Nature’s Keeper

Nature’s Keeper:  John Ripley Forbes and the Children’s Nature Movement
Nature's Keeper: John Ripley Forbes and the Children's Nature Movement

Preserve, Inc. 2012


Nature’s Keeper chronicles the life of this extraordinary educator, from his teen years with renowned conservationist William Hornaday, to his celebrated “animal lending libraries” of the 1950’s and 60’s, to his final preservation victories at the end of the twentieth century.


When John Ripley Forbes took his first walks through the woods near Boston as a little boy with his minister father, looking for those places where God and science met among the chipmunks and the oak trees and the bird nests, he was at the tail end of a movement as energetic as any in history—a force, as the popular Century Magazine put it, “which has no counterpart anywhere in the world.” A time when naturalists like John Burroughs and Ernest Thompson Seton were as popular as today’s rock stars. When for nearly two decades, the Boy Scout Handbook was outselling every book in the country except the Bible. In the same month as John’s birth, August 1913, a part-time artist named Joe Knowles stripped down to something akin to a g-string, running off into the woods of western Maine to live as a wild man for two months. It was a noble act, Knowles said, meant to prove that Americans “still had sap in their veins.” He emerged eight weeks later a national hero. The book about his adventures, Alone in the Wilderness, became a bestseller. He went on to travel Vaudeville for two-and-a-half years with top billing.

Yet for all this celebration of the natural world, Forbes would also be shaped by the fact that this same era—stretching from roughly the mid-1890’s until the Great Depression—was a time of growing anguish over the fact that, in many places, the land was being slowly but surely overwhelmed by urbanization. Despite promises in the middle 1800’s that the industrial revolution would all but end human suffering, by 1900 thousands of former farm dwellers were spending long days in sweltering factories, most pocketing wages worth less in terms of spending power than a decade earlier. One of every five children worked in sweatshops. Respiratory illness was skyrocketing, leading hundreds of doctors to recommend their patients pick up stakes and move to healthier climates in the interior West. Pundits of the late nineteenth century were worried: If nature had been such a big part of who we were as a people—indeed, if it had in fact been the fundamental ingredient of American identity—then who would we be when nature was gone?

Arguably, Forbes would accomplish as much in service of these concerns as any person in history—helping to launch some two hundred nature centers and preserves from coast to coast, and in his later years, saving dozens of key parcels of land from hungry developers. If today in America there’s a fresh willingness to return to such values, to employ outdoor settings – including urban gardens – for the benefit of our children, it’s somehow comforting to know we’re rekindling passions for the outdoors that were for so long a part of our national heritage.

Walk into any of the hundreds of outdoor centers John Ripley Forbes helped inspire, and you’ll find children overflowing with questions: Why do the baby deer have spots? Why does that bird wear bright colors, while the one over there is plain? By age fifteen or sixteen, those questions become more sophisticated. Why is this corner of the forest sick and dying? Is it prolonged drought, weakening the trees and making them susceptible to beetles? Could it be acid rain? If so, where’s the pollution coming from? Given that trees filter air pollution, that they’re important for sequestering excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, what are the possible effects of losing the forest? Are there solutions to the problem? How much will they cost? How long do we have?

John’s outdoor classrooms offered much more than simply learning the names of plants and animals. Studying nature, he believed, would on one hand ignite in children a sense of wonder, an appreciation for beauty. But he also knew such settings as places to train the mind to think in terms of connections – connections that may well hold answers to issues ranging from global warming to safe food supplies, flood control to the rise of pollution-related disease. Out of the millions of hours American boys and girls have spent in Forbes-inspired nature centers across the country, to this day many walk out of the woods having gained more expansive ways of thinking about the world.

Time Magazine was right to call Forbes the “Johnny Appleseed” of America’s nature centers. Across more than seven decades he kept notions of birds and rivers and woodlands simmering in people’s hearts and minds. And if such images are bound to grow faint now and then, nearly swallowed up by our busy, technology-laden lives, then at least in much of the country there is not far away one of John’s walking trails, a nature center, maybe a children’s museum. Each and every pathway, every slice of forest, keeping the promise of nature from ever drifting out of reach.

© 2012 by Gary Ferguson, all rights reserved.


Several years ago I was asked by a conservation group – the Southeast Land Preservation Trust in Atlanta, Georgia – to compile a book about the life of a long-time outdoor advocate from the area named John Ripley Forbes. I’d never heard of him. I should have.

For seventy years Forbes was the practical lifeblood of that essential urge in Americans to give their children the chance to know nature. In his 93 years he helped create nearly two hundred of the country’s most respected outdoor centers and museums, leaving Time magazine to deem him the “Johnny Appleseed” of nature education. Thanks to him, on trails and in learning rooms stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Canadian border nearly to Mexico, the wonders of a bigger world have been served up to tens of thousands of children – from Depression kids, to the children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers. (Along the way came the first nature museum for black children in the 1940’s rural south, as well as the first nature center at the Boys Club of Harlem.) Forbes – of very modest means, unrelated to that rich family with the same last name – raised millions for the cause, initiated changes in federal law to allow federally confiscated property to become nature centers, and in some of the most improbable eleventh-hour heroics imaginable, saved from the bulldozers a host of exquisite forests and streams and even islands from New England to Georgia.

Nature’s Keeper chronicles the life of this extraordinary educator, from his teen years with renowned conservationist William Hornaday, to his celebrated “animal lending libraries” of the 1950’s and 60’s, to his final preservation victories at the end of the twentieth century.