Mike Frome’s Portogram arrived in many inboxes as regular commentary about life, current events, wild nature as soul food, and people he admired fighting the good fight against the cold -hearted, the purely corporate, the vested interest, the greedy, and against the dispassionate, “objective” nature writer when a point of view was called for.
Michael Frome’s life story is found in his final Portogram, The Last Page which can be found online. Briefly, Frome was a featured columnist in Field & Stream, Los Angeles Times, American Forests and Defenders of Wildlife and wrote 19 books. After years as a journalist, he began a career in higher education, teaching at the universities of Idaho and Vermont, Northland College and Western Washington University. He settled in Port Washington, Wisconsin with his wife June Eastvold, a poet and retired Lutheran pastor, where he died on September 4.
Michael Frome wasn’t shy about sharing his point of view in writing and in person. My friend and one who greatly influenced my career, Tom Cobb, was the park manager at Saratoga Spa State Park where I also worked for a time. Tom, a Mike Frome admirer, invited him to make a lunchtime speech at the park. As a park and recreation guy, but also an environmental advocate (as Tom was and still is) I wasn’t prepared for Mike’s outspokenness. All of us in the room came in for some plain spoken criticism that lunch hour for staying within our comfort zones and not getting out ahead of issues in parks (including the Adirondack Park), the environment, wilderness and social justice. And while I liked my job, I also knew full well that the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation was, in its administration and management priorities, no advocate for the wild outdoors – with some strong exceptions, like Tom Cobb.
Mike Frome’s was not the usual lunchtime address; it woke us up. Perhaps that was precisely Tom’s intent. Years later, Tom shared one of Michael Frome’s many books that I must return to him. It’s titled Heal the Earth, Heal the Soul (2007 by Bartram Books). The book is a powerfully written collection of Mike’s stories and essays. For the rest of this post, I include excerpts from his essay of the same title, Heal the earth, Heal the soul which originally appeared as a chapter in Crossroads, Environmental Priorities for the Future (1988, Peter Borelli, editor). This essay conveys, I believe, the essence of Frome’s message at lunch that day.
“On the day in 1968 that Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, I was at Yale University to speak on conservation policy, certainly including the preservation of wilderness. Once alone following the program, I felt deeply disturbed, trying to equate my actions and personal goals with the tragedy and meaning of Dr. King’s life. I asked myself then (and many times since) whether environmentalism and wilderness can be valid in the face of poverty, inequality and other critical social issues…
“I learned an important lesson in Memphis. I had been there before Dr. King’s death and had written about the conservation efforts of a hardy group called the Citizens to Preserve e Overton Park. On the face of it, the Citizens had nothing in common with the humble black garbage workers whose cause Dr. King had come to defend. Or perhaps they did, considering they were fighting exactly the same economic and political forces.
“Overton at that time had already been a park for almost seventy years…it is, in fact, one of the few urban forests left in the world. However, when a few downtown merchants and developers decided that a freeway through the park would jingle coins in their pockets, the distinctive urban forest became expendable. The two Memphis daily newspapers led the battle for the freeway, belittling any politician who dared stand up in behalf of the park. A former mayor of the city, Watkins Overton, great-grandson of the man for whom the park was named, courageously spoke of the park as hallowed ground – a priceless possession of the people beyond commercial value. Nevertheless, he and the upper side of Memphis learned painfully, along with the garbage workers, that democracy can be a ‘government of bullies.’ As Overton said, ‘entrenched bureaucracy disdains the voice of the people but eventually the people will be heard.’
“That idea is paramount in my mind. Entrenched bureaucracy of all kinds disdains the voice of the people. It is the weakness of institutions, whether private or public, profit-making or eleemosynary, academic or professional. Institutions, by their nature, tend to breed conformity and compliance; the older and larger it becomes the less vision the institution expresses or tolerates. But eventually the people will be heard, as evidenced in the ultimately successful efforts of both the garbage workers and the defenders of Overton Park.
“The pioneer ecologist Paul Sears said, ‘Conservation is a point of view involved with the concept of freedom, human dignity, and the American spirit.’ Gifford Pinchot expressed the same idea: ‘The rightful use and purpose of our natural resources,’ he said, ‘is to make all the people strong and well, able and wise, well-taught, well-fed…full of knowledge and initiative, with equal opportunity for all and special privilege for none.’ He conceived forestry as the vanguard of a public crusade against control of government by big business. Under his leadership the Forest Service achieved an early reputation for fearlessness in a system then, as now, constipated with bureaucracy, bungling and timidity. How times have changed! Pinchot stressed the cause of forestry education to train professionals in a social movement; but foresters today are technical people, focused mostly on wood production, trained to see trees as board feet of timber, which is how the Forest Service conducts its business in the public forests.
“The National park Service is not much different. Its personnel may voice concern for ecology as a principle, but scarcely as something practical in critical need of defense. The best defense, at least in my view, is an alert and informed public. But national parks personnel are generally inward-oriented and poor communicators. They know the public as visitor numbers, but not as decision makers. Woe unto the parks person who goes to the public with faith or trust in his or her heart. The parks person is a ‘professional,’ which is how he or she learned to appreciate the values of ecology in theory, but conformity and compromise in practice.
“Students in most academic programs are bred to be partners of the system, not to challenge it. It is part of the nature of institutions in our time. Whether the issue be social justice, peace, public health, poverty, or the environment, all make candidates for study, research, statistics, coursework, documentation, literature, and professional careers, while the poor remain impoverished, environmental quality worsens, and our last remaining shreds of wild, original America are placed in increasing peril.
“Martin Luther King, Jr. saw three major evils – racism, poverty, and militarism- and found them integrally linked, one with the other. I see the degraded environment as a fourth major evil, also joined with the others. Environmentalists speak of concern with forests, water, air, soil, fish and wildlife, land use, and use of resources, but these are only symptoms of a sick society that needs to deal more fundamentally with itself…
“I find myself turning increasingly to the state of things beyond the wilderness. The nature reserve cannot be decoupled form the society around it. Now I must consider that in the past ten years the population of our prisons has doubled, that we put more people in our prisons than any other ‘advanced’ country, except South Africa and the Soviet Union….
“Natural resource professionals ought to be in the lead of the revolution of values. So should the environmental organizations and the people working for them. The problem is that compassion must be at the root of the revolution of values, while compassion, and emotion, are repressed in the training of natural resource professionals and obscured in the management of organizations. Earlier this year I spoke at an environmental conference in Alaska, after which I received a letter from one of the participants. She wrote as follows: ‘Not once in the ten years I spent studying forestry and land management while getting the Ph.D. did anyone ever speak about ethics.’…
“We cannot set aside a little bit of wilderness and say, ‘That much will take care of the soul side of America.’ We must rescue everything that still remains wild and recapture a lot more that has been lost, looking to its future rather than its past. In the battle for wilderness there are no enemies. The children of the poor will become rich for what is saved; the children of the rich will be impoverished for what is not saved. It takes considerable courage to stand up against money and the power of politics and institutions. It takes wisdom, or at least knowledge and courage, to work through the system. When the Pope visited the United States, he said, ‘We need more than social reformers; we need revolutionaries – not to commit violent acts but to press society to reorder its priorities.’
“‘New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed,’ wrote John Locke more than three centuries ago, ‘without any other reason but because they are not already common.’ Such is the way of institutions, but not of individuals. Only the individualist can succeed, even in our age of stereotypes, for true success comes only from within. When we look at the revolutionary task of reordering priorities, and the sheer power of entrenched, interlocked institutions, the challenge may seem utterly impossible. Yet, individuals working together, or even alone, at the grassroots of American, have worked miracles. The odds in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, also looked impossible, in the long fight for the Wilderness Act, and for Overton Park and many other places like it.
“‘A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,’ wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. who embodied in his own self the challenge to spiritual life. Each individual must realize the power of his and her own life and never sell it short. In setting the agenda for tomorrow, miracles large and small are within our reach.”
Photo: Michael Frome, from a chapter in Crossroads: Environmental Priorities for the Future, courtesy Peter Borrelli, editor, 1988.