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.)


East Tennessee Historical Society Honors Hamilton County Initiative With Award Of Excellence In East Tennessee History

Hamilton County History Scholars To Compete In National Competition

Chattanooga Area Historical Association Meets June 13


The East Tennessee Historical Society’s annual Awards of Excellence were presented at the organization’s Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, June 7, at the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. ... (click for more)

Four Hamilton County students who placed first or second in their categories at this year’s Tennessee History Day contest will represent Tennessee at National History Day competition beginning ... (click for more)

The Chattanooga Area Historical Association will meet Monday, June 13, at 6 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church, 554 McCallie Ave. David Cooper will discuss the six churches in Chattanooga ... (click for more)



Memories

East Tennessee Historical Society Honors Hamilton County Initiative With Award Of Excellence In East Tennessee History

The East Tennessee Historical Society’s annual Awards of Excellence were presented at the organization’s Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, June 7, at the Museum of East Tennessee History in Knoxville. Since 1982, the Society has annually recognized individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the preservation, promotion, programming and interpretation of ... (click for more)

Hamilton County History Scholars To Compete In National Competition

Four Hamilton County students who placed first or second in their categories at this year’s Tennessee History Day contest will represent Tennessee at National History Day competition beginning June 12. After competing in regional contests across the state, 241 students advanced to this year’s Tennessee History Day competition, held the first two weeks of April. At Tennessee ... (click for more)

Breaking News

EPA Awarding Brownfield Grant At Site Of Planned Lookouts Stadium

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Deputy Administrator Janet McCabe on Wednesday is set to present the city of Chattanooga with Brownfield program cleanup and assessment grants at the site of a planned new $79.5 million stadium to be used by the Lookouts. The press conference will be at the U.S. Pipe/Wheland site. The grant is "to help spur economic revitalization ... (click for more)

$79.5 Million Stadium Touted As Catalyst For Major Project At Long-Blighted Wheland/U.S. Pipe Site; Lookouts To Pay $1 Million Annually To Lease "Community" Stadium

More than 100 acres of the long-neglected U.S. Pipe and Wheland Foundry sites "will begin transforming into a world-class live-work-play district that will generate more than $40 million for schools," Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced at a press conference at the site on Thursday. Flanked by nationally renowned master developer Jim ... (click for more)

Opinion

New Stadium Does Not Pass The Smell Test - And Response

I can't find any logical reasons that the new Lookout stadium is being placed where it is other than to think it's a combination of favoritism and eliminating an eyesore. All statistics point to an illogical decision coupled with questionable tax breaks/support. Lookouts average attendance in 2018 (all that I could quickly find) was 3,206 per game and ranked 74th among ... (click for more)

School Achievement Tied To Funding?

My career was in the public schools of several states. I never drew the connection to funding for schools and achievement until later. This is what I have found. The states of the deep south are run by Republicans. In all of them, educational achievement is poor. Is there a connection between funding for schools and achievement? The answer to that should be a resounding "yes." ... (click for more)