Ralph White worried that he was starting to resemble a sumo wrestler.
He had added 40 pounds to his usually compact 5-foot-8-inch, 180-poundframe. And then there was the vision thing — currents running across his eyes that instinctively prompted him to clean his glasses. Finally, his sight faded into grays and greens.
Richmond physicians speculated that he may have contracted a rare ailment linked to bat guano, a distinct possibility since White had served with the Peace Corps in Thailand.
His worsening condition prompted a visit to Johns Hopkins University, where a specialist hit on the problem. Tests at Bon Secours St. Mary's Hospital in Richmond confirmed that a tumor atop White's spine was squeezing his pituitary gland and optic nerves.
A five-hour surgery involved rolling back a portion of White's face, inserting what amounted to chopsticks through his nasal cavity and pulling out most of the tumor.
The tumor, and even its removal, could've caused blindness or death. "But neither happened," White says with gusto.
He was amazed by the return of color to his vision. "It was psychedelic," White says. Even the billboards he hated were gorgeous. To celebrate, his wife suggested that they take a trip somewhere he'd never been.
White chose the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest. On the way, they stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where in the mid-1970s he'd worked as a park ranger.
During that visit, as he was reuniting with old ranger buddies, White heard cries of "Ranger Ralph! Ranger Ralph!"
Ron and Liz Lund; their adult son, Jeff; and their adult daughter, Paula Lund Burchill, introduced themselves. Each year, this family reunited at the park. Jeff and Paula explained that White, more than 20 years earlier, had led them on hikes across the Little Missouri River during the day and, by night, pointed out the constellations. He'd also demonstrated to them the power of quicksand by momentarily dangling them in it, pulling them out and then rinsing the children off in the river.
White had a profound affect on her life, Paula says. "My childhood dream was to be a naturalist like Ranger Ralph. I remember him taking time to show us even the tiniest flower or blade of grass and the beauty in it." Today, Paula is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, though she's now staying home with her three small children. "There are some similarities with the job of minister and that of a naturalist. We both are called to see God at work all around us, and to share that vision with others. I owe at least part of that call to Ranger Ralph."
White's chance meeting with the Lunds and their grown children back in 1998 left the perpetually gregarious White "as speechless as Ralph White ever gets," his wife, Cricket, recalls.
Reflecting on the moment today, he smiles. "It's rare that anybody gets to see the result of their teaching in such a vivid and profound way."
Teaching and collecting these kinds of life experiences is what Ralph White does best, along with sidestepping bureaucracy.
"I've always enjoyed adventure," he says.
His choice to move to Richmond for a job overseeing the 500-acre James River Park System in 1980 was a blind leap. He'd served in '78 as a Sierra Club volunteer in Richmond, followed by several months as a U.S. National Parks employee in Utah. He could've stayed there. White eventually realized that everybody wants to be in the beautiful places, where the work is completed and nothing needs to be saved.
Something needed saving in Richmond.
The Most Demerits
White, the eldest of four, was born in Long Island City, Queens, where his father was a filmmaker for the United States Information Service. His dad arranged two-week vacations six months in advance and took long drives for camping and fishing in the Adirondacks and Quebec's Gaspe Peninsula. "My mother would've preferred shorter trips and longer stays," White says with a chuckle. "But this is how I became accustomed to journeys of duration. Us crammed into a Nash Ambassador with an overflowing roof rack."
When White was 10, his father was transferred to Bangkok, Thailand. White attended the Brent School, a boarding school in Baguio, within the mountainous Philippine state of Luzon.
He was a rebellious student and received the most demerits of any student in the school's history, primarily for tardiness. For White, a classroom seemed a waste.
The native people fascinated him. There was the wiry old man who chased White and his buddies from a potato field. They later learned that during the Japanese occupation, he'd killed 50 of the enemy, which explained the skulls the man used as boundary markers. And then there was the Christmas when White couldn't travel to Bangkok and took an Episcopal priest's offer to accompany him to the remote north. There White witnessed hours-long torchlight processions and people dressed in leaves.
A Stray From the Royal Herd
After high-school graduation in 1960, White chose to stay in southern Thailand and attended classes at Chulalongkorn University. He returned to the United States in 1962 to study government at Wesleyan University. Looking back, the iconographic iconoclast understands that his going into administration would've been disastrous. "But I was interested, too, in writing and journalism, and going off to exotic places and reporting events and having adventures," he says.
In 1968, after college, he joined the Peace Corps. He first worked in public health and then moved into forestry service because he began acquiring animals captured by poachers. He sought a place where they could be appreciated.
At the Khao-Chong Waterfall Research Station in Trang province, he met its manager, Jeran Boonab, and Pong Lang He, of the Thai Wildlife Service. They agreed to White's idea of establishing a preserve and naturalist education site there, still open today.
The preserve started with a binturong — a civet with small ears and a long tail; a couple of gibbons; macaque monkeys; Great Argus pheasants whose cry sounds like "two-wow"; three otters named Boom, Beem and Bam; and a baby female elephant called Thean.
White was joined at the wildlife preserve by German world traveler Klaus Berkmuller and a new Peace Corps colleague, Daila Armstrong, who was put in charge of Thean the elephant.
On one occasion, someone fed the elephant a plastic bag, making it necessary for Armstrong to coat one arm in Vaseline and reach inside Thean to retrieve it. Afterward, she wasn't eating enough and needed appetite enhancement. White became the only Peace Corps volunteer with legal access to large quantities of marijuana — all for Thean, who then got the munchies.
But Thean's condition didn't improve, and it became clear that an elephant doctor was required. The animal was examined, and the physician was surprised to find that it was a white elephant, the exclusive property of Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej. "Problem was, the elephant was getting to its rebellious teen years," White explains. "The only thing we could do is ask the king if he'd take it into his royal herd."
The petition was accepted, and Armstrong presented Thean to the king. Sadly, two years later, a diarrhea outbreak in the herd caused the elephant's death.
Attracting the Spirits With Honey
While at the preserve, White became intrigued by Thai honey gatherers who'd ascend the massive canopy trees of the rain forest at night, while surrounded by clouds of bees. He photographed and recorded their work for a potential future documentary. Armstrong wanted to accompany him, but White advised her that this was a male-only tradition. She insisted, telling White, "You're not my father." On the evening she'd chosen to observe the honey gatherers, a gibbon escaped from its pen. After retrieving it, White and Armstrong found themselves in a swarm of tiny bees that seemed intent on stinging only Armstrong. They returned to the camp, laughing, but then Armstrong complained of trouble breathing. Her face and throat swelled until she was gasping for air.
White tried to get her on his motorcycle for a ride to the nearest doctor, but she couldn't stay on. He sent Berkmuller for a truck and then placed Armstrong on a cot, while all he could do was watch and listen to her labored breathing. It was one of the most helpless moments of his life.
The truck finally arrived. White placed her on the flatbed. Suddenly the swelling subsided and her breathing returned to normal. Jeran Boonnab, the park manager, arrived the next day and wasn't surprised. He told White that the spirits of the bees had prevented Armstrong from accompanying the honey gatherers.
White never again wanted to experience such powerlessness. When he returned to the United States in 1974, he trained in emergency medicine and served seasonally at National Park Service sites around the country, often transporting tourists around in four-wheel-drive vans. He laughs, "I took people into pretty wild places and scared the bejeebus out of them, and sometimes me, too."
White was known as a park-service hippie, says John A. Heiser, a North Dakota rancher who worked with him at Theodore Roosevelt Park in the mid-1970s. Heiser later helped to establish the Badlands Conservation Area.
"[Ralph] lived in a tent and stirred up the bureaucrats by wearing a beard," Heiser says with a chuckle in his flat-as-the-Plains voice. "He was about trying to put a round peg in a square hole, but that's OK. Renegades at our gate are essential to the development of our species. You gotta push things, inspire people, especially park rangers, by doing things a little bit unconventional. And Ralph did that, but in a good way."
One of White's favorite park assignments was Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona, to which he commuted twice a week by boat. At Glen Canyon was Rainbow Bridge, the longest stone arch in the world. The site had great religious significance for the Navajo, who consider rainbows guardians of the universe. To walk under the arch or to climb it was considered sacrilege. During World War II and Korea, a prominent Navajo spiritual leader brought those of his tribe serving in the military to the Rainbow for blessing.
This wasn't public knowledge until White researched its history. He implemented rules to prevent tourists from clambering around. He worked to re-sanctify the site; after all, at Notre Dame in Paris, or the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., visitors aren't allowed to rappel off the buildings.
White's love of nature led him in 1975 to a half-year internship program at the Aullwood Audubon Center near Dayton, Ohio. This was intensive naturalism, with fervent discussions centering on books like The Forest of Lilliput, a tome about lichens.
His mentor was Joseph Cornell, an environmentalist, writer and educator whose first book, Sharing Nature With Children, sold 450,000 copies in 19 languages.
At Aullwood, Cornell's popularity as a teacher-naturalist was cemented when a workshop slated for 15 people attracted 140. Cornell took the group outside to show them how a tree works. He placed six women with long hair on the ground to represent roots, then he put several footballer-type men at the center for the tree's core and divided them into water carriers and branch pushers. The tallest of all were the leaves and branches. Those in the middle performed knee bends, taking sugar water from the roots into the tree's upper reaches. Cornell circled 20 others around to constitute the bark.
White marvels now at the image. "He'd made theater and living sculpture and explained how a tree worked. And you'd never forget it."
When Ralph Met Cricket
Today, the gray-bearded White, with his powerful yet soothing voice is as associated with the James River as the rocks over which the rapids flow.
When White came to Richmond in 1978, first as a Sierra Club volunteer, he found not only his life's mission along the James, but Cricket, a native Richmonder. He jokes now, "She started as my first volunteer in the parks, now she's my boss." That is, she's his wife.
She was working in the parks department, and had just come out of a four-year marriage and didn't want another relationship, especially not with a co-worker. White was dating, too.
Together they gave presentations. She admired White's seriousness and commitment to his vocation, but not enough to refrain from teasing him. At one point she asked if anybody ever gave him as hard a time as she did. White replied, dead serious, "No, and I'd be annoyed if you didn't work so hard."
"We were buddies for a long time," Cricket says. But things changed in 1980 on the way home from a nature talk in Delaware. They stopped at a diner by a Virginia marsh where a low, rickety boardwalk jutted into the water. In the twilight the two naturalists witnessed a parade of glowing jellyfish. White says that the electricity of the creatures, and the moment, prompted a kiss.
For Cricket this was both wonderful and anxiety-causing. "You know, Ralph's idea of a date was to come to the park and help him pick up litter," she says, then laughs. "We had women all over that park picking up litter. We'd been friends, and this was not looking like a healthy choice."
Instead, it turned out to be the healthiest choice of all, though Cricket, a program director for the nonprofit Hope in the Cities, laughingly admits that being married to White is sometimes challenging. "It's like there's another woman — except she's a park."
White's desire to speak the truth as he sees it, no matter what, can cause some problems. Cricket laughs, "I never, never ask him that typical, ‘Honey, does this dress make me look fat?' question. Because I really don't want to know."
White's sense of time, she says, was formed in Thailand, where a person completes whatever is at hand before moving on to the next thing. If you are trying to keep a 500-acre wildlife park operating, many tasks and curious visitors need attention. Meetings have been delayed and theater performances missed.
Sometimes White brings deceased animals home to put on ice because the freezer at the visitors center isn't working well. On one occasion, Cricket reached in to get kielbasa for dinner guests, pulling out a bag of the right size only to see that it contained a dead snake.
The Highest Award
In 1980, the James River Park System wasn't used so much as abused, by bottle-smashing drunks and graffitists. Ordinances banned swimming, wading or launching a boat. Regulations forbade a park worker to step away from his truck to pick up trash due to liability concerns. White ignored that rule and has ever since made choices guided by what he feels are principles of common sense.
For years, White had a total maintenance budget of $5,000 for 500 acres of parkland that included forests, white-water rapids, trails, historic sites and education centers. He contended with administrative dismissal of his efforts, including one administrator who wanted to install a basketball court at Pony Pasture.
Hanging in the visitor center is a map of the "James River Parks Master Plan" dating from the late 1970s. Indicated is a proposed site of the state science museum next to the Pump House behind Byrd Park and illustrated is a zigzag concrete path leading to Belle Isle and atop its highest hill an air-traffic-control-style tower crowned by a UFO-like structure. White shakes his head as turtles splash in tanks behind him. "They wanted to put a revolving restaurant up there," he says.
His 26-year endeavor to make the James River parks an integral part of Richmond's life is receiving accolades.
The Sierra Club in September bestowed upon White its Distinguished Service Award. White felt like the 98-pound weakling at the football game, since he was placed in the same league as environmentalists in Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
"It's without question the highest recognition they can give," says John R. Pope, director of Richmond's Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities.
The celebration is in contrast to just a year ago, when White was suspended for two weeks without pay for opening gates to allow park users to enter after hours. This was the darkest time of his parks career. He suffered nightmares of being chased and defending himself in fights. An outpouring of supportive letters to the newspaper and scores of calls to the city demonstrated the importance of White and the parks.
"I can't speak to my predecessors," says Pope, a parks veteran of more than 30 years who was hired shortly thereafter, "but I brought Ralph to my office when I got here and I told him, ‘I understand what you're doing. You have a friend here.' "
White acknowledges Pope's experience. "He gets it," White says. "It's not an uphill struggle. This is cause for great happiness on my part."
In His Natural Habitat
Under a tree, on the volunteer-constructed steps of the 14th Street Takeout, White is addressing a group of Irish environmentalists and planners. He tells them that permission for the steps took three years, the building six weeks and the plans were submitted to the city afterward. This gets substantial guffaws from the group. This is Ralph White's lyceum, and he's a bearded philosopher-teacher of another time who wears shorts and white knee socks.
The visitors gaze across the vista, from the Interstate 95 overpass to the graceful arches of Mayo's Bridge, and there's not a balled-up bag or discarded bottle. A stilled train on the bridge and bright-capped fishermen in bass boats cluster underneath. The Southern States silos peer over the trees, and a blue heron stands straight as a compass needle on a rock outcropping. The river's hushes and burbles erase the city's other sounds.
And yet nearby is a one of the big gates for the combined sewer and drainage overflow, and the river is at its cleanest level in years. In the 1980s, White raised the ire of public utilities administrators by placing signs at sites along the river marked "Don't Fish — Sewer Spill." The officials demanded proof after tearing down his signs. "We had horrendous fights," he says.
White responded that the stuff looked and smelled like sewage, but he'd certainly not tasted it. He was told by the city that the gates opened three times a year, but a study by the National Resources Defense Council proved that sewer overflow was dumped into the James at least 60 times a year. Today, retaining tanks on the north bank keep these releases to a minimum.
Now the river is home for varieties of bass, shad, gar, catfish, even sturgeon, which were plentiful in the James until the 1920s. Dams erected to produce water power blocked off parts of the river, but storms, then man, reopened them.
The cry of a kingfish bird means that there are small-water creatures for it to eat. Upstream on Williams Island, bald eagles nest — Richmond is the only capital city in the lower 48 states where this is so. There are Canada geese — too many. White explains that the geese on the rocks are from ancestors who were caged by hunt clubs and released for easy shooting. They've lost their instinct to migrate and are vectors for disease. So are the raccoons. And deer are verging on overpopulation. "We all want everything to be pristine and green," White says, "but nobody wants to kill Bambi. Once we create this abundance, we also have the responsibility of controlling it."
The Irish, packed in a van, are treated to a White specialty: driving vehicles down back roads and over odd bridges which is what he does to gain access to Belle Isle.
The visitors witness the park's many uses: mountain bikers who build their own trails, joggers, hikers and pet owners. Along the way the group meets volunteers cleaning up trash, and in another vehicle, maintenance supervisor Peter Bruce and trails manager Nathan Burrell.
Bruce has operated as White's strong right arm since the cleanup after Hurricane Fern in 1997. He marks the park system's progress through machinery: the park's single lawn mower has evolved into two bush hogs and several lawn mowers. "We were in a poverty-stricken situation," Bruce remembers. The parks didn't have a third of the equipment now available, so Bruce "manipulated" other departments on the weekend. "Once we started accomplishing things, it never ended."
Burrell views his four years with White and the James River parks as invaluable. "Ralph totally captivates you," Burrell says. "He can talk about everything from a random ant to large-scale ecosystems. His understanding of a nature park and managing on a small budget, while making it an integral part of the community through volunteerism, is a graduate-level education unto itself."
White has overseen the creation of trails, butterfly gardens, climbing walls, salamander counts, moonlight photography sessions and other educational programs. From his work with the Sierra Club and the Greenways Coalition, a conservation easement is very close to a vote from City Council that would keep the parks wild in perpetuity. It would be one of the highlights of White's storied career.
Much in the world troubles White regarding the environment. About the time that Al Gore made his first big press conference for his global-warming film An Inconvenient Truth, cosmologist Stephen Hawking said the species needed to leave the world to survive. The British biologist George Lovelock, who coined the term Gaia to describe the Earth as a living entity, says that perhaps within the lives our children, most of the planet will be uninhabitable except for around the Arctic Circle.
"That we revive the James River and bring back the animal population to where it was 400 years ago, only potentially to lose it all due to disease, pollution and storms," White says. "The irony of it."
White, 62, wants to work at least until he's 65, by which time, he muses, he'll probably be "too crippled up" to be of use.
Pope, his boss, says he's already told White that he can't retire. White hopes that if he's trained a core of good park managers, like Burrell and education programmer Lorne Field, someone will rise to take
Sitting in the visitor center as the James shooshes past, White says, "I don't want to be in a position where I'm not leading anymore but being carried. I need to go before that starts happening."