Remembering Ralph Turner: Conservation Pioneer

Most of us take ecology as a given.  It has become the basis for one of the high school biology texts connected with the BSCS(Biological Science Curriculum Study).  This is a change from the past.  When I went to high school, BSCS offered two books, one dealing with molecules. amino acids, and the double helix, the other featuring a descriptive, classification biology.  However, a biology book devoted totally to ecology was still unknown in the 1960s.  During the period of growth that led to an increased awareness of conservation and ecology, it is easy to forget the pioneers that took the first bold steps in changing the education of natural science to include the interconnectedness of all living organisms.  In two previous posts, I discussed the innovative ecological approach of Crater High’s Hans Smith.  In this post, I’m going to go back further in time, to the 1960s.

A young tall man with wiry frame and a restless manner was applying for an administrative job in the Los Angeles Public Schools.  Ralph Turner was bursting with ideas when he entered the administrator’s office, carrying a briefcase stuffed with concepts and future plans.  Mr. Turner adjusted his glasses while putting his thoughts together.  During the waiting period, his mind drifted.  He saw himself at the ranch that he had built with his brother-in-law:  the green water tower, the pipes that required fixing every weekend because of vandalism, the bright yellow of lemons glistening in the sun, the nearby gully that was usually dry.  “Mr. Turner”, a voice boomed out.  Ralph took out the papers he had put together for the bold new venture, his eyes sparkling with excitement.  And Mr. Turner gesticulated and expanded on his notion of a science center that would enable students to view, learn and experience the importance of conservation.  “Very interesting,  Mr. Turner.  I’ll think about it.”  A short time later, Ralph had a look of triumph:  the Monlux Environmental Center was born and he would be the director!

Mr. Turner’s famous book, Conservation In Miniature, described the steps needed to maintain a conservation center.  Paul F. Brandwein, President of the Center of Study of Instruction, realized the importance of Ralph’s fledgling center.  “The major thrust in American education is to enrich the world of the child…   And it is to this end that the Monlux Environmental Center was developed…The next decades will see whether or not we can heal our environment, whether or not our culture can maintain an environment to sustain those who live-or will live…Thousands of Environmental Centers–to assist millions of individual and group efforts–need to be born.  The Monlux Environmental Center furnishes an enviable model of one such center.”  And so, in 1962, Mr. Turner’s dream project was realized.

There was much work to do:  culling volunteers, creating riparian environments, collecting animals, preparing mini- informative talks for the thousands of children that would visit the center.  Ralph was tireless in his unbounded enthusiasm, racing here and there to make conservation known throughout Southern California.  He went to visit schools with sets of slides, showing the effects of erosion, possible ecological disaster, but telling his stories with a sense of humor that encouraged questions from his eager young listeners.

And children did visit the Center.  Busloads and busloads came to hear about the importance of conservation.  But not only to hear, but to see, to touch, to smell.  Their minds flew from ancient geological formations to recent sedimentation.  They learned how to grow crystals, how to take care of animals, what a watershed meant, how to preserve the landscape and what the threats to ecological destruction were.  Children began to see their world in a different perspective and new concepts and ways of thinking filtered through their questioning minds.

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer, Evelyn de Wolfe, had this to say about the Center:  “Children who are bused to Monlux are taught how to conserve water, soil, plants, and wildlife, how to guard against devastation through fire and flood, and learn how Los Angeles gets its water, saves it and delivers it.”

Mr. Turner watched his center expand and the ideas of ecology and conservation sprinkled the speeches of legislators.  Ralph had set the wheels in motion and his experiment was spreading ever further and encompassing ever greater spaces.  But he continued to work, improve, rethink, redesign, according to newer and newer discoveries of science.  And, when he retired, his analytical mind continued to help dozens of students with suggestions,  problem solving and honing the perception of their surroundings, and, of course, ideas about conservation.

Ralph was one of conservation education’s pioneers.  His twinkling eyes. light-hearted humor and zest for rivers and fishing will be missed.  But he would be gratified to know that conservation and ecology have become essentials for high school biology–that one of his major goals was achieved– and that the search for the understanding of the interconnectedness of all life forms goes on.

 

About Robert M. Weiss
From an early age, I've taken great pleasure in reading. Also, I learned to play my 78 player when I was quite young, and enjoyed listening to musicals and classical music. I remember sitting on the floor, and following the text and pictures of record readers, which were popular in the 1940s and 50s. My favorites were the Bozo and Disney albums. I also enjoyed watching the slow spinning of 16s as they spun out tales of adventure. I have always been attracted by rivers, and I love to sit on a boulder with my feet in the water, gazing into the mysteries of swirling currents. I especially like inner tubing on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon. Since my early youth, I've been interested in collecting minerals, which have taught me about the wonderful possibilities in colors and forms. Sometimes I try to imagine what the ancient Greeks must have felt when they began to discover physical laws in nature. I also remember that I had a special passion for numbers, and used to construct them out of stones. After teaching Russian for several years, I became a writer, interviewer, editor, and translator. I continue to delight in form, and am a problem solver at heart.

One Response to Remembering Ralph Turner: Conservation Pioneer

  1. berlioz1935 says:

    Engaged people who love their chosen field can work wonders.

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