Chattanooga Naturalist Robert Sparks Walker Remembered

Tuesday, February 5, 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.)


Kayak Tour of Chattanooga's History June 27

The Chattanooga History Center will partner with Outdoor Chattanooga to a kayak tour on the Tennessee River on June 27, 2015 beginning at 8:30 am. Join us for a leisurely, beginner-friendly kayak tour and be a true pioneer and get a unique perspective on Chattanooga’s story. Riding the river under your own power, you will get in touch with the environment that has attracted ... (click for more)

Guided Bicycle Tour on Chattanooga's Transportation History July 11

The Chattanooga History Center and Outdoor Chattanooga will conduct a leisurely bike ride through downtown Chattanooga. Participants will learn about the various ways people have cycled through and mobilized the city. A Transportation History of Chattanooga will be guided by a CHC historian and Outdoor Chattanooga staff & volunteers. It will begin at Outdoor Chattanooga ... (click for more)

Bradley County Commission Rejects 10-Cent Tax Rise For Lake Forest MS; Firefighters Get $3,000 Raise

With a small crowd of demonstrators sitting in the back of the room with signs that read, “Vote no on property tax increase,” the Bradley County Commission on Monday night finally rejected a proposed 10-cent property tax increase that would have added funds to the construction of a new academic building at Lake Forest Middle School.   Funding for renovations at ... (click for more)

11 Attorneys Apply In 2nd Round For Replacing Judge Stern

Eleven attorneys have applied in the second round of applications to replace Rebecca Stern as judge of Criminal Court's Division II. The applicants are: Christian J. Coder Chattanooga Tracy Cox Signal Mountain Amanda B. Dunn Chattanooga Ardena Juanita Garth Chattanooga Thomas Clifton Greenholtz Ooltewah Andrea DeFay Hayduk ... (click for more)

Could The Marriage Decision Spark A New Independence Day?

I confess that this year I am having a hard time with the idea of celebrating the 4th of July Independence Day. It is not because I am not thankful to God for what was done on that day, what it represents, and the blessings I’ve experienced that flow from it. On the other hand, I want to think that maybe this year’s celebration will mark a period in our history in which a new movement ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Hay Fields Of July

Oh my goodness, July has just arrived and during my formative years, it was the most hated month of the year. When I was 12 years old, my wonderful grandfather decreed the days of begging for money to go to the picture show and burgers at the Krystal were over, that I was on the payroll for a dollar an hour and, in our family, folks worked for what they spent. Now my grandfather, ... (click for more)