Saturday, July 8, 2017

There was this guy...

Long ago and far away I was a college student working at a camp in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. I worked there for three summers 1970, 1971, and 1972 for for the McKennas, William Brewster (W.B.) McKenna (cousin of Murr Brewster) and his wife, Patricia Alden McKenna. They were well educated and you may see in their names that they descendants of early European settlers in North America. They had many friends and relatives that would come to visit them during their summer stays in the Adirondacks, but they wintered in Tucson, Arizona.

My job was to be their "Boy" for lack of a better title. I took care of the driving, the cleaning, firewood, dishes, a little light cooking, and chauffeuring, including transporting the McKennas and their guests by boat from the parking lot and landing across the lake. My uncles Audun and Kaare had also had this same position back in the 1940s and 1950s when the McKennas spent most of their time in Cleveland, Ohio. My uncles were continuing their engineering studies at Case Western Reserve University at the time before they went on to their PhDs at MIT, but I digress.

Mr. McKenna had a cousin who came to visit us either the first or second summer I was at their camp. His name was Dr. Donald (Redfield) Griffin, a professor at Rockefeller Institute (now University) who seemed to know a bit about animal behavior. His wife, Jocelyn Crane Griffin was also a well known (in those circles) animal behavior scientist. She was primarily known for her fiddler crab research, mostly done in Venezuela and Trinidad. I was a college freshman/sophomore majoring in biology. I was somewhat in awe of these two very interesting and very nice people.

Dr. Griffin had been banding bats since he was in high school (early 1930s) and continued doing it throughout the years. He banded many thousands and some of this was based out of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts where his uncle, Alfred C. Redfield, was affiliated (later Associate Director). Redfield was also chairman of Harvard's Biology Department.

What Dr. Griffin was most noted for was that bats navigate by radar. He was working for the U.S. government during the Second World War on a project using bats to guide bombs. Early editions of smart bombs, I suppose. He termed the word echolocation. He also became Chairman of the Biology Department at Harvard University in the mid 1960s for a few years. His pioneering work in bird and bat migration led to many new discoveries.

One day during his stay with his cousin he wanted to go for a walk in the woods and this 19 year old college student said, "Sure!" We went a couple of miles back to a large, but abandoned beaver pond back in the forest. He explained to me how they had made trails to skid logs and branches from places farther away from the pond as they ate themselves out of house and home. You could see the remnants of the trails and signs of the forest growing back in. The pond had been abandoned for some time, so I essentially got a lesson in beaver archeology. I had never had personal tutoring of this caliber, nor would I ever again, but I never forgot it.

Dr. Griffin was at this time beginning his more formal studies on animal communication and interaction with their environment that showed reasoning ability and real thinking in a way that no one had dared study before. It was said that had it not been  him who was doing these studies that anyone else would have been scoffed at in the scientific community.

We now understand animal echolocation in whales and dolphins as well as tool use by birds and mammals. Basically, he was studying the thought processes in critters. While we all know some "smart" animals and have stories about things we have seen them do, Dr. Griffin was one of, if not the first scientist to document and publish scientific papers on these things. Many others have carried on this type of work. Dr. Jane Goodall comes to mind.

Here he was later in his life still doing the things he loved.
(picture lifted from the internet)

My own interest in birds and animals took some giant steps from my summers in the Adirondacks. If you are interested I  have some older posts about my time in the Adirondack Mountains. Woodswoman and Summer in the Adirondack Mountains, where I previously mentioned my time with Dr. Griffin.
His and his wife's achievements in the behavioral sciences are much more that what little I have mentioned. An internet search will find you some more information if you are interested.


  1. He and his wife sound truly impressive. And a good teacher never knows how far the ripples they create in a pond will spread.
    I am a tad jealous of your connection (tenuous or not) to Murr too.

  2. Jono--It sounds like you received an education that money could never buy...

    Lucky you.

  3. I'm sure these learned people were too polite to call you "Boy" even though that's what you were.

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  5. Lovely story, great learning and a wonderful memory. I read Konrad Lorenz (father of ethology, Nobel prize 1973) when younger and still, to this day speak to geese in the way he described; gangganggang, (while to ducks: rangrangrang). Griffin clearly is developing and refining that. Beavers are so rare these days but I saw some this summer frolicking around in the water. I should read more by Professor Griffin to see if I could learn some of their communication.

  6. Sorry, I looked it up, it's the other way around: rangrangrang to grass ducks and qu'ang-rang-rang to grey geese. (No wonder the birds looks at me so strangely!)

  7. Interesting comments above regarding speaking to ducks and geese, I'll try it next time I'm in the vicinity of those creatures. I hope I don't say any bad words, wouldn't want to upset anyone.
    What a privilege it was for you to spend time with those learned and intelligent people. No wonder you have never forgotten it.
    BTW one of my best friends here in Canada is a descendant of the original William Brewster of the Mayflower.

  8. Elephant's Child, They were so kind and interesting I never really knew just how accomplished they were. Working for a cousin of Murr's is a pretty thready connection.

    Sioux, I never really appreciated it properly until long after.

    Gorilla Bananas, They were the ones to give me the moniker "Jono" to help discern me from their son Johnny. Actually think they used the term boy and man interchangeably as I was still a teenager when I started working for them. I didn't mind.

    Onevikinggirl, I am sure Dr. Griffin was aware of Lorenz's work, but I wonder if they ever met? Lorenz was only about 10 years older, but the war ruined so much and so many. One of my college classmates imprinted chickens as part of an ornithology class (about 1970). B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning is used in training animals to this day. The line between psychology and biology is a blurry one at times. Fascinating stuff, all of it. Lorenz was certainly a gifted and brilliant man.

    P.S. The birds are giving you strange looks? They are very perceptive. :)

    Shammickite, Through observation and mimicry we humans can communicate a little with the other species. Your best friend is very likely related to W.B. McKenna AND Murr Brewster. Very cool! It would be fun to see her family tree!

  9. Oh, wow - what a fun privilege to have met people like these!

  10. What an opportunity to have met such wonderful people and leaders in their fields, to boot. Makes for some interesting memories!

  11. This is a coincidence - I'm in the process of reading a book on animal behavior and Dr. Griffin is mentioned a number of times. (The book is "Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are" by Frans de Waal.) That sounds like a pretty interesting summer job, not one bit like a McD job!

  12. That's really cool. I can only imagine what kind of learning experience that would have been. I always love looking at the various birds and wild animals around here, but always feel like I'm missing out by not knowing what I'm *actually* looking at.

    Wife: You see anything on your run today?
    Me: Yes, I believe I saw a big-necked watergobble displaying a very invigorating mating dance.
    (reality: I watched a pelican struggling in a plastic soda can ring)

  13. what a great story...and such interesting people..boy? sigh*

  14. What an interesting man! I like it when you share these memories.

  15. Pixel Peeper, I guess if you live long enough you are bound to run into the occasional gifted person.

    Debra, And to actually remember it over 40 years later!

    jenny_o, It was a fun job, I got room and board, and it paid cash! Of course all of it went to tuition. Well, almost all of it.

    ABFTS, There is just so much to know and Dr. Google is easy to ask. I think I would have attempted to extricate the pelican from its trap. Gotta be careful doing that, though.

    JACKIESUE, Once in a while you get a lucky meeting with truly fascinating people. The longer you stick around the better the chance.

    Donna, It's kind of fun to HAVE these memories and writing about them brings them back in full color.

  16. At first, I thought you wrote 'banding HATS.' I wondered what kind of a living that was. Then I realized you wrote BATS. That made more sense.
    Although, what kind of band do bats prefer? Rock, Top 40, or Country?

  17. Al, I think Big Bands and Crooners were all the rage back then.

  18. How does one go into the field of fidler crab research, I wonder?

    You have had some interesting contacts with interesting folks for sure.

  19. Riot Kitty, I honestly don't know. I assume you have an interest and there are things you want to know that no one else has the answers to. Once you know the answers they seem to invite more questions and on it goes.
    I have been lucky to meet some fascinating people. I think it's because I am old and have lived in numerous locations that seem to draw those people in. I find many people very interesting because I am curious about a lot and love to learn new things.

  20. I enjoyed that

    Well remembered and
    Written x

  21. Inspiring post Jono!!!

    At that time when you were young people learn fast .you choose to learn what is appropriate and meaningful for you and your surroundings.
    I am glad you shared the story and specially the photo of wonderful personality

  22. John Gray, Thanks!

    baili, I was lucky to have met them.