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Of Anniversaries and Lasting Influences

Bill Meredith

Among the arcane information stored in my head is the fact that Oct. 13 fell on a Friday in 1902. I know this because on that day, in the hamlet of Meadowdale, WV, Paul Meredith was born. He was my father.

He did not like being "fussed over," so when his 100th anniversary arrived last month I did not undertake any overt celebration, except to ask my children to write down some of their memories of him. He would have appreciated this, I think; family memories were important to him. In passing them down to me he became my most important link to my genealogical roots. That, in turn, has led me to understand why it was inevitable that I became an ecologist.

He grew up in a house known as the "old homestead," which was built by his great-grandfather in the 1840's. The original family farm, a quarter-section (160 acres), was still largely intact; only a few building lots had been given to the male heirs, and there were four uncles living within easy walking distance. On the farm were a blacksmith shop and sawmill. It was a grand place for a boy to grow up, and its influence still shows; it was passed on through me, and a century later my grandchildren enjoy gardening and making things with their hands.

Although he was born at the beginning of the 20th Century, my father was a child of the 19th. His father worked in the Post Office, so his early childhood was dominated by his grandfather, a vigorous 70-year-old who still operated the sawmill. As a pre-schooler, playing in the mill and smithy, he learned basic principles of physics without realizing it; levers, pulleys, and hydraulics were second nature to him. Although he had no knowledge of the theories behind their operation, he could apply them in unique ways to solve problems; he was a practical inventor. All of this was passed on to me in a peculiarly traditional manner as I grew up: he expected me to watch as he worked, and to participate as soon as I was big enough. He was not very good at verbal explanations, but he could always demonstrate how things worked, and what to do when they didn't. Thus when I got to high school, physics was one of my easier courses.

In the sawmill, the smithy, and in his own workshop when I was young, nothing was wasted. Broken or worn-out tools were repaired, or were used as raw material for making something else, and scraps of wood were saved against the time when he would need a board just that size. If he were here now, he would enjoy visiting my workshop; he would understand the clutter generated by never throwing anything away, and he would recognize many of the tools. The bandsaw he bought in 1949, the pliers, drawknife and plane from his workbench, the drill press that he made from the wringer mechanism of an old washing machine… all still function, to the delight of my grandchildren. When recycling became popular in the 1960's, I did not have to be convinced of its worth; it was already in my blood.

Much of the area around Meadowdale was lumbered in the early 1800's, and by 1900 it had re-grown into a mature forest of chestnut, oak, maple and beech. This forest was being cut again at the turn of the century, and by the time he was 8 or 9 years old, my father was driving a team of horses that dragged logs off the hills to the sawmill. His grandfather must have been a good teacher; he never was seriously injured at that work. He knew the names of all the trees in the forest, the kind of soil and slope where they grew best, and the quality of each kind of wood. But he also understood that a forest is more that a source of lumber. He was a practical ecologist; although he never heard of Aldo Leopold, he lived according to a Land Ethic.

He noticed the erosion that occurred along the logging trails; thereafter, he was always concerned about preserving soil. In the 1950's, he refused to lease his farm to strip-miners, although several of our neighbors were making easy fortunes by doing so; he simply said it wasn't worth it because "the ground would be ruined." He understood the connection between healthy forests and streams; he had seen the trout, pike and bass disappear from Prickett's Creek, which regularly flooded in the spring and went dry in the summers after the watershed forests were cut.

We talked about this once when I was well into my academic career, and he was detached and practical when speaking of his own role in cutting the forests. It was a way of life, and he felt no regret or guilt about it. The forests had been cut before; everyone assumed they would grow back again. From his vantage point, he could not have foreseen that the human population would grow so explosively and pollution would become so rampant in his lifetime. It was only toward the end of his life that a note of sadness appeared in his voice when he talked of these things and realized that the changes he had been part of were not reversible.

We did not talk much about my work. I knew when I entered college that it would have pleased him if I had gone into the Methodist ministry; but one of the greatest gifts he gave me was to let me choose my own career, without pressure. When I decided to become a biologist, he was proud that I seemed to be achieving success, and that I was earning enough to be comfortable, but he did not have much understanding of what an academic biologist actually does. He did know I was happy doing it. I would like to think that by the end of his life he had learned enough about it to take satisfaction in the knowledge that he had prepared me well for it; but I am not sure. It took me until this 100th anniversary to realize how

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