Plant Conference Honoree
BIRMINGHAM BOTANICAL GARDENS
A SPECIAL TRIBUTE TO
2017 NATIVE PLANT CONFERENCE
This year’s Native Plant Conference honoree, Bill Finch, is an award-winning writer, botanist, natural historian, and specialist in landscape interpretation and restoration. Bill has received national recognition for his garden columns and environmental reporting. Additionally, Bill’s weekly radio and television programs have a large following along the Gulf Coast, as do his educational programs at Mobile Botanical Gardens. Through his consulting business, Earthword Services, Bill is increasingly focusing his skills and efforts on large-scale landscape conservation and restoration efforts, in coordination with the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and the Ocean Foundation.
A native of DeSoto, Mississippi, Bill spent many of his formative years in Mobile. Bill graduated from Warren Wilson College in Western North Carolina, where he completed the college’s forest curriculum and worked with Mother Earth News magazine. After college, Bill returned to Alabama to work as an editor at the Selma Times-Journal and the Anniston Star before joining the Press-Register where he became an assistant managing editor and an award-winning environmental journalist. Bill has lived in Mobile for the past 20 years.
As a writer and naturalist, Bill serves as a guide to Alabama’s natural riches and has been the recipient of numerous regional and national awards for his news and environmental reporting for newspapers in Selma, Anniston and Mobile. His first book, Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See, was published in 2012 and is now in its second printing. While working on a second book, Bill is working with the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation (EOWBF) in helping to direct a broad conservation effort aimed at preserving the history, culture and biodiversity of the Alabama River and Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Bluffs region. He actively blogs on the EOWBF website.
His reporting on the forests of Alabama and his work examining mercury in Gulf seafood were awarded the nation’s two most prestigious environmental reporting awards, the Scripps-Howard Meemon Award and Columbia University’s John B. Oakes award. In 1999, he received the Reed Environmental Award presented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, recognizing top writing about the environment to raise public awareness of the South’s natural heritage and to foster a conservation ethic that will protect it. Bill’s garden columns were recognized as the nation’s best specialty columns by the national Headliners Award program.
Bill is a Senior Fellow for the Ocean Foundation and serves as chief science advisor for the Mobile Botanical Gardens, where he was formerly the executive director. While Conservation Director for the Nature Conservancy of Alabama, Bill was instrumental in developing a number of large conservation efforts throughout the state.
Bill’s broad background has given him unique insight into the landscape, natural history and conservation needs of the Southeastern U.S. and the Gulf of Mexico. His writing and interpretive skills have helped organize the massive outreach required to address those needs. His many clients include the Mobile Housing Board, through which his popular Seed to Table program works to improve community food supplies and consumption through community gardens and a market gardening program, thereby using gardening to transform communities. Other groups served include the Nature Conservancy, the Ocean Foundation, the Mobile Botanical Gardens, conservation buyers and realtors who use his skills to interpret landscape values for lands they buy or market, and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta Initiative, a group working to enhance conservation, tourism and the local economy in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta region, with special outreach to the National Park Service, the Restore Act council and local landowners.
He is a founding partner of the 100/1000 Restore Coastal Alabama program, designed to reintroduce 100 miles of oyster reef to Mobile Bay. As concept developer and coordinator of ReBloom the Gulf Coast, Bill is carrying out a program designed to assure that the Gulf Coast’s native and heritage plants remain available to gardeners.
Through his Earthword Services, Bill offers landowners understanding of their land’s story, and, in the process, helps those with whom he consults to make better use of that land’s unique values. His expertise in horticulture, botany, forestry, landscape design and concept development and communication has been key to the success of programs ranging from organizing community gardens in low-income neighborhoods to working with conservation-minded landowners to identify and restore large, one-of-a-kind landscapes.
Cyprus Partners Land Specialist and conservation photographer Beth Maynor Young has known Bill Finch since the late 1990s. She remembers, “I knew his reputation as a writer for many years but met him for the first time on a very hot July day at Splinter Hill Bog. Watching his tireless work as Director of Conservation for the Nature Conservancy, I began to truly realize the depth of his knowledge about plants and ecosystems.”
“In 2009, I had been working on the photography for the Longleaf book for several years, and copy was due soon,” she continues. “Rhett Johnson realized that retirement had not given him any more time and that he was not able to write the book. We called Bill Finch and John Hall to help with the writing. Bill quickly organized the book and gave it structure and insight. Bill and I traveled through South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia in 103° heat, photographing and observing longleaf in national forests and preserves. He would leave me in an area photographing while he ran a transect off in some direction like a dog following an invisible scent, returning with stories of what the forest once was, what it is now and what it would take to get it in optimum shape. I have followed many people through the woods over the years while doing photography but have never come across anyone who could read as much in an ecosystem as Bill does, nor anyone whose commitment to conservation is as strong. I knew this book was in very good hands.
“The publisher we were working with fell through, and Bill rescued the book again by finding an even better publisher with University of North Carolina Press. Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See was published in the fall of 2012. He took the longleaf book from a folk song to a symphony. I have since watched this happen with other projects. It is his vision that opens the door to something much better.”
Beth concludes on the happy note, “Our partnership and friendship took a new turn when we married in July 2017.” Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See: A New Vision of North America’s Richest Forest, co-authored with Rhett Johnson and John C. Hall and with photography by Beth Maynor Young explains that longleaf forests once covered 92 million acres from Texas to Maryland to Florida. As Bill writes, “These ground old-growth pines were the ‘alpha tree’ of the largest forest ecosystem in North America and have come to define the southern forest. But logging, suppression of fire, destruction by landowners, and a complex web of other factors reduced those forests so that longleaf is now found only on 3 million acres.”
According to the Bill, “Fortunately, the stately tree is enjoying a resurgence of interest, and longleaf forests are once again spreading across the South.”
A reviewer for the New York Times wrote, “I lost several hours paging through the evocative pictures in this book, and the text is equally absorbing.” Southern Spaces called the work “a rhapsodic argument in pictures and words” and American Scientist adds “Longleaf is not a story of loss, but one of deep reverence for the grandeur and mystery of these regions.”
Writing in the foreword, esteemed naturalist E.O. Wilson praises, “The longleaf pine, presiding over the biologically richest regions of North America, is well served by this beautifully written book.”
Pat Byington of Bama Environmental News, calling Bill Finch a colorful and entertaining speaker, storyteller and advocate on behalf of Alabama’s biodiversity and environment, introduced Bill as featured speaker for the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s Architreats: Food for Thought Series by emphasizing the importance of the South’s longleaf pine forests, the country’s most diverse forest ecosystem, by pointing out that no other state had more diversity of longleaf habitat than Alabama and that few other states owe so much of their cultural and economic history to the longleaf forest. The fact that Alabama is the most biologically diverse eastern state is due, in large measure, to the impact of longleaf pine on the state’s ecosystems. Alabama also plays a key role in the survival of longleaf pines and the longleaf forest, and thus in preserving eastern North American biodiversity.
Bill’s wit and wisdom are obvious in a 2015 article he authored for Smithsonian Magazine titled “The True Story of Kudzu, the Vine that Never Truly Ate the South.” He begins, “As a young naturalist growing up in the Deep South, I feared kudzu. I’d walk an extra mile to avoid patches of it and the writhing knots of snakes that everyone said were breeding within. Though fascinated by the grape-scented flowers and the purple honey produced by visiting bees, I trembled at the monstrous green forms climbing telephone poles and trees on the edges of our roads and towns.” Calling kudzu “America’s most infamous weed,” he adds that the vine’s Japanese name “has come to sound like something straight from the mouth of the South, a natural complement to inscrutable words like Yazoo, gumbo and bayou.”
On a more kudzu-forgiving note, he continues, “The more I investigate, the more I recognize that kudzu’s place in the popular imagination reveals as much about the power of American mythmaking, and the distorted way we see the natural world, as it does about the vine’s threat to the countryside.”
Considering kudzu as culture and literary reference, he concludes, “For many, the vivid descriptions of kudzu had simply become the defining imagery of the landscape, just as palms might represent Florida or cacti Arizona. But for others, kudzu was a vine with a story to tell, symbolic of a strange hopelessness that had crept across the landscape, a lush and intemperate tangle the South would never escape.”
Describing kudzu stands as “exuding the odor of their own demise, an acrid sweetness reminiscent of grape bubble gum and stink bug,” Finch points out that one study of the result of infestation by the Japanese kudzu bug showed reduction by one-third in kudzu biomass in less than two years at one site.
Writing under the heading “The Garden of Where You Are,” Bill muses “to know how to garden, you must know where you garden. Gardening is our last real and unavoidable connection with where we are—and most of us fail at gardening because we’ve forgotten how to appreciate and take advantage of the unique qualities of our own climate, our own landscape, our own yards. Understanding that will transform the way you garden and the way you see the world.”
Praise for Bill’s talent and dedication is universal among colleagues with whom he has worked. Conservation Southeast Biologist Mark Bailey says of Bill, “I have known Bill for over 20 years and his knowledge of Alabama's flora and natural communities is nothing short of encyclopedic, and it fuels his passion for conservation. I have been with him on several occasions when he finds a plant and says, ‘This is a county (or state) record.’ Because he recognizes and appreciates natural diversity as few others can, he works tirelessly to seek its protection . . . There is a pristine tract of longleaf pine near Florala that he, Beth, and I have been trying to get protected for four years and I cannot count the times he's made the trip over there to show it to potential conservation buyers. Bill is best known as a botanist but we have trekked deep into the Choctawhatchee River swamps together following up on reports of ivory-billed woodpeckers. He is probably the best-connected person in the state to conservation biologists working both here and in other regions, and is constantly bringing attention to Alabama's biodiversity. His series of columns done for the Mobile Press-Register and other outlets are an outstanding body of eloquent and informed work. And if you've never had his grilled shrimp you don't know what you're missing.”
Birmingham Botanical Gardens’ native plant volunteer Becky Smith adds, “Bill spoke at one of our first Native Plant Conferences and not only did his session but a second when a speaker canceled at the last minute. Sitting in the auditorium I realized Bill was about to change my life. All of my thinking needed readjusting. Soon after that conference Bill Smith brought me a 25-page section from the Mobile Press-Register on "Timber" in Alabama written by Bill Finch, followed by articles on the "Gulf Coast" and "The Tensaw Delta". I knew this man was amazing, and I wanted to become friends. That happened. When Bill was in the interview process for The Nature Conservancy, I was in South Carolina conducting the interview by phone. Our previous interactions were in the field, rivers, deltas and bogs, all while dressed appropriately. I had to ask Bill if he had on coat and tie for this interview; if he would be comfortable speaking at the Downtown Rotary Club. Everyone laughed, he said that he did, and that he would be able to give the talk. As much as Bill has done and could do, he is as natural, kind, and fun without any of the ego.”
Field botanist Fred Nation says of Bill Finch, “After more than 20 years of attending the same meetings as Bill Finch, I can state with confidence that he has always been the smartest guy in the room. Wherever he goes, he brings the depth of understanding and the considered judgements that add quality to the activities that occupy his time.
Bill effectively uses his expertise and his well-earned reputation to promote and preserve the environment, particularly our coastal habitats. One notable example of Bill's making a crucial difference to preserve a unique site is the story of the "Ward Tract." The site, about a half mile from the current beach and surf is an ancient sand dune, now populated by a maritime forest. The remarkable flora included giant Sand Live Oaks, Quercus geminata, ancient Needle Palms, Rhapidophyllum hystrix, Serviceberry, Amelanchier arborea, and the rare and beautiful Loblolly Bay, Gordonia lasianthus.
The property was targeted for destruction and construction of a municipal golf course. Bill gathered the salient facts, and wrote an illustrated full page article for the Mobile Press-Register, his employer at the time. The support that was generated for preservation of that amazing site was immense and immediate. Meetings were held, and agreements were reached. Property was swapped between the city and state, and, thanks in large part to Bill Finch, the Ward Tract is now part of Gulf State Park.
Speaking as one who has participated in environmental issues for more than a half century, I am certain that no one has offered a more effective voice to Alabama's conservation movement than Bill Finch. For his dedication and service to Alabama’s unique wild places, and for embodying the conference slogan “Celebrating the Astounding Biodiversity of the Southeast,” we are proud to recognize Bill Finch as the 2017 Native Plant Conference honoree.