Benton MacKaye Landscapes US Politics

From Thoreau to Carson: Following the path from conservation to environmentalism, May 1962

On May 11, 1962, now more than sixty-one years ago, a small cadre of influential American conservationists gathered for an outdoor ceremony at Dumbarton Oaks Park in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau. The author and naturalist, whose life and writings have provided persistent inspiration for the American conservation and environmental movements, died at his family’s home in Concord, Massachusetts on May 6, 1862, at the age of 44. He had received a steady stream of visitors during his gradual decline from tuberculosis. “Henry, have you made your peace with God” his Aunt Louisa asked. “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt,” Thoreau promptly replied, displaying until the end both his sharp, dry wit and his spiritual equanimity.

The 1962 commemorative event was principally orchestrated by Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior for eight consequential years (1961-1969) under the presidential administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. “Considered the most successful interior secretary in American history,” writes Douglas Brinkley in his recent book Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening, “Udall encouraged Americans to serve the Earth just as Jack Kennedy had asked them to serve their country.”

Udall’s collaborator in staging the event was Howard Zahniser, long-time executive secretary and, eventually and briefly, executive director of The Wilderness Society. The national conservation organization had been founded in the mid-1930s primarily to protect from development and exploitation portions of the nation’s vast federal lands. Zahniser was a principal author and proponent of the Wilderness Act, which became law in 1964 shortly after his sudden death that year. Today, the National Wilderness Preservation System consists of some 803 federal Wilderness Areas comprising almost 112-million acres.

Zahniser was an effective lobbyist, respected for his persistence, fairness, and ability to balance the idealistic aims of the wilderness cause with the practical realities of national politics. But he was also an experienced wordsmith and literary man whose duties included editing the Wilderness Society’s excellent magazine, The Living Wilderness. He was, by most accounts, primarily responsible for the most uplifting and eloquent passages of the 1964 Wilderness Act, which distinguished it from leaden prose of most legislation enacted by Congress. The law’s definition of “wilderness” remains inspirational, provocative, and, to some, controversial to this day:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Thoreau’s writing exerted a powerful influence on Zahniser’s philosophy and work. Indeed, he served a term as president of the Thoreau Society in the late 1950s, sometimes attending its annual summer Gathering in Concord.

* * *

A key personal link between Udall and Zahniser was the interior secretary’s capable young aide Sharon Francis. After her 1959 graduation from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, Francis worked briefly for the Wilderness Society. She was soon recruited by Udall to serve as his personal speechwriter, sounding board, and troubleshooter; her vivid article in Living Wilderness describing her rigorous climb of Mt. Robson in the Canadian Rockies with a group of young mountaineers had captured the interior secretary’s attention. Udall then assigned Francis to serve in the White House as an assistant to Lady Bird Johnson, who built her own power and policy center as an effective advocate for environmental and women’s causes. Before long, Francis was sometimes advising Lyndon Johnson himself on the conservation policies that constituted a considerable share of the political successes he achieved during his five presidential years.

Francis assisted Udall in organizing the Thoreau commemorative event in Dumbarton Oaks Park, in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood. The National Park Service, an agency within the Interior Department, in 1940 had acquired the 27-acre park—part of the larger Dumbarton Oaks estate and gardens—as a gift from Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. The forested, naturalistic landscape is now managed as part of the Park Service’s Rock Creek Park.

The event’s keynote speaker was Associate Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. Raised in straitened circumstances in the Pacific Northwest, he came east to pursue a law career that led to his 1939 Supreme Court appointment by Franklin D. Roosevelt. An active outdoorsman, he wrote numerous popular books about his adventures and explorations throughout the country’s wildlands. By the early 1960s, Douglas was at the acme of his influence as an environmental activist and spokesperson. Recent scholars and biographers, however, have questioned the ethical propriety of Douglas’s conspicuous public advocacy and his judicial actions concerning environmental issues, in light of his affiliation with private conservation organizations such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club.

Other principal attendees at the Thoreau event were the 88-year-old poet Robert Frost and Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, invited by Douglas as his personal guest. According to a brief contemporary story in the Washington Post and other later accounts, Udall, Zahniser, and Frost talked only briefly. Warren apparently spoke not at all. Indeed, a photograph of the five keynote attendees depicts the Chief Justice sitting apart from the four others at the end of a long, rustic wooden bench, his stony expression suggesting that he may have wondered just what he was doing there.

That photo (not included here) was taken by Joseph C. Wheeler, then a young Peace Corps volunteer, who attended the event using the invitation that had been sent to his mother, Ruth Wheeler, a prominent figure and historian of Concord. In fact, he had grown up in the farmhouse on Virginia Road where Thoreau was born. Based on his own recollection, as well as a transcript that was later discovered in the collections of the Thoreau Society, Wheeler wrote a detailed account of the Dumbarton Oaks Park event fifty years later for the Society’s Bulletin.

In Wheeler’s photo, Douglas is standing to speak, text in hand, fortified by scotch, according to historian Douglas Brinkley’s account of the event. Justice Douglas held forth at discursive length, railing against the amounts of trash spewed by visitors of national parks, noting his own extensive travels “everywhere [Thoreau] went” in New England and beyond, and quoting from Thoreau’s journals. Douglas emphasized the relevance of the Concord prophet’s ecological insights and sensibilities a century since his passing:

Thoreau lived when men were appraising trees in terms only of board feet, not in terms of water shed protection and birds and music. His protests against that narrow outlook were among the first to be heard on this continent, and they still plague the conscience of all those whose voice is the voice of conservation, but whose deeds are destructive of wilderness value.

Thoreau lived along before the insecticides and pesticides appeared to upset our ecological balance and to poison the fields and gardens where we grow our food and the waters that carry the poisonous solubles into our farms and rivers and lakes. [Serialized excerpts of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring began to appear just a few weeks after Douglas spoke; the book was published in September 1962. With mixed success in the face of considerable opposition, Udall championed Carson’s book and message as a guide to federal policymaking.]

Thoreau lived when the symbol of destruction was the ax and gun powder. He never knew the bulldozer and the reckless, ruinous logging practices in which we now indulge.

Thoreau did, however, know the quiet desperation in which most people led their lives, and man’s capabilities to destroy the earth and its goodness, and his warnings are relevant and timely in the 1960s, more relevant and timely, I think, than when they were uttered, and that is the occasion for the meeting here today.

* * *

Sharon Francis, in organizing the Thoreau event, had taken care to ensure that an invitation over Udall’s signature was sent to her personal acquaintance Benton MacKaye, best known for his conception of the Appalachian Trail. Then 83 years old, MacKaye was “a unique and seminal person in so many ways,” as Francis told me in a phone conversation from her New Hampshire home last year. Over his long life and career he had significantly influenced the growth of the conservation and environmental movements throughout the twentieth century.

Francis had met Benton MacKaye during her brief, frustrating stint on the staff of the Wilderness Society, her first Washington job. MacKaye had been one of the eight co-founders of the society in 1935 and served as its president from 1945 to 1950. It was during his tenure in that position that the organization hired Zahniser as executive secretary and the respected wildlife biologist Olaus Murie for the newly created position of director. The two men were instrumental in initiating and promoting the Wilderness Act. (Murie accepted his position on condition that he could work primarily from his Moose, Wyoming home, where he lived with his wife, with whom he wrote the popular 1962 book Two in the Far North about their adventures living and working in Alaska.)

Their common interest in the wild natural environment and its preservation brought Sharon Francis and Benton MacKaye together despite their six-decade difference in age. A combination of her own talents and a series of serendipitous events had opened the path by which Francis quickly found her role as a trusted confidante of some of the nation’s highest-ranking government figures and most influential conservation activists. Growing up in Seattle, the precocious and energetic teenager joined the Mountaineers, the region’s premier hiking and climbing club, as soon as she became eligible at age 13. She quickly enrolled in the club’s two-year climbing course. By the age of 15, she became the youngest person to summit Mount Rainier.

“My life seemed fulfilled by exploring all those mountains,” she later recalled, in a speech at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for the Protections of New Hampshire Forests, in which she had long been active. “The Making of a Conservationist” provides a brisk account of her long career as a conservationist. Her taut, pithy autobiography exhibits the mastery of language, the wit, and the tact that explains how and why she earned the respect of those with whom she worked. (I have relied on that speech as the source for many of the quotes in this post. It is well worth reading in full, on pages 13 through 19 of the winter 2017-18 edition of Forest Notes, SPNHF’s magazine.)

The logging depredations she observed during her youthful explorations of the mountains and forests of the Northwest impelled her to take direct action. “Put me to work,” she appealed to the chair of Mountaineers’ conservation committee. Her investigations documented a 25-mile jeep road the National Park Service had asked loggers to punch into a ranger cabin on the west slope of the Olympic Mountains. Elected to the Mountaineers board as “junior representative,” she successfully organized her 75 fellow junior members to resist an effort to deny club membership to “a black minister and his Japanese wife.” Many of her young peers, she later recalled, “liked the idea of a more diverse club.”

Francis arrived at Mount Holyoke in the mid-1950s “already committed to wilderness preservation,” she recounts. “I told my faculty adviser that I wanted to ‘save the world,’ not merely a single pond.” She wrote her senior honors thesis on the slow progress of federal wilderness legislation that had been languishing in Congress for several years. In the process, she began to reconcile her youthful idealism with what she called “the human dimension in public decisions,” as she explained many years later. “Another term might be ‘politics.'”

Active in the college’s Outing Club, she “invited singer Pete Seeger to give a concert at Mount Holyoke,” as Francis recently recalled for her alumni magazine. “It was hard for him to bring the music to an end in time for us to make our dorm curfew.”

Shortly before her graduation in 1959, Francis attended a talk by Olaus and Mardy Murie sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club in Boston. Mardy had spotted her sitting quietly alone at the back of the crowd, Francis recounted to me, and invited her to join the Muries for dinner that evening. By the end of their meal, the couple suggested that the Wilderness Society might have a place for her on the organization’s staff.

Her Wilderness Society experience was a frustrating one. Francis was navigating the era’s perilous shoals of gender hierarchy. She told me that the Wilderness Society, the leadership of which remained a male bastion, didn’t know quite what to do with her talents. They “expected the new staff girl to type, file and make coffee,” she later wrote. “The feminine revolution would soon arrive, but at the time I first came to Washington, women in offices were expected to do only the most humble chores.”

One of those “humble chores,” which paid Francis dividends in friendship, was an assignment to assist Benton MacKaye with his long-time literary project, which he called “Geotechnics of North America.” The Wilderness Society had agreed to provide him with some clerical and editorial assistance in moving the project along. (MacKaye eventually completed a long, sprawling manuscript. Though never published, draft versions survive at the Library of Congress and among his papers at the Dartmouth College Library.)

At that time, MacKaye spent his winter months living in Washington’s Cosmos Club, where he could reside in a modest room, with meals available, as well as access to a good library and stimulating company. Since its founding by geologist/anthropologist/Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell, one of MacKaye’s heroes, the Cosmos Club had been a traditional meeting and socializing refuge for the Washington’s scientific and cultural elite, including many eminent conservationists, public officials, and writers. Nonetheless, membership at that time remained foreclosed to women. They were, however, welcome as guests in the club’s dining room. And there, Francis sometimes joined MacKaye at lunch.

MacKaye had never remarried after his six-year marriage the Jessie Hardy MacKaye (“Betty”), who took her own life in 1921. Over the years afterwards, though, he had befriended a number of young women, who appreciated his courtly and unthreatening demeanor, entertaining raconteurial talents, and sometimes eccentric attentions. He was horrified to learn, Francis told me, that she sometimes hiked alone along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath, which connected the Potomac River to Cumberland, Maryland. Partly through the efforts of the Wilderness Society and a widely publicized 1954 hike led by William O. Douglas, the C&O Canal was saved from being developed as a scenic highway. In 1971, it was designated a National Historical Park.

Francis recalled that she was “not sure I was accomplishing things” during her ostensibly working lunches with MacKaye, but the conversations offered her the opportunity to take the measure of MacKaye’s idealistic, ever optimistic, and somewhat ethereal perspective and philosophy. “His feet didn’t quite touch the ground,” she reflected. “People wanted to help him.”

The two struck up a durable friendship and correspondence. When Francis married in 1960, she and her husband Harry, himself a mountain climber, bought a 300-acre farm in Charlestown, New Hampshire. On their journeys back and forth to Washington, they sometimes stopped to visit MacKaye at his ironically named “Empire” in Shirley. And though MacKaye couldn’t attend for reasons of health, Francis made sure that he also received invitations to the White House events at which Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act (1964) and the National Trails System Act (1968), of which he had been an early and influential proponent. Francis did not recall playing a role in Stewart Udall’s choice of MacKaye in 1966 as recipient of the Department of the Interior’s Conservation Service Award. Given her responsibilities under Udall, though, it’s a good bet that she facilitated MacKaye’s selection for that honor.

MacKaye had spent much of his boyhood, and indeed much of his life, in the small Massachusetts town of Shirley, some 20 miles west of Concord along the Fitchburg Railroad, which nicked the corner of Walden Pond in the early 1840s just as Thoreau built the cabin the construction and cost of which he detailed in Walden. Thoreau and MacKaye, both graduates of Harvard College, were kindred spirits in many respects, not least in their substantial impact on the evolution of American conservation and environmental movements.

Of the 100 or more people who attended the Dumbarton Oaks Park event, MacKaye would likely have been among the few, or perhaps the only person, present who could trace at least a second-hand personal connection to the Concord writer and naturalist. “I’ll mention that I once talked with a man (one Holden) who as a boy had talked with Thoreau, and at Walden,” MacKaye recollected a year before the 1962 memorial gathering. “He and some playmates happened on the Pond. The great man took an interest in them and gave them some pointers on fishing. This is almost all that I can recall (after half a century). It is my great regret that I did not quiz Holden thoroughly and record something of his first hand contact.”

* * *

Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and poet Robert Frost strolling through the woods at Dumbarton Oaks following ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau, May 11, 1962. (Photograph by Abbie Rowe, courtesy National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, “Udall and Frost at Dumbarton Oaks, 1962,” Special Collections Online Exhibits, accessed February 14, 2023,

The photograph above from the 1962 Thoreau event is a literal snapshot in time, a remarkable confluence of figures who played important roles, as both well-known public figures and little-known activists and operatives, in passing the baton of the conservation and environmental causes from generation to generation. Udall and his staff had taken pains to document the event by engaging a stenographer to record the speakers’ comments and an experienced photographer of Washington’s official proceedings, Abbie Rowe.

Sharon Francis shared with me her recollections of MacKaye’s attendance at the Thoreau event, which took place not far from his Washington digs at the Cosmos Club. She had helped her flustered friend through a crisis involving his stained bowtie, no small issue for an essentially impecunious man with a spare, timeworn wardrobe. In any case, Francis that day had the opportunity to introduce MacKaye to Robert Frost.

Francis confirms that she is the young woman at the far left of Abbie Rowe’s photograph, with blonde hair and a black shawl wrapped around her shoulders that spring day. Her alert posture suggests her quiet but key role as organizer and monitor of all details, scanning the straggling attendees to ensure that all the main players were present and accounted for, and that the gathering remained on schedule.

I am sure, with almost one-hundred percent certainty, that I espy Benton MacKaye himself at almost dead center of the photo, at the rear of the front phalanx of walkers. (Francis, to whom I sent a copy of the photo, was not so certain.) Just between the shoulders of the two men directly behind Udall and Frost, a man is depicted wearing a flat-topped hat of middling dark color with a wide hat band of lighter hue. His slightly out-of-focus visage only suggests somewhat angular features. Having perused perhaps hundreds of photographs of MacKaye, spanning the near century of his life, I believe this man is Benton MacKaye.

The persuasive evidence is that hat, which still survives. Fashion lore attributes the demise of more formal hat-wearing by American men to John F. Kennedy, who offered his 1961 inaugural address bare-headed on a raw January day while other men in attendance donned various toppers. Afterwards, JFK was rarely photographed wearing a hat. In any case, the photo of the 1962 Dumbarton Oaks Park event corroborates the generally hatless trend of the times. And the flat-topped design of MacKaye’s hat, of a slightly more utilitarian or bohemian style, distinguishes it from the more formal fedoras worn by professional and middle-class men of the era, such as my own father.

But compare the hat in the 1962 photo to the one MacKaye is wearing below in a 1967 photograph of him and his friend, and fellow Wilderness Society founder, Harvey Broome, standing behind MacKaye’ small home in Shirley Center, Massachusetts, just below the second-story window of his “Sky Parlor,” his principal office and workplace during the previous half century or so.

Benton MacKaye and Harvey Broome in Shirley Center MA, standing in front of the MacKaye Cottage’s “Sky Parlor” (upstairs window) in 1967. MacKaye appears to be wearing the same hat visible in the photograph of the 1962 Dumbarton Oaks Park ceremony in memory of Thoreau. Broome was then serving as President of The Wilderness Society, MacKaye as its Honorary President.  Both men were among the eight founders of the Society in 1935. Broome died in 1968, the year after this photo was taken. (MacKaye Family Papers, Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College Library)

After MacKaye’s death in 1975, his niece Christy MacKaye Barnes pursued various ways to preserve the family cottage and its contents as a sort of memorial and museum of MacKaye family legacy, including not only Benton’s but that of his brother and her father Percy, who was the author and producer of extravagant theatrical pageants during the heyday of that artistic movement in the early 20th century. Much of MacKaye’s extensive manuscripts, correspondence, and other archival material made its way to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, which now holds an extensive MacKaye Family Collection in its Rauner Special Collections Library.

The contents of MacKaye’s Sky Parlor, including furniture, hiking paraphernalia, maps, much of Benton’s personal library, and even his pipes and tobacco, ended up at the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (formerly the Appalachian Trail Conference) in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. The ATC, which holds considerable archival material of its own, is primarily an advocacy and trail-maintenance organization, though, not a library and museum. It struggled to maintain these materials in an organized and secure manner. Fortunately, its long-time director of publications (among many other titles he wore during his 35 years with the ATC), Brian King, took a personal interest in protecting these materials, including the surviving elements of MacKaye’s Sky Parlor. Fortunately, before his recent retirement, King had the satisfaction of knowing that the ATC’s considerable and significant archives would henceforth be preserved and publicly available at George Mason University Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC). King also facilitated donation of the Sky Parlor materials to the Appalachian Trail Museum, located at the Pine Furnace State Park in Pennsylvania, along the route of the Appalachian Trail near its midpoint. For all his efforts on behalf of the ATC and the AT, King has recently been named a 2023 inductee into the museum’s Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame, an honor he richly deserves.

A portion of the MacKaye Cottage’s “Sky Parlor,” as depicted in this October 1958 photograph, including a mounted bittern, a portrait of MacKaye’s uncle James Medbery, and MacKaye’s stuffed map case. (MacKaye Family Papers, Rauner Special Collections, Dartmouth College Library)

In 2021, the AT Museum opened an exhibit recreating MacKaye’s Sky Parlor. Among its relics is MacKaye’s hat, which is almost certainly the one he was wearing on that May 1962 day at Dumbarton Oaks Park.

Fortunately, recent scholars and writers have tracked down Sharon Francis at her New Hampshire home to tap her detailed and vivid recollections of the Johnsons during their White House years. She appears as a key source in Julia Sweig’s recent, empathetic biography Lady Bird Johnson: Hiding in Plain Sight and in the most recent volume of historian Douglas Brinkley’s trilogy encompassing the history of the conservation and environmental movement throughout the 20th century, Silent Spring Revolution: John F. Kennedy, Rachel Carson, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and the Great Environmental Awakening.  Francis told me that she was at work on her memoirs, which will no doubt provide an important behind-the-scenes record of some of the most important events and personalities of the conservation cause during the latter half of the twentieth century.

In a recent email, Francis provides an efficient, incisive thumbnail review of Brinkley’s tome of nearly 1,000 pages:

Having seen quite a lot of Rachel Carson and Wm. O. Douglas in the 1960s, it would not have occurred to me to portray them as leaders of the conservation movement in their day. Brinkley’s book is a writer’s prerogative, however, and he makes an important case for elevating masters of thought, and not only masters of national legislative commitments. After all, where would we have been without Henry David Thoreau?

It is fair to say that Rachel Carson’s influence approaches being Thoreauvian. She was a shy person, and of course very ill with cancer at the time Silent Spring was published. As a personality, she was far from influential. What she did have, however, was an exquisite writing ability and a deeply honest commitment to reporting the findings of scientists. Nuggets of scientific findings rose from her pages and gave them a power that could not be dismissed.

Even as the eminent conservationists who gathered that Mayday in 1962 at Dumbarton Oaks Park looked back to remember and honor the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, the sensibilities of Americans concerned about the protection and preservation of natural resources were on the threshold of fundamental shift of perspective and understanding. Only a few weeks later, in June, the New Yorker magazine published the first in a series of articles by the popular, award-winning science writer Rachel Carson, excerpted from her pathbreaking book Silent Spring, which was published that September.

Carson did not attend the 1962 Thoreau commemoration, but her spirit and influence was in the air. Among those pictured in Abbie Rowe’s photograph of participants, Francis identified by his “chiseled features” Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, Paul Brooks.

The shift from the “conservation” movement to the “environmental” movement was not merely a modest alteration of terminology. Rather, as sparked by Rachel Carson’s vividly written, carefully documented Silent Spring, environmentalism represented a new understanding of nature and the natural world, based on the scientific principles of ecology and the fundamental connectedness of all natural phenomena. 

This modest Thoreau memorial event represented a confluence of significant figures in the era’s American conservation and environmental movements. Together and individually, they left a dramatic imprint on the nation’s physical, political, and cultural landscape. Theirs is a legacy that persists and grows. ♦