The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 

March 4, 2011


Bedford’s Alex Shoumatoff comes home to bring back ‘golden age of conservation’
JACK GOLDBERG PHOTO

At the head of the pack, Joe Niola’s collie mix Chance strains at the leash to stay in front with Ty Graygor at his heels at the Westchester Land Trust’s third annual Leon Levy Winter Walk on Sunday Feb. 27. The Land Trust will be presenting Alex Shoumatoff on Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. at Bedford’s Historical Hall.

 

By RJ MARX

The last time we interviewed Alex Shoumatoff was a little more than a decade ago, when he was fresh from a Vanity Fair profile of the “new billionaire Bedford,” in which high-powered megabucks are at work to influence the future of a “rural, woodsy and very prosperous exurb only 44 miles from Manhattan,” as Mr. Shoumatoff described it.

His description resonated, and the piece shook up the old guard as it raised alarms for the new guard. Now, more than a decade later, Mr. Shoumatoff is returning to Bedford to present a talk on behalf of the Leon Levy Environmental Symposium of the Westchester Land Trust. Mr. Shoumatoff’s talk will start at 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 6, at Bedford’s Historical Hall in Bedford Village. His lecture is called “Westchester, Bedford and the Making of a Conservationist,” and will focus on how his youth in this area led to his career as an environmental writer.

The quotable and garrulous Mr. Shoumatoff shared a preview of his talk from his home in Montreal, where he has lived for the past decade. He sees a goal in his writing to raise consciousness about the natural world, particularly vanishing species and ecosystems — dedicated, he states, “to documenting and preserving the diversity of life.”

Mr. Shoumatoff described his family as the primary influence in his pursuits — his father, a naturalist, butterfly expert and head of the New York Entomological Society, and his brother, Nicholas, also an author, naturalist and expert on Native American culture. The family moved here at the behest of Helen Frick, the daughter of Henry Clay Frick. “She had this huge property on Route 22 on the way to Armonk. She gave 600 acres of her place to create the Westmoreland Sanctuary.”

(“Miss Frick was friends with my grandmother,” Mr. Shoumatoff noted, in a characteristic digression. “My grandmother was painting FDR when he dropped dead in front of her.”)

Bedford, he recalled, “was a real crucible for the conservation movement,” with the Nature Conservancy formed here, the first chapter of the Audubon Society, and the Garden Club of America. “It’s in the heart of the richest deciduous forest on earth, 4,200 species from ferns on up.

“And my father, Nicholas Sr., was a superb naturalist. He really knew his stuff,” Mr. Shoumatoff said. “He created the Westmoreland Sanctuary; he was the first president; he designed the house for the resident naturalist. We were immersed in the golden age of conservation in Bedford.”

At the time, everyone was “old WASP gentry,” he said. “There was a group of cultured people including Miss Frick who lived in a simple, austere manner, and almost sort of old-fashioned, hardly had a car, had a Grandma Moses painting.”

In the 1960s he attended Rippowam School, “and then I went to St. Paul’s in New Hampshire where I studied ancient Greek,” he said. “Then I went to Harvard — I was admitted as a sophomore at the age of 17. My roommates were the creators of National Lampoon’s ‘Animal House,’ and acid was making its way from the lab of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. I remember playing squash on acid for four hours.”

Bedford at the time was a place where “the only thing you could do was work in your family bank or law firm, or you could become a beatnik and have a nervous breakdown.”

Inspired by professor Richard Evans Schultes, considered the father of ethnobotany, and family friends like the entomologist Andrey Avinoff, Mr. Shoumatoff began a career of authorship, including “Legends of the American Desert,” “The World is Burning,” “African Madness,” and “Westchester: Portrait of a County.”

Today, his writing and website salutes world conservation efforts, and advocates a more conscious approach to saving our natural world.

Invited to participate in the Leon Levy symposium by Tom Andersen of the Westchester Land Trust, Mr. Shoumatoff said he plans to recount the development process of the Green property in Mount Kisco. The property, he said, had formerly been in Bedford, but in order for development to proceed, was annexed by neighboring Mount Kisco. Originally, the owner had planned to cluster 50 units, but as soon as it was annexed, “they immediately rezoned it for 300 units and office space the size of the Chrysler building.”

“They showed to me that the blue-collar Americans are not ready to have the land trusted to them,” he said. “It takes generations to breed this ethos of stewardship. Even though I felt Bedford people were reeking of entitlement, snobs, and right-wing Republicans, I loved Bedford.”

He is aware of the call for ethnic diversity in northern Westchester by federal housing authorities, but is concerned about diversity at the expense of the environment. “Are you benefiting humanity by taking the South Bronx and pasting it all over northern Westchester?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s in everybody’s interest to be sensitive. It  has to be carefully planned out.”

He views land stewardship as part of “the American philanthropic tradition. America is one of the most philanthropic governments ... When I was growing up there was this spirit of stewardship. With great privilege comes responsibility.”

“My message is that Bedford is an example for the rest of the country,” he said. “Even though there’s a demographic turnover, there are people who are conservationists. That ethos is continuing. That is what is special about Bedford, probably more acreage percentagewise protected than any other area in the country.”

While land protection is “sort of not happening in society at large,” he sees Bedford as being home to a new generations of preservationists, such as the late Leon Levy, who donated more than 300 acres of land, or the Kohlbergs, who just put a conservation easement on their 75-acre property, Cabbage Hill. “I’m talking about how I’m glad to see that ethos is alive and well, so the message is keep it up! You guys are doing it right, and we need to get that ethos out into society.”

The symposium will be followed by an informal reception. Seating is limited; R.S.V.P. to grace@Westchesterlandtrust.org. For more information, visit www.Westchesterlandtrust.org.


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