George Melendez Wright

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Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20thAnniversary of the GWSJerry EmoryPamela Wright LloydGeorge Melendez Wright1904-1936:A Voice on the WingI arrived at Cracker Lake shortly after ten. Over the west wall great shafts ofsunlight from the breaking clouds shot downward through the purple haze.Some angles of the rocks reflected the light dazzlingly. Some goats posing onrocky prominences were illuminated from behind by these beams so that theylooked twice natural size. Radiant pagan gods framed in silver halos they gazedat lower earth from their high thrones.George Melendez WrightField Notes, September 1, 1931Cracker Lake, Glacier National Parkeorge M. Wright’s professional accomplishments and his views onwildlife and park management have been written about by severaldistinguished authors (see “Writing on Wright,” below). This article hopes to illuminate Wright’s life beyond the professional dimension. We hope to offer an insight into Wright as a keen naturalist, energetic field biologist, loyal friend, and loving husband and father. That is,George M. Wright as a person. We do so by relying heavily on excerpts fromWright’s unpublished field notebooks (both authors read 716 pages of his1924-1933 notes), personal papers, a 1987 interview with Ben Thompson,and family remembrances.This is not simply an exercise in by painting a more complete picturenostalgia for two people for whom of Wright—albeit somewhat inforthe life of George M. Wright still mal—we might more fully underlooms large more than six decades stand his thinking and his accomafter his death. Instead, it is clear to that Wright’s intense dedication toUnfortunately, much is still unwildlife biology and the national known about Wright’s childhoodparks, his friends, and his family years. What we do know is thatwere so inextricably intertwined, that George Melendez Wright was bornG14The George Wright FORUM

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20on June 20, 1904, in San Francisco,California. His mother, MercedesMelendez Wright, was born in ElSalvador and died in 1906; his father, Captain John Tennant Wright,a native New Yorker, died in 1912.His great aunt, Cordelia WardWright, helped raise the young boyfrom an early age and officiallyadopted him in 1913. George M.Wright had two brothers, Charlesand John, who returned to El Salvador to live with relatives. His brothers also died relatively young, buttheir families, and some of the relatives of Mercedes Melendez, still livethroughout that country—living reminders of George M. Wright’s LatinAmerican heritage.Cordelia Wright, fondly referredto simply as “Auntie” by George(and later by many rangers in Yosemite and the wildlife survey team),might be responsible for his earlyinterest in nature. Apparently theyoung Wright was allowed to hike allaround the San Francisco Bay Areawhere he undoubtedly developed thelove of birds and bird songs thatpermeated all his work. After graduating from San Francisco’s LowellHigh School in 1920 (where he wassenior class president and presidentof the Audubon Club), Wright andAuntie moved to Berkeley, where heattended the University of California.While at U.C. Berkeley, Wrightmajored in forestry, but it is welldocumented that he was heavily influenced by the teachings and personage of Professor Joseph Grinnell,Volume 17 Number 4thAnniversary of the GWSone of America’s leading zoologistsand wildlife researchers. Knowledgeof Wright’s non-academic activitiesfrom 1920 to1925 is rather sketchy,not unlike his early years. There isno question, however, that his intense interest in wildlife biology wasdeveloping and maturing quickly. Itis believed that during summers andschool breaks he often took to theroad and backcountry, visiting Yosemite and other parks on the WestCoast. In the summer of 1922, forexample, Wright helped lead students during a Sierra Club “HighCountry Trip” as an instructor ofnatural history.Wright’s first known recorded“field trip” lasted nearly two monthsduring the summer of 1924. Alongwith fraternity brothers Robert Shuman and Carlton H. Rose, he ventured throughout the West visitingnumerous national parks and wildlifeareas (see “Chronology of George M.Wright’s Field Notes” elsewhere inthis issue). Wright recorded this tripin a journal he titled “The Perils ofPonderous Peter.” “Peter” was hiswell-seasoned Model T Ford, andmany of his entries discuss the mostrecent mechanical failure of the agingvehicle (such as the 72 flat tires theyfixed). Other entries are quite revealing.In Yellowstone National Park onJuly 14, Wright—not knowing wherethe future would take him—both expressed an interest that would occupy the rest of his life while showing us his humor.200015

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20thAnniversary of the GWSGeorge M. Wright, young Forestry student, U.C. Berkeley, early 1920s.16The George Wright FORUM

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20I like the country very much. It isreported full of wild game. Whilecooking supper in the dark I madethe grave mistake of warming thepeas in a pot containing our dishrag and washing soap. We could notmake a go of the soapy peas—quiteimpossible to keep them on theknife.A few weeks earlier, at Montana’sFlathead Lake, his love of the outdoors comes through clearly. “Isthere anything on this earth that approaches the heavenly state moreclosely than a night spent at the footof a noble pine beside a beautifullake? So endeth the longest day ofthe year.” And, when visiting CraterLake National Park on June 30 withhis occasionally reluctant travelingmates, it becomes clear that Wrighthad covered some of this territorybefore. “It is wonderful to see CraterLake once more. I hope that Carl andBob find it worth the risk.”Wright graduated with a degree inforestry in 1925 and eventually became a field assistant to Joseph Grinnell. In the summer of 1926, Wrightand Joseph S. Dixon (an economicmammalogist on Grinnell’s staff)were sent to Mount McKinley (nowDenali) National Park to collectspecimens and conduct natural history studies. These field notes, heldby the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at U.C. Berkeley, notonly show that Wright was using thenow-legendary journal system taughtto all Grinnell students, but that hisobservational and writing skills werebeing honed.Volume 17 Number 4thAnniversary of the GWSAs fortune would have it, theMcKinley trip would also helpWright establish himself in the ornithological world as the discoverer ofa nesting surfbird—a bit of knowledge coveted by Grinnell and otherornithologists. On May 28, 1926,Wright recorded the following.Mr. Dixon stayed home with astrained ankle while I went prospecting for specimens in generaland a hoary marmot in particular.While following the contour of thehill at approximately 4,000 feetthrough sheer good luck I happenedto make the find of my young life.A quick movement some five or sixhundred feet away attracted my attention to a grayish bird that wassneaking hurriedly along. Herewas a surf bird in the nesting season.When Mr. Dixon heard thegood news he was inclined to thinkit some sort of a bum joke but wassoon convinced and eager to be onthe firing line.In Dixon’s notes of the same day,also held by the MVZ, he recountswhat happened when Wright returned to fetch him, bad ankle andall. “Wright came on to camp to tellme the good news and by 6 o’clockwe packed up and left camp to investigate the nest. The surf birdwas on the nest when we arrived andMr. Wright was correct when he said‘I’m sure it is a surf bird.’ To Mr.George M. Wright then belongs thecredit of finding the first nest of thisspecies on May 28, 1926 at 4 p.m.He is, so far as we have record, thefirst white man to set eyes on the eggsof this bird which hither to have beenunknown.”200017

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20Wright and Dixon then retreatedto a nearby knoll to observe the surfbird into the twilight of the nextmorning. Here Wright discloses thathe could be moving and eloquent inhis observations while hunkereddown against the rain and cold.Shelter provided by a small rockoutcropping, along with a smoky fireof alder dragged from the littlecreek basin some distance away,helped to make our storm vigil moreendurable. Hardly a scant half hourhad passed before it commenced torain with an accompaniment of chillwind that fairly froze.Misty clouds would come driftingslowly up the cañon and over therocky ridge tops in great whiteswirls. They moved on with a relentless sureness until finally they hungat dead level over the valley fromthe North mountains to the mainAlaskan Range. All underneath thisheavy gray mist from foothill slopesto the winding shallow river lookedmysteriously unreal in the Northerntwilight.Sometimes the rain would let up asa shifting wind turned back theclouds. Then a little light filtereddown to show us whole troops ofmist ghosts rise right out of the tundra and go chasing away up the valley. No doubt they were on their wayto join the cloud ranks again.Beginning with Wright’s 1927 to1929 Yosemite field notes (held bythe Yosemite Research Library at thenational park), and continuingthrough 1933, we can begin to findthe seeds of his formal scientificwritings and the ideas contained inthe Fauna Series. Clear thoughts andconcerns illuminate the pages. Butthere is more. In addition to his con18thAnniversary of the GWStinuing sense of humor, we can nowbegin to read about his disgust(Wright’s term) with a variety ofwildlife situations in the nationalparks, his amazing ear for the soundsof nature, accounts of his arduoushikes into the backcountry (oftensolo hikes), and an intense dedication to classic field work.Field people know that field notesare typically rewritten at the end ofthe day in a formal journal, such asthose used by Wright. In a 1987 interview with Ben Thompson at hishome in Glenwood, New Mexico,Thompson made the followingcomment regarding Wright and hisfield notes. “His observations wereintense, but always with pleasure. Atnight, he was very self-disciplinedabout writing his notes. You know,when you’re by a campfire, andmaybe you’re tired, and maybe it’scold, and damp and so on. It takesself-discipline to make yourself writethose notes. He was very conscientious about that.”For the two years that Wright wasin Yosemite working as an assistantnaturalist for the Park Service (November 1927 to October 1929) histravels seemed to be confined to theback country of Yosemite, the Sierrafoothills, Berkeley (where he maintained a home), and the Californiacoast. The vast majority of his observations, mostly short entries, tookplace in Yosemite Valley where healways noted and listed the birdlife(he often went out all day solely forbirdwatching trips), but he was alsoThe George Wright FORUM

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20thAnniversary of the GWSGeorge M. Wright, Yosemite Valley (photo by Carl Russell)Volume 17 Number 4200019

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20possessed with the status of largemammals: deer, bear, elk. In additionto his duties as assistant park naturalist (Carl Russell was head naturalist at the time), he wrote many natural history pieces for the YosemiteNature Notes, taught field classes,and cared for his Auntie. CordeliaWright moved into the newly fin-thAnniversary of the GWSished Ahwahnee Hotel to be close toGeorge. She died in Yosemite onDecember 19, 1928, at the age of 88.From all reports Auntie was an extraordinary person. For CordeliaWright, George was “My Boy,” andsurely she stood behind him for atleast 16 of his most formative years.Carl Russell and George M. Wright, Yosemite Valley, September 26, 192820The George Wright FORUM

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20Before Cordelia Wright’s death,in September of 1928— approximately a year into his stay—there is abrief entry that, like many early observations, foreshadows an issue thatwill preoccupy him for years. “Theelk problem bothers me very much.There are many sides to the question.”Ironically, one of his most detailed species observations duringthis period concerns the rather mundane brown towhee from a hospitalwindow in Oakland (we don’t knowif Wright was in the hospital for anailment or if he was visiting a friend).Birds are not numerous in thisthickly populated part of town. Abrown towhee is very evidentlysinging for joy that he is the fatherof a family or at least a prospectivefather. The song appears to bethAnniversary of the GWScertain definite arrangement of aseries of notes almost exactlysimilar to the usual call note.Spacing them to give time intervalthey are somewhat like this:[drawing of song]. There are aboutfifteen notes to the song but thelast are so rapid that it is difficult tocount them. All are pitched alikeand the variation comes in intensityand spacing. The song gives aneffect almost depressing in itsmonotony.After conceiving the plan for awildlife survey of the national parksin 1928, and receiving the approvalof Director Horace M. Albright thefollowing year (see accompanyingbox, below), Wright assembled histeam. For the next three years he wasalmost always accompanied in thefield by Ben Thompson and JosephDixon, either together, or separately.George M. Wright interviewing Maria Lebrado, “The Last YosemiteIndian,” July, 1929 (photo by Joseph S. Dixon)Volume 17 Number 4200021

Celebrating George Wright: A Retrospective on the 20thAnniversary of the GWSBerkeley, CaliforniaAugust 17, 1930To All Park Superintendents and Managers of Park Operations—Hotels, Lodges, Stores, Etc.:One of the most important of the newer activities of the National ParkService is our wild life research branch, the work of which is being carried onby Mr. George M. Wright, Mr. Joseph Dixon, and Mr. Benjamin H. Thompson.Mr. Wright is personally carrying a major portion of the financial burden of thiswork, owing to the fact that Congress has not yet pr