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Original Issue


When his work last appeared in these pages, Author William Service was coaxing a tiny wild owl through the domesticated confines of his living room (SI, June 30, 1969). His account of life with Owl made a memorable story. As we rejoin Service this week (page 58) he is coaxing domesticated youngsters into the wild confines of the Carolina woods. Question: What is Bill Service up to, anyway?

The answer is that he has contracted one of the more persistent cases of ecological dedication on record. He believes people have a place in the wilderness, and vice versa. Everyone, from schoolchild to politician, has picked up the environmental bug over the last year or so, embracing the great outdoors as if it had just been invented. But Service has seniority among such discoverers. He came to the outdoors six years ago when he and his wife Cornelia bought a piece of wooded North Carolina real estate near Durham and built themselves a home there.

"Up to that point, frankly, I didn't know a maple from an oak, despite a fairly generous exposure to nature as a youngster," Service says. But in the course of building the house, the contractor was forced to remove large chunks of the flora. That is when Service got bitten. He set out to restore the plant life and to identify the growth that remained. And soon he knew the name of every living thing that grew on his territory.

Since then he and Cornelia have turned their big, red barnlike house and its surrounding landscape into a near-replica of Edward Hicks' painting The Peaceable Kingdom. They have allotted just enough lawn for the children to play on. The rest they have painstakingly planted with both native and cultivated growth. And they have encouraged all manner of wildlife to make itself at home.

The wilderness, some of it rather exotic, overflows into the house. There is a "huge horror of a snapping turtle," as Service describes it, that was given to them by a New York visitor who thought it would make a nice house pet, something like Owl. It did not quite turn out that way. Until recently, a squirrel monkey lived just outside the back door in a wisteria vine. From this enclave he would make forays into the house for tidbits. He was especially fond of hors d'oeuvres, and summer cocktail parties were his favorite times. The monkey, unfortunately, decided to swing one day from a high-tension line. That still leaves the Services with a wide assortment of fauna, however.

As for the true-to-life outdoor adventure he describes in this week's issue, Service thinks getting children face to face with nature is the only way they will learn its importance to them.

"Children cannot be taught ecology in sit-me-down-and-talk sessions," he says. "You have to give them physical, sensory experience of the wilds." Which is the kind of thing Service has learned in his Peaceable Kingdom down there in Durham.