Chattanooga Naturalist Robert Sparks Walker Remembered

Tuesday, February 05, 2013 - by Jack Reeves

Robert Sparks Walker was born 135 years ago this week, on Feb. 4 in what is now East Brainerd, where I grew up.

I first met him almost a half century ago, when he was in his late 70s. One of Tennessee’s leading historians and naturalists, his accomplishments are chronicled in Who's Who in America.

Robert Sparks Walker’s reputation was indeed national. He was published in the New York Times, Better Homes and Gardens, the Christian Science Monitor, and Nature Magazine, among others.

He sold over 1,000 poems and 500 articles--most on nature themes. He
published 10 books--one nominated for the Pulitzer Prize--and wrote a nature column for 25 years for the Chattanooga Times.

He was an exceptional, unassuming horticulturist--with a law degree. During his life he identified and labeled more than 3,500 trees on school grounds and parks, hosted a weekly nature radio program, and answered over 20,000 nature questions. He founded the Chattanooga Audubon Society and edited its quarterly.

Robert Sparks Walker--invariably referred to by his complete name--was born in a log home named Spring Frog Cabin, built by Spring Frog, a Cherokee naturalist, in 1750. The cabin is located on the 130-acre Elise Chapin Wildlife Sanctuary, two miles off East Brainerd Road.

He devoted a large part of his life to the preservation of the cabin and the development of the ‘Bird Sanctuary.’ For decades he was the sanctuary’s superintendent and authority on all things wild, and alive, and fascinating--especially to a youth my age.

I first met Mr. Walker in the cabin of his birth while on a school trip. He was the first legend I ever met. In high school, I worked with him on a class excursion; I recall picking him up at his home and driving to the sanctuary.

Through the years I knew him, he taught me to be attentive and to attend to nature. He also taught me the pleasure and importance of history and of our purposeful place in that continuum.

Robert Sparks Walker lived simply within the loveliness of nature; he noted and explained its wonders. He had exceptional skills to expose the extraordinary in the ordinary. He helped us appreciate the marvel in the mundane: a leaf, a flower, a bird, even a stone.

His attunement to nature and his passion for it inspired me. I learned to love biology, the study of life. I enjoyed writing about scientific research. Combining the two, I found a career.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish,” states the Bible. I recast the truism. Had there been no Robert Sparks Walker, I would not be who I am today: a former lawyer who made a career as a science writer and journalist. I feel--perhaps seek--further affinity being born on Feb. 3, the day before his birthday.

It took a long time for me to recognize this influence. William Ellery Channing captured it: “The mind--in proportion as it is cut off from free communication with nature, with revelation, with God, with itself--loses its life, just as the body droops when debarred from the air and the cheering light from heaven.”

I found none of the nature I love in law and being lawyerly. I was in my 40s before I finally embraced my natural roots.

The Elise Chapin refuge was one of Mr. Walker’s favorite places; for years he spent nearly every day there--cold, rain, or shine.

On Sept. 26, 1960 Robert Sparks Walker died of a heart attack. He was walking in his beloved sanctuary. He is still there, buried next to Spring Frog Cabin.

On his birthday, I address his living spirit: “Mr. Walker, your love of nature and stewardship to preserve and protect the environment remain exemplary.

“You helped set the compass of my life; it continues to guide me. Most of all, you showed how nature points beyond itself, helping me discover the One Great Face behind its many masks.”

(Former Chattanoogan Jack Reeves, MA, JD--member, Georgia Bar and federal court system--is an award-winning journalist (Georgia Press Association) and science writer. He headed communications programs for World Bank- and United Nations Development Programme-sponsored international agricultural research centers in Colombia, Ethiopia, Taiwan, and Nigeria (1984-1999). He was a federal program writer for Chattanooga Progress, Inc. (1968), an agency of city government. He lives in the Oconee National Forest, Greene County, Georgia, from which he
continues to reflect on nature and write about it.)


Presentation on Patrick Cleburne At The Battle Of Franklin Is Nov. 14

  FRANKLIN, Tenn. – The international impact of the Civil War in Tennessee will take center stage 10:45 a.m. Friday, Nov. 14, when renowned “conflict archaeologist,” historian, and 2014 Tennessee Civil War Sesquicentennial Event keynote speaker Damian Shiels presents “Patrick Cleburne at the Battle of Franklin” at The Factory in Franklin. Confederate General Patrick Cleburne ... (click for more)

Viaduct at Jonas Bluff Improved the Safety of Cummings Highway

Modern road construction equipment and highway projects have conquered some of the challenges of traveling into the Chattanooga valley through the mountains.    However, in the days of horses, wagons, and Model T automobiles, some routes were treacherous.     From St. Elmo to the bridge across Lookout Creek, the narrow route of Wauhatchie Pike hugged the curves ... (click for more)

City Receives $400,000 Federal Grant To Study Passenger Train Service

The United States Department of Transportation has announced Chattanooga has received a $400,000 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant to study the potential use of existing railways for a passenger rail system in Chattanooga. There were 72 awards announced in 46 states and Washington, D.C. Out of numerous grant applications across Tennessee, ... (click for more)

Former Assistant Police Chief Eidson Not Charged In Shooting Of Stepson On Englewood Avenue

Former Chattanooga Police Department Assistant Chief Kirk Eidson was not charged in the shooting of stepson Robert Ingle, 18, on Sunday morning in North Chattanooga. However, Ingle was charged with domestic assault and vandalism. In the incident shortly after 9 a.m. at 1049 Englewood Ave., Mr. Eidson said Ingle came to the house asking him to take him to their other house ... (click for more)

Dirt Decision At Camp Jordan May Come Back To Haunt East Ridge Councilmen

Wow. I thought the arrival of Bass Pro Shop would help bring East Ridge back to a position of prominence in the Chattanooga area, but the Council proved otherwise last night.  To the council - There is a reason that the developers want that dirt: It's valuable . You currently own it and the developer wants it. Bass Pro has already agreed to set up shop. They were going ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: Goodbye To My Scooter

The month of August turned out to be unkind, with my dog, my favorite aunt and my magnificent mother all dying within three weeks’ time. As I finally begin to push out the three newest dents in my soul, my habit has been to write something akin to a goodbye note to those I have loved. I’m not ready for Aunt Martha and Mother yet – not by a stretch -- but I remembered Scooter with ... (click for more)