Tim Abbott '90 Brings History to Life
In addition to a 20-year career in land conservation, the history buff is president of a Revolutionary War reenacting group.
Given my lifelong love of history and of historical research, it would have been my logical choice of major at Haverford 30 years ago. Instead, I opted for English. I confess I have only a hazy recollection of what I was thinking at the time. I was a good writer and had been inspired by some excellent high school English teachers, but I suspect the more prosaic explanation may be that I figured I could meet the major requirements and then take classes in other subjects that caught my interest.
Less by design than by default, I branched out as a generalist. I took a class in African philosophy and another on medieval European cities. I related what I was learning in both classes to what I was reading in English literature. I studied the life habits of the common starling and I fronted for a funk band as a charter member of the legendary Hiram L. Weinstein All-Star Memorial Funk Project. I had some earnest and heated seminar discussions about the relative merits of deconstructionism and whether E.E. Cummings had it right that “feeling is first.” I was an anti-apartheid activist. It was all a bit messy—not a straight path in sight—but vital experience for someone not yet ready to turn away from the door to one possible future in order to walk through another.
It might seem a bit precious to have pursued education for its own sake back then, when today the value of a college education is so frequently quantified in terms of earnings potential offset by student debt. Values of a different sort are part of the education equation, however, and not all of them yield readily to the hard, clear lines of a formula or balance sheet. If life were all about rational choices made by free markets or social actors, we would have no need to study the humanities, but we also would not behave like actual human beings. I’m with Walt Whitman when he declares: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.”
At Haverford I came to appreciate that an “obligation to dialogue” implies a process of mutual learning rather than scoring debating points; that “confrontation” involves testing one’s own assumptions as well as bearing witness; and that trust and respect—and a clear-eyed assumption of good intent until proven otherwise—are the hallmarks of an honorable community. I consider these lessons, as well as what I have learned since about conflict resolution, negotiation, and facilitation, to be central to the work I do now and how I have tried to behave as a father, partner, and member of society.
I went out into the world without a clear career path. Six months after graduation I went to Namibia to teach English during the country’s first year of independence. I later picked up a master’s degree in international development and went back to Namibia on a Fulbright. I embarked on what has now been a 20-year career in land conservation, most of it working in western New England and eastern New York, instead of internationally where I thought my postgraduate education would lead me. I see nature with the eyes of a social scientist, and the patterns and processes of human behavior through the lens of the naturalist. I make no claim to the full credentials of either discipline, but, a good generalist, I am informed by diverse perspectives and a curiosity to know more.
I have been fortunate to be able to continue to pursue multiple areas of interest and follow where they lead. Only tangentially related to my profession, I have a passion for 18th century American history. I am researching the Central Atlantic Hurricane of 1782 and what it did to a British Fleet. I’m the president of a Revolutionary War reenacting group—Colonel Ogden’s First New Jersey. I’ve rowed across the Delaware, dragged cannon through the woods at Ticonderoga, and watched my teenage son attired as a youthful midshipman leading a British naval pressgang through the streets of Newport, R. I.
Would I have arrived at this place in life more directly had I majored in history, or perhaps specialized in conservation law? Paradoxically, I have found the crooked path, rather than the straight one, often proves the shortest distance between two points, if your notion of distance is temporal. Rivers behave this way, and so do our stories. Between the headwaters and the sea, a river may alter course, spread out in oxbows or cut deep through layers of sediment to make a new channel. Different choices may result in the same outcome, and the journey, and what we learn from it, is what matters in the end.
Tim Abbott is regional land protection & greenprint director with the Housatonic Valley Association, a watershed group and accredited land trust based in western New England and eastern New York. He writes several blogs, including “Another Pair Not Fellows: Adventures in Research and Reinterpreting the American Revolution” at notfellows.blogspot.com, and a biweekly column called “Nature’s Notebook” in his local paper, the Lakeville Journal. He lives in North Canaan, Conn., with his wife Talya Leodari