I am sorry to tell you of the passing of John McNeely, one of the pioneers of Connecticut conservation, on January 11 in Norcross, Georgia. He was 67 years old.
John was the first land steward and acquisitionist of the Weantinoge Heritage Land Trust, the largest land trust in CT and one of the largest private landowners in the state, and worked with the trust from shortly after its founding in Alice McAllister’s kitchen in New Milford in 1965 until he retired as a board member in 2005. He was directly involved with the preservation of thousands of acres in many towns in Northwestern Connecticut. He was also the source of many entries in the DEEP Natural Diversity Database, early record tree databases, and the discoverer of a significant Native American summer village site along the Still River in New Milford. After leaving Weantinoge, John retired to Sorrento, Maine on the north coast of Frenchman’s Bay. He thence eventually made his way to his family’s land in Georgia, his final resting place.
John is most well known nationally for his long-time relationship with Veedor, the only Andean condor ever to be allowed by the USFWS to be in private care. John and Veedor traveled around the country as advocates of avian conservation. He was a nationally known falconer, hawk trainer, master birder, and and an accomplished botanist, almost all self-taught. He was a general aviation pilot of impressive skill (I know this from direct experience) and a competition hang glider pilot known for his ability to tease the most subtle lift out of nearly calm air. He was also a remarkable filmmaker who captured the essence of raptors in flight by flying among them in hang gliders and helmets outfitted with 16mm cine cameras. John himself was the subject of a 1980 documentary by Hugh Morton called “The Hawk and John McNeely”, described as such: “John McNeely, a naturalist from Grandfather Mountain, trains a red-tailed hawk in the sport of falconry and hang gliding. Then the film, for the first time ever to this degree, shows man satisfying his age-old dream to fly with the birds.” It is a remarkable film that resides today in the archives of the University of North Carolina. A later incident aloft during such work led to a dramatic mid-air crash at altitude that left John with chronic pain for the rest of his life. Yet this did nothing to stop him from caring for his birds and pushing Weantinoge ahead in the years when land trusts were quite rare.
John was in demand as a tropical birding guide and for many years, typically during northern hemisphere winters, he would travel to Cuba, Central America, and South America and lead trips into the jungles. Which are the places of nightmares to your writer who dreams of the boreal forest. His trips were always filled as soon as they were announced. He was one of the first Americans allowed into Cuba to do bird work back when US-Cuba relationships were quite more sour than today. His cabin was filled (or better, strewn) with correspondence from clients and researchers of such diversity that I could never find a way to organize it (one of the rainy day projects he gave me when I worked for him).
Encroachments (damage to land trust lands) were John’s demon in life. Whenever we discovered something amiss, John got the red mist. His need to defend what he dedicated his life to nurturing was overwhelming. Let’s just say that you did not want to be the encroacher. I quickly learned that one of my main tasks in encroachment was to get John out of there ASAP or else there would be fireworks, something very rare in such a gentle man. He caught on to what I was doing and would make me do things like map every cut stem in a clearing encroachment as punishment. In one case on North Spectacle Pond in Kent, I mapped over 2,000 black gum stems in a grid in a wetland. For weeks. John was teaching me exactly why he was upset. I learned my lesson and I have been a bulldog, sans fireworks, about encroachments ever since.
John was naturally inquisitive and never did anything strictly as procedure. He would not have been happy in an accreditation world. His focus was deeply on the land pretty much to the exclusion of all else. When we closed on a new preserve, the work of exploration would begin, and we would learn everything we could about the place. No rapid baselines, no knock-it-out management plans. We knew the stands, the walls, the soils, the seeps, the charcoal pits, and often the tallest tree. Everything got the research it deserved but documentation was tertiary. A lot of my early role was to document John’s work, but even then, rarely would he release the final reports. They would just disappear into the tumbleweeds of his cabin. I remember simultaneously marveling and sighing at the amount of verbiage he crammed onto the side of a paper grocery bag. But we knew a lot about a lot of places and wildlife. From John, I learned more about five-lined skinks, timber rattlers, copperheads, and mole salamanders than most herp grad students learn in their programs. He taught me how to trap and release bog turtles when today that could put you in prison. He also taught me how to pull poacher’s traps of all sorts without getting maimed. It was all pretty remarkable.
As I previously mentioned, John found a native village site on the Still River in New Milford, and engaged the archaeologists from the native studies center in Washington, CT to do a dig at the site. During our botanical survey, John found Great Saint Johnswort, an endangered plant, adjacent to the site. Something about the plant and its location relative to the river and the ruins triggered his curiosity, and he sent me down to the Klein library at Yale to do some research. Well sure enough, there in the Iroquois Pharmacopeia was GSJW listed as a plant kept in cultivation for wound treatment. The plant is endemic to the Saint John’s River in northern Maine and was traded among natives as a medicinal plant. So there we were, standing among the living descendants of a crop kept by the inhabitants of the preserve from 600 years BP, knowing this only because some curious itch happened in John’s mind. Again, remarkable.
Some of the best days of my life were spent sitting on the porch swing of his Appalachian cabin at the foot of Red Mountain in White Hollow in Sharon talking science and listening to his stories as the sun set and the shadows enveloped us and Veedor entertained himself in his nearby flight cage. Sometimes John would drag out his projectors and we’d watch films and slideshows on the side of his barn. Afflicted with chronic Lyme back when no one knew that it was a problem, he was a big fan of Ecuadorean doxycycline and kind Northern California bud and living proof that Avon Skin-So-Soft is not an effective tick repellent. He loved clove cigarettes and fine spirits and Calvin and Hobbes and mini-vans with condor cages. During the years I knew him, he was unmarried but not for a lack of opportunities. The ladies always wanted to take him away from the Red Mountain cabin, but he couldn’t leave because his tie to this place was so strong. The ladies never wanted to live at the cabin because they didn’t want to live with the wild field mice with whom he intimately lived. He was a terrible cook but nobody’s perfect and everything that Veedor ate was decayed so it really didn’t matter. In combination with his knowledge of the natural world and his zeal to defend the land, John’s willingness to live primitively has always made me equate him in my mind with Muir. He was a helluva character and a good man.
John was loved by everyone, but particularly loved by Weantinoge’s land donors and board members and Veedor’s cadre of volunteer assistants, and me. He gave me my start in the business back when I was a grad student in the 1990s and we worked together, sometimes seven days a week, for many years. Along with Tom McGowan, Weantinoge’s long-time and now-retired executive director, and great boards of directors, we were an unstoppable force. Although both John and Tom were quiet and modest men, I always felt that I was working in the shadows of giants in conservation. The work came quite naturally to them. The size and scale of Weantinoge’s land catalog and its growth during those years is eternal proof that this was true. In our last conversation, John told me that he was proud that Weantinoge is where it is today and marveled that there is an attorney serving as executive director. “It really all came together, didn’t it, Harry?”
John McNeely is the archetype of the effective conservationist: dedicated, brilliant, outraged, selfless, modest, stubborn, and kind.
I wanted to share this with you, my brothers and sisters in conservation, because John was such a pioneer in our work and in our culture and he deserves a proper tribute.
[A tear falls to the floor]