by Shoshana Resnikoff, ’08
At the beginning of this essay I confessed that I had only thought of myself when I applied for my SCA internship. How would it help me? What would I get out of it?
by Shoshana Resnikoff, ’08
At the beginning of this essay I confessed that I had only thought of myself when I applied for my SCA internship. How would it help me? What would I get out of it? The Student Conservation Association does wonderful, amazing work, and I was sort of vaguely proud to be part of it, but that didn't have much influence on my decision to participate in the program. It was all about me. As I began my work at Grey Towers, however, and learned about the Pinchot family and Gifford Pinchot in particular, I began to see how the work I was doing was bigger than just me. That is the third transformation that the SCA wrought: helping me to see past just myself and my career goals to the greater mission beyond.
To explain how the Pinchots were a part of that transformation, however, I need to explain more about the family's history. As I mentioned earlier, the Pinchots were French immigrants. James, Gifford' father, was a second-generation American born in Milford. His father owned a lumber business and he grew up watching the land around him be stripped of its forested glory in the pursuit of lumber and wealth. He chose to seek his fortune in New York, moving to the city to join a decorative and interior textiles import business. He made a fortune importing wallpaper and drapes from Europe eventually retired a millionaire at the age of 40. While in New York he met his future wife, Mary Eno. They married and had four children: Gifford, Antoinette, Lucy, and Amos. Lucy died of scarlet fever as a toddler, but Antoinette and Amos grew up with Gifford.
My fellow intern Shannon and I used to joke that we felt sorry for Amos, because Gifford was obviously an overachiever. It was probably hard to have a brother as capable and accomplished as Gifford, especially during a time period when the oldest son was already held to a higher standard as heir to the fortune. Amos himself went on to do great things, however: he was a noted civil rights attorney who worked to defend Sacco and Vanzetti during their infamous trial in the early 1900s and also helped establish a legal organization that later morphed into the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gifford, though, was something else. He wrote in his autobiography that just before he left for college in 1885 his father gave him a copy of George Perkins Marsh's book “Man and Nature” and bluntly asked, "Son, how would you like to be a forester?" At that time American forestry didn't exist. The policy was still to clear-cut forests wherever one could, decimating the American forest population.
After attending Yale, Gifford went to France to attend forestry school there. Recognizing that the forestry techniques used in Europe might not translate to an American culture and economy, he returned to the US and became America's first forester. After his first position managing the forests at Vanderbilt estate in Asheville was a success, he gained some fame as a forester and began to spread the gospel of conservative and reasonable forest management.
Gifford advocated not preserving forests as untouched wildness, as his later colleague and rival John Muir did, but rather thinking of forests as a renewable, sustainable crop. With intelligence and foresight, Gifford believed that American forests could be maintained for generations to come. He used to say that American conservation meant using our natural resources to produce "the greatest good for the greatest number of people, for the longest period of time." It was an opinion that eventually brought him into conflict with other conservationists but no one would ever deny the incredible influence he had on American conservation. In 1898 Gifford was appointed the chief of the Bureau of Forestry, a tiny and unimportant office in the Department of Agriculture that had little to no say over what happened to public forests, which were regulated by the Department of the Interior. When Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 Gifford used his political connections, personal charisma, and the two men's shared love of nature to lobby for the creation of a larger office to deal with public forests. Roosevelt responded well, and in 1905 made one of his first nature conservation policy decisions by creating the US Forest Service and naming Gifford as its first Chief.
Clearly, Gifford was a man who learned the concept of noblesse oblige from his father. James recognized that those who benefit from their circumstances have an obligation to give back to the society that so helped them. Gifford truly understood what public service meant, and he passed that tradition along to his son. Now that the Forest Service runs the family estate of Grey Towers and can tell his story to thousands of visitors a year, he is posthumously passing the tradition along to all of us.
This past fall was an exciting time to be in Pennsylvania — not only were the leaves changing beautifully, but the state was also in full-on election fever. I've never lived in a swing state before, and I found myself getting caught up in the excitement. Shannon and I watched a lot of election coverage in our free time, and I remember that among all the talk of the war in Iraq and the dismal economic situation, there was also a lot of mention of national service. Barack Obama talked about all of us coming together to serve our country, whether in the armed services or the Peace Corp, as a volunteer fire fighter or someone participating in a voter registration drive. I remember sitting in front of the TV and feeling inspired by that, and saying, "you know, I should really try to commit myself to national service." Shannon just sort of gawked at me for a moment, and then said, "Shoshana, what do you think you've been doing for the last two months?"
It was like a light bulb suddenly went on in my head. This was why I'd been feeling so satisfied with my work. This was why I was so excited to go to work every day. This was why I appreciated the natural beauty around me more and got more excited about the democratic process and voter participation. I felt so much more invested in my country because I had been literally investing myself in my country, I had been doing public service and I hadn't even noticed because I was getting so much out of the experience.
I think if I had done an SCA internship anywhere in the country I probably would have come to a similar realization about my experience. Being at Grey Towers, however, made that realization so much stronger and more meaningful. Not only did I have the opportunity to do a form of national service, but also I did so in a way that has prepared me well for my future career goals and at a place that is devoted to perpetuating both the values of nature conservation and the ideals of public service.
It has taken me many pages and even more words to get to this point, but I think I can summarize my SCA experience and what it did for me in this way: when I started my SCA internship at Grey Towers, I thought it was all about me — what I could get, how I could benefit. Now that I'm done, I realize that it is all about my country and community — what I can do for it, and what that act of "doing" will eventually do for me.