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Environmental hero honored


February 23, 2011
LITTLETON- An environmental hero was honored last Sunday, though he would be the last to call himself that. Carl Schaller's legacy was not built over one day, but many decades; he began advocating for the Earth and all its natural resources long before it was hip to recycle or to carry around an eco-friendly water bottle. Schaller's dedication has been quiet and joyful, and through his work, he has inspired countless others.

"That is what motivated me – that feeling that this is very important," said Schaller of his environmental work that has spanned the last half century, most of it in this very region.

Schaller, who will turn 88 in May, moved to the North Country from New York City in 1962 because he wanted to get away from the city, and as an Episcopalian priest, he had options. A rector position at All Saints Church in Littleton and Church of the Messiah in North Woodstock opened up, and Schaller had found his new home. Though Schaller said the beauty of the North Country intensified his interest in the environment, his stewardship began long before that.

"I guess I've always been interested in the environment," he said. "I think we all adopt certain causes in life that we identify with."

Schaller's wife, Mary-Lu, recounts a time when the word "environment" was used more in spelling bees than in politics, but that all changed with Rachel Carson's seminal work, "Silent Spring,"

"That book changed a lot of people's thinking," said Mary-Lu, and meant a lot to Schaller. The release of "Silent Spring" coincided with the Schallers' move from New York City to Littleton. Carson's book gave the environmental movement a voice, and the North Country gave Schaller a pristine landscape to protect.

Schaller has had no formal training, but has just picked up things over the years. He said when he first became involved in the movement, it was composed mostly of those with professional training, but that quickly changed. People educated themselves and each other through dialogue and discourse.

"I was fortunate enough to be born in an era when the environment, nationwide and worldwide, became an interest for people," said Schaller.

Schaller took the spirit of the movement and ran with it. Chances are, if there has been a conservation action in the past few decades, Schaller has had a hand in it. Among his accomplishments – too numerous to list in their entirety – Schaller started Earth Day in Littleton, helped clear up the Saco River in the 70s, pioneered recycling in town, and traveled to Washington D.C. to advocate on behalf of the G'Wichin, an Arctic people he met on a trip to their home. He has been the Grafton County Vice President for the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), the first Chairman of the Littleton Conservation Commission, the Chairman of the New Hampshire Charter of the Appalachian Mountain Club, and has received the Governor's Award for Volunteer of the Year and the Conservation Award of the Year from the SPNHF, to name a few.

"The whole cause is worldwide, but you can get involved locally. Local groups are where the action is," said Schaller.

One such group is the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust (ACT), which is celebrating its tenth year as a locally based land conservancy organization. Schaller was the chairman of the first ACT board of directors, and helped lay the groundwork for its creation, according to ACT Executive Director Rebecca Brown. Last month, the ACT named its first trail after Schaller. The trail, which Schaller helped build, winds through the Foss Forest in Sugar Hill.

"The small thing we could do is name a trail after him," said Brown. "That's what we have to give."

Brown was inspired by the way Schaller spoke about the inclusiveness of the environmental movement. As with any politicized movement, it has had its fair share of divisiveness, but Schaller notes the way it has brought people together – some people he never would have met, otherwise, and who have "made [his] life more joyous by knowing them, knowing [they] are part of the same movement."

"I think it's really important for people to feel that these things we're talking about…transcend age and class and education and politics and professional training," said Brown.

Many of the people local environmental efforts have brought together gathered at the All Saints Episcopal Church last Sunday to recognize Schaller's conservation efforts.

All Saints Rector Kurt Wiesner read from a letter sent from Bishop Gene Robinson, who when once asked by New Hampshire Public Radio's Laura Knoy about New Hampshire's treasures, cited a lake and Carl Schaller.

"[Carl] has been an inspiration, mentor and guiding light over my entire ministry," read Wiesner. "Not only are you and I pleased with Carl being honored by the Ammonoosuc Conservation Trust, but also I think God is pleased, as well. How wonderful that a trail has been named for him, luring others into the outdoors for reflection, recreation, and fun."

In a video presentation of the trail dedication, ACT Board Member Tony Ilacqua remembered fondly a 1993 public hearing to discuss the pay-by-bag recycling option for the transfer station, which was only available at two other transfer stations in the state at the time. One resident got up and argued forcibly against the measure, dead set against recycling. Then, said Ilacqua, Schaller got up and "shamed this man right out of the building."

"He is not only a shepard of the congregation of this church," said Ilacqua Sunday. "He is a shepard of flocks of birds, schools of fish, gaggles of geese."

Littleton Conservation Commission Member Tom Alt also spoke during the trail dedication, recalling a time not so long ago when the 80-something Schaller traversed a conservation easement behind Staples parking lot, having no problem getting through the wetlands, vertical ledges, and switchbacks the terrain threw at the group.

"There is the official Carl Schaller Trail," said Alt, "but, in my mind, there's another Carl Schaller Trail."

Reverend Brendan Whittaker said Schaller has served as his mentor both during his tenure as the longest-serving Secretary of the Environment in Vermont, and afterwards. Whittaker ended the celebration by quoting Henry Beston: "Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man."

Schaller responded humbly to the community's praise.

"I know I will go home and realize it was all a dream, but thank goodness for dreams," said Schaller, calling the celebration "a wonderful example of friendship, which I will never forget."

Judging by the nearly 100 people who showed up to honor Schaller on Thursday, neither will this town.

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