Will Curtis, Host Of Public Radio's 'Nature Of Things,' Dies At 93

04/18/11 5:30PM By John Van Hoesen
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Will and Jane Curtis.
(Host intro) Author and Naturalist Will Curtis, who produced the public radio program "The Nature of Things," has died at his home in Woodstock.

For decades, and in hundreds of essays, he shared his observations on a wide range of topics ... from maple sugaring to Siberian tigers.

VPR's John Van Hoesen has this remembrance.

(Theme music from the Nature of Things)

(Van Hoesen) For years, this was the music that signaled to public radio listeners that Will Curtis was about to take them into the natural world.

In his nationally distributed program, "The Nature of Things," he introduced listeners to nature by sharing the details of his own experience.

 

 

Watch Will Curtis present one of his "Nature's Way" essays:

 

Curtis on water striders:

 

(Van Hoessen) In one program about the "seasons," Curtis describes the different meanings of the word and goes on to tell us about the year 1816, where there was really only one season -- winter.

(Curtis) "Spring never came, summer never came and in July snow was still piled up and more coming down. Crops never got in the ground, animals died from lack of food; humans went hungry.  In Vermont where conditions were particularly severe, whole families pulled up roots and left for parts of the country where such unnatural weather didn't plague honest, hard-working folk."

(Van Hoesen) Will Curtis's radio essays were published in two books, "The Nature of Things," and "The Second Nature of Things."

The titles of the essays range from "Dandelions" and "Dew" to "Wind Power" and "Drying Wood."  There's one on the "Ancestral Diet" and another on "Reduction of the Ozone Layer."   

Betty Smith was Vermont Public Radio's first full-time employee. She recalls how VPR came to produce the program.

(Smith) "There was a day not too long after we began broadcasting that we got a phone call and a couple of people wanted to come and talk to us from Woodstock about doing programs about the natural world. Will was one of them. Sally Laughlin was the other. They were both involved with VINS, the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. They came and had a meeting and we said, ‘Yes,' and that was the beginning of it."

(Van Hoesen) Years later, when the funding for the program dried up, Curtis joined the VPR Commentary Series and as recently as 2004 continued to share his thoughts on apple cider and camping at Yellowstone.

Will Curtis married Jane Pitkin in 1940.  They moved to Vermont from Massachusetts to raise Jerseys and operate a dairy farm.

Jane Curtis was Will's life partner and co-author. The two of them collaborated with Frank Lieberman on the book, "Monhegan, the Artists' Island." The collaboration produced five other books.

In the 1960s, they owned and operated the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock. They were regulars on the WCAX television program "Across the Fence." And Will Curtis served in the Vermont Legislature.

The Curtises traveled widely and their exploits to the Russian Far East resulted in a series of programs about tracking Siberian tigers.

Writer and naturalist Bryan Pfeiffer says that many of us don't have the opportunity to see the things that the Curtises saw.

He says that through these shared experiences, something greater was achieved.

(Pfeiffer) "We tend not to think of people like Will as necessarily great conservationists in the mold of Thoreau or Wendell Berry, but I think Will was in that sense, because his ability to share his experiences in nature, close to nature with everyone else, not only gave us enjoyment, but also instilled in us a conservation ethic... He belongs in the company of some of the great conservationists of the nation."

(Van Hoesen) Bryan Pfeiffer says that Curtis didn't need to be a crusading environmentalist.

(Pfeiffer) "I think in a very humble way, he instilled among many of us this wonderful appreciation for nature and this important conservation ethic."

(Van Hoesen) For listeners, Will Curtis evoked an image and an ethos. Betty Smith remembers it this way:

(Smith) "He had apple cheeks from his years of working outside, but also he was an educated man and an articulate man and he just jumped in with both feet. And he did it with a style that was particularly individual."

(Curtis) "We who live in northern climates benefit from the changing seasons. We're supposed to be more alert, smarter, active than those who just lie about all day waiting for the fruit to drop..."

(Smith) "He didn't sound like a manufactured persona. He sounded like Will Curtis." (Curtis) "Will Curtis and that is the Nature of Things."

 

(VanHoesen) Will Curtis was 93.  

For VPR News, I'm John Van Hoesen.

(Host)  The memorial service will be held at 2 o'clock on May 7th at St. James Episcopal Church in Woodstock.

The audio engineer for this remembrance and for "The Nature of Things" was Sam Sanders at VPR.

Watch more Will Curtis video essays:

 

Curtis on earth worms:

 

Curtis on maple syrup:

 

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Related Links

Will and Jane Curtis Visit New York City Will Curtis on Sugaring Will Curtis on apple cider
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