Naturalist, author, conservationist John Hay, dies at 95

 Cape Cod's greatest nature writer, grandson of Lincoln's secretary


John Hay in 1954, dismantling the tent that had servedas the first Cape Cod Museum of Natural History which he founded and headed for 25 years. Photo: Grace McCandless.

John Hay founded Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, wrote over a dozen books

John Hay died Saturday, February 26, at his home on the shore of Muscongus Bay in Bremen in mid-coast Maine, a tiny town much like his nature Brewster was a century ago.


In all, John Hay wrote 18 books. His first, The Run, was published in 1959 and his last, Mind the gap , in 2004.

In addition to being a writer and naturalist, John Hay, 1915-2011, was an early and significant conservationist both here and in Maine where he spent each summer. He was the key founder of the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in 1954 and its president for 25 years.

Later, as one of the early presidents of the Brewster Conservation Committee, he was largely responsible for convincing the town to set aside vast stretches of salt marsh off Cape Cod Bay as conservation land along Route 6A.

He once said that in the summer, when the population of Brewster swells creating what he has called "a kind of crowded loneliness," John and his wife Kristi, who died in 2007, leave for their home in Maine. There most days he writes in the old barn, but leaves a window open for the swallows while he writes in an old horse stall.

John was born in Ipswich MA in 1915 and raised in New York City where his father, Clarence Hay, was an archeologist at the American Museum of Natural History, Hay spent his summers on his grandfather's farm along Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire.

His many honors

His many honors include selection as Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard in 1963, and the John Burroughs Medal in 1964, garnered for his book The Great Beach.

In 1970 he was named conservationist of the year by the Massachusetts Wildlife Federation, and in 1991, the Orion Society established the John Hay Award, given annually to an author who excels in addressing the relationship between man and nature, environmental education and conservation, in his honor.

The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests named him Conservationist of the Year for the second time in 1993.

His grandfather, John Milton Hay, was Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and later Secretary of State under both Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

John Hay was also a teacher at Dartmouth College, and among his books were The Run about the alewives and the herring run near his home in Brewster,  Nature's Year: The Seasons of Cape Cod, In Defense of Nature, The Great Beach and A Sense of Nature.

In his first book The Run, 1959, John Hay wrote:

 John Hay a few years ago in Bremen ME.

Knowledge is the motion by which the human animal may come closest to another in the family of living things...
   When the sea pushed inland and the alewives moved ahead or returned, I began to see an infinite route, of surpassing, complex elaboration; and in their pulse and tempo I felt something that gave me present assurance and a touch of joy...
   I have idly wondered whether a single fish, isolated from its brethren, might not suffer some kind of unknown hell of estrangement. I have seen one swimming wildly down a narrow ditch off a tidal inlet as if it knew the crowd had left it behind, and was frantic to get back. Ibid.
   There was an imperative rhythm in their spawning act, with grace in its preparation and power in its fulfillment.  Humanity calls it love...
   What further connections are there , say, between the sun and sight, between our tactile senses and the medium of earth and air in which we are born, between the moon and the tides and the rhythms of water and of blood?
   Who knows more about the universe-I with my conscious measurements, my personal faltering, or the poor fish with its unthinking precision through the various unknown?...
No matter how many times I try to describe the alewife by the uses of human speech, or classify its habits, its intrinsic perfection resists me. It is something else. It goes on defying my own inquiring sense of mystery.

In all, John Hay wrote 18 books. His first, The Run, was published in 1959 and his last, Mind the gap: the education of a nature writer, in 2004, a writing span of almost half a century.

The early days on Cape Cod

Hay attended Harvard, and on graduation worked as Washington correspondent for The Charleston News and Courier. Just before going into the army during World War II, Hay apprenticed himself to Conrad Aiken, the poet, who was living in Brewster at the time.

Hay divided his time in Brewster between clearing land and writing poetry. Before leaving for the service, Hay bought what he thought was 10 acres of land on the top of a nearly treeless hill, close to Aiken's home called "41 Doors" in Brewster near the Stony Brook herring run.

He spent some of his tour of duty in the Army as an associate editor of Yank, the army newspaper.

After his discharge, he and his new wife, Kristi Aresvik Putnam, settled on what turned out to be Hay's 18 acre lot to raise their family, which eventually numbered four, which he called "Dry Hill".

John Hay is recognized by many as a preeminent force and voice in nature writing and regional nonfiction of the twentieth century. He is identified with Cape Cod, where he lives and has written and where he has remained active in environmental politics.

For many, he was the voice of nature and environmental conscience in the Atlantic Northeast during the last half of the twentieth century, communicating in his work his deeply personal experience of the land and sea while enacting that experience in a career of public service and philanthropy that reinforces the environmental ethics and practice found in his writing.

Hay and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History

On February 20, 1954, Kathryn Berrien, Ruth Francis Clark along with Admont Clark, Ann Thatcher, Harry Holl, John Hay and Scott Corbett met around a table and after a long brainstorming session came up with the name - Cape Cod Junior Museum and they adopted this statement of purpose: "to encourage and enable the children of Cape Cod, and also their parents and teachers, to study the plant, animal, and marine life which abounds so profusely in this region...opening the eyes of children to their relationship with the natural world around them."

The start of the museum was the development of a series of portable exhibit cases of local fauna which were made available to the local schools. This was the beginning of what was to become a major part of the museum's work, the Environmental Education Program in the Cape's schools.

1955 was the beginning of twenty-five years of John Hay's leadership and in 1956 the museum realized its first home, the second floor of the Brewster Town Hall. In 1958 the museum began its first building fund drive and in that same year purchased its first land - 37 acres of Stony Brook valley. In 1959 the membership ratified a change in name to Cape Cod Junior Museum of Natural History and plans were made in January 1960 to establish a trailside museum for the summer with a large tent, located on the current site of the Summer Pavilion.

In 1962 the name was changed to Cape Cod Museum of Natural History to reflect a name to represent all age groups. In 1960 the construction of the museum's first permanent building was completed and is still in use as the Summer Pavilion.

See the books by John Hay here.
Read an excerpt from David Gessner's biography, The Profit of Dry Hill, here.

On August 29, 1968 the museum dedicated a new building which included office and exhibit areas. The Clarence Hay Library was completed and dedicated on April 6, 1975 and in 1980 John Hay stepped down as president after 25 years with this thought "It's time for a change..."

John Hay leaves behind a treasure trove of words and vision for all nature loves on Cape Cod and around the world. - WB

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