There is a narrow, wooden bookshelf in the corner of my room, stuffed with paperback classics such as Hard Times and Huckleberry Finn, and some more mundane texts left over from college courses. Most of these books sit complacently in their designated order, gathering increments of dust, waiting for the day when I reach over and crack open their cover. In the top left shelf, however, there are a series of books that are exposed to the day light on a regular basis; my coveted field guides. Each has unique idiosyncrasies, typically grass stains and squashed bugs between pages — war wounds gathered from the field. But I am particularly infatuated with The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, a breathtaking display of intensely detailed artwork and meticulous descriptions of every possible bird you may spy in this region. This book is opened religiously, and usually sits in my backpack between a pair of binoculars and a weather-beaten notebook, ready to be hastily flipped open if an unfamiliar bird flits across my path. Officially, I am an ‘amateur ornithologist,’ but in my own terms, I am ‘ardent avian addict’. But whatever the title, I always have an eye to the sky.
Not surprisingly, there are millions of other people who enjoy the presence of our feathered friends, whether it is the “Oh look honey! There is a beautiful bird in the back yard!” or the “The primaries of that Sialia sialis are indicative of second year wear.” For many people, it’s the fact that these creatures are colorful, melodious, and airborne; qualities that we, as humans, cannot hold a candle to. And for some people with a background in ecology, it’s the fact that these creatures are essential in ecosystem dynamics, the functions that maintain all life, including ours. Then there is that slim minority that has a deep reservoir of knowledge and conviction, willing to sacrifice immense amounts of time and resources to insure that birds are advocated for in the development of our society. This is June Summers, president of the Genesee Valley Audubon Society, and a fanatic of all forms of life. However, you are probably just as curious as I was; how does someone become president of an Audobon Society? “I needed something else to do,” June described to me. “I needed to commune with people interested in nature, and I soon found out that [joining the Audubon Society] was a good way to learn from them as well. That was not quite thirty years ago. And I have been with them on and off ever since. For the last twenty years or so, I have been on the board….[I have been the president] for over fifteen years.”
The president of a society with the title ‘Audubon’ is inherently a momentous feat. The National Audubon Society performs an unthinkable spectrum of roles, from restoring fragile ecosystems in Alaska to teaching a class of second graders in Florida about birds of prey. Although June is the president of a subsidiary organization, her responsibilities are similar, but just on a smaller scale. “As the president, you are the voice of the organization. I help to make sure the newsletter goes out…I try to get us involved in other programs, and get volunteers involved in other programs. I run our Rochester Falcon Cam program….I write reports, and I get into more things than I probably should, but I do.” To sum it up, June has her hands full. However, prior to my meeting with June, I had a scant awareness of what the Audubon Society actually was. I had conjectured that a group of prestigious birders with L.L. Bean sweaters gathered in a reception hall with martini glasses in hand to boast about their latest finds. Needless to say, I was terribly inaccurate. Audubon strives to imbue ecological wisdom in anyone who cares to listen, from the back-yard ecologist to the peer-reviewed scientist. And to counter my preconceptions even more, Audubon regards themselves as an activist organization, lobbying for the protection of land and natural resources that are requisite for healthy ecosystems. “We are politically active. We lobby for laws that protect land, for birds, for people, and other wildlife….We have advocated for the Governor not to cut the Department of Environmental Conservation because these people are the frontline at keeping our environment safe. We have done a lot, and will continue to do a lot on as little money as everyone else. Our chapter has 1700 people, and there are twenty-eight chapters throughout the state…that puts together a large number of people that we can notify of events that [they] can contact their lawmakers [about] to let them know our opinion. I can tell you, the other side is out there letting them know their opinion; we have to be out there too.” And the Audubon society is always out there, sponsoring public education programs on invasive species, contacting Albany about hydrofracking concerns, and lobbying for the protection of ecologically sensitive habitats. With over five hundred chapters nationwide, the National Audubon Society is a formidable activist group, working to insure that there is still plenty of room for wild nature in our anthropocentric society.
June is the primary spokesperson for the Genesee Valley Audubon Society – her voice holistically reflects the core values of every member, joining multitudes of individual experiences into one, defining voice. However, with such a role, it is easy to forget that June has her own voice as well, her own perspective shaped by the neighborhood nature center she adored when she was a small girl growing up in North Carolina. From the time between her formative to her adult years, Jane’s identity has inextricably woven itself with the Rose Breasted Grosbeak, the sleek river otter (now a permanent resident of the Black Creek), the cattails swaying with the wind. June needs open places just as much as she needs a glass of cold water on a muggy, summer afternoon. “You immerse yourself in a green space, and that in itself is calming. You get away from phones…from televisions, and I look at it like I’m going on an exploration….Every time I go somewhere outside, I find something new or different. A few years ago, when I walked down here [along the Black Creek], there were lots of Joe-Pye Weed along the creek bank, and It is not there right now, and I am wondering what happened to that….Just looking at the trees and trying to identify what is here and what is not. The world is an open book, and there is no deficit of things to learn when you are outside.” Undoubtedly, June’s unwavering child-like curiosity of the natural world catalyses her impetus to protect what she finds. Without this wonder, without this appreciation for detail and subtle beauty, we would not have people like June Summers, and inevitably, we would not have organizations like the Genesee Audubon Society advocating for the protection of our local ecological treasures. Even if you’re just the average citizen who appreciates a bird song or two while hanging up the laundry outside, we are all indebted to the people who fight for nature’s existence.
“We need these open spaces, we need to preserve the biodiversity of the area….and if nothing else, we need these spaces for out rejuvenation. There is nothing like being outdoors….It is good to understand what an ecosystem is, and how that plays into our lives….Green spaces perform a number of functions we need. We need the biodiversity, and we need them for…our peace of mind; to lose ourselves in.”