With recent news that two venerable Cape Cod Museums are merging – the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and Green Briar Nature Center – let’s go back in time to learn more about two iconic personalities who inspired these institutions.
Thornton Waldo Burgess
Green Briar, also carries the name of Burgess, the 20th-century renowned naturalist, conservationist and author, helped lead the effort in this country to support the cause of conservation and preservation.
For more than a half century, Burgess wrote and spoke about the mysteries and marvels of nature as a driving force in our lives and this nation. In all, Burgess, one of America’s most prolific writers, wrote more than 170 books and more than 15,000 newspaper columns, many of them with a focus on teaching young children through his celebrated characters Peter Rabbit and his friends, Jimmy Skunk, Grandfather Frog, Johnny Chuck, Sammy Jay, Reddy Fox, Hooty Owl, and Old Mother West Wind and many others.
Through these engaging stories, generations of young people have learned about the natural world and have developed an understanding of the critical importance of conservation of our natural resources.
In the 1920s, the earliest days of radio, Burgess, a Sandwich native, used his Radio Nature League program to nationally promote bird sanctuaries, support conservation measures, and advance the cause of prestigious scientists and researchers.
He was an individual ahead of his time. No other author has had such a similar influence. With no formal training as a naturalist, Burgess worked closely with top publishers of stories about the natural world, political activists, scholars and public officials, like President Herbert Hoover, to protect animals and birds and prevent the threat of their extinction.
Thornton’s grassroots Green Meadow Club produced stunning conservation results. During the years the program was in operation, more than five million acres of land in North America were set aside to protect birds and other wildlife. Burgess also worked closely with the New York Zoological Society to promote passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1916 and the Migratory Bird Act Treaty of 1918 to protect migrating birds in the U.S. and Canada. Later the treaty was expanded to include protection agreements with Japan, Russia and Mexico.
The son of Caroline F. Haywood and Thornton W. Burgess, Sr., a direct descendent of one of the first settlers of Sandwich, Burgess was raised by his mother in Sandwich after his father died shortly after Thornton’s birth. They lived in humble circumstances with relatives or paying rent. As a youth, Thornton worked year-round in order to earn money.
Some of his jobs included tending cows, picking arbutus or berries, shipping water lilies from local ponds, selling candy and trapping muskrats. William C. Chipman, one of Thornton’s employers, lived on Discovery Hill Road a wildlife habitat of woodland and wetland. This habitat became the setting of many of his stories in which he refers to Smiling Pool and the Old Briar Patch.
Graduating from Sandwich High School in 1891, Burgess attended a business college in Boston, then moved to western Massachusetts, returning frequently to Sandwich to write. Many of his original works and related artifacts are on display at Sandwich’s Thornton W. Burgess Green Briar Nature Center. Thornton’s books have been published around the world in many languages including Italian, Swedish. French, German, Spanish and Gaelic.
Collaborating with Burgess was illustrator and friend Harrison Cady of New York and Rockport, Massachusetts; Cady, with a brush of imagination gave life to Thornton’s characters; his incredible work is on display at the Burgess nature center.
The Thornton Burgess Society was founded 40 years ago to celebrate his pioneering work. The merger of Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and The Thornton W. Burgess Green Briar Nature Center serves to further acknowledge the boundless contributions of Burgess, and in the process re-awaken young and old alike today to the fundamental need for learning from nature and protecting it. The merger offers significant opportunities through the works and artifacts of Burgess to create new programming and moving forward in fruitful ways to increase museum memberships, attendance, and donations.
The late John Hay, co-founder of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, could paint brilliant word pictures with the stroke of a typewriter key as a master does with a brush. Hay fully absorbed the rhythm of the language, the art of creative flow, perhaps as much as anyone on a blank canvas of life.
Born in Manhattan, the son of noted archaeologist Clarence Hay and the grandson of John Hay, Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt and a private secretary to Abraham Lincoln, the reclusive and pensive Hay published his first collection of poetry in 1947, the year he moved to the Cape. Surrounded by an awe-inspiring setting, he turned to nature writing with a perspective wider than an aerial view.
“Listen and you touch on light twisting through the shallows; you sense a speech within a time eluding it, ripples on stone. It has no answer,” Hay, the renowned Cape Cod naturalist, wrote in his classic work, Bird Song. “Music follows, music falls, with its magicians. With birds, we hear what we could be, never what we say we are.”
John Hay spent a lifetime touching on light, always hearing what he could be, never what the world said he was. The author of 18 books on nature, a Harvard poet laureate, and recipient of the celebrated John Burroughs Medal for nature writing, Hay, who lived in the neighborhood of the ancient Stony Brook Valley where Paines Creek makes its way up the stone ladders of Brewster’s Herring run into Lower Mill Pond, has been compared in many ways to the venerable Henry David Thoreau. “He (Hay) is probably a better naturalist than the son of Concord,” the New York Herald Tribune once wrote.
To say that Hay had a way with words is to suggest that Hemingway was a journeyman writer. Hay captured the fragile beauty of Cape Cod as if drafting in the palm of the Lord’s hand, and he taught us, often against our secular instincts, that nature in its purest form is the essence of all of us. If we lose the natural blessing of the world around us, we lose part of ourselves. In that lesson, Hay has left behind an abiding gift to a fast-food, drive-by, attention deficient nation that is beyond his eloquent words.
In 1954, Hay worked in stride with other like-minded preservationists to establish the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, helping establish the Museum’s growth from a room at Town Hall, to a display tent, to a summer pavilion, and finally a permanent building overlooking the verdant Brewster marsh, Wing Island and Cape Cod Bay. Hay also served as President of the Museum for a quarter century, and was an early member of the Brewster Conservation Commission, honored at various times for his work preserving nature universally. In 1970, Hay was named as conservationist of the year by the Massachusetts Wildlife Federation; in 1991, he was honored by the New York-based natural history magazine Orion, which created an annual award in his name.
Nature was Hay’s passion. Rather than starting with a building, he and other Museum founders focused initially on the out of doors, constructing trails and scheduling guided hikes. Nature, Hay believed, must be at the core and inspiration for a learning center. This cornerstone is the foundation of his writing and is still in place at the Museum. He understood, for example, that the box turtle, the horseshoe crab, the dragonfly, and the pitch pine are such survival specialists that they have all lived on earth, longer than have our kind. With a poet’s sensitivity to language and an unbiased wonder at the world, Hay brought to his writing the recognition that all life is interconnected.”
In 1968, Hay cautioned in his book, In Defense of Nature, “To draw on all the earth’s resources without being able to give anything back is not an imbalance we could survive forever.”
Making the strongest case for a natural history museum and nature center, Hay observed, “There is a need for an institution that can make up the difference and tell people what is out there…Someone has to tell people that a tree or a fish is important before they all disappear.”