It is no small feat to command an audience of the Audubon Society when speaking in a room whose walls are all windows. The eyes of the assembled bird lovers will tend to dart at any winged movement outside.
But hundreds assembled for the 2007 Thomas W. Keesee Jr. Conservation Award Luncheon Wednesday lowered their eyes and their voices when the death of Peter Berle was mentioned. The Lord God Bird itself could have flown by and no one would have glanced up.
For 10 years, Berle was the head of the national Audubon Society. Before that he was commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation in New York, and before that he was an assemblyman. Since stepping down from Audubon, he's remained in the public eye -- or ear -- as a commentator on public radio, where he's spared no one foolish enough to fool with sound environmental stewardship.
I knew his name, and voice, from those commentaries, and from the footnotes in the history of environmental causes I read while writing about the environment in New York's Hudson Valley. I met him about a year ago when he made a surprise appearance on a tour I led for environmental journalists of the Hudson River, one of the nation's largest (by several measures) toxic waste dump. Berle was DEC commissioner during an important period in the early 1970s when the state was trying to figure out what to do with a company that employed thousands, in part by dumping upwards of a million pounds of toxic oils into a national treasure with the tacit approval of its government overseers. Berle was a staunch advocate for doing right by the environment, in regard to that and other complex issues.
There is always a foreground and background to a day's activities. All week, my foreground had been occupied by the re-launching of this Web site, enough so that I'd missed completely Berle's obituary in the New York Times Monday, which followed his death by several days. The moment of silence, then, was my first chance to reflect on Berle and his large legacy.
The audience Wednesday was there to celebrate two conservationists with resumes as impressive as Berle's. Carol Ash, who was appointed last year as the commissioner of parks in New York state, has spent decades protecting landscapes in Southeastern New York and adjacent areas of New Jersey, as the relentless sprawl out of New York City threatens to swallow areas that -- some advocates are fond of saying -- would be national parks had the country been settled west to east, and not vic versa. Adrian Benepe, the commissioner of New York City parks, is a champion of the 40,000 acres of wild lands within the city limits, and the role that those green acres play in the lives of the concrete-bound citizenry.
Berle must have received countless awards such as the Keesee Conservation Award. As a member of the press, I know we frequently ignore ceremonies like this. There's a skepticism -- justly earned -- about any politician or luminary claiming greatness, or having greatness bestowed upon him or her self. But these people are deserving, without question, of our thanks and appreciation. They've dedicated their lives to far-sightedness, to preserving landscapes and wildlife both for the sake of future generations of people, and for the earth's plants and creatures for their own sake.
They work, often, in the background. And awards like this bring them, deservedly, into the foreground.
After I walked out of the ceremony at the Boathouse in Central Park, I meandered along the twisting paths of The Ramble, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. On my way to the ceremony, after losing my direction there, a passer-by who helped right me reminded me that the paths were designed to meander, and that each turn was designed to offer up to a pedestrian its own distinct vision of Olmstead's "wild garden."
At no time is the function of a park more evident than in the midst of the capital of the world: Any background car noise dissipates, and all that's left is the foreground: the yellowing leaves, pine needles piled up on the sides of the path, birds calling from the trees nearby.
There's a person to thank for each of those experiences. In New York, that person has often been Berle, Ash and Benepe. Their personalities may live in the background of our consciousness, but their work is a gift, very much in the foreground.
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