By Jim Low
He was a half-pint-sized man with a gallon of drive and a bottomless well of instructive fables. He was a scientist and a philosopher, a trapper and a poet — if you count limericks as poetry. Tutored by such luminaries as Aldo Leopold and Nash Buckingham, he went on to become our association’s first conservation conscience.
He cut a dashing figure in tailored tweeds and a meticulously trimmed mustache. A cigarette in a slender black holder finished his unforgettable air of patrician elegance. Yet I’ll wager that not one in a thousand who read this profile can name this giant of OWAA without reading further.
What Manner of Man
In 1905 Werner Otto Nagel was the youngest of six children born to a family of German immigrants in the tiny east-central Missouri farming community of Holstein. His kin included accomplished professionals who played significant roles in Missouri’s early history. This intellectual underpinning, coupled with his love of the outdoors, prepared him for his later work articulating the bedrock principles of the nascent conservation movement.
From childhood and throughout his adult life, Nagel seemed delicate, even frail. Persistent respiratory problems and a doctor’s advice prompted the sister who raised him to take young Werner to New Mexico to live for several years. Bill Crawford, who headed the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Wildlife Division and shared an office with Nagel for years, wondered how he survived the rough and tumble of hunting, fishing and biological field duties. “He didn’t weigh nothin’,” recalls Crawford.
Malcom “Mac” Johnson, for many years editor of Missouri Conservationist magazine, describes Nagel as “no bigger than a bar of soap.”
Yet, he relished the outdoor life. As a young man he spent one winter trapping in Michigan, supporting himself with income from selling pelts. Crawford believes this is when he developed his philosophical bent, noting that physical challenges daunted him no more than intellectual ones.
Those who remember the diminutive conservationist all comment on his extremely soft-spoken manner. “He was kind of a philosopher,” says Crawford. “You’d hardly know he was in the room until you spoke to him. He was always the last one to join in a verbal donnybrook, but once he did he would argue by the hour.”
Size notwithstanding, Nagel was not a man to trifle with. “Once I picked him up,” recalls Johnson, a bluff, exuberant barrel-chested man.
“We were in a crowded office, and I turned around and found him in my way, so I just picked him up.”
It was done in jest, but Johnson was astonished by the hail of verbal abuse that immediately pelted down from the normally sedate Nagel. “It made him absolutely furious. He yelled ‘Put me down you %#$@*& SOB!’ ”
Johnson says Nagel was equally ready to do battle with editors intent on changing his manuscripts. “He would snap and growl and bite,” says Johnson. “If you wanted to change his copy you had to have a convincing argument.”
Carl Noren, who went on to lead Missouri’s conservation agency, remembers Nagel as having” an original and penetrating mind,” and possessing “the valuable quality of seeing beyond the present.” He also remembers him being lots of fun.
“Werner took conservation seriously,” says Noren, “but he knew how to laugh at his problems. He and Charlie Schwartz and I spent quite a bit of time in cars driving to meetings. Sometimes we would make up limericks to pass the time.”
Asked if their limericks conformed to the traditional content of this unique literary form, Noren admits that many of their creations weren’t fit for publication.
As the Twig is Bent
Nagel’s father and maternal grandfather were ministers, and nothing would have pleased his family more than following their vocational steps. But his interests lay elsewhere. Nagel enrolled at the University of Missouri-Columbia and became one of the first graduates from the newly formed school of game and fish management. In 1933, he became the first to earn a master’s degree in the new field.
As a student, Nagel met Aldo Leopold, who then was a frequent visitor to the Show-Me State. Leopold worked on the Game Survey of the North Central States, commissioned by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturer’s Institute. But he also was playing a key role in getting the newly formed Conservation Department on firm footing, politically and scientifically.
In the University of Wisconsin’s archives, environmental historian Susan Flader discovered extensive correspondence between Leopold and Nagel. Besides scientific matters, they discussed the proper goals and practical means of America’s fledgling conservation movement. With a mentor like Leopold, the father of scientific wildlife management and the first author to articulate principles at the heart of today’s “deep ecology” movement, it’s little wonder that Nagel became an influential conservation thinker.
After earning his master’s degree at age 28, Nagel worked for the National Park Service as a wildlife inspector. Then he worked as a wildlife technician for the Farm Security Administration and as a wildlife researcher for the recently organized Missouri Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit. Personnel files at the Conservation Department shows that Nagel was a free-lance photographer from 1940 to 1941.
From then until his retirement in 1970, he worked for the Conservation Department, functioning as a federal aid project leader, research technician, senior biologist and staff specialist. Over the years his supervisors and colleagues recognized that Nagel’s real genius was his ability to immerse himself in a problem until he could distill its essence from a welter of technical and political facts. It was this drive to define and articulate the goals, the ways and means of the conservation movement, which eventually brought him most distinction.
As a research biologist, Nagel found it natural to begin his writing career in technical matters. When barely out of college, he co-authored the Survey of the Resident Game and Furbearers of Missouri with Dr. Rudolf Bennitt. Thirty years later he revisited the subject, updating the information and placing the intervening years in historical perspective in his 453-page magnum opus, Conservation Contrasts.
To their credit, the Conservation Commission and the agency’s top managers gave Nagel a degree of editorial freedom that few administrators today would tolerate. He spoke frankly about the failures and successes of the conservation movement, the organizational and political roots of those failures and what was needed for improvement.
Unlike most scientists, for whom prose is mostly a means of obscuring their subject and making themselves seem erudite, Nagel strove to make his writings palatable to lay readers. Even his technical production was seasoned liberally with homey similes and well-turned metaphors. Thus he was able to drive home principles of wise resource stewardship in ways that real, live landowners readily understood. His descriptions of natural scenes and events pulsed with such vivid detail that readers could practically smell a spring breeze wafting off a pond where bluegills spawned and feel their frenzied struggling at the end of a fishing line.
Late in his career, Nagel distilled what he had learned about technical writing in a 31-page booklet for the American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society. Make Your Technical Writing USEFUL, urged researchers to “Be as definite as your data will let you. — If you cannot make a point clearly, skip it.”
Sad to say, this counsel is heeded by far too few fish-and-wildlife researchers today.
Important as his technical and overtly philosophical works have been, Nagel’s most influential writings probably were fictional or semi-fictional works that appeared in Missouri Conservationist. A character called Cy Littlebee figured prominently in many of those articles.
It was to Littlebee’s mythical farm that the literary Nagel often repaired when ruminating on some conservation quandary. Littlebee and the wild denizens of his 100 acres always supplied the needed perspective.
Littlebee was, I think, the alter ego of his creator, wedding plainspoken country wisdom with college-educated savvy. The resulting voice provided the Walter Mittyish Nagel with a persona through which the soft-spoken thinker could instruct readers.
Like Nagel himself, Littlebee never preached. Instead, he planted the seeds of knowledge — always in the vernacular — added the salt of wisdom and gave his pupil a bowl of squirrel stew or a plate of fried bluegill filets to munch while ruminating on the subject at hand.
Like Littlebee, Nagel had faith in his audience’s ability to make the right choices, given the necessary information. His early writing motivated citizen conservationists who went on to take wildlife management in Missouri out of the hands of politicians and placed it on a sound scientific basis with stable funding. Solid popular support was and still is the indispensable foundation on which successful conservation programs are built. Such support isn’t built on science or administrative efficiency, but on a movement’s ability to communicate its ideals and aspirations to the people who pay the bills.
The OWAA Connection
Luck — Nagel’s and ours — played a significant role in bringing him into the OWAA fraternity. The years he worked at the conservation department’s cooperative research unit in Columbia, MO, overlapped the time that OWAA was headquartered there. It was natural that he should take an interest in a professional outdoor writers’ organization.
Nagel found kindred spirits in OWAA. Joe Linduska was a special friend, and Nagel loved to haunt the marshes with the dean of waterfowl hunters and writers — Nash Buckingham.
Nagel became a regular fixture at annual conferences, though he passed up a few at places distant from Missouri. He flatly refused to fly because of a bad flying experience early in his life, so he traveled only by car or train.
His rare combination of scientific and practical knowledge of wildlife management, coupled with his literary talent, made him a popular figure at conferences. His talent at the piano didn’t hurt either.
Nagel’s enjoyment of OWAA friends and activities was tempered by a nagging discontentment.
Bernie Nagel recalls, “He didn’t think OWAA did enough about conservation. It was all hunting and fishing then. Most of those early writers didn’t have any science training or understanding of wildlife biology. Werner was the exception. He understood the role of management, and they listened to him. Most of those early writers wrote about their hunting and fishing exploits. He was appalled at how little some of them knew. He helped them become a broader, better educated group.”
Carl Noren, too, remembers the frustration that OWAA’s almost exclusive hook-and-bullet tendency caused Nagel.
That is what prompted Nagel to establish our group’s highest conservation honor, the Circle of Chiefs, in 1958. Nagel eventually earned the award he originated. He joined the Circle of Chiefs in 1964.
Through his research, his scholarly writings and especially through his popular works, Nagel contributed materially to the conservation movement. He also invested enormous time fostering positive relations between farmers and the conservation community, working with the Missouri Conservation Department, the Izaak Walton League of America and other groups to instill hunting and fishing ethics in sportsmen.
Some of his contributions were concrete. He was a co-founder of The Wildlife Society, which turned America’s growing cadre of wildlife management professionals into a cohesive force for scientifically sound management. In his home state, he was instrumental in launching a major pond-building program that eventually created hundreds of thousands of acres of flat water. Those ponds benefit not only anglers and livestock, but also a wide range of furbearers, neotropical migrant birds and other wildlife.
Bill Crawford described his former co-worker as a wildlife statesman. “He bridged the gap between the old world of writing about how many fish you caught and the modern world of conservation writing,” said Crawford.
“He was a pioneer. He was the last resort when you wanted to find out about something. He was the Conservation Department’s consultant on conservation philosophy, writing and history.”
Jim Low, of Jefferson City, MO, is print news services coordinator for the Missouri Dept. of Conservation. Low is published in Reptile & Amphibians, Birder’s World, Birds & Blooms and many other publications.
Note: Werner Otto Nagel joined OWAA in 1948 and was a member until his death in 1974.