I had a memorable day yesterday, bookended by breakfast with a Buckley and after dinner drinks with the Tigerhawk clan. The two events are linked, albeit tenuously, by the same thread of boarding school, for the Tigerhawk daughter is in Northwest Connecticut today for interviews at Hotchkiss and Kent (with two more downstate tomorrow), and the Buckley brothers William F. and James L. both attended Millbrook School where I grew up.
My grandfather was a teacher at the school when the Buckley boys were students in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I've gotten to know James Buckley outside of the family connection as one who shares a strong interest in the natural world that was fostered in part by experiences at Millbrook. The former Senator has moved back to the family's roots in Sharon, Connecticut, and at a conservation breakfast hosted by the Sharon Association yesterday, I found myself sitting at the same table as he. Buckley asked me how my work with the Litchfield Hills Greenprint was going and listened attentively to my reply, but then his eyes took on an even brighter sparkle when he asked; "tell me the status of what we used to call muhlenberg's turtle"
When I was with the Nature Conservancy, I was responsible for overseeing a conservation program with this federally listed species at the core of its efforts. Clemmys muhlenbergii is more commonly known as the bog turtle, though its preferred habitat should rightly be called a fen. It is the smallest of our turtles, reaching only about 4" at maturity, and cursed with a collectible cuteness that has contributed to its decline in the wild. Connecticut is well on its way to becoming the next state within the bog turtle's current range to lose this species altogether, and our little corner is its last bastion in the Nutmeg State.
They also occur just over the line in Dutchess County, New York, and I thought perhaps it was in connection with Millbrook that the question has been asked. I started to say that I knew of two documented occurrences at the school, none more recent than the 1980s, but with a gentle smile James Buckley informed me that there were precedents for those discoveries.
During his time at the school, a great ditch was laid downslope of the "New Dorm" which would eventually accept a buried storm drain. Buckley said that while it lay exposed it was the most marvelous place to find things, including several unusual species of snakes and, on more than one occasion, muhlenberg's turtle. I could just imagine what a boy of his age and time must have felt making these discoveries while mucking about in the ditch, and the memory of those times was still fresh and meaningful.
I keep coming back to the importance of place, and the freedom to explore and inquire about ones physical surroundings be they natural or cultural. Here is a man who was elected to the U.S. Senate in New York on the Conservative Party Ticket, and still as captivated by a creature most people have never seen as those scientists who make a career of its study.
Jerry Mallett, who worked with him during his time in the Senate described James Buckley as "a true conservative (who) saw the whole idea of conservation as working on the interest, not the principal." Buckley helped to write the Endangered Species Act that protects the bog turtle that so captivated him in his boyhood. Writing "In Defense of Snail Darters," for the Washington Post, Sept. 4, 1979 , Buckley said the Act "represents a quantum leap in man's acknowledgment of his moral responsibility for the integrity of the natural world." He is also founding board member of Polar Bears International.