Remembering Carl Reidel
- By Joshua E. Brown
Carl Reidel loved Vermont. He was deeply taken with “the genius of the place,” he would say, quoting biologist René Dubos. In his unlikely trajectory from the south side of Chicago — the first in his family to graduate from high school — to his peaceful farmstead in North Ferrisburgh, where he died last week, Reidel came to understand one of the deep paradoxes of environmental awareness.
It is in “tranquil settings that people have become most conscious of the very real environmental crisis facing our little planet,” he said in September, 1972, as the UVM convocation speaker.
That year, Reidel was recruited by then-UVM president Edward Andrews to start the nation’s first university-wide interdisciplinary Environmental Program. He ran the program until his retirement in 2000 as University Professor Emeritus of environmental policy.
"Carl loved to see students and faculty engaging the really tough environmental issues facing us,” recalls Stephanie Kaza, who now directs UVM’s Environmental Program.
“He was a brilliant man of many accomplishments, but there wasn’t the slightest whiff of pomposity about him,” said forester Virginia Barlow, the co-editor of Northern Woodlands magazine, whose board Reidel served on, including as president.
“He was deeply warm and generous and could improve everyone’s mood by just walking in the door,” Barlow said.
Yet he could look steadily, even sternly, at the “new facts about pollution and population,” as he wrote, and he understood the rhetorical allure of laments about “air grey with smog” and the “oil-stained estuary.”
“He didn’t profess to know the answers to the problems,” said Jim Northup, executive director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, who fondly recalled Reidel’s service on the board of the organization Forest Watch, “but he thought that some of the answers would come by looking for the unity in our diversity.”
“He encouraged a sense of collaborative learning, all of us together trying to find a better way forward,” said Kaza.
“He loved the environmental movement,” Carl Reidel’s son, Jon Reidel, G ’06, said, “but knew that the way to do it was through policy changes.”
Beyond Henny Penny
Carl Reidel received his master's in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School in 1964, and then returned to Minnesota, where he had been an undergraduate in forestry, to complete his doctorate in natural resources policy. In addition to UVM, he served on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, Williams, Harvard and Yale. He was vice president of the New England Environmental Policy Center, served a term in the Vermont House of Representatives, and sat on the Governor’s Council of Environmental Advisors. He also worked as a consultant to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service.
And in all this academic and political work, Reidel saw how the rhetoric of environmentalism could tip toward fatalism and a litany of gloomy statistics. But he also saw how academic and political institutions could devour energetic and genuine efforts to bring deep change — they, like the fox in the fable of Henny Penny, often lured the “radical chicken and her friends,” Reidel wrote, “into his den for further study of the problem…and ate them.”
“Thoreau on the shores of Walden Pond, George Catlin in the western wilderness, John Muir in the high Sierra, Aldo Leopold on his Wisconsin farm, Rachel Carson on the rugged Maine Coast,” Reidel wrote, “all found new insights in their inspiring settings.”
“They warned,” he wrote, “that liberation of the human potential and enhancement of individual dignity are inextricably linked to the total environment of man.” But, he continued, “these voices have had remarkably little impact in the way intended.” Instead, “somehow, especially in the university, we have taken their words and made them polite and dispassionate topics of study,” he wrote, “seldom confronting their deeper moral, cultural and political meanings.”
Into this paradox, Reidel brought Vermont.
“I believe in Vermont,” he wrote in an essay for the Burlington Free Press on March 14, 2010. In his chosen state, Reidel did not see some “metaphysical power in the air,” he wrote, or a sepia postcard, but a real, green, beautiful place. Reidel admired a complex set of attributes he saw in Vermonters — attributes that to him hinted at a way forward on environmental problems.
He wrote admiringly in his 2010 essay of the fact that Vermont has banned billboards, but protects the right to hunt and fish on any unposted land; that it has a statewide environmental planning law, but allows citizens to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. Reidel loved Vermont’s admixture of liberal and conservative values, and in the essay he quotes his UVM colleague Frank Bryan’s summary of Vermont as “an enigma,” whose people combine “hard living and fierce loyalty to locality,” and who are “feisty, taciturn, honest to a fault.”
Reidel saw in Vermont’s culture a partial template of how both environmentalism and higher education might reform. “If our commitment is to central humane values of liberal learning, with their concern for quality of life,” he wrote, then statistics that merely confirm a narrative of “an already doomed world,” are beneath our deepest consideration.
“True environmentalism demands,” Reidel wrote, “a revival of the universities’ traditional quests for the good, the true, the beautiful, with a commitment to seeking a higher quality of life, not mere survival.” In short, he saw in Vermont a remarkable number of people who brought together some flavor of this high-mindedness and pragmatism.
Telling it straight
Reidel served as president of the American Forestry Association, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation and on the board of the wilderness advocacy group, Forest Watch.
“He was a trained forester,” Northup said, “yet he had a great reverence for wild forests.’”
“He was not someone to be trapped by conventional thinking,” Northup said, “he was unafraid to advocate for something unpopular, like wilderness.”
“He respected working people, people who worked in the woods,” said Steve Long, now at the Harvard Research Forest, who spoke fondly of a forestry study trip he took with Reidel to Finland and Sweden in 2000. Over those two weeks, the contentious issue of certification of sustainable forestry practices was being debated between New Englanders and Southerners on the trip. “We replayed the War Between The States on that trip,” Long said. Reidel was “an intellectual giant,” he said, who argued kindly but firmly for the value of certification. Reidel was “someone who could easily present a case to a group which had no interest in that view,” Long said.
“He spoke truth to anybody,” agreed UVM environmental studies professor Tom Hudspeth, who joined Reidel’s new program as assistant director in 1972 — and yet Reidel was an “adroit diplomat,” who knew when to wear tweed and when flannel, Hudspeth recalled.
“The cultures on this campus are quite different now — and it was even more so in the 70’s,” says Hudspeth. “He was masterful at working with different cultures on campus, articulate, fast on his feet, charismatic.” And it was these attributes that allowed him to deliver on President Andrews’ charge to create an environmental program that served students in all the colleges and schools across the whole of the university — and made it thrive for decades.
Joie de vivre
Reidel died on Nov. 3, 2011 of pancreatic cancer.
“He was optimistic and upbeat until the end,” Jon Reidel said, noting that his father stayed in his beloved house until his death, thanks to the care of his wife, Jean Richardson, family members and hospice care.
Carl Reidel and Richardson, a UVM professor of environmental studies emerita, traveled across the Unites States, often in their RV, with their dogs, William and Harry. He went to many countries around the world from Russia to the Middle East. But “Carl was his happiest sitting with Jean on the back porch or by Lewis Creek,” Jon Reidel wrote in a recent obituary, watching the daffodils or surveying their large garden, “enjoying a martini or glass of wine together.”
Jon Reidel said his father led him to the white barn near his house just before his death to point out where sparrows nested. His father told him how each year the fledgling birds lived the first part of their lives in the darkness of the corner of the barn with their mother. “’The young birds think that’s the whole world,’” Jon Reidel recalls his father saying, “'but then they eventually come out into a huge, beautiful, light world.’ He believed he would come out into the light too, like they do.”