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Father Tom Pincelli

INTERVIEWEE: Tom Pincelli (TP)
DATE: February 25, 2000
LOCATION: Harlingen, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2086

Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas and here is Harlingen, Texas, in the chapel of St. Anthony’s Church. It’s February 25, the year 2000, and we have the good fortune to be visiting with Father Tom Pincelli, the Priest here. And he has been involved for many years in birding and habitat conservation in the Valley and I wanted to thank you for spending some time to talk about it.
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TP: Oh, my pleasure.
DT: I thought we might begin by talking about your early life and whether there might have been parents, friends, teachers that were an influence in your interest in the outdoors and conservation.
DT: Could you explain a little bit more about your grandfather?
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TP: My grandfather was the outdoor person in my family. He was the hunter, the fisherman, the—the mushroom searcher, things like that, and I joined him early on as a young boy and spent a lot of great times in the—in the outdoors with my grandfather. He’s the one that really got me in—involved and influenced in that regard and I went on to do many of the same things that he did.
DT: Could you explain, maybe tell about some of these mushroom gathering trips…
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TP: Oh, they were fun
DT: …or hunting or fishing trips?
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TP: I’d pick up everything under the sun and, of course, my grandfather would have to sort through it all and get rid of those that weren’t quite so good. Actually, poisonous and things like that. He was quite the—the outdoors person, he understood the natural world quite well. He came here as a—as a young man from Italy, he—my mother was actually born in Italy and came here when she was two years old. But he adapted quite well to this environment, except for the fact that he couldn’t speak any English. It was an interesting phenomena to be in the woods with my grandfather, speaking English and him not understanding a word that I was saying and he couldn’t speak to me, but we had a great time together, we truly did.
DT: As the years went by I understood you took up a habit of birding, 1972 I think you said?
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TP: Back in 1972. I was stationed in Milford, Connecticut at the time, having been ordained in 1970. My first assignment was in Connecticut, which is my home state, and was working as a Chaplain, amongst other things, of a youth group. And one of the adult advisers, Kevin Gunther, was an avid birder. He lived on a spit of land at the mouth of the Housatonic River and as a result, had ample opportunity to—to view an awful lot of wildlife that came through that particular area. He was also a third grade school teacher, which got him home quite early in the afternoon, so he used to invite me to go out and do some of the things that I enjoy doing, which is being in the outdoors. I’ve always loved being in the outdoors, it’s—it’s very difficult for me to have to spend extended periods of time in my office. I always have to kind of step outside or look out the window. So, when Kevin would come home he’d give me a call and I’d go down there, and we’d walk the beach together, and he’d point out this particular species and that particular species and, without realizing it, I became more and more interested and, before I knew it, had my own pair of binoculars, my own birding guide, and was inexorably hooked. It was all over after that.
DT: Perhaps we could talk not just about birding in Connecticut, but how it’s been here in Texas. Do you know much about the history of birding down here and bird counts?
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TP: We’ve been involved in a lot of things down here. South Texas has always been a premier spot amongst the birding community at large. I think that the birding community knew about the value of the avian resource that South Texas had long before its own residents did. When I arrived here in 1980, I was asked if I wanted to come to the Rio Grande Valley to minister in this particular area, and it was not a very difficult choice to make given my avocation as a birder and knowing the—the—the fame of this particular area. So, I kind of jumped in with both feet. But once I arrived, I found that there were very, very few local birders, I mean, extremely few. You could count those that got into the field on a regular basis probably on one hand. It was basically the birding community that came in from outside this particular area that gave it its fame. So, I was one of the few that kind of tried to bring a sense of focus. There had been others before me, there had been a history of birding here, some of the National Wildlife Refuge managers and the rest had made a—a mark in the birding community because of their efforts in this area. But when I arrived, like I said, it was just about four or five people that had any kind of ongoing interest in—in staying in the field, so.
DT: Can you tell about some of your early birding comrades or your early birding outings down here?
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TP: I can remember going out by myself and not encountering absolutely anybody, especially in the warmer months. The bird tour companies that come through this particular area tend to do so in the cooler months of the year, from fall through winter and, of course, in the early spring. But, I’d be out in the field and really not encounter anybody whatsoever. A good friend of mine came to the Valley, she became my good friend once she arrived here, Jane Kittleman, she was a retired school teacher from Dallas. When she arrived here somebody had told her about me and we kind of hooked up and on a regular basis we get into the field almost every Thursday. We have been doing that now since about 1982. So, almost 18 years now.
DT: And what are some of the notable birds or birding places that you go to?
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TP: There were a number of places I think that—that we try to get to. Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Benson Rio Grande State Park, there’s a little county park called Anzaldua
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County Park. The good thing is that af—after having birded down here over the extended period of time that I have, I’ve got—made a lot of friends and have access to a lot of the ranches and some of the private properties and—but there’s so much to see in South Texas. There are volumes that have been written about where to go in South Texas. There’s a number of publications that have been put together to help visiting birders on their own find the various and sundry locales that are of interest to them, so, but there’s so much to do down here.
DT: For some people it appears that birding is a pastime and for others it’s more like a sport of how many birds can you get on your life list and how quickly can you count them…which is it for you?
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TP: A little bit of everything. I think there are cer—certain times of the year, if there’s a birdathon going on, that we’d love to get involved, it’s—it’s fun, it’s the sense of the competition, see how you can put together a logistical strategy that’ll help you get as many species as you possibly can in a—a 24 hour period. There’s also the aesthetic aspect of it. I think birding has so much for everybody. You can work at it from a scientific perspective, depending on what you like to do. And that’s what I like about birding. On one given day you can play it as a sport, another day you can get into the behavioral aspect of a particular species, or you can get into population diversity, things of that type, so it’s fun to do. But, I—I don’t think I’d like to see it restricted in my own life as basically a—a primarily a scientific pursuit, or an aesthetic pursuit, or a competition, I think it should be a little bit of everything. This kind of satisfies me more that way.
DT: Maybe you can talk a little bit about some of the different aspects of birding. You mentioned that there’s some scientific value to birding, what do you mean by that?
0:08:13 – 2086
TP: I think that birding has—especially if it’s, for example, with things like the Christmas bird counts, which were started years ago by the National Audubon Society, and there’s even a backyard bird count going on right now. All of that has to be taken with a grain of salt, because these are not professional people in the field and mistakes can be made. But, I think overall, they’ve allowed us to understand certain trends that have be—have taken place in birding or are beginning to take place in birding. To see maybe some of the—the wintering grounds of certain species that might be ext—greater extended than we thought in—in—initially. I think there’s an awful lot that can be garnered over the course of time, it’s not one particular count that’s going to give you all the insight that you would like to have on whatever. But, I think over the course of time, years and years and years, you can build up a bank of data that begins to make sense. And I think that the scientific community has delved into that. Take, for example, the Hawk watches that have cropped up. A lot of very capable people have put themselves under those skies and watched these birds coming through and have been able to really give the scientific community a lot of information that they weren’t even aware of before. So, I think there is that scientific aspect of it all.
DT: You mentioned the Christmas bird counts. Could you talk about some of the other birding events? I understand that you’ve been active with the Rio Grande Birding Festival?
0:09:30 – 2086
TP: Yeah, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival—it’s the festival the—the local Chamber of Commerce—the Harlingen area Chamber of Commerce came up with about seven years ago. Watchable wildlife has become—had become the catchword in eco-tourism, again, with—was coming onto its own, so I think that they saw the opportunity of beginning to milk what was already understood by the birding community at large. They put together this festival, offered it to the birding public, it was success from the beginning, I mean, we had more than we could handle in that first year. We learned an awful lot of what to do and what not to do. But I think it worked out very, very well. And as a result of all of that, we’ve watched our local populous begin to see that they had something extremely special down here and realize that they were the stewards of an avian resource that was unique to the United States. I mean, many of these species occur in Mexico, but as far as their presence in the United States, some of these birds had a range a couple hundred yards along the river, maybe very few, but nonetheless, there were some species that didn’t occur anywhere else outside the Rio Grande Valley. And people began to understand that they were, again, the stewards of all of this, and began to recognize the economic impact it was having in their area, the quality of life that they could have as a result of all of this, looked at themselves as—as being able to enhance the habitat that was in this particular area and the need to do so. I think they’re looking a little bit more acutely at things like habitat destruction, and they’re trying to find ways to limit that in such a way whereby progress can continue, but by the same token, not to take away what is oh so critical to another aspect of their quality of life.
DT: Maybe you can talk a little about some of the other birding events that are maybe on a larger scale than the one that’s restricted to the Valley. I understand that there’s a coastal birding trail that’s been set up, also the Great Texas Birding Classic. Can you explain what those are all about?
0:11:29 – 2086
TP: Well, again, the Classic is basically a competition. It’s just a fun event, but it has been billed as one of the toughest, and it truly is because it takes place along the entire Texas coast, from Beaumont, not only to Brownsville, but inland all the way to Zapata, which is, again, 180—190 miles inland from the coast. Days off are spent in the field trying to discern, you know, a strategy whereby you can get the numbers of species that you feel you need to get. So a lot of scouting is going on, and the next day it’s dawn until dusk, you know, if not dawn until beyond dusk, it’s dawn until dark. So it’s—it’s really a knock down, drag out, it’s lake a baton death march at times. But it has, again, brought focus to the fact that the Texas coast is a unique reality and it—it—it plays host to a great number of species, especially at the time of the year when the Classic is held, which is in the spring. You’ve got a lot of trans-Gulf migrants that are leaving South America and Central America and making their way Northward once again to breed and they’re coming and landing on—along the Texas coast. And as a result, there can be extremely large numbers of species. We had a team here in the Valley—unfortunately, I wasn’t a part of that team—that was able to put together a—a Texas first, and that was about 229 species seen in one day and they never left the Valley. I mean, they went from the Zapata or the Falcon Dam area actually, all the way to the coast. They never went North from there and picked up to almost 230 species of birds, so it’s a—quite unique area.
DT: I understand that you’ve helped people track down some of these unusual birds through your rare bird alert, can you explain how that works?
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TP: Yeah, when I first got to the Valley in 1980, I was asked to involve myself with the local Audubon chapter, Frontera Audubon. And I chose to do so and help them out and, before I knew it, they had elected me President of that particular chapter. One of the things I wanted to do because I realized that there were so many birders trying to come to this area and they didn’t have access to pertinent information that was timely information, so we put together this rare bird alert. All it is is just a—a fancy answering machine which allows us to gi—offer an extended, outgoing message as to where certain species are being seen, and allow them to also, after they’ve availed themselves of that information, to leave us what they’re seeing in the field so we can keep the tape updated. I’ve been doing that since about 1981 right now, so it’s, you know, everyday for a long time.
DT: I hear that you also write for a number of local newspapers and you have a weekly column about birding.
0:14:02 – 2086
TP: Yes. About seven years ago the editor of one of our local newspapers, the Valley Morning Star, which is the Harlingen paper, approached me to see if I would like to write an article on a weekly basis. I though about it for awhile and I realized it could become an excellent vehicle, again, to keep our own people apprised of, once again, the resource that they have here. So I decided to do it and I’ve been doing it since then. I—I—I wrote for the Start for about two years and then the other two local papers, the Brownsville paper, the Brownsville Herald and the McAllen Monitor, they both picked it up so I’ve been syndicated for about four years now.
DT: What do you typically write about?
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TP: About everything. About local species, what’s going on, you know, some of the birds that occur here at given times of the year, some of their natural history, their behavioral aspects. We’ll talk about birding expeditions that I’ve been on, it can be somewhat esoteric at one point, and other times it can be a little bit down to earth and anecdotal. So, we try to give them a little bit of everything, we’ll tell them where to go at—at particular times of the year, what’s being seen out there, a little bit of—of, as I said, of everything. Try to keep it interesting, in other words and not just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. We’ll talk about, for example, you know, what birds eat, you know, why birds fly, how birds hear, you know, why particular birds have better vision than others, you know, where their eyes are located on their head. People are interested, it’s amazing, I mean, I’ll have people walk into church or, even better still, as I’m walking—as I’m walking out of church, not comment on my homily, but on my weekly column, I mean, I think it’s hysterical. But, they are reading it and that’s the good thing. And it’s given, I think, a lot of our local people a sense of pride that they have been given this particular resource to take care of.
DT: I understand that you’ve not only been working through your telephone lines and the local presses, but also through the PBS station here. Can you tell a little bit about On the Birding Trail, your program?
0:15:50 – 2086
TP: Our local TV show. About, again, three years ago, the manager of the local PBS station approached me to see if we could put together this birding endeavor for—for PBS. And it was a result, I think, of seeing what was happening here locally because of our festivals. They asked me if I would host it and I agreed to do so and I have been doing it now for two years. The nice thing is I don’t have to go out into the field. As much as I would like to, that’s the fun part of all of this, but it’s so time consuming and the nice thing is they’ve allowed me to stay back here and then review everything that—that they have done after they’ve edited everything, and I just play the host of the whole thing. And, again, it’s been picked up by a number of PBS stations across the west and we’re making a little bit of headway there and it’s having a little bit of impact, people are calling in and wanting to come to the Valley. We’re just keeping the Valley in the forefront as an extremely bio-diverse area. We hear so much about places like Florida and the Everglades, which are unique realities, but once you add up the species, whether it’s fl—flora or fauna, you find out that the Rio Grande Valley is more bio-diverse than even the Everglades. We have the largest number of bird species in a small four country area than—than the entire Everglades and beyond has. We have more butterflies than any other area in the United States. It’s a unique spot and I think the reason is because it’s actually a crossroads. You’ve got the coastal prairies to the East, you’ve got the temperate forests to the North of us, and you’ve got the subtropics to the South, and the deserts to the West, and the Rio Grande Valley just finds itself right there. Plus, we’ve got two major flyways essential in the Pacific that come through this area. So, we combine all of those elements together and you find yourself with an awful lot of bio-diversity.
DT: Father Tom, you’ve mentioned that the Valley is a crossroads for birds from all over the country and from South America and elsewhere, and increasingly it’s become a crossroads for people, who come here to enjoy the outdoors and see these birds that you’ve pointed out, and I was wondering if you might talk about the eco-tourism that this represents, the dollars it brings to the Valley?
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TP: I think one of the first things that came—comes to my mind that brought our focus to bear on all of this was, again, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. A lot of preliminary stuff had been done, I don’t want to lose sight of that, I think that there were organizations like the Frontera Audubon Society, even the Gladys Porter Zoo, Native Plant Project, Valley Land Fund, that were slowly but surely making inroads into the—the way people saw the reality of South Texas. But I think that once people saw how many people would come down here just for a five-day event, the business community just popped and just took a good look. And once they did, they realized that they had something special here that no one else had. As I mentioned, there are a number of species of birds that occur nowhere else in North America. Couple that with the fact that the birding community likes to keep their list, you know, what you have seen within the American Birding Association area, which begins at the Rio Grande and moves its way northward through the contiguous 48 through Canada and Alaska. You’ve got to come to the Valley sooner or later to get some of those species. We had something so unique that nobody else had. You can have Bluebird Festivals in a variety of places, you can have Eagle Festivals and you can have Shorebird Festivals, but you can only have one Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, so people started to take notice. As a result, there was a move made to bring the Coastal Birding Trail through here, which they were already focused on doing, the World Birding Center concept popped up and they thought this would be the best place to put it because it’s most unique in the entire United States as far as the variety and number of birds that are down here. And everybody got caught on that bandwagon, they just jumped on with both feet and said, “We’re going to do this because we’ve got something that no one else has and we can keep bringing people down here, it’s bringing a tremendous amount to our local coffers.” The economic impact that the Birding Festival is having is about a million and a half in a four day event on this local community alone. That’s a lot of people and that’s a lot of money. When you look at the moneys that are spent on eco-tourism and, specifically, on birding in one given year, you’re looking at 16 billion dollars, that’s with a “b”, okay? It’s over nine million dollars in Texas alone and it’s getting higher and higher and higher—excuse me, 900 million dollars in Texas alone. That’s a lot of money, an awful lot of money. But, when you understand that the pimar—the premier birding spot in all the United States is South Texas, it’s number one by most people’s polls, and it—it’s—that’s Texas in—in general. And in South Texas, the Rio Grande
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Valley, specifically, people started to become aware of what they had and they started to go slow and making sure that things weren’t lost, you know, they started taking a second hard look and making sure that the habitat was there. So much so that municipalities were going out and actually buying pieces of brush whereby communities would have something a little bit more substantial within the confines of their particular city, whereby people who came down on the Texas Coastal Birding Trail would spend more time in one given city and spend more money. Birds equaled dollars and it didn’t take long for people to realize that.
DT: Can you be a little more specific about the people, for instance, I understand the Harlingen Chamber of Commerce is the sponsor of the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. Can you give any examples of how that came about?
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TP: As I mentioned earlier, because of watchable wildlife becoming a popular endeavor, I think that once they realized what they had here, they thought that—they’re always looking for something new—but they thought that they had a—a viable means whereby they could bring to bear an economic benefit for the—for the Valley itself. So much so that there are no longer just one fe—there’s no longer but one festival in the Valley, there are four festivals in the Valley. There’s a Nature Festival in McAllen, there’s another Nature Festival in Willacy County, and there’s a Butterfly Festival in Mission over the course of one given year, you know. So, and people are coming down because there’s—there’s something special here. People want to see what we have to offer.
DT: It seems like you’ve also been successful in getting politicians to come here or at least bring their dollars to the Valley. Can you explain how you were able to build political support for—for example the World Birding Center?
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TP: Yeah, initially we—yeah we looked at a number of—of aspects of what we wanted to see this World Birding Center become and, you know, how we could bring it about. But once people realized that there’s economic benefit, once the local businesses start telling people, “We want this to happen,” it doesn’t take much to get the politicians involved. They’re looking to please their constituency and I think the—there was a knock down, drag out fight to see where this thing was going to go initially, the nice thing is that it’s no longer just in one place. It’s spread over the course of the Valley because the Valley, once again, is such a unique reality, it’s not homogenous, it has different aspects, like, from wetlands on down though coastal prairie on down through the desert ar—areas and with the riparian woodlands along the river. So, I think that it was important that we spread it out across the Valley. That’s one of the positive aspects of what’s been transpiring lately.
DT: I guess all this economic activity is based on the viability of the bird populations.
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TP: Exactly, without the birds we don’t have the impact.
DT: Can you tell me a little bit about how the rare and common birds are doing here?
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TP: It’s an up and down struggle. There are certain species that are expanding their ranges and other species because of habitat loss or because of Cowbird predation or other factors are—are beginning to lose ground.
DT: Can you explain what you mean about Cowbird predation?
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TP: Cowbirds are parasitic birds. As a result, they don’t build their own nests and lay their eggs and incubate. They just find a nest of somebody else, lay their egg, and go on. And as a result, what happens is, typically, the species—the host species loses out in the end. Cowbirds tend to be larger when they’re—when they’re hatched and take over the nest itself, and their—their siblings, or their—their cross cousins lose out in the end, so a number of species have been parasitized, everything from Cardinals down through Orioles and some of the Orioles are suffering as a result of that. But habitat conservation is critical to al—allow us to have a bank whereby a lot of these species are able to sustain themselves at viable levels.
DT: Are you seeing any loss of Live Oak Motts or I guess some of the thorn brush?
0:24:30 – 2086
TP: I think a lot of that’s going to happen with any kind of progress in the area, especially now with—the Rio Grande Valley is exploding. NAFTA has brought an awful lot of focus to this particular area, not only that, I think a lot of retirement communities are building up down—building themselves up down here in the Rio Grande Valley. What we can’t pretend to do is stop any of that. I think we have to try to do things in an intelligent manner. If it might mean taking something down, let’s replace it with something native, let’s put it back where it belongs. I think that’s important to see. For example, on South Padre Island, many of the lots out there—small lots—are extremely pricey. I mean, a landowner owning something like this, it makes sense for him to want to try to sell something like that, he’s going to create a nice little nest egg for him or herself. But, if somebody buys that and builds a home on that, let’s put something back in the back—backyard whereby you end up having some native habitat which is contiguous. If you’ve got all 50 people on a—all 50 homes on a particular street, that have built up a little patch of habitat in the backyard, you haven’t lost an awful lot. You’ve lost something, but you haven’t lost everything. And those things are critical, especially during migration when all—all of these species are coming in off the Gulf, they’re tired, they’re hungry, they need water, if all that’s available in someone else’s backyard, they can use it. We don’t always have to have a full forest, as much as we’d like to have that, a lot of species can get away with just having something there which makes sense, it allows them to the continue to survive. But the more people get involved, the more people are, like, for example, Valley Proud. They’ve done an excellent job in bringing that focus to people and I can’t tell you how much we have seen happen, native plant nurseries have popped up, people are getting involved in plating—planting in their own backyards, creating their own little bird niches or, you know, little bio-diverse areas, and it’s having a bearing.
DT: Could we talk a little bit more about some of these birds that you’ve been seeing and how they may fluctuate with habitat or with pesticides? You may need to help me here, but I understand that the Brown Pelicans have had a terrible decline, they’ve made a recovery. Can you comment about why that might have been?
0:26:44 – 2086
TP: Again, I think over the course of time we have become a little bit more aware of the fact that we need to take care of ourselves and, you know, the old Canary in the mine syndrome, once again, the same thing like the Peregrine Falcon, Ospreys, Brown Pelicans. When I first got to the Valley in 1980, it was a rarity to see an Osprey down here. You were fortunate if you saw one about every ten or 12 trips. Now if I go out there in the wintertime to a place like Laguna Atascosa and don’t see ten or 12 on one given day, I’ve had a bad day. Simply because of the fact that from 1972, after the banning of DDT, slowly but surely the natural wor—world was actually able to heal itself. It—it took care of bringing itself back and Ospreys have made a recovery, a tremendous recovery. Same thing with the Peregrine Falcon, this past year it was taken off the endangered species list. The same thing with the Brown Pelican, Brown Pelicans were few and far between, again, ingesting things which were not quite—quite palatable to their entire system, but now that things like that have been eliminated, we have seen them rebound tremendously. The interesting thing is that as they are doing all of this, they are indicating to us that we have to take care of ourselves also and I think that that’s important to see, I think—I don’t think that DDT was taken off the market simply because of the fact that it was going to help Peregrine Falcons, we saw it as a threat to ourselves also. So, they become indicators of the—the health of a particular environment. It’s good to see us focusing on these things, it’s good to be able to see that they want species to survive because they are a viable species, because they have a right to survive, that they are part and parcel of the natural world that makes
0:28:20 – 2086
up—that we make are—let me go back and rephrase that, that they are part and parcel of the natural world which we are also a part of, that we fit into this whole thing. We are not observers only, you know, we just don’t come into the natural world and say, “OK, birds belong but we don’t, or, you know, wildlife belongs, but we don’t.” We belong together, I think we have to look at this as—as a joint effort. The healthier they are, I think in the end, the healthier we are, not just from a physical perspective, but also from a maybe a philosophical, biophysical, also metaphysical or also from a spiritual perspective. We’re enriched by their presence in our life. I’m leading you into something else.
DT: No, I wanted to talk to you about how
0:29:05 – 2086
DT: Father Tom, can you expand a little bit about this connection between the natural world and people? Not just on a biological basis, but maybe on a spiritual or metaphysical level?
0:29:17 – 2086
TP: I find it extremely interesting that people in today’s day and age, because of the stresses and strains of everyday life, really look to find a place where they can recharge, and I think whether it’s psychological or spiritual, I think they all go together. I find the same thing happening in my own life. It’s a place to pull away and to marvel at what surrounds us. I think the more we delve into the natural world, the more we are amazed. There’s just so much out there. We could spend lifetimes just studying one particular species, let alone the bio-diversity that we face down here, whether it’s plants or animals or, you know mammals or reptilian, you know, goodies and the like, birds, for example. I j—just love being out there and to see what’s available to us to recharge our batteries, to bring us back into a sense of focus and to realize what are the important things in our life. The more we are enhanced in that regard, I think the more we can look at the rest of our world and realize what we have to do out there.
DT: Maybe to move on from the kind of ethereal, spiritual issues and maybe talk about some of the doctrine and religion, I understand that there have been different interpretations of passages in the Bible that talk about dominion, that may be misinterpreted as sort of a conquest for control and not so much a stewardship or responsibility. Can you explain a little bit about that?
0:30:37 – 2086
TP: Exactly. I think if you look at the entire scriptural aspect, it always brings us to stewardship, it never brings us to overbear on anything. If we’re called upon to love each other and—and to live in harmony and live in peace, I think that also has to be brought to bear on the natural world also. I think it has been misconstrued in the past, to see us dominating the natural world. We are part and parcel of it, we can’t dominate—it’s going to overwhelm us if we try to dominate it, it’s going to end up taking our own life. We can’t control certain aspects of the natural world, all we can do is try to live in harmony with it and the quicker we see that, I think the healthier we’re going to be overall. And I think it’s a real challenge for conventional religion to begin to see that they have to focus on this also. I was interested to see a number of years ago, when I was down in Brazil just by chance for a conference that was down there, that the Bishops, and we’re talking back in the late ‘70s, had put together a campaign for a—a year long campaign that dealt with the natural world and the reality of responsibility that people had in maintaining it in a healthy way. “All of it Belongs to Us” was what it was called and they were being asked to not to slash and burn. And this was, again, by the Catholic Church. I was amazed. Here was what we thought to be a third world country, an area that was losing habitat critically over the course of time, we weren’t even doing that down here—here—back here in the States. But, here we have a county that was trying to make inroads to get people to slow down, take a good look at what they might be doing and the consequences they might be su—suffering as a result of their haphazard manner of living their life and just looking at one aspect of it. They were trying to dominate nature and nature was not going to allow it and the nat—the Church, I think, was trying to bring that focus to them.
DT: Where do you think the Church stands now in relation to environmental issues?
0:32:24 – 2086
TP: I don’t think they’re there yet. I think they still have a go—a long way to go. I think they’re coming into focus, I think they’re trying to do something. I think, like anything else, they’re so overwhelmed with a lot of other things that are going on, that maybe this has been placed on the backburner. But, slowly but surely, they’re beginning to realize that this is part and parcel of the total question and the total problem, and to resolve the problem needs to look at all of this also. I think that the—the Bishops themselves are slowly but surely beginning to develop environmental councils to see what has to be done. I know that this particular diocese is looking to a synod within the next year, and one of the things that they will be looking at is the environmental community. So, I think that that’s important to see that happening.
DT: Looking into next year and the coming years, what do you think are going to be the big conservation issues?
0:33:14 – 2086
TP: Habitat conservation in its totality. Whether it’s purity of water, purity of air, habitat in general as we see it, brush, prairies, on down, I think that’s the big challenge. How are we going to be able to maintain that? I think that there needs to be some nuclei that are huge, that need to be able to be preserved in their entirety. But they’re—we can’t, again, slow down progress. I think we have to be able to adapt our—our sense of progress in a manner whereby we can also enhance the quality of the habitat that we have down here, as I was saying before. Even if it just means a lot of backyards coming together to create a—a little bit larger patch of brush, it all brings a positive bearing on everything that we have down here. I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge. The more I read, the more I delve into the whole aspect of what’s going on here, we get going back to that same thing, we need habitat, you know, it’s not a question of just DDT, it’s not a qu—it’s habitat that’s at the core of all of it. Things can survive, they can recoup if they’ve got a place to go to do it. If that’s gone, where are they going to go? What’s left for them? There’s just no other possibility. It seems naive to think in these terms, especially in our day and age when it’s easy to lay down another plat of—of asphalt and, you know, put up
0:34:27 – 2086
another building. It’s going to con—continue to happen. But I think that people are beginning to realize that unchecked, and this is going to bring us not happiness, but ultimately a little bit of sadness, you know, we’re going to end up with a Silent Spring. So I think people are really starting to slow down and look at ways that they can do what they have to do, but in a more positive manner.
DT: You mentioned Silent Spring, can you comment on what influence that book might have had on you? And as just a corollary to that, you said something at the beginning before we were rolling, which was that you believe that environmentalists are made not born and where that fits into that role?
0:35:10 – 2086
TP: I see, OK, yeah, no problem. Silent Spring, again it did have a bearing on my life. Just the thought that something like that could occur, I think we have to stop and pull back. Made me look at my natural world and, like anything else, I don’t think that the environmentalists are born in a vacuum, they’re the result of exposure. Like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, like some of the other festivals here, Coastal Birding Trail, the more people we can get out into the natural world and begin to see and appreciate what they have, what it means, what it can bring to them, the more likely they are to want and get involved and making sure it continues to exist. I think that’s critically important. So, habitat conservation is not going to be the result of just a number of scientists’ work and dictating what we have to do, it shouldn’t come from the political agenda, it shouldn’t come from—from Washington, D.C., it’s something we have got to own ourself and the only way that’s going to happen, if we can get people to realize the specialness of this particular area and how much it can offer to them, both financially, economically, but also spiritually, psychologically, that fulfilling element I think that’s important for all of us.
DT: You said something that I thought was real intriguing. You were talking about we have to continue embracing progress, but the quality of it may be different, somehow redefining what progress means, that it’d be less quantitative progress…
0:36:34 – 2086
TP: Qualitative.
DT: …I think that’s about the experience.
0:36:37 – 2086
TP: Yeah, and I think it needs an awful lot of thought. I think we don’t just jump into things. Years ago it was just second nature to go out there; you need to build a house, you just knocked everything down and you built it up. I think today people are stopping and realizing that why take everything down? If we have to take out one or two trees as opposed to 15, let’s just take out one or two and just build from there. Let’s take a common sense approach to things and I think that legislation will help us to understand certain things and sometimes it’s necessary, at least to get a sense of focus and to bring us to look at a reality that we have to face. But, ultimately, we’ve got to own it ourself, we’ve got to want it because it makes sense to us. So, I think that thought is critical, take the time to figure it out, and we just can’t keep jumping into things and just let—all hell bent for leather, you know, we’ve got to do it in a way that is intelligent and meaningful.
DT: Tell me something else, the Church has its rules and dogmas just as the legislature has its laws and regulations. What do you think is the best way to encourage people to take up the right kind of progress, or to appreciate habitat?
0:37:51 – 2086
TP: Again, it’s…
DT: Do you scold, do you encourage, do you…
0:37:54 – 2086
TP: Expose. I keep going back to that thought. We have to expose people. If I do a liturgy here and I can expose them to the reality of what God is in their life, it takes work sometimes, I mean, you have to be a little bit creative and I don’t know if it’s always going to work. But, I think it’s important that we allow people to spend some quality time in the presence of God. If they can begin to understand that it makes a difference in their life, then they will own it. The same think with the Liturgy itself. If I can show them that their working together, and their singing together, and their praying together enhances the quality of the experience, they own it and they’re willing to work in that direction. The same thing in our natural world. We’ve got to get them to understand it makes sense for them personally. Now, I understand that there are certain people who face—who face survival issues every day of their life, and this necessarily gets placed on the backburner. But slowly but surely, we’re making inroads. And even when you’re in the course of a survival element, if we could help a person to understand that they can’t destroy everything simply because of the fact that it seems to be of benefit to them, which probably, in the long run, it won’t be, and there are ways of dealing with their particular problems whereby we can still continue to have everything else, and having it working together.
DW: If the Church is generally ministering to the people, and I know, for example, there’s a liaison in the environment and between labor and the environmentalists, and between the Church and labor.
0:39:19 – 2086
TP: Yeah.
DW: What about who ministers and who explains this to the—do you ever reach the owners of maquilladoras? Does the church ever get a chance to do this to the people who actually have the rubber stamps for immediate decision. Have you ever gone before the corporate board of directors and try to get them to see this or is it all hoping that the mass of people will be inspired to take that movement as well? We found that the power does ultimately seem to be concentrated into a few small hands. Who gets to reach them?
0:39:54 – 2086
TP: That’s a difficult question. How receptive is the individual? That becomes the number one issue in my mind. Oh, how receptive is the individual? I don’t—I don’t know how receptive they might be. And that’s a critical question in my own mind. I—I take some of the major landowners here, let’s look from the ranching perspective or the farming perspective. I’ve watched them, little by little, take pride in what they have been able to do with their land and what their land means, not only to themselves personally, economically, but also what it might mean in a larger scale to the quality of life in the Valley. There’s an organization called the Valley Land Fund that has been helping—especially ranchers—focus on this. They’ve got a photo contest in which they’ve combined the photographer with the landowner. Whoever wins the winning prize splits the money between the two of them; landowner and the photographer. Interestingly, though, as a result of all of that, there has been this bank of data that has come out as to what’s really out there. And we’re watching these individuals take a good strong look, again, it’s exposure, take a good long look at what’s on their ranches. There’s a pride to know that they’ve been able to allow these viable populations to continue on their property. They want it not only for themselves, but for future generations. Again, it’s the whole sense of exposure. But, little by little, it hasn’t been lambasted—they haven’t been lambasted, they haven’t been pounded with a two by four or an axe handle, little by little, they’ve been allowed to see, to come into contact with what is really there. Some of the corporate realities that we have to sometimes face—what’s interesting to me that most of these individuals, once they finish their job, go off to the mountains of Colorado or some other nice place in which they can survive. We can make the—help them make the connection. I think most things in life are a question of making connections. If you can connect what’s valuable to you, ultimately to what’s valuable to everybody, then you’ve made that connection and, hopefully, can work in that regard. Connections are critical. I don’t think that we’re going to do anything by polarizing people, we end up creating enemies. I had a good friend of mine here, who was a National Wildlife Refuge manager, named Steve Thompson, unique individual, who had the capacity of walking into a
0:42:02 – 2086
room where you had two factions, one against the other, and could sit down with the two of them and immediately help them to understand that we didn’t have to be enemies. Let’s find a point of compromise. Let’s work from there. And what seemed to be a volatile situation, ended up being a very amicable exchange in which individuals walked away with a deeper understanding of where each was coming from, and they’re working for a common goal. I think that’s what we have to do. If it means sitting down with someone and helping them try to understand that, we’ll try to do that, but I think words are just words. I think we need to get people exposed to what’s real and help them make the connections in their own life. If it’s detached from them, that doesn’t make any sense. I can walk into someone’s office, who’s ill disposed to what I have to say, I can preach until I’m blue in the face, and they’re just going to escort me out the door and go on about their business. I’ve got to find a more important, a more critical way, a more stringent way to get inside and help them to understand.
DT: And is it God that gets inside?
0:43:01 – 2086
TP: I can always pray for them. That’s not going to stop me. There’s a lot of—I always have a—there’s a great Portuguese saying that I like to rely on, that God writes straight with crooked lines. I sometimes think he does. When we least expect it, things come to bear in our life, that cause us to stop and look at things quite differently. And, yet, there are other individuals who arrive at it quite easily. Lee Perkins, for example, I just finished reading his book, Living the Sporting Life. He was the one who bought and developed Orvis. He combined the two worlds of the sporting life with his business life and he never let himself lose sight. Granted, he was in a business that dealt with the sporting life, but he never lost sight of what was really important to making his business go, and was important to him as a person. And now that he’s retired, his sons are carrying on the business, he’s involved in every major conservancy down to local groups in Florida, where he’s retired. He’s been on every board that you can imagine. He’s working with National Audubon. Here’s a guy who walked through the business world but in doing so, still understood that there was a connection that was real to him that he didn’t want to lose. He got to it easily. Others don’t get there that quickly and I think we have to continue to work with individuals like that. But the interesting thing is that this man, like Lee Perkins, can do much more than I can ever do, he’s speaking the language of business to somebody else, like a maquilladora manager or owner. He’s speaking their language, but he can get them to understand and get them involved in someway, things can happen. We’re watching a lot of our corporate entities realize their responsibility, that their—the general public is asking for conscientious stewardship when it comes to the environment. They’re jumping in, they’re willing to throw some moneys down. Take, for example, Dow Chemical here in Texas, they’re involved in all kinds of—of endeavors. They’re doing an incredible job. One of the—excuse me—one of the sponsors of our On the Birding Trail is Mobil—excuse me, ExxonMobil now, okay? I mean, these are the things that are really helping us to understand that there—there are ways of bringing to bear something. I mean, getting them to help us whether it’s with personnel, with speakers, with finances, there’s always ways. And if we can all bring that—I keep saying that, again, I’m going to repeat myself again, bring that all to bear on what we need to do in habitat conservation, it makes sense.
DT: You talked some about making connections with political leaders and business leaders. Next door, though, you and the Church are making a connection with the next generation of kids and I was curious if you could talk about how you can instill this sort of conservation ethic in the next generation?
0:45:54 – 2086
TP: There’s an awful lot that’s been published about that particular thing and I think we try to do some of that in the school itself. I—I’m constantly filling the classrooms with posters. I’m—I’m always taking the kids out, you know, if I’m out there with them, show them a butterfly or show them the birds that are at the feeders that they’ve put up, and it’s interesting, they take it home to their parents. And little by little, they start to influence the parents themselves, you know, “Mom, Dad, we can’t do this, you know, we should be doing it this way.” You know, why don’t we plant this kind of thing? And I think that we’re trying to do that with the kids here. I try to get them to the Birding Festival, try to expose them to as much as we possibly can, I’m probably not doing as much as I’d like to, but I have to respect the times of the teachers and—and—and—and the principal, but I think that little by little, we’re exposing them, you know, they’ve been doing their own plantings around the property and I encourage them to put in natives and things like that. We put in a butterfly garden across the way where the library is, and they’re—they’re maintaining that, they’ve got their bird feeders that they keep up, so I think we’re trying to influence them. As I was exposed to the natural world by my grandfather, I’m playing grandfather because I’m old enough of to be many of these kids’ grandfathers, I’m playing grandfather to these children.
DT: Just as your grandfather took you outside, where do you like to go yourself now?
0:47:12 – 2086
TP: That’s a tough question. That’s a very tough question. I love being outdoors and I always seem to be able to find—I don’t say this because it sounds nice, but I truly believe that just being out there I always find something, you know? But if I’m forced to stay in one place, probably Laguna Atascosa. I’ve never seen more shades of green in any one place than I’ve seen at Laguna Atascosa. If you go out there, take a look, the many shades of Laguna. It’s incredible.
DT: And this is thorn brush?
0:47:41 – 2086
TP: Yeah, it’s a coastal prairie with a lot of thorn brush mixed in. It’s quite a unique place, the expanse itself seems to be liberating. You can get out in the middle of the lagoon and look around, maybe see a water tower somewhere off in the distance or hear a plane coming through, but other than that, you know, quite alone. At least here in the Valley. It puts me in contact with me, it puts me in contact with—with—sustains me, it puts me in contact with the God that I feel has created all of this and is part and parcel intimately of my life. And I’m quite thankful for what I am surrounded with, it, again, fills me and nourishes me, I come away seeing things quite differently. I can get out there feeling exhausted because it’s been a long hard week, but by the time I get back on my day off, I feel quite different. I do. Like you, ready to go on again and take the next—take on the next challenge. I’m able to smile a little bit, be amazed a little bit, be confounded a little bit, you know, maybe discover something new that I hadn’t seen before, feel like this—the detective who solved a little mystery. I’m always been fed by the natural world. If not fed in those terms, just simply amazed by it aesthetically. I’m a very visual person and these kinds of things just talk to me, and as a result do come away feeling different.
DT: OK. Well, thanks for feeding us.
End of reel 2086
End of of interview with Tom Pincelli