From the August 2008 Conservationist
Naturalist and Legend
Roger Tory Peterson
By Jane Johnson
This August marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson, a legendary naturalist, artist, educator, photographer and filmmaker.
Peterson's legacy continues today at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History (RTPI). This marvelous gem that exists to carry on Roger's passion for the natural world lies in Jamestown, tucked within 27 acres of abundant flora and fauna. RTPI's mission is to promote environmental education and nature study to help people know, appreciate, and share responsibility for the natural world. Incorporated in 1984, the institute focuses on teacher training. Roger himself often said, "We will teach the teachers." The institute also houses Peterson's lifetime body of work, and as Roger hoped, "reflects my philosophy and my contributions."
Roger Tory Peterson's childhood greatly influenced the man he became. He was born on August 28, 1908 in Jamestown to immigrant parents. His father, Charles Gustav Peterson, was a cabinetmaker born in Sweden. His mother, Henrietta Bader, was from Germany. Roger's interest in both nature and art began at an early age. These interests led to ridicule by other children, alienating Roger from many of his classmates. Despite their scorn, Roger's mother was supportive of his interests and his true obsession with all things wild. However, his father did not share the support for his son's pursuits. His hopes for Roger's future included finishing high school and going on to work in the woolen or furniture mills of Jamestown.
However, Roger's childhood was not lonely or unhappy.The fulfillment he found in the natural world gave him great pleasure and established a path for both himself and nature education. In addition to his mother, Roger also gained support for his passion from his teachers. He credited his seventh grade teacher, Blanche Hornbeck, with sparking his curiosity and passion for nature (see Where Bird-Watching Began sidebar).
The first bird to capture Roger's fascination was a northern flicker, which he encountered on a walk with his close friend. He was greatly affected by the "flash of gold" he observed when, after touching what he thought was a lifeless creature, the flicker sprang to life and flew away. Of this experience, Roger said, "I poked it and it burst into color, with the red on the back of its head and the gold on its wing. It was the contrast, you see, between something I thought was dead and something so alive. Like a resurrection. I came to believe birds are the most vivid expression of life. It made me aware of the world in which we live."
After graduating from high school in 1925, Roger spent his summers working for the Union National Furniture Company in Jamestown, painting decorative Chinese motifs on lacquered wood cabinets. The head of the company's decorating department noticed Roger's artistic talent, and encouraged him to attend art school. After working for two years, he moved to New York City in 1927 to continue his education in the Art Students' League. In 1929 he entered the National Academy of Design. New York gave Peterson the opportunity to mingle with famous painters, as well as naturalists at the Museum of Natural History who formally trained him in ornithology. Peterson became an instructor of science and art at the Rivers School in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1931. It was here that he was first able to share his enthusiasm for bird-watching with students. While in the Boston area, he joined the Nuttall Ornithological Club, the nation's oldest ornithological organization.
In 1934, the world was introduced to Roger through A Field Guide to the Birds, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. After he had been turned down by various publishers, Houghton Mifflin decided to take a chance on this new book and its author. This new book gave people the chance to use Roger's unique methods of bird identification. The first printing of 2,000 copies sold out in just a few weeks. Today, more than seven million copies have been sold worldwide, and the Peterson Field Guide Series now numbers more than fifty titles.
Named the Peterson Identification System, Roger's field guide design drew attention to immediately identifiable marks on a particular bird species. "My identification system," explained Roger, "uses shape, pattern, and field marks in a comparative way. ... Similar appearing species are placed together on plates and the critical distinctions are pointed out with little arrows." These new Peterson Guides made it possible for both amateur and professional nature enthusiasts to succeed in the field, making nature accessible to everyone. As a result of this innovation, Peterson strongly influenced the development of the modern environmental movement. He believed that if we were unable to name the species we found in our own backyards, we wouldn't be inclined to protect them. Learning about the species that inhabit our natural Environment leads to awareness, understanding, and concern for their preservation. Fellow Jamestown native former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine once said of Peterson's accomplishments and influence:
"Dr. Peterson wasn't born with an understanding of nature. ... He earned his way by learning. By discovering. And, most of all, by taking us with him on his life's journey. He taught us to respect and value the natural world that gives us life. Roger Tory Peterson helped teach us that we can make a difference."
The Peterson Institute furthers Roger's legacy through programs centered on nature education,including face-to-face and online professional development workshops and courses, publications, special projects, and exhibits. The institute's work gives teachers the necessary tools to bring nature into their classrooms and help their students develop alasting relationship with the natural environment. More than 6,000 teachers nationwide have participated in RTPI's education programs. Integrating the study of nature into reading, writing, math and science curricula has been achieved through programs such as Teaming with Nature, Nature Journals Workshop, and Science Explorers. A successful and vital source of information for teachers is RTPI's award-winning Electronic Naturalist website, www.enaturalist.org. This site provides natural history related content to teachers and students around the world. Information on any natural science topic imaginable is available, as well as a teacher resource center to help connect students with the outdoors. The "Ask the Naturalist" section allows visitors to ask RTPI staff naturalists nature-related questions online. New lesson plans are accessible weekly to registered users. The number of visitors to this award-winning site has now climbed to more than 7,500 per day.
In addition to the institute's essential educational programs, visitors can experience spectacular exhibits and activities throughout the year. Past art and photography exhibitors include wildlife artists such as Robert Bateman, Guy oheleach, and Carl Brenders. In RTPI's beautiful natural history library, visitors can use the institute's binoculars to view birds and other wildlife through the room's immense windows. The impressive building and its 27 acres of woods and wetlands, including hemlock, yellow birch, and black cherry, are a must-see for any outdoor enthusiast.
Besides the beautiful wooded setting that the institute calls home, the building itself is a work of art. Formally dedicated on August 29, 1993, the structure was designed by Robert A.M. Stern, the Dean of Yale University's College of Architecture. The building, which sits on land once explored by Roger as a young boy, is a spectacular combination of styles. It combines the influences of Swedish woodworking, Adirondack mountain lodges, and the Arts and Crafts movement of the 19th century. Roger himself was proud to be part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony that formally introduced the institute's new home to the world in 1993.
During the year-long celebration of Roger's birth,from August 2008 to 2009, the institute will be filled with an array of Peterson's original artwork, including his awe-inspiring paintings, field guide plates, and more. RTPI will also host and sponsor special events throughout this year-long period, in Jamestown and nationwide. The institute's Peterson Collection contains thousands of original paintings, personal
artifacts, manuscripts, books, films, photographic images, awards, and more that showcase a lifetime of hard work, passion, and commitment from a man who once explored and studied in the woods and fields of Jamestown. Some of the objects included in the archives are on public display, and are available for research, study, and educational programs. RTPI works to preserve these irreplaceable pieces in the Peterson Collection so that students, teachers, scholars, and others will be able to use them well into the future.
RTPI is inviting Conservationist readers to participate in the centennial year's premier activity, the Teacher Recognition Award Program. Like Peterson, there are thousands of individuals getting young people involved with nature study. The Peterson Institute wants to know who these individuals are and encourage others to emulate them. To learn more about the program, nominate someone, or download the form, go to RTPI's website at www.rtpi.org.
"In this century," wrote the ecologist Paul Ehrlich, "no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide." A note written in Peterson's own Jamestown High School yearbook declared, "Woods! Birds! Flowers! Here are the makings of a great naturalist." In Roger Tory Peterson's case, these were the makings of a legend.
Jane Johnson is the Marketing and Public Programs Coordinator for RTPI. She is a Jamestown native with a great passion for the arts and nature.
Photo: Roger Tory Peterson