Chattanooga Naturalist Robert Sparks Walker Remembered

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 - by Jack Reeves

Robert Sparks Walker was born 135 years ago this week, on Feb. 4 in what is now East Brainerd, where I grew up.

I first met him almost a half century ago, when he was in his late 70s. One of Tennessee’s leading historians and naturalists, his accomplishments are chronicled in Who's Who in America.

Robert Sparks Walker’s reputation was indeed national. He was published in the New York Times, Better Homes and Gardens, the Christian Science Monitor, and Nature Magazine, among others.

He sold over 1,000 poems and 500 articles--most on nature themes. He
published 10 books--one nominated for the Pulitzer Prize--and wrote a nature column for 25 years for the Chattanooga Times.

He was an exceptional, unassuming horticulturist--with a law degree. During his life he identified and labeled more than 3,500 trees on school grounds and parks, hosted a weekly nature radio program, and answered over 20,000 nature questions. He founded the Chattanooga Audubon Society and edited its quarterly.

Robert Sparks Walker--invariably referred to by his complete name--was born in a log home named Spring Frog Cabin, built by Spring Frog, a Cherokee naturalist, in 1750. The cabin is located on the 130-acre Elise Chapin Wildlife Sanctuary, two miles off East Brainerd Road.

He devoted a large part of his life to the preservation of the cabin and the development of the ‘Bird Sanctuary.’ For decades he was the sanctuary’s superintendent and authority on all things wild, and alive, and fascinating--especially to a youth my age.

I first met Mr. Walker in the cabin of his birth while on a school trip. He was the first legend I ever met. In high school, I worked with him on a class excursion; I recall picking him up at his home and driving to the sanctuary.

Through the years I knew him, he taught me to be attentive and to attend to nature. He also taught me the pleasure and importance of history and of our purposeful place in that continuum.

Robert Sparks Walker lived simply within the loveliness of nature; he noted and explained its wonders. He had exceptional skills to expose the extraordinary in the ordinary. He helped us appreciate the marvel in the mundane: a leaf, a flower, a bird, even a stone.

His attunement to nature and his passion for it inspired me. I learned to love biology, the study of life. I enjoyed writing about scientific research. Combining the two, I found a career.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” states the Bible. I recast the truism. Had there been no Robert Sparks Walker, I would not be who I am today: a former lawyer who made a career as a science writer and journalist. I feel--perhaps seek--further affinity being born on Feb. 3, the day before his birthday.

It took a long time for me to recognize this influence. William Ellery Channing captured it: “The mind--in proportion as it is cut off from free communication with nature, with revelation, with God, with itself--loses its life, just as the body droops when debarred from the air and the cheering light from heaven.”

I found none of the nature I love in law and being lawyerly. I was in my 40s before I finally embraced my natural roots.

The Elise Chapin refuge was one of Mr. Walker’s favorite places; for years he spent nearly every day there--cold, rain, or shine.

On Sept. 26, 1960 Robert Sparks Walker died of a heart attack. He was walking in his beloved sanctuary. He is still there, buried next to Spring Frog Cabin.

On his birthday, I address his living spirit: “Mr. Walker, your love of nature and stewardship to preserve and protect the environment remain exemplary.

“You helped set the compass of my life; it continues to guide me. Most of all, you showed how nature points beyond itself, helping me discover the One Great Face behind its many masks.”

(Former Chattanoogan Jack Reeves, MA, JD--member, Georgia Bar and federal court system--is an award-winning journalist (Georgia Press Association) and science writer. He headed communications programs for World Bank- and United Nations Development Programme-sponsored international agricultural research centers in Colombia, Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Nigeria (1984-1999). He was a federal program writer for Chattanooga Progress, Inc. (1968), an agency of city government. He lives in the Oconee National Forest, Greene County, Georgia, from which he
continues to reflect on nature and write about it.)

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