Alexander Skutch

An Appreciation
Edited by Hunter Lewis; Foreword by Dana Gardner; With an Introduction by Frank Graham, Jr.
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-0-9661908-7-8
Free Digital Edition: $0.00 • eISBN: 978-1-60419-097-7

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Alexander Skutch died eight days before his 100th birthday, just prior to the publication of this book. He will be remembered, first of all, as a scientist—a naturalist, a pioneering botanist, the world’s greatest expert on Central American birds, a legend in neo-tropical ornithology. But there was and is much more to tell about this remarkable man. To some mainstream environmentalists, he will remain a controversial and even heretical figure, especially in his espousal of biocompatibility over maximal biodiversity. For others, he will live on as an unmatched writer about nature who offers us a window into a beautiful and magical world. For still others, his thoughts on morals and religion are profoundly important, especially his belief in a religion that is neither dogmatic nor mystical, a form of spirituality that is both highly original and deeply moving.

Dr. Skutch often wrote of the central powers of appreciation in the human psyche. We are grateful that he was able to review and approve this short anthology of his work, which was begun as a labor of love to show our appreciation not only for his scientific, literary, and philosophical writing, but also for the example of his long and fruitful life.

About the Author

Alexander Skutch was a world-renowned tropical ornithologist, naturalist, pioneering botanist, and unmatched writer who offered readers a window into beautiful and magical natural world and a belief in a religion that is neither dogmatic nor mystical – a form of spirituality and ethics that is highly original and deeply moving. Skutch was born in Baltimore, MD and earned a doctorate in botany from Johns Hopkins University. For more than six decades and until his death in 2004, Skutch lived on a farm in Costa Rica.


by Dana Gardner


by Frank Graham, Jr.



The Ohio River

Choosing a Vocation

A River on the Plain [Guatemala]

A Fantastic Journey

Cypress Forests and Hummingbirds

A Vernal Year

Contrasts in a Plant Collector’s Life


A Wanderer’s Harvest

Truth and Beauty


The Call of Green Hills


Los Cusingos


The Peña Blanca

Forest Trails


In the Caribbean Lowlands of Northern Costa Rica



White-fronted Nunbird


The Significance of Interspecific Helping

Characteristics of Cooperative Breeders

Benefits and Evolution of Cooperative Breeding



Biodiversity or Biocompatibility?


Windows of the Mind




The Appreciative Mind




Other Books by Alexander Skutch




The Ohio River

After returning to the United States in the spring [of 1931], I went to Cornell University to continue botanical research, but it did not go well. In the tropics I had found absorbing problems that kept me working at highest pitch and resulted in half a dozen substantial scientific papers and a number of shorter articles. Now my interests were changing; laboratory research had lost its zest; I could not revive the old enthusiasm. Older botanists advised me to specialize. Although I still loved plants, I did not find one aspect of their lives so much more absorbing than another that I could focus my interest sharply upon some narrow area of the whole great field of botany. While I felt so remote from my work, it was not difficult for my friend Winslow R. Hatch, then a graduate student in botany at Johns Hopkins, to persuade me by letter to leave the laboratories and accompany him on a canoe trip down the Ohio River, which I did at the expiration of my fellowship from the National Research Council.

On August 15 we met at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and continued by rail to Pittsburgh. Here we took passage on the Queen City, a paddlewheel steamer whose somewhat tarnished elegance reminded us of Mark Twain and the great days of river travel on the Mississippi and its tributaries. For three restful days, we wound down the muddy Ohio River, between the hills of West Virginia on our left and those of Ohio on our right. Disembarking at Huntington, West Virginia, we visited Dr. W. E. Neal, a former mayor of the city, to whom Win had a letter of introduction. He took us into his home while we bought a secondhand canoe and supplies for our voyage.

The start of our canoe trip was not encouraging. Leaving the boathouse of the Huntington Boat Club at four o’clock in the afternoon, we set forth down the river under a drizzle. After paddling about eight miles, we landed on the Ohio shore to look for a campsite among the willows that everywhere fringed it. The best we could find in the dusk was a patch of rough, sloping ground halfway up the steep bank, hardly wide enough for our pup tent. Unable to find dry wood for a campfire, we ate a meager supper of crackers and apples and crept into our tent early. Sleep rarely comes readily on one’s first night on the ground; and here the usual difficulty of resting tranquilly was increased by the noises of freight trains rumbling along the tracks on both sides of the river, of electric cars in the nearby town of Kenova, and of barge- pushers with loudly splashing paddle wheels passing along the channel, stirring up waves that broke noisily on the bank. During the night the sky cleared and stars shone through the willows above us. Finally, my bones became reconciled to the asperity of the ground beneath them, and I dozed off.

Rain was falling steadily when we awoke next morning, but the cheerful whistles of the Carolina Wrens in the surrounding trees assured us that the new day was not as dreary as it seemed. While we sat in our tent eating a cold breakfast of cereal, bread, and apples, a catbird peered in inquisitively but offered no encouraging song. All morning the rain continued, holding us in camp. Finally, it abated somewhat and we packed our damp equipment, to resume our voyage beneath the continuing drizzle.

An hour’s paddling brought us to the second of the many locks through which we passed on this trip. The long Ohio River has been canalized, or rather converted into a series of lakes, by the construction of many dams along its course. Vessels were lowered, or raised, from one lake to another by a lock beside each dam. These locks were spacious enough to accommodate not only river steamers but the strings of big freight barges that were pushed up and down the stream.


Just when we were in the region where the screen of pungent, sulphurous smoke from the steel furnaces hung thickest, and our regret for having left the inviting hills behind us was most poignant, we noticed a break in the willows on the opposite shore. It hardly looked promising, but it offered the best escape from our present predicament. . . . We passed beneath a railroad bridge and a highway bridge, rounded a curve, and found three boys gathering firewood by the shore. They told us that this stream was called “The Tiger” (Tygart’s Creek was evidently its correct name), and they showed us a pleasant spot in an open, streamline grove where we could camp.

Fred, the oldest boy, led me to the house of a neighbor, Harry Hunt, where provisions were available. This generous farmer would accept no money for half a dozen roasting ears and a number of excellent apples; they were, he said, a reward for my honesty in asking for what many would have taken without permission.

When we awoke next morning, a chilling mist hung over the valley and a drizzle fell. Going to the streamside for my first wash and shave since leaving Huntington four days earlier, I was delighted with the abundant tall ironweed that displayed great spreading panicles of large, deep purple flowerheads on straight stems nine feet high. After breakfast, we paddled upstream for several miles, until we came to rapids against which our most strenuous efforts were of no avail. Then, tying our canoe in a quiet cove, we pushed through the dense riverside growth of great ragweed and found ourselves in a field of corn and pumpkins, which a woman in a sunbonnet was hoeing. Nearby stood her one-story log cabin, with whitewashed walls. We seemed to have entered a world remote in space and time from the great steel mills and bustling modern industry along the great river. In this field, we made the acquaintance of the apple of Peru, an attractive if somewhat rank weed of the nightshade family. Along the field’s border, tall bellflowers lifted splendid spikes of large, pale blue flowers.

Climbing a steep hillside, we came to an old apple orchard, beside which was an almost pure coppice growth of the Common Papaw, whose large leaves suggested tropical luxuriance, as well they might, as this small tree is the northernmost representative of the almost exclusively tropical custard apple family. Nearby, we found a magnificent Papaw Swallowtail Butterfly, which seemed to have drawn tropical splendor from the foliage on which it had fed while still a caterpillar. It clung amid low weeds for shelter from the strong breeze, giving us an opportunity to admire, without disturbing, its wide, pale bluish white wings boldly striped with black. A bright red dot adorned each hind wing, near the base of the long, slender “tail.”

By the light of a nearly full moon, we continued downstream, paddling easily and depending chiefly on the strong flood current to carry us along. Sitting in the bow, Win kept a close watch for the large logs and rafts of brushwood that were likewise being swept forward by the stream, and directed our course to avoid a dangerous collision with them. The wooded hills that bordered this beautiful stretch of river were transformed by the soft moonlight into distant ranges of lofty mountains; the scene was even grander than it would have been by day. Only here and there, at long intervals, a light shone from the window of a lonely farmhouse by the shore. When we passed the village of Vanceburg, Kentucky, soon after ten o’clock, it seemed already to have gone to sleep.

At the base of a high bluff on the opposite shore, we nosed our canoe inward under the willow trees, whose roots were inundated by the high water, and Win landed to seek a campsite. Passing through a thicket of great ragweed, he reached a grove of small slippery elm and common locust trees high on the bank. With hardly any undergrowth, this grove, upon which we stumbled in the moonlight, proved to be one of the most pleasant campsites of our whole trip. Abundant driftwood from the spring floods provided the fuel to cook our belated supper. Then, for the first time since we embarked, two conveniently spaced trees and favoring weather invited me to stretch my hammock, in which I was soon comfortably ensconced. Win preferred to sleep on the ground.


In the morning, I awoke to catch the sun’s earliest beams striking through the boughs; to gaze across the river where they were dispelling the nocturnal mists; to hear the songs of the Cardinal and the Carolina Wren and the Red-eyed Vireo and almost feel that I belonged to the feathered nation, for my sleeping body was upheld by [a hammock slung on] the same trees that supported them. Then to arise, and wash away all drowsiness by plunging into the river’s clear water—but alas, too often the river was diluted mud or, what was worse, covered by a sickening, greasy scum, the unhealthy consequence of human indifference to the purity of waterways. This was the most unpleasant feature of our voyage. Years later, I traveled in a Peruvian gunboat for many hundreds of miles along the Rio Maranon or Upper Amazon and its great tributaries, the Ucayali, the Huallaga, the Napo, and the Yavari. These, too, were turbid streams, laden with silt from the high Andes; but they bore scarcely any trace of human pollution and their water supplied the ship’s shower baths.


Next day, we stopped at the quiet little town of Ripley, Ohio, to buy provisions and call for mail. We had returned to the canoe and were about to push off, when some men loitering at the foot of the main street hailed us. Returning, I found the postmistress, who had walked several blocks to tell us that we had mailed a card without an address. I accompanied her back to the post office to rectify the oversight. Where could one find a more considerate postal service?


The rain that had long been threatening now came down in a deluge and continued until my teeth began to chatter and cold chills coursed along my spine. All our baggage got wet. My companion would not be satisfied with any campsite except a certain “grassy knoll” that he had noticed on our upward voyage, but this enticing spot continued until nightfall to elude us. Finally, departing from our usual practice, we stopped at a farmhouse whose lights we saw shining through the rainy night, and obtained permission to sleep in a shed.

Next morning, while tent, blankets, mosquito nets, changes of clothes, and odds and ends were spread along the shore to dry in the sunshine, I envied the chickadees who foraged among the locust trees on the bank. They, too, had weathered the deluge of the preceding evening and were now enjoying the sun’s earliest rays, none the worse for their experience. Not theirs to waste hours of precious sunshine recovering from the effects of a drenching that they had doubtless already forgotten. Having acquired no wettable property, they had given no hostages to the weather.

After everything had been spread out in the sunshine, we noticed a fine yacht speeding upstream, throwing out swelling bow waves that threatened to break over our drying equipment and undo all our work. Hurriedly, we moved our things farther from the water’s edge. To the passersby, this bit of shore must have resembled the bank of a Jamaican stream on a washday. As the luxurious vessel swept proudly past us, we reflected that if, instead of “wasting” our time on vagabond excursions, we applied ourselves diligently to some lucrative occupation for the next few decades, we, too, might travel the inland waterways in the grand style. But even while recovering from the effects of our recent soaking, we did not envy the people in the yacht as much as we envied the chickadees. It seemed better to be enjoying this free life before the years softened our hardihood and tamed our spirit of adventure.


In thirty days on the Ohio, we had traveled four hundred and fifty miles by canoe, not counting our side excursions up some of its tributaries. We had found and identified seventy-five species of plants new to us, although, as was to be expected, we found nothing new to science in this country already well combed by naturalists—that remained for later travels in fresher fields. And, in those days at the height of the Great Depression, our living expenses during our month on the river came to slightly less than eleven dollars for each of us.

From what we saw of this rich valley, now so thoroughly tamed and subjugated to human uses, it was hard to imagine how it had appeared to pioneer naturalists, to Wilson and Audubon, Say and Rafinesque, or to still earlier explorers who saw it in all its pristine splendor, when majestic forests, of which we saw only a few small remnants, lined the shores, wild turkeys strutted in the woodland, and tremendous flocks of passenger pigeons darkened the sky. It was sad to think that all this vast midland of North America was “developed” without much consideration for values not given by corn and wheat, cattle and tobacco. In later years, I visited valleys having a more varied flora, richer and more colorful bird life. These, too, are threatened with the same ruthless exploitation that overtook the Ohio and its tributaries. They can be saved only if a too materialistic and too rapidly increasing humanity undergoes a change of aims and values so swift and radical that it could be compared only to a mass religious conversion. Although I saw only a valley too recklessly shorn of its natural wealth, I am glad that I made this leisurely voyage through the heart of my native land, and experienced some of the kindness of its people, before finally leaving it for fresher fields.