Rachel Carson and a Drug Dealer Named Dog

Rodney Stotts, with Kate Pipkin, Bird Brother: A Falconer’s Journey and the Healing Power of Wildlife (Island Press, 2022).

 

Rachel Carson did not know any gun-toting drug dealers named Dog. But Rodney Stotts, the central figure in Bird Brother, channels her values of empathy, wonder in nature, and its restorative power. Carson’s feeling for those species and people who are “others” is clear from her very first book, Under the Sea-Wind. We swim along with, and come to identify with, Scomber, the Mackerel, and Anguilla, the eel, as we are drawn into their dramatic struggles for survival in the sea.

Once we make the imaginative leap of becoming an eel or a mackerel, it is an easy step to feel compassion, even love, for those far different than ourselves.

Like Rachel Carson, or I suspect you, I had not known any drug dealers from Anacostia, let alone one I come to like and worry about as he evades the cops, sees his friends shot and stabbed, fights for his own life, and fends off vicious bullies in prison. Rodney Stotts (with Kate Pipin) relates all this in vivid, colorful, often amusing prose in what is part memoir, part spiritual and psychological journey, and part brilliant, close-up nature writing about the raptors (hawks, eagles, owls, falcons) who led him to escape his old life, spread his wings, and fly free.

There are intriguing parallels with Rachel Carson here. Once Stotts becomes a master falconer who introduces city kids to raptors and nature, he puts on programs at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Maryland , the very spot where Carson birded with friends like Chandler S. Robbins, author of the Golden Guide to Birds. It was Robbins who first introduced Carson to the early research about DDT at Patuxent linking it to adverse health outcomes in both birds and humans.

Carson, of course, believed that we needed to cultivate a sense of wonder. She famously said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” Stotts developed his earliest love for nature as a boy at the feet of his great-grandmother at her small farm in Falls Church, Virginia, (before the area was developed into a pricey suburb) that had “pigs, chickens, ducks, you name it…” Stotts recalls that “the smell of hay, manure, fresh earth, and animal made me laugh out loud… it just made me happy.”

After Rodney turns to dealing (but not using) drugs to make a living his troubles begin. But he is mentored by a master falconer and nature film producer, Bob Nixon, who directed Gorillas in the Mist about the late Dian Fossey who lived among, studied, and helped save the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. But Fossey made Nixon pledge to do a year of hands-on conservation work before she would let him film. Nixon fulfilled that vow by forming the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC) a group dedicated to helping youth in the poverty-stricken Anacostia section of Washington, DC by having them clean up and restore the heavily polluted, trash-strewn Anacostia River.

Stotts was among the first group of nine African American youths recruited by Nixon. After much toil, when they had cleared a section of the river, Stotts recounts his joy at seeing the first bird, a Great Blue Heron, return to live and hunt along the riverside. “It had landed on a spot that we had cleaned up. We started to cheer, and that scared the heron away, but we didn’t care. We knew it would return because it had found a place free of trash.”

Rodney does his own mentoring, sharing nature and raptors like Mr. Hoots, the owl, with urban youth who then develop their sense of wonder, caring, and concern.

And, as Bob Nixon did with him, Rodney passes on the joy and discipline of falconry with his son Mike and forms the non-profit Rodney’s Raptors to introduce a new generation of urban youth to relationships with wild things. He says, “If something is untamed and wild it has a spirit that can’t be crushed. That doesn’t mean we should be afraid of it; it just means we should take the time to learn about it and understand it. Once we understand the wild things, we understand ourselves.”

This sensitivity from Stotts is like a Rachel Carson for a diverse, urban nation. As she put it, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” The result, ultimately, is Bird Brother, a slim, stirring book that leads us to examine our own lives, to understand and connect with those far, far different than us, and to share those feelings about nature and ourselves with those around us who also will be changed.

Bird Brother is ideal for undergraduate classes in environmental studies, African American studies, American literature, criminal justice, philosophy, ethics, and more at a time when understanding and appreciating difference on campus and in our nation is crucial, as is finding strength and joy though nature while working to protect and restore it.


— Bob Musil is the President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council and author of Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers, 2016) and Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital (Bartleby, 2016). He is also the editor of the forthcoming annotated edition from Rutgers University Press of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind with his Introduction, updated marine science, and historic and contemporary illustrations and photographs.