Dennis Puleston


(This column was first published in the June 25, 2001 Buffalo News.)


     I had just crossed the Alexandria Bay bridge back into New York from Ontario and was biking southwest along Route 12 in Jefferson County when a large raptor flew a few feet over my head. The big bird sailed up to a messy stick nest perched precariously atop a telephone pole. I rode to where I could observe the adult osprey and its young, scarcely a hundred feet from the highway.


     I was struck as always by this majestic "fish eagle", but this sighting was no longer an unusual event. Today ospreys are fairly common migrants through western New York and they nest here as well.


     But forty years ago this would have been a spectacular find.


     Through the 1950s the osprey faced extinction. Intensive surveys of the entire Niagara Frontier Region found none at all during half those years and only in the 1990s did a pair return to nest near the Allegany Reservoir.


     We can thank one man for the turn-around in the fortunes of this majestic bird. Because of his concern for their declining numbers, Long Island naturalist Dennis Puleston led a coalition of Suffolk County residents, most of them his Brookhaven National Laboratory colleagues, in the initial court battle against DDT. Their 1966 suit, supported by watercolors Puleston painted of insects and animals affected by the pesticide, led a local judge to find in their favor.


     That landmark decision brought the Brookhaven group national attention. So many calls for assistance were received that they formed the Environmental Defense Fund with Puleston as chairman. Their continuing battle led to a DDT ban in New York and Wisconsin in 1970 and then across the entire nation in 1972. The osprey and the bald eagle were major beneficiaries. Today the Fund has a budget of $22 million and a membership of 225,000.


     Much credit for the turn against environmental pollutants is rightly assigned to Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring remains a classic. But it was Puleston and his friends who led the court battles that gave legal status to the movement she started. Their early motto would appeal to lawyers: "Sue the Bastards."


     Dennis Puleston died on June 8 at the age of 95, bringing to an end a truly remarkable life for he was even more than a naturalist and conservationist. He was also a world traveler, an author and painter, and a naval architect. President Truman awarded him the Medal of Freedom for his design of the DUKW, an amphibious landing craft that played an important role in World War II invasions.


     Puleston's early life reads like an adventure novel. At 25, he set out on a six year round-the-world sail in a 30-foot yawl, carrying with him his pet boa constrictor Egbert. In the South Pacific he dined with cannibals, was kidnapped by Espiritu Santa natives, was tattooed with a shark's tooth by Samoans. Captured by the Japanese he obtained his release by showing his captors a letter of thanks he had received from Emperor Hirohito. He had given the emperor a pair of rare cockatoos.


     Wounded by shrapnel in Burma during World War II, he also made it to Normandy where amid the sounds of battle he heard a skylark singing: "I was deeply moved by this one element of sanity in the whole mad business of war," he later wrote.


     Later he traveled to Antarctica dozens of times. He kept a family pet, a turkey vulture called Alger because it hissed. He wrote and illustrated two books, Blue Water Vagabond in 1940 and A Nature Journal in 1992, the latter one of my prized possessions.


     Shortly before he died, Puleston told his children: "Please don't grieve for me when I'm gone. It has been a wonderful life and further cause for celebration."


     We should indeed celebrate this genuine American hero.-- Gerry Rising