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Remembering Mitch
Long-time Audubon field editor John G. Mitchell had a natural ability to shed all bias, sparking enlightenment—and controversy—throughout his career.

Mitch in an Adirondack guideboat.
Maria Stenzel

The conservation community lost a unique and persuasive voice in early July with the death of John G. Mitchell, 75, a longtime field editor for Audubon magazine and then National Geographic’s senior editor for the environment. He died of a heart attack while returning to his Connecticut home from one of his favorite places—the high peaks area of New York’s Adirondack Park.

Mitch’s byline (hardly anyone called him John) first appeared in Audubon’s September 1974 issue, and over the next 17 years his assignments took him from the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Amazon River in Colombia. His credentials as a conservationist were unimpeachable; for example, he played a key role in creating the Staten Island Greenbelt in New York City. But Mitch was a journalist first, not a spokesman for the cause, and thus his even-handed articles were often controversial among readers whose minds were set on particular subjects.

That debut piece, “Best of the S.O.B’s,” was a generally favorable profile of Weyerhaeuser (The Tree Growing Company) at a time when public and private forest management and clear-cutting in particular were hot-button issues, especially in the Pacific Northwest. And his last contribution in the March 1991 book, “Sour Times in Sweet Home,” told of frustration, despair, anger and political manipulation in a troubled Oregon timber town.

“There was no place so sweet” for pilgrims who settled the area, Mitch wrote. “This was God’s country. This was Oregon at its best. But this was yesteryear. Nowadays, some folks around Sweet Home…are afraid that this is Oregon at its worst—all those eastern preservationists trying to take control of their woods, telling them how to live their lives, changing the rules, closing the mills. All this talk about spotted owls.”

Then there was his five-part series “Bitter Harvest—Hunting in America” that infuriated both sportsmen and anti-hunters who flooded the editor’s office with snail-mail for nearly a year.

But he would come down hard on shameless miscreants. Reporting on the pollution of the blue waters of western Lake Superior by taconite ore processing plants, he wrote in the lead paragraph: “There is nothing puny about the Reserve Mining Company of Silver Bay and Babbitt, Minnesota, except, perhaps, for its corporate soul, its social responsibility, and its good-faith standing in the congregations of the law-abiding.”

Mitch’s stories were typically built around the people he encountered on his assignments, and his easy writing style has been compared to Mark Twain’s. In midwinter 1977, I sent him to Alaska to dig into the disappearance of the Western Arctic caribou herd, the largest in North America. His itinerary: Juneau-Fairbanks-Kenai-Kotzebue-Noorvik-Kotzebue-Fairbanks. Noorvik was 43 degrees below zero and the sun barely cracked the horizon for four hours at midday.

When he returned, I asked Mitch to recount some experiences I could use in my editor’s column. His response: “You sent me to get a story. I think I got it. Now you ask for anecdotes. I’ve got none. That’s the trouble with reporters. Always minding everyone elses’ business but not their own.

“I wish I could tell you that we were huddled around a dying campfire in a blizzard, the wolves howling at us from the darkness, but there were no such National Geographic capers. Just getting on planes, getting off planes, knocking on doors, going through doors, talking to people. Sitting, listening, asking a question now and then, but mostly just letting them talk. Reading reports, looking at maps. Asking more questions. Putting it all in the big mixer: bureaucrats and biologists and nutritionists and natives and bush pilots and barkeeps and ecofreaks. And then skimming off the top.”

Though he forgot to include fending off Inupiat hookers at the Kotzebue bar.

Mitch and I had a wonderful editor-author relationship, working out ideas over a martini or two, occasionally traveling together on a project like a piece on Georgia’s Cumberland Island, where I donned my photographer’s cap. He was a wordsmith of the first order, his manuscripts so well crafted that they could be sent to the printer with barely a pencil mark. And he relished getting away from political issues and writing about history: “On the Seacoast of Nebraska,” about immigrants on the Oregon Trail; or “FDR’s Tree Army,” the Civilian Conservation Corps.

On occasion, he would even contribute a nature story (more or less) like “The Hiding-Place Tree” on the American sycamore, a tale that begins in his Ohio boyhood. “How a rational youngster could possibly become to be so enamored of the sycamore,” he wrote, “should be no mystery to those who are familiar with the tree’s delightful peculiarities. First there is the strange matter of the sycamore’s reptilian skin. The tree, in effect, sheds its skin—not quite, but almost, like a snake. What other North American tree appears to spring straight from the Age of Dinosaurs?” This is a real Mitchell classic. Look it up in the May 1986 issue.

But his favorite Audubon article, and mine, is “A Man Called Bird” from our 100th anniversary issue in March 1987. It is a 24-page profile of George Bird Grinnell—sportsman, scientist, publisher, companion of Custer and Teddy Roosevelt, friend of the Cheyenne Indians, pioneer American conservationist and father of the Audubon Movement. And nearly forgotten today.

Typically, it was Mitch’s wish that friends eschew flowers and instead make a donation to the environment charity of their choice. And damn, this old editor will miss his voice in print or on the phone, discussing an important topic like the latest shenanigans of the Bush Administration—or the top-rated gin in a New York Times taste-test. 

Les Line served as Audubon’s editor-in-chief for 25 years. He is currently a contributing editor.

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