, feel as they do about depredation, about progress that is not really progress as far as beauty is concerned, and Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts was a hostess here in her home in Naperville, the ecologist, the naturalist so long with the Morton Arboretum, and Julie Nadelhoffer was talking about, well, for what purpose? You said there's a man and a bulldozer and there's a foreman.
Julie Nadelhoffer Yes, and the man who walks the footpath or the woman and wants the footpath and is trying to bring it about has very little power because that extended with money and so forth. The man with the bulldozer is backed up by all this money and he can just in one day come in and destroy a creek or all these beautiful hills
May Theilgaard Watts Did you know that Julie had a one-man march by a wonderful muskrat swamp out here trying to protect it from being high-rises instead--
Julie Nadelhoffer And the bulldozers were--
May Theilgaard Watts She walked back and forth with a placard, didn't you?
Julie Nadelhoffer Yes, well, I passed by when the bulldozers were in there destroying it and I--the first thing that I did, I went running up to the foreman and I said, "You can't do this, do know what you're doing? You've killed--well, it was my creek. You killed the creek." And they kept talking about they'd been given orders by the foreman, and the foreman been given orders by the office, and I said, "Well, that's what they said in Germany, too, when the man who turned on the gas jets to exterminate all these people was just carrying out orders. But you can see the paths that the children along that creek. You can see the tree houses they've built. You can see that this is the only place these children have to play and that this water has to drain off, and you don't have to do this." And that's when I got my sign and walked up and down and then talked to the workmen and the drivers at the equipment.
Studs Terkel Can we talk about this, this is connected Mrs. Watts, with what Julie was just saying, with everything, that [unintelligible] talking about Julie suddenly protest that someone did, and the reply she got is, "We're following orders." And this is what happened with the man and the bulldozers along with that footpath of yours, too.
May Theilgaard Watts Yes. It is a very hard thing to find a way to pry it your way in to any sort of power against the people who are earning money for doing things. If you just are working for your ideas and are not hired to work for them, and something is wrong about this, there should be a bridge that could be built, a sort of a drawbridge, by which an ordinary person could walk across to a little bit of power as opposed to all the power that is on the side of wiping out, flopping out, you see, the thing is that we're kind of homogenizing everything, everything is no cream, milk, skim milk, everything all mixed up. The way we take our hills and make them into flat places and our valleys and fill them up with the hills. The way out here, a couple of miles away, the highest point in DuPage County was called Indian Hill. It was good gravel, they cut it off to make a toll road out of this. Everything gets leveled down, razed up until we flatten it out as much as we can.
Studs Terkel Concretized. I mean, concrete, pavementized, flattened out.
May Theilgaard Watts Except the landscapes like Maine. And Massachusetts, where the hard, igneous rock is sticking right out like fists. They go around that, so the landscape stays beautiful.
Studs Terkel That's despite the bulldozers and the developers and the wrecking balls, but there's something you said, Mrs. Watts, and I'll ask you in a moment about what Julie was suggesting, too, about the educational part. It comes to the question of the human being and his power or his being impotent, doesn't it? These institutions, as the men on the truck and the bulldozers said to Julie, "We follow orders." Now, were you bucking, in a sense, institutions, too? That is, you may--
May Theilgaard Watts Of course there are institutions, you know, we elected the people who are doing what we don't want them to do. But I keep on thinking that there should be a re-entry way for us to come in again and have a voice in some of things that are happening.
Julie Nadelhoffer In some ways that's what we have, I think Herb and I realize, or have accepted the fact, that money is power and power plays such an important part in what's happening. So that looking at the family farm it's money and power, it's very valuable now and the adjoining land where the landowners are interested in doing the same thing, so that we have real power that's equal to the power of the developers. We have the same thing, a natural resource. We understand how the planning commission operates and the government operates just as they do with their expensive lawyers. So we're equal, only we're going to do something different. We're going to--
Julie Nadelhoffer I think Mrs. Watts could articulate that better.
May Theilgaard Watts Well, they're going to leave it in one piece. This is an essential thing, an open piece instead of tearing it up into little bits and then spitting it out, which is what the town wants to do, really. And it'll be nothing when they get through with it.
Studs Terkel The thing with jerks you talked about earlier, in a way, jerks, they were jerkified.
May Theilgaard Watts Yeah. They'll mince it. And there needs to be some places left open and usable and real, and they, the Nadelhoffers are considering, in fact I'm browbeating them, too, too considerate, making a school there which will be a school, as I see it, not only for children but for adults and with all manner of things happening there, and much activity, much doing as opposed to sitting and getting mental massages without effort. And this is what Herb and Julie have in mind. And they have had so much ability in the way of dance and of theater and literature and all the things that they do that I'm sure that they can do something very good.
Studs Terkel On this 170-acre farm.
Julie Nadelhoffer Well, actually, it's a much larger package than that, we're talking about, we just by coincidence the schools have located sites in and around their property. Those are buildings that we know will be built, and the community that grew up around the farm that we're at the island of open space in the middle of, has no community facilities of any kind. All these have to be added to make it an organic community or a living community in the sense that people feel a sense of community.
Studs Terkel Isn't that word that Julie used the key, earlier you were saying they were fragmented, and break--you used the word "organic," a word that Frank Lloyd Wright has always used, too. Organic as a tree is. Isn't this what you're really talking about?
May Theilgaard Watts Yes, I think so. This farm complex over there could be, if it could be saved through the next few years of our maddening, mad reach for land and coming up into bits, then by that time with one thing or another, we'll probably realize what a good thing we had there. But it's to live through this time of the tremendous taxes which are based on this being cut up, you see. This is the essential thing that the taxes almost require you to cut it up, because you're paying the same taxes as you would if it was cut up into little bits, isn't that right?
Julie Nadelhoffer Well, the--last August our tax bill showed this, they suddenly decided to double and triple the taxes on all the farmland in DuPage County, and obviously this is what they have in mind.
Studs Terkel You know, as we're talking I see now this is almost a metaphor. This is for all our life we're talking about now preserving the environment, preserving the farm as a whole place, as something whole rather than fragmented. We're talking about the world itself, aren't we? The specialists, whether it be in education or anything else is against the whole approach to it. You're talking about this when it comes to nature and man, preserving the wholeness, the circular quality. This is what we're talking about, really, and what the educational part's about too, isn't it?
Julie Nadelhoffer Well, we know these buildings are going to go in somewhere. And we think that--well, have you heard about Ian McHarg's physiographic determinism? In other words, you don't set a building down in the midst of an ancient drainage line, a creek that's been developing for 12,000 years. You put it somewhere else, and you don't put sewer pipes somewhere where they'll leak into our water table because we're dependent on well water out here. And if it's contaminated, we have no drinking water that's safe. That sort of thing.
May Theilgaard Watts But what do you mean by "You don't"? Who doesn't? Because they can, of course, put it right into a pipe. The whole little creek can be put in the pipe and run right past things you'd never know it's there.
Julie Nadelhoffer What we're thinking of isn't--having control of this land, we will talk about and do something that's based on physiographic determinism. We'll consider all these things and make them as public as possible and show that you can be economically practical. You can build the buildings that have to be built and keep open space only with everything in relationship to everything else. Isn't that ecology?
Studs Terkel You know, I think we should point out that Herb and Julie Nadelhoffer have been here in this area we're talking about over the center of a good deal of discussion, I'm sure, about the developers and builders in the community, and the approach to them, I think we should point, too, there's been an attempt to co-opt them, to offer them big money, you see, but Herb and Julie have an idea about the land on which they
May Theilgaard Watts You see, this is an old story because way back, many years ago, Herb's mother was in my class at the Arboretum in ecology class and one night she stirred us all by talking about this farm and how she was trying to keep it as a farm, but it was pretty hard because she was offered money, more money than she could bear to resist almost, but she was going to try to hold on to it. Then I didn't hear about it for some years and then suddenly I found that Julie and Herb are still fighting for it. Those are hard to fight all the time.
Studs Terkel Now, could we ask a question [unintelligible] and you've resisted this kind of wooing seduction. Then came, of course, the muscle. You see? Both came, didn't it? Then it was no longer the sweet word or the green. Then it was a question of pressures, was it not?
Julie Nadelhoffer Yes. Condemnation. All sorts of political pressure and other kinds of pressure. More subtle. But we discovered that knowledge is very effective. We knew more about the law. We knew more about subdivision control ordinances and planning commissions than our, the people who were pressuring
Studs Terkel Now, could we ask something, has something happened since then? You mentioned about neighbors. Do you find now that you find others in the community thinking as you do who were afraid to do what you did and suddenly have come out?
Julie Nadelhoffer In small numbers of people. I think, really, the person who has a feeling for relationships is rare still. Perhaps it's our school system, I don't know, getting things every 45 minutes you get another chunk of something, history and then spelling, and maybe people just aren't able to take the broad view and see relationships. So they really aren't very many people our age, the decision makers sitting on the boards, who have the background to think this way even if they have the feeling for nature and--
May Theilgaard Watts Besides, many of them don't care because they know that after this community is flattened and ruined, they'll move somewhere else.
Julie Nadelhoffer Only there's no place to move now.
Studs Terkel Doesn't this come to another question, Mrs. Watts, Julie was talking about? I realize that Herb and Julie Nadelhoffer are, perhaps unfortunately, a little too rare, but yet I can't help but feel there are many who may not have their particular spine, you know. But do you feel that also this matter of people accepting, almost as though accepting the fact that they are nothing, that the machine is all, and you, coming back to you when you're reading the landscape, it's always man and nature and the feeling that you have, that man has, of being something quite big. You know, small, not, I don't mean overwhel--not subduing the earth in the horrendous Eric Hoffer way, I don't mean that, I mean but in communing with
May Theilgaard Watts Being a part of it, not separate, but a built-in working part of it, not working, not simply working it and using it, but cooperating with it.
Studs Terkel You know, we've been talking here very casually. This is a very casual conversation in Naperville with Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts and Mrs. Julie Nadelhoffer, Mrs. Watts' book is "Reading the Landscape". I hope it's still available, isn't it? And it's McMillan and it's several printings and I hadn't read from it, and it's quite beautiful, but it's really, in a way it's almost the history, it's almost a natural history of the world as seen through your eyes, the very beginning, you were offering, were you a cavalier you offered Julie one of the roses of Provence outside your window. And, so, roses are part of what you're talk--flowers, the earth, all this--you think is in danger.
Julie Nadelhoffer So much so that she's teaching this wonderful class in nature writing to try to help the people who sense this and who want to do something about it be more effective in writing about it. You had the feeling we don't yet have our poet to stir people.
May Theilgaard Watts Well, you see, so many things in the past have been so swayed by someone's finding the right words to say, and no one has found except maybe Aldo Leopold has found the right words to say about the landscape, and that will sway people in a, really, way that will tend to save us some open places and some access in some places to walk and that won't just be feeding everything into the mill to be ground out as more wheels and more places for wheels.
Studs Terkel But that's funny, Julie mentioned the fact that you're talking about nature writing, and oh, I can almost point to any page in this book. That's beautiful writing. You're writing about nature, but it's poetic and just--
Julie Nadelhoffer Mrs. Watts is a poet, if you can get her to read some of
Studs Terkel I like that, it's sort of an epilogue to our conversation. This is a very ironic chapter. I've looked, looking down on improved property an airplane view of man and land. Remember that, these two buttoned-down-collar guys were there? But then you had the dandelion--
May Theilgaard Watts Of course, "improved" there is a sarcastic word. That "improved" is used sarcastically. I'm not thinking it's improved.
Studs Terkel No, I know that, that's why I said that was a sardonic chapter, you see, looking down on improved property and then an airplane view of man and land, and you describe these two men with their briefcases, you know, waiting beside you. You probably saw ac--this is probably a place of actual observation. They were bragging about what they were doing to the landscape.
May Theilgaard Watts Bragging about their foundation planning, about their houses, and which had the most different kinds of evergreens.
Studs Terkel And then, as you said, as I tore my eyes away from an orchid, you were looking at in the midst of all this, I saw you have another landing place, a cement landing place [put?] in, and there was a dandelion blooming in a crack at the edge of the cement runway. And don't we come to it now, you know, the lily cracking through the rocks, here is a dandelion cracking through the
May Theilgaard Watts Well, I was comparing landing places, the landing place on the orchid. The gorgeous yellow and purple landing place like a striped rug laid down on the orchid slip with the cement landing place of the plains and oh, the community landing place of the dandelion, and that's what was--
Studs Terkel Just the word, you just used the word, perhaps you could end with this, but the key, the issue, really, is joined in the two words the key, community as against development. I know it's the word used in the Nadelhoffer comments, too, with the farm. Isn't this what it's about? Development is not really a community. A development.
May Theilgaard Watts No.
Studs Terkel And this is what you're
May Theilgaard Watts That's true. The old communities that develop with a family moving out and taking up land and farming it together and then gradually becoming a town or a sect of some sort. I'm sorry, of a religion or any other type of group held together by an idea. Moving on to land, it took some quality to itself like the churches of New England, the church steeples that set that apart, like the other kind of buildings of different parts of the landscape. But now those not quality, all the building says--you see, in Europe the old roofs tell about the rainfall by the slant of the roof, they tell about the cold by the size of the chimney and everything else. But over here nothing speaks aloud about anything, all it tells about is how much money you had and how well you conformed to the pattern, or how daring you were in stepping just slightly out of the pattern, which is into another pattern.
Studs Terkel We're really talking, aren't we now, again Mrs. Watts gets right down to the core of things. You're talking about a man and continuity, man and tradition in the good sense of the word, and also knowing who he is as against a ruthless man becoming almost a thing. Talking about that, and, so, perhaps in talking with two women here, Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts and Mrs. Julie Nadelhoffer, we have a pretty good idea of one aspect of this battle to save our environment. This is just, we're just on the outskirts of Chicago, and perhaps the audience didn't hear, but there were some birds chirping in the background. It's a mile away the bulldozers are at work, too, so there's the battle, too, isn't there?
May Theilgaard Watts Yes. You're never out of hearing of some battle, of course, and you shouldn't be. I think what holds, what makes ecology so interesting is, actually, the tension on the landscape which is there--I used to think that it was a piece of the landscape that I liked until I woke up. I discovered that it isn't, it's a tension. A beautiful forest is a constant tension. Is this seedling going to make it or is it overpowering shade too much? Is this one going to make it, because it has its leaves hot and can tolerate the shade? Is this one going to make it at the edge of the forest because it has what it takes to live at the edge of the forest? There's a constant tension between shade and sunlight and rain and people and this is what makes the landscape such a good adventure story. So the thing is not that you want just everlasting sameness and peace, it's that you want the tensions to be the natural tensions which are a part of every second of every day for all of us. But the big growling machine noises that you hear have wiped out the tensions because it's one thing overriding another thing. There's no chance for the small things, you see, but the landscape isn't a place of peace and quiet and settlement. It's a place of one thing pulling against another, one thing succeeding and the other being overwhelmed either by this or that, and it becomes very good to read that story, but you can't really find any story in a gigantic, senseless, thoughtless machine probably run by a senseless, thoughtless man probably ordered by another one of the same kind simply wiping out the whole tension that should be on the landscape and putting down a static, firm substance like concrete, where there's no tension, just except that cars might crash.
Studs Terkel Mrs. Watts, there's little I can say after that. I think, here what you're talking about is life, life as against death, really, is what you're talking about. The life, that is that, as you say, nature is not something placid, quite on the contrary, the existence of the lovely tensions that are a part of life and [unintelligible] as against the expected concrete.
May Theilgaard Watts Which is really death. It's really just imposing a condition of neatness which, you know, what is neater than a corpse? Tensions are gone.
Studs Terkel Thank you for saying that. That's a thought I've had so long, you know, there's only one controversial condition of man, I've always said, and that's non-controversial, and that's death.
May Theilgaard Watts Well, there's nothing neater than a corpse and nothing more messy than a birth and it's in-between it's in proportion. But what people who say progress very loud are mostly doing, is making the landscape into a corpse and being proud of
Studs Terkel I think I'm delighted to be here as the guest of Mrs. May Theilgaard Watts, who is out, obviously, on the side of life. Thank you very much, and to you, too, Julie Nadelhoffer, and could I suggest this book. I'm sure it's available: "Reading the Landscape", by May Theilgaard Watts. McMillan. Hey, I hope we win.