"The philosophy that I have worked under most of my life is that the serious study of natural history is an activity which has far-reaching effects in every aspect of a person's life. It ultimately makes people protective of the environment in a very committed way. It is my opinion that the study of natural history should be the primary avenue for creating environmentalists…" – Roger Tory Peterson.
Since Roger Tory Peterson's death at the age of 87 on July 28, 1996, many people have written and spoken about the relevance of Peterson’s life in the context of the environmental movement of the 20th Century. The most knowledgeable of these writers recognize the fact that Peterson ushered in the education phase of the movement that is still going strong today. Since 1934, when Houghton Mifflin Co. published Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds, looking at the outdoor world has never been the same. Peterson gave the tools that once belonged only to the field biologist to the ordinary person, who could now easily learn about and understand the natural world. Citizen action evolved from this awareness. Today, there are 53 volumes in the Peterson Field Guide Series. Without the foundation Peterson laid, we would not have the countless number of birding associations, the tremendous number of wildlife refuges, and maybe, not even the Endangered Species Act, for that matter.
Peterson’s beginnings shaped him into the man he became. He was born on August 28, 1908, in Jamestown, New York. Jamestown is in Chautauqua County, New York State's westernmost county. Lake Erie borders the county on the north; Pennsylvania lies to the south and west. People from this region say their roots are more mid-western than eastern. Jamestown is on the Allegheny Plateau and is surrounded by rich hardwood forests and glacial lakes.
Peterson was the son of Swedish immigrant Charles Gustav Peterson and German immigrant Henrietta Bader. The influx of Swedes into Jamestown during the Industrial Revolution upset the status quo of a city comprised primarily of descendants from the landed English gentry. At the time, Jamestown was a city of worsted woolen mills; industrious Swedish craftsmen soon changed it into a city of furniture factories.
Peterson's father Charles came to Jamestown in 1873 at the age of two. The family’s downward economic slide started just months later when his father died. Charles was forced to work in the woolen mills by the age of ten to support the family. With only a third grade education, Charles became the breadwinner. Later, his expectation of his son Roger was to get a high school education and then go to work in one of the city's many machine shops or furniture factories. He was hard on Roger and found it difficult to understand the boy’s curiosity about nature that occupied all of his time. As a youngster, Roger resented his father. It was not until he grew older that Roger fully appreciated "the odds that this man struggled against.”
Peterson’s mother, Henrietta (Nettie) Bader was brought to America when she was four years old. A religious woman, she attended Holy Trinity Lutheran Church with her children Roger and Margaret. When the new minister came to visit, Nettie remarked on how much Roger enjoyed birds and natural history. The minister said "Well, that makes for unbelievers." Roger seriously questioned the church from then on. He grew up at 16 Bowen Street with his parents and sister. His paternal grandmother, an aunt, and six cousins also shared the Peterson’s quarters. Some say that this was the reason Roger was forever outside exploring the countryside.
Few boys had any special interest in nature, certainly not Roger’s intense, absorbing passion for everything from insects to birds. Most of Roger’s classmates were older because Roger had skipped two grades. In the cruel way of youngsters, some took to calling him "Professor Nuts Peterson.” Roger's mother, ever understanding, made him a butterfly net and even went to the druggist to explain why her son needed cyanide to preserve his specimens. His father was less understanding.
One need not think of Roger as a lonely or unhappy child. He found great joy and happiness in all things wild and beautiful and still found time to play or scrap with the boys in the neighborhood.
At the age of 11, birds “took over” his life. His seventh grade teacher, Blanche Hornbeck, enrolled her students in the Junior Audubon Club, taught them about birds, and often walked them to a nearby forest where she used nature to teach writing, art and science. It was during that year on an April morning that Roger had an experience that shaped the rest of his life. While hiking with a friend at nearby Swede Hill, the boys spotted a seemingly lifeless clump of brown feathers on a tree, very low to the ground. Although merely sleeping, the boys thought the Northern Flicker was dead. Later, Peterson described the experience: “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 reflection of life. It made me aware of the world in which we live.”
Peterson finished high school at 16. He received the highest marks in his class for art, history of art, and mechanical drawing. The description of Roger printed next to his name in his Class of 1925 yearbook proved prophetic: “Woods! Birds! Flowers! Here are the makings of a great naturalist.”
During the summer of 1925 Roger painted furniture at the Union National Furniture Company for eight dollars a week. He created decorative motifs of intricate Chinese subjects on exquisite lacquer wood cabinets made there. Roger’s artistic talents were discovered that summer. The head of the Decorating Department, Willem Dieperink von Langereis, gave Roger his first encouragement about being an artist and insisted that he go to art school. For the next two years, Roger worked and saved his money. He left Jamestown for the Art Students League in New York City in 1927. In 1929 he advanced to the National Academy of Design.
While working and saving money for art school, Peterson very intently practiced art and photography, using birds as his subjects. Two of his earliest published photographs included Northern Cardinals in the 1925 Jamestown High School Yearbook, and Black-capped Chickadees in the 1926 Yearbook. Both editions are highly sought-after collector pieces today. Roger was often at Jamestown's Prendergast Free Library researching his subjects and learning all he could about the natural world. He would usually read The Auk (Journal of the American Ornithologists' Union), Wilson Bulletin (Journal of the Wilson Ornithological Society), Bird Lore (National Audubon Society magazine), and National Geographic.
In 1925 The Auk printed a notice about the next American Ornithologists' Union meeting to be held in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History. And, there would be a bird art show. Peterson submitted two paintings, both of which were accepted. At the meeting Peterson met Arthur A. Allen, founder of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Dr. Frank Chapman, Curator of the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History; and the renowned bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Within a year of this historic trip, Roger had two more paintings displayed. In the Cooper Ornithological Club's first American bird art exhibition at its Los Angeles annual meeting Roger's Great-horned Owl and Eastern Screech Owl oils were shown. He was 17 and exhibiting with the great bird artists of the time: Allan Brooks, Bruce Horsfall, George M. Sutton, and Fuertes.
In the fall of 1931, Roger joined the science department at Rivers Country Day School. Rivers School, a private day school, was the prep school for sons of "gentlemen" in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Harvard. It was here that Elliot Richardson, former U.S. Attorney General, got his first taste of natural history and painting. Richardson was one of Peterson's best students winning both the art prize and the natural history prize.
In Boston, Roger became a member of the America's oldest ornithological organization, the Nuttall Club. It was here that he met fellow member, Francis H. Allen. Allen, an editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, accepted Roger's first book for publication, A Field Guide to the Birds.
On that morning in 1933, Francis Allen didn't need the binoculars he always kept on his office desk to realize at once that he was looking at a brand-new species of guidebook. A conservative contract, foregoing the payment of any royalty on the first 1000 copies, was made because it had numerous drawings and four color plates, which were quite expensive to reproduce in those days. Two thousand copies were printed, to be sold for $2.75 a copy.
In the first week the entire stock of 2,000 copies sold. Roger received 10 cents per copy of the 2nd 1,000 copies. Today, over 7 million copies have been sold, and 52 field guides make up the Peterson Field Guide Series.
"My identification system," explains Roger, "is visual rather than phylogenetic; it uses shape, pattern, and field marks in a comparative way. The phylogenetic order, which is related to evolution, is not emphasized within families. Similar-appearing species are placed together on plates and the critical distinctions are pointed out with little arrows."
Elliot Richardson wrote… “When I first came to know Roger Tory Peterson some sixty-five years ago, he was already a brilliant field ornithologist, an inspiring teacher, and a gifted painter of birds. He was teaching art and nature studies at the Rivers School in Brookline, Massachusetts, and in the sixth and seventh grades I had the extraordinary good fortune not only to be introduced to birding by him but also to be taught drawing and painting. His great ambition, he told me once, was to excel Louis Agassiz Fuertes, in his eyes the finest bird painter who ever lived.
“At that very time, however, Roger was working on a completely original field guide to the birds. With lines accenting each bird’s distinctive features, a vivid verbal rendition of the sounds it makes, and a few words about the kind of place and time of year in which it is likely to be seen, he made their separate identities easily accessible. Published in 1934, the book’s meteoric success transformed Roger’s life and even, in a sense, took charge of it. He found himself cast, not as a naturalist, an educator, or an artist, but as a unique amalgam of the three. The all-consuming demands of this unprecedented role became an insuperable barrier to the total fulfillment of any one of them. And while this outcome proved to be an enormous boon to the rest of us, I suspect that for Roger the awareness that it compelled the sacrifice of his highest artistic aspirations may have been a cause for lingering regret.
“When, in 1934, A Field Guide to the Birds first appeared it would have been impossible to foresee that it would occupy such a dominant role in Roger’s life. Houghton Mifflin, his publisher, certainly did not anticipate the book’s wide appeal—the first printing was only 2,000 copies. Since then some seven million have been sold, and that does not count the additional sales of his later field guides to wildflowers, mammals, insects, and the birds of other regions.
“From 1934 on, thanks to Roger’s genius for simplification and communication, any amateur could learn to distinguish one bird from another. Birdwatching soon became a hobby—even a sport—for vast numbers of people. From identifying birds emerged a love of birds, and from there it was only a short step to a more inclusive passion for nature. Given, moreover, the interdependence between the survival of species and the preservation of habitat there soon developed widespread awareness of the need to maintain a systemic ecological balance. To be sure, the conservation movement that began to gain headway after World War II owed much to other contributors—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, for example. Still, Roger Tory Peterson, not only as artist and field-guide author, but also, as educational director, art director, and columnist for the National Audubon Society, was a towering influence. Indeed, Rachel Carson herself was indebted to his book, his early work on DDT, and his friendship.
“It was a combination of talent, genius and mentoring that got Roger to the point of success. Jamestown developed his love of nature and his interest in art. This factory worker then advanced to get training in both that allowed his Jamestown Field Guide Idea to happen. The Field Guide allowed all else to happen in his future career.
“The idea of creating an institute named for Roger Tory Peterson in Jamestown, New York, where Roger had grown up, occurred in 1976 to several of his friends. He had just been awarded the Linnaeus Gold Medal of the Swedish Academy of Sciences and had earlier received the Conservation Medal of the National Audubon Society. His classmate, Lorimer Moe, took the lead in enlisting broader support, and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute was formally incorporated in 1985. Conceived in part as a repository for his life work, it would also be committed to seeking innovative ways of linking art, nature and education."
Nature artist, Robert Bateman, once said, "As the diversity of life on the planet is diminished, it's vital that we know and understand and, in fact, cherish (our) fellow living things… and Peterson has given us a way to do this.”
“To want to protect wildlife and the habitats that support it, people first have to know what they are protecting. Beginning with birds and later expanding to everything from trees to tadpoles, Roger Tory Peterson has made natural history accessible." – Robert McCracken Peck of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.
Peterson often said…"My contribution has been as a teacher." His work inspires those who influence children—parents, teachers, and naturalists— to instill a love of nature in generations to come.
The environmental movement of the 20th century began with Teddy Roosevelt's U.S. Forest Service head Gifford Pinchot. Pinchot introduced the country to the word "conservation" and the reasons why natural resources can be exhausted by human greed. Roger Tory Peterson ushered in the education wave of the movement which interprets the natural world to every person. We now have ready access to the "tools" to learn about nature. Rachel Carson inaugurated the activist wave where citizens use legislation, litigation and lobbying to protect the environment.
The three waves of the environmental movement were inevitable considering the drastic rise in human population and the resulting degradation of the natural world. But, it takes people who are ahead of their time—people with a passion for what they do—to change the status quo, to start a revolution. Roger Tory Peterson started a revolution by bringing the understanding of nature out of the halls of academia and into the homes of America.