This brief newsletter entry reflects on the formation of a Sanctuary Committee in the early 1950s, only a few short years after Mabel Norman Cerio’s death and two years prior to the start of James Baird’s tenure as the Sanctuary’s first director. The entry details how the committee grappled with complicated and timely questions of land use and preservation, as they sought to be effective stewards of Mabel’s gift to the community. This reflection on the Sanctuary’s early leadership emphasizes a powerful, decades-old through line in our mission: NBS has always strived to be a place where nature is a fundamental and an accessible part of the human experience.
“From the lowlands we climbed to the top of one of the ridges where the entire group had a close-up view of black-crowned night herons, at the edge of the small marshy pond below. A fine red shouldered hawk showed briefly against the background of another ridge.”
On June 8, 1953 a group of interested sanctuary neighbors met to form a sanctuary committee. None had much experience or knowledge of refuges, but all shared a common concern for the land and the preservation of its natural values. Mrs. Allan G. Davenport, who wrote the words in the above quote after the first official sanctuary bird walk, was among those at the meeting. The committee’s first chairman, William Drury, at whose house that first gathering was held, ended the session with something to the effect of, “Well, let’s get out and learn all we can about refuges now.”
And there was a lot to learn. The conservation movement, though not more than 60 years old, had developed and diversified. There were many ways to go in land use. Land could be preserved, untouched and unspoiled. Land could be conserved for multiple natural resource uses, including propagation of wildlife, or land could be used to demonstrate and educate.
At the turn of the century Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Forest Service, summed up one alternative view of land use when he described a national conservation policy that should, “Take every part of the land and its resources and put it to that use in which it will best serve the most people.”
John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and spokesman for preservationists, summed up an opposing doctrine: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”
The basis for the sanctuary’s land use policy would obviously fit more closely into John Muir’s vision of land use. Luckily Roland Clement, then director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, was at that first meeting to help decide just how.
Clement pointed out that refuges are formed for two main reasons: a) To preserve and protect something geographically or biologically unique, b) To serve as a wildlife preserve and publication education center. The Norman Bird Sanctuary’s objectives should fall under the second category, he felt, and the sanctuary committee agreed.
We have, then, a refuge where natural appreciation can be cultivated and encouraged in the young and old. To watch a hawk and learn at the same time something special about the way it lives is to care always, if even just a little, about them.
The sanctuary cordially extends an invitation to all.
Note: Photograph of NBS Trail Map is thought to be a Middletown or Newport Scout Troop in the 1950s or 1960s. Exact date and photographer are unknown.
Photograph of John Muir was taken in 1907 by Francis M. Fritz. Public Domain.