When he’s not leading birding and nature tours in Alaska, Uganda, or Costa Rica, naturalist Mark Garland calls our island his home. He and his wife, artist Paige Cunningham, have lived in West Cape May for 21 years. Although he keeps his career “under the radar,” shunning attention or recognition, his efforts in environmental education and conservation have not gone unnoticed by many of the world’s foremost leaders in the field. Most notable is the Audubon Naturalist Society’s prestigious Paul Bartsch Award for Distinguished Contributions to Natural History, awarded to him in 2019. Mark is only one of 20 recipients in the award’s 60-year history.
Everyone I contacted about you said what a nice guy you are, so I wanted to meet you in person.
That’s very flattering! That’s important to me. I sometimes say I’ve made a career out of being a nice guy. Paramount for me is that I want everyone who comes on one of my field trips to be comfortable and to be treated well, because that’s what I would want. Just being a considerate and compassionate human being should not be considered unusual. I do think most people are kind and considerate, but they’re not the ones who make the news or run for political office. I have a very deep faith in humanity. There are wonderful people everywhere.
You were a ranger in the National Park Service. Let’s start there.
The spectacular park where I worked mostly was Olympic National Park in Washington State. I got my first summer job there in 1981. There are different types of rangers. I was the naturalist or “friendly ranger” who led nature walks and held campfire talks. There are law enforcement rangers who run radar and catch poachers and so on. It was seasonal work from late spring to early fall. I did it for four years.
Do you have a most memorable experience from those years?
We had a nice amphitheater where my naturalist partner and I would give lectures. A couple hundred people would come to these. In 1984, I reluctantly took a full-time job back east in Maryland with an Audubon group. On my very last talk, many of the higher-echelon rangers from as far as 40 miles away came to it. It was very moving to me that they’d come to my last talk.
A friend of mine who is a cryptozoologist would be very upset if I interviewed a ranger from the Pacific Northwest without asking you to comment about Bigfoot.
I can’t believe such a large creature could go undetected without definitive proof, but I think it’s a wonderful legend. I have a naturalist friend, Robert Michael Pyle, who wrote a book called Where Bigfoot Walks. When he first wrote that book I thought, “Ugh, not you.” But one of the things he writes about is how wonderful it is that we still have possibility and that we still don’t know everything about everything. These bits of folklore and mythology which perhaps are rooted in some realities are still a rich part of our culture.
You wrote a Q & A column for Bird Watcher’s Digest. What is a common issue educating the novice birder?
Here in Cape May where I do most of my work, many of the beginners always love the mute swans. They’re beautiful birds, but they’re not native. They don’t belong here. It’s a delicate issue because they are so elegant and steeped in folklore. When I tell people that things would be better off if they weren’t here, that’s sometimes a tough sell.
Smithsonian Press published your book on the natural history of the Mid-Atlantic region. Has this specific region always fascinated you?
My fascination is with the whole darn planet. Circumstances have had me spend most of my life in this region and I don’t regret that. But I travel quite a bit, too.
Tell me why Cape May is home to you.
Cape May is an extraordinary place, especially for migration—birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and other things that migrate. In the southbound migration, the quirks of our geography cause extraordinary concentrations of wildlife to occur here. It has to do with our prevailing winds being from the West. When you go north, the continent extends much farther to the East. Anything migrating that’s not comfortable being over water is going to keep fighting against those prevailing winds to stay over land. And other things from the area of the Great Lakes will ride those winds. It’s like a giant funnel in this part of North America where many creatures heading south end up here in Cape May to rest and refuel before they travel across the Delaware Bay.
If we could step into a time machine and go back to Cape May in, let’s say 1700, what would we see that human presence has destroyed or displaced?
My mind goes right to the migration. There’s evidence that despite the staggering variety of birds, butterflies, and other migrants we see here, it’s a tiny fraction of what it was at one time not long ago. Birders I know who were birding here 40 and 50 years ago often say there were more birds, and those birders remember old-timers who spoke of 40 to 50 years prior who spoke of even more birds. It’s suggested that we have lost about 25% of the number of birds in just the past 20 years. So, if we could go back to 1700, as you imagined, we’d be astounded at the number of birds, monarch butterflies, and dragonflies. In terms of other creatures in many parts of eastern North America, not far from here, there were still predators like mountain lions and wolves, and you didn’t have the over-population of deer as you have now.
How about if we were to set the dial of our time machine to Cape May, 100 years from now, what would we see?
I’d like to think that we would not have lost our respect for the natural world and the creatures we share this planet with. I’d also like to think that all the creatures and areas we are working to protect now will have stayed protected by then. If development in 100 years is still restricted to the areas it is restricted to now, we should be okay. There’s also a reasonable chance that this will all be ocean in 100 years due to climate change. That’s just projecting the course of natural history, but I hope there’s also preservation of the architecture too.
The Sisters of St. Joseph stated about three years ago that their retreat house in Cape May Point would be torn down, and the land returned to its natural state. The historic building will be saved and used for environmental education and research. Where did you stand on the fate of the building as the controversy unfolded?
I don’t think that allowing the land to return to its natural state would have made much of a positive impact on the overall wildlife. I value it as a historic landmark building. I’m excited by the plan to refurbish it, although it seems incredibly ambitious. I’m more concerned right now about protecting the remaining areas that are wild rather than trying to return developed land back into the wild, especially when you have an architecturally significant structure like that.
There’s an economic reality, and it needs a lot of work. I’m sure the sisters were well aware of that and also aware of the land’s value to developers. So, I think it was admirable of them to insist that the land not be used for new development. I think their approach was very principled.
Should there be codes enforced on the plants which new development uses to landscape?
I think that could be very valuable. I know some of the people who are in official capacity at the Point and they also share that thought. Two such officials I know who are also in the birding community have a clear understanding of that. Cape May Point is very special that way because it is the final stop for so many migrants. And that awareness does run throughout the community with so many homeowners already providing wildlife-friendly landscaping.
What would you say is your spiritual experience with nature?
It’s hard to put into words. I’m much more at peace when immersed in the outdoors. I’m neither religious nor areligious; I think the point I’ve come to is that there is something out there that we don’t understand. I gave up trying to figure it out long ago. I have a hard time defining spirituality but when I’m in nature, I’m home.
You’ll be leading one of the National Audubon Society’s field trips this summer?
Yes, it’s a fascinating program in a place called Hog Island in Maine. It’s like summer camp for grownups. I’m the lead instructor for one of the sessions this summer and it’s quite an honor to be part of that.
You founded the Cape Charles, Virginia, Monarch Butterfly Project in 1995. Talk about your work with Monarch awareness here in Cape May.
The Monarch Project in Cape May started in 1990. In 1992, things became very involved with tagging and census work. When I knew about what was going on here in Cape May, I thought this would be a good place to look for them. The Monarch numbers fluctuate a lot, but during that time, across the continent, Monarch numbers were on a downward trend. For a while, we knew we couldn’t draw any conclusions unless we had compiled about 20 years of data. Now we have 30. When you average out the peaks and valleys, the population has remained relatively stable. One thing that has changed is that the Monarch migration is happening later in the year. That’s related to climate change. The peak of migration is now two or three weeks later than it was just a few years ago.
Is there enough being done in the schools to educate children as to the importance of native plants and migration in their region?
There is never enough being done, but in Cape May it’s much better than in most communities. I know some of the teachers and community members in West Cape May who have been involved with planting butterfly gardens at the West Cape May Elementary School. The Nature Center of Cape May certainly does a lot to educate the people here.
You’re one of many who just adore Cape May.
We’ve been here for a little over 20 years. There are some people who are here by default because generations of their families have lived here. But the people who are here on this island are hebecause they really want to be here for one reason or another. ■