Wednesday, March 11, 2015

We Need to Hear Voices from "Outer Mongolia" Now and in the Future

By Bob Ferris

My great-grandmother Mary Lanman Douw Ferris (1855-1932) was a writer and collector of many things paper as well as being part of the illustrious Douw family of New York and Wolvenhoek fame.  I have some of her materials which include items trivial, endearing, and important.

She kept, for instance, an “invitation” from the Audubon Society for a donation—essentially this is a nearly hundred year-old direct mail piece (at left).  There is also a letter typed on the new technology of that same period—a typewriter—which is of little consequence content-wise as the writer spent most of his time explaining why he could not seem to get his letters all on the same line.   But my favorite of the bunch is a 1922 letter written and signed by Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960).

Never heard of Roy?  Well Roy was a biology and paleontology rock star before most of us were born (see video below).  He was a famous adventurer and the director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from 1934 to 1941 having gained that position after starting there as a volunteer janitor of sorts in 1908.  Roy was a promoter and the one who coined the phrase “Outer Mongolia” when he and his show-boating team of scientific superstars were the first to discover dinosaur eggs.

He was certainly a man with “warts” but he was also the first one named an Honorary Boy Scout when the Boy Scouts of America created that designation.  And more importantly he is considered by some as one of the models for the Indiana Jones character in that famous movie franchise.  No one connected with the production has responded to this claim, but Roy’s very public snake phobia is cause enough to make one wonder and speculate.

I think about Roy today because this is the 55th anniversary of his death in 1960 and because I wonder now who serves this role in galvanizing the public attention towards things wild and woolly and, more importantly, who will do so in the future.  Certainly there are many who serve this role presently like David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, George Schaller, Sylvia Earle, E.O. Wilson and a host of others, but who is going to carry this issue into the middle of the 21st century with any real connection to truly wild, Outer Mongolia-type places?  

“Always there has been an adventure just
around the corner.” Roy Chapman Andrews
I mention this last part about a direct connection because I think it is very important.  My grandfather was born two years before Mr. Andrews and two weeks and 130 miles from that point in time and space where Jesse James was killed by Robert Ford. My grandfather told me much about his youth in Missouri and what Alaska was like in the early part of the last century.  His stories were interesting but they did not move me nearly as much as my own experiences.

My sense is that if we are going to have these types of powerful voices in the future, we are going to have to do something to "manufacture" them by making sure that they are able to see some truly wild places in their lifetimes.  And by this I do not mean movies, lectures and video games, but rather the mud, blood, windburn and adrenaline-charged experiences that will grant them true passion and effectiveness long after we who are reading this are gone.

This is not a new concept or concern.  The disappearance of these direct experiences or other exposures to Natural History has been written about by many.  It is not altogether separated from the notions that paintings cannot be adequately studied out of a book or that surgeons trained only on computers are a scary proposition.

So if you have a budding Roy Chapman Andrews or Jane Goodall in your life, please do everything you possibly can to get them to where the last of the wildness lives. Encourage them to hike, bike, camp, take field adventures and sign up for field courses where they can. You might even think about doing it as a family and rekindle your own passion for adventure and the broad, open spaces where there might be " adventure just around the corner."

Note: There are any number of places that offer adventures and learning in wild places.  One to check out is an organization called Earthwatch Institute.  Wolf biologist, writer and trophic cascade researcher Cristina Eisenberg PhD just started working there and she is certainly someone collecting significant merit badges towards this scientist, explorer and advocate pathway.  

1 comment:

  1. Mr. Ferris: Very interested to read your article about Roy Chapman Andrews and the letter to your Grandmother. I have been to Mongolia ten times on various projects and have a blog called Whales, Camps and Trails. I am interested in if you would be willing to make a scan of your Grandmother's letter, in particular the envelope.
    Thank you for your consideration.