Rebel on the Road
And Why I Was Never Neutral
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Michael Frome is the pioneer conservation journalist and the premier environmental muckraker who knows a lot about integrity and dedication. He spent years as a media writer defending the environment, while many of his peers played it safe. Frome named names and pointed fingers, often forcing politicians and public officials to explain and remedy their environmental negligence. His boldness often got him fired, but there was always another path for him to pursue or another publisher willing to promote his fiery dedication to conservation.
In this memoir, Frome tells how he developed an interest in conservation and what motivated him to pursue nature preservation. He reviews the years he taught himself and others how to write subjectively, live purposefully, and age gracefully.
Frome’s story begins during the Depression in New York City, and draws on historical, literary, political, and intimate personal influences and events that have shaped him throughout his 87 years. He recounts his failures and victories with candor and offers philosophical reflections with hope. He began his career as a copyboy for the Washington Post, rose to write front-page stories, but left to pursue his passion for writing by concentrating on natural resources and the environment. Over the years, he was a featured columnist in Field & Stream, Los Angeles Times, and Defenders of Wildlife. He has written eighteen books, including definitive works about national forests (Whose Woods These Are), the Great Smoky Mountains (Strangers in High Places), wilderness preservation (Battle for the Wilderness), and environmental journalism (Green Ink).
I know now that I was crying for redemption by meeting a moral purpose. That must be what made me feisty, as they said of me, why I wrote as I did, and why I insisted on viewing defeat as opportunity. Maybe it began in the Depression years when I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs, and the communist period when I learned of the need for social justice, and the time I spent with steel workers and immigrant furriers, and my search for infinity over the oceans of the world during World War II. Whatever it may have been, the search throughout my life, without truly knowing, was for redemption by finding some way to bring the illness of our time, through my imagination, energy, and hope, into the realm of grace.
Michael Frome’s life can be summed up in one word: passion. As a man, he is devoted to his ideals, family, and friends. As an environmental icon, he is one of a special breed of journalist, fighting for a cause without concern for his own well-being, wealth, or relationships. We are blessed his cause is the earth.
—Paul Pritchard, president, National Park Trust
In this world of quick compromise, don’t-rock-the-boat, and Milquetoast approaches to environmental action, Michael Frome’s story stands as a rock of unswerving high standards and courage in defense of the earth’s wild places and wild things. His compelling life story inspires us to embrace the highest standards for environmental protection and to hold fast to those ideals despite personal sacrifice. The earth needs more defenders and Frome shows us the way.
—Mark Peterson, executive director, Audubon Minnesota
As a seasoned watchdog and critic, no other environmental writer gave a more objective, well-documented assessment of the failures and betrayals of those in power who violated the public trust. Michael Frome’s memoirs reveal his support of activist leaders around the country who bring accountability to government. It is in these everyday citizens who fight for the public interest that he finds hope for democracy and our nation.
—Stewart Brandborg, former executive director, Wilderness Society
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book is to feel the wisdom that has come with Frome’s aging, and the eventual peace and contentment that developed late in his life. This book, then, is not an analysis of Frome’s role in the rise of the modern environmental movement, or his place among the leaders in American conservation. Although I was at first disappointed with Frome’s unwillingness to describe the people and events that shaped the modern environmental movement, as I continued reading the book, I became enamored with the description of his remarkable life’s journey from a “frustrated, frightened, and unfulfilled” (p. 270) man ashamed of his past, to one who has finally found contentment, and who wishes to share the joys of such a personal transformation.
From the Bronx to Bellingham
Thanks to Irving Howe – Growing up in the Bronx – Mothers didn’t work outside the home – My parents, for all their hard work, never owned a home – Midtown Manhattan had a kind of desperate sparkle – Many of those people brought with them into maturity the sharp
edge of growing up poor
Lincoln Steffens was still on the scene – Journalism seemed immediate, direct, and essential – Dorothy Day asked, “What were we here for?” – CCNY, evening session, was a lively place – Where Kazin taught the power of feeling – Grades did not matter much to us
Pittsburgh, 1937 – With its awesome symbols of corporate industrial America – Where the whole river suddenly lit to a rosy glow – Three Serbians and five eggs – The strike was on – The less people had, the more they shared and cared
Not a single one of our stories was worth publishing – Stavisky liked the camaraderie of the small, dedicated staff – I registered for the draft – Lots of hurrahs, but what was war really all about? . . .
The Air Corps was my home – We learned to salute smartly and recognize authority – Studying astronomy, stars, trigonometry, and angles – She was a loner – “But I can’t let you go without seeing you first”
Around the world, and around again – I loved the stars, brilliant, cobalt blue, glistening, red, flamboyant – The cockpit was a room, an office, living and working space – A Marshall Islander smiled with friendly eyes, free of guile
At the end I wondered about wars – Whether any side ever wins – At least I learned to view the spangled heavens as a pattern for knowledge and beauty – They don’t navigate that way anymore
“Okay, you’re hired” – The entire building was perilous and problematic – Still, everybody on the paper pulled together – Becoming a bit of a celebrity around the newsroom – Then choosing, perhaps, the wrong turn
Racism was deep, virtually inbred – The South was a province in poverty, and in transition – On the road again – Leading to southern mountains and mountain people – Uplifting majesty of the moment
Every experience brings something positive – Working in public relations – I met and married my first wife – Introduced to conservation and conservationists – Learning there is no such thing as a fixture that lasts
Breaking in as a freelance writer – It wasn’t easy but it worked – Stories on conservation were not being covered – My friend in New England “reaping the sweet fragrance of an apple orchard in full flower”
Following the path of Devoto and Neuberger – To 11,000 feet in a Rocky Mountain wilderness – Forestry friends and teachers – Finding “the woods are lovely, dark and deep”
I became a magazine columnist – Sticking to the truth, really bad enough without stretching it – Writing about politics and bureaucracy, naming the wrongdoers – “Please help us save this park”
A new and different experience at Yale – Students rocked the boat, demanding answers – Meeting mountain people, all helpful – Joining the defense of Smoky Mountains wilderness
Foresters and loggers did not approve – Congressmen complained … Time said I was “tough and tendentious” – But what, after all, is a writer really worth without freedom to bring hope into the realm of grace?
Doors closed, others opened – A woman rose to ask my advice – The English teacher frowned on Allen Ginsberg – Schoolchildren saw something special in the varmints
Sigurd Olson’s challenge was meant for me – Examining diverse aspects of wilderness – George Wallace gave his support – Brandborg’s door and heart were open – A new experience in Vermont
Piles of fi les spilled over – In Yellowstone, a wilderness romance – Walking old logging roads – The hot water was on for tea – While winds of change cleaned out the stale air
The town had a scale about it, a human dimension – Peter would play Bach and Mozart by the hour – They read their work, sharing revelations and wonder – Why I was never neutral
When Ortonville Meets the Bronx
Life was busy, but not complete – She drew a picture of three tulips – Meepul perched on the edge of things – Jack Nicholson explained why he pursued his sweetheart – “We only go around once”
Finding the Galápagos in a new era – Sharing a purpose – And sacred connections – June followed sisterhood in Beijing and Kodiak Island – The rain forest was a misty jewel out of the pages of Green Mansions
Ortonville meets the Bronx – How little we know of life beyond our place – Children should not fight over candy in Easter baskets – Rolvaag produced his own epic of prairie life – The governor refused to use troops as strikebreakers – Myles Horton set the tone
All one world, all one life, indivisible – Students made a great day of Earth Day – Lessons from Greek gods and poor Mexicans – We are all in turn victims of what we are told and taught – Brock and Linda showed us the desert
John Oakes was gentle, but wrote with power – The old apartment buildings were still there, seventy or so years later – An ancient city with narrow, winding cobbled streets – Perle Hessing saw a cloud of insects with iridescent wings
Walking on “stony ground” – Our balloon ride on Ascension Day – Introducing “warmth” and “verve” – Times to soak in foaming bubbles – And taste the best wine with a best friend
Blackie was an outside dog – Brandy hardly weighed more than my laptop computer – Woods and water were ablaze – ”Animals are footprints of God” – Terriers are earth dogs
Old pals and playmates were fallen or fading – A wheelchair would make things easier – Another magic moment, when total strangers appeared to help – The report was discouraging and frightening – An incredibly strong circle of support
Bellingham was on those magazine lists – Trees were coming down, subdivisions, shopping malls, and superstores going up – For me, it was the family that made the difference
Faith: churches sing patriotic songs as though they were hymns – Muir’s entire life was a pilgrimage – It isn’t easy to speak truth to power from the pulpit – Dorothy Day was in jail many times
My Texas advisor – Arriving like a prairie falcon with talons bared – The reporter’s report and the editor’s edit are never, ever, objective – The irreverent, independent reporter pays the price – Thomas Merton’s true tidings
Walking uphill – The penny asked me to bend down and listen – Cephalus looked past the dark forebodings – Learning to speak from the heart – June blessed the greyhound nation – Saving the best for last
Michael Frome is author of eighteen books including GreenSpeak, Green Ink, Battle for the Wilderness, Regreening the National Parks, Chronicling the West, and Strangers in High Places. He was a journalist and featured columnist in Field & Stream, Los Angeles Times, American Forests, and Defenders of Wildlife. He taught at University of Idaho, University of Vermont, Northland College, and Western Washington University.