Standing Among Giants

I have always been a firm believer that people should be acknowledged for making a difference. Whether it is a direct impact, or something a little less apparent, there are those who have worked to make things around them better than they were. Leaving it better than they found it, these people have changed the world. This will be the first of a periodic series that I would like to present on individuals that have had far more substantial influences on my view of the natural world than they could imagine. In doing so, I hope they will receive a bit of the recognition that they so richly deserve.

When I started working in conservation nearly fifteen years ago, I was just about as green as the fresh shoots on the cat briar vines that grew so prominently in the Carolina Bays in Poinsett Electronic Combat Range. Despite being raised in an extremely rural environment, I had very little knowledge of nature. I was; however, very motivated to make up for the lessons I never learned as a child and began reading every natural history related book and magazine I could get my hands on. Between the covers of one particular magazine, I found the writings of a genius from Camden, SC. 

For a number of years during the 1970s, John Madison Culler served as the editor of South Carolina Wildlife Magazine. Each issue began with an article written by Culler that was informative, humorous, and timely. Culler has the heart of an outdoorsman and the soul of a poet. These qualities would shine through in every single article he wrote, whether it was the fictitious tale of a coon hunter or his wonderful interview with Roger Tory Peterson. The fact of the matter is John Culler could write about watching grass grow and make it sound so interesting that I would drop the magazine, go outside and stare at my yard. He used his pen to laud the natural resources of his beloved state, placing the hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation found in South Carolina on a higher level. That is certainly what he did with, what was at the beginning of his tenure, a small magazine. He made it the finest in the nation among wildlife periodicals, no question about it!

One of the most incredible things Culler did with his pen was to write intensely biting editorials about the plight of a swamp just outside of the city of Columbia, SC. This swamp was special. This swamp was sacred. This swamp was home to some of the most interesting animals found in our state and was also home to some of the most gigantic trees ever seen in the eastern United States… trees so large, they were measured and declared World Record Trees. Along with a number of other foresighted people, Culler realized just how special this swamp was and knew it needed to be protected. 

While awaiting federal protection for this incredible area of the state, there were those that wanted very badly to get to those gigantic trees with chainsaws and remove them from the landscape forever. John Madison Culler reacted by doing what he does best. He settled behind his typewriter and, in a poignant and frank style, wrote of the urgency and the absolute need to protect what has now become Congaree National Park. It should be no secret to anyone that loves the outdoors and has ever visited Congaree National Park that John Culler deserves as much credit as anyone that there is even a Congaree National Park to visit. For that, I am grateful. For that, we should all be grateful.

When asked about Congaree National Park, I often refer to the feeling of being so small while standing among such giants. I have felt that way each time I have had the opportunity to talk to John Culler. I sat on his front porch one evening many years ago and listened to him speak about his time with Roger Tory Peterson, one of history’s greatest bird experts, as nonchalantly as I would describe picking up steaks from The Fresh Market. I listened to him talk about the infancy of Red-cockaded Woodpecker management in South Carolina and of his safaris in Africa in the exact manner a small child would watch a magician pull a rabbit out of a hat. 

Every word he spoke to me was impressive and intimidating. He is, in my opinion, every bit as tall and impressive as the trees he worked to save in Congaree Swamp. In his words and appearance, Culler is, at once, connoisseur of expensive single-malt scotch and friendly neighbor. At least that is they way he appears to me. He is still very high on my list of people I would love to sit down, have a drink with and just converse an evening away.

When I began my career, I would ask those individuals whom I admired to pick their favorite bird in my well-worn field guide and autograph it for me. John Culler was the third signature added to that field guide, when he signed his name next to the Peregrine Falcon on September 30, 2002. There have been many, many more names added to that field guide since that evening, but his signature is still one of my absolute favorites. Odds are, if I shared that drink with him anytime soon, I would simply sit there and hang on his every word… just as I did over a decade ago.