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Part 2

The Great White Way

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White's tolerant perspective developed through years of studying and living with other cultures. He lived in New York City with his parents and three younger siblings until he was 11. Then his father, a writer and filmmaker for the U.S. Army, was transferred to Thailand to serve as manager of film production for the U.S. Foreign Service.

White's parents sent him to the Philippines for high school, and since he was too far away to come home for the holidays, he traveled the country instead. He went north to Bontoc and beyond, into the mountains and to the northern part of Luzan Island. He visited Cebu, in the south, reachable only by spending 48 hours on a boat. "There were people dressed in leaves, women bare-breasted — always great for a young guy. It was exciting everywhere," he says.

Once he snuck out of school with a friend to smoke. An old, lean man shook his fists and yelled at the boys from across the fields, but White and his pal just laughed, caught in the arrogance of youth and the illicit thrill of cigarettes. The man chased them with a blade, and as the boys fled, White noticed the edges of the man's property: "I have never run so fast in my life. The boundaries to his field were human skulls."

After graduating from high school in 1962, White accompanied his father to the Hill Tribe area of Thailand. There they lived for six weeks among people so primitive they had not yet made use of the wheel, but dragged their cargo from place to place. White's father filmed them to show how they were being affected by the war in Laos. White walked through their poppy fields, observed their social structure and watched them struggle for enough sustenance to stay nourished and raise babies. "It was not what most 17-year-old guys go through," he says.

He joined the Peace Corps and went to the south of Thailand, where he worked to improve public health and sanitation. The exotic animals sold in the marketplace fascinated him, and he soon began keeping and studying them. He had a slow lorris, which looks like a small monkey; a great argus pheasant, with its 6-foot tail feathers and stately walk; a binturong, which resembles a shaggy dog with a long, long tail, and more. He wrote away for information so he could show off the menagerie to local school groups. He learned that much of the animals' habitats were disappearing quickly, which matched what he saw going on around him: At the start of the five years he spent in Thailand, the jungle came right up to the edge of the road. When he left, he had to drive 40 minutes off-road to find it.

He realized that what pleased and satisfied him most was talking about environmental issues. In some ways, this shift was another means to the same end: White saw that by teaching people about wild creatures, he created an affinity for these creatures, which led to an interest in preserving them. This, in turn, led people to think about preserving their land, their culture and ultimately, themselves.

He donated his animals to a park in the next province (which became the first nature preserve in south Thailand and is still there today), then returned to the states to pursue nature study. A six-month naturalist training program at Aullwood Audubon Center near Dayton, Ohio, started him on his way. The center's director at that time, Paul Knoop, remembers White fondly. "As I recall, he was completely turned on to the natural history at Aullwood," says Knoop, who ran the program for 14 of the 35 years he worked there. "He was very enthusiastic, and he worked very well with children. ... When he left, I knew he was going to do something very promising because he was just so turned on."

White spent several years working with the National Park Service, and in 1978, he followed his girlfriend to Richmond when she came here to study occupational therapy. He was recruited at a Sierra Club meeting to be a maintenance worker at the James River Park, and when a naturalist position was later created, he was asked to fill it.

Soon an intern named Cricket came his way. She was as fired up about the park as he was, and they became fast friends, trading teaching tips and pinch-hitting for one another's programs when necessary. At that time, they were both spoken for, romantically. But things change. A few years later, Cricket was no longer White's intern and neither of them was attached. White recalls watching phosphorescent jellyfish off a dock with Cricket one evening. "All of sudden," he says, "the sparks in the water were on the land." The two married in October 1984.

Cricket works now for Hope in the Cities, a group that promotes "honest conversation on race, reconciliation and responsibility" nationwide. Is she involved with the James River Park? She hoots with laughter. "How could you be married to Ralph and not be involved with the park?"

Cricket says the qualities that first drew her to Ralph still impress her. "His enthusiasm, his passion for what he does, for the river ... It's just charismatic. He draws people in and they see how it all ties to them. He's always had that ability."

Cricket describes herself as cause-oriented, "a child of the '60s." Those values are clearly shared by the Whites. "It means a lot to me that my partner in life is committed to something as important as the environment," she says.

Emily Kimball, who went on to develop and then manage the outdoor recreation program at Chesterfield Parks and Recreation, worked at James River Park when White first came along. "He was so affable and knowledgeable and all those great things," she says. His strengths as a teacher were apparent right away. "He has a unique way of speaking to the person," Kimball says. No matter what a listener's educational, cultural or natural history background may be, "[White] presents information in the way that's meaningful to them. ... He's really a genius in that way." Though many groups have come together to make various improvements to the park, Kimball says, White has been a pivotal force over the years. "Everyone comes to him for information, and he knows where to get it," she says. "He's got a handle on what needs to be done and why. ... "If [the city] ever tried to replace Ralph, they'd be on their ass."

White and two maintenance workers manage the nearly 500-acre of park on a shoestring budget. "They give $12,000 a year for the biggest park in the city," he says. "I hope someday that will change. ... Have you ever tried to buy a tractor for $12,000?"

Mark Batista, a naturalist at Rockwood Nature Center in Chesterfield, marvels at the city's tight budget. "The most incredible thing is that [White] somehow still manages to keep the park open and on the minds of the public," he says. "It's the greatest resource we have in the area, and — how can I put this diplomatically? It's a handicapped budget. ... [White] does it all. He wears every hat there."

Fortunately, what the city doesn't provide, others do. Local river and nature associations support the park financially and otherwise, including the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, James River Association, Coastal Canoeists, Recreation and Parks Foundation and others. Scout, school and civic groups regularly come to White to do service projects, such as building benches, maintaining trails and scrubbing graffiti.

In recent times, generous donors have been not only helping to maintain the park, but adding to it. Little Oil Company gave 14 acres at the lower, tidal end of the park. A private citizen contributed a small island near the south-side rapids, and another donated a meadow. White acts out the process gleefully: "Fourteen acres here. How about a rock? Can I give you a couple of acres there?" He likes to see acts of generosity build upon one another in this way. "Good things beget good things," he says. "We have something very special here. ... The features of the park make us distinctive and desirable when compared to the counties," says White. "I'm a city employee. I believe in the city."

Some environmentalists try to protect the land from its people. But the Belle Isle experience showed that when more people enjoy the park, more people are motivated to take care of it, so White continues to work toward providing access to park users. "People are not third class here," he says, emphatically. "The park should function as a refuge, but as a shared refuge. It should be managed for both people and wildlife."

Some government administrations try to protect the people from the land. But White places responsibility for visitor safety squarely in the hands of the visitors themselves. Rather than threatening with fines or implementing endless rules and regulations, White puts up signs clearly identifying dangerous areas and activities, then lets visitors decide what they can handle. "We aren't military, parental or controlling, but guiding," he explains. "We can either prohibit everything or give people the freedom and the responsibility for their actions. ... The key is information."

In 1980, he says, the park wasn't accessible to boaters. In fact, the activity was illegal. "People got busted for boating! And swimming! Isn't that crazy?" he asks. Now people come to the park in record numbers, yet it seems cleaner, healthier and safer than ever.

A few years ago, White wasn't sure he'd be able to see the park thriving for much longer. In April of 1995, he inexplicably began having trouble with his eyesight. He found himself brushing away crumbs or specks of water that weren't there, and he lost his ability to see color. "I felt like I wanted to cry," he recalls. "I couldn't even drive a lawn mower." Doctors were baffled. White thought he was losing his sight, and he and Cricket began planning the final places they would visit before Ralph was blind. After a visit to Johns Hopkins, White learned that he wasn't losing his sight. He had a brain tumor.

He went under the knife immediately, and the operation was successful. He remembers waking up in the hospital and being able to see color again, like Dorothy stepping into the land of Oz. Cricket drove him around town just so he could look out the window.

White's experience makes nature's beauty all the more precious to him. Still, if you press him on his views about the environment, you'll find that they aren't all rosy. He tends to agree with a common science-fiction theme that 20th-century society is driven to space exploration because our own planet's life span is limited. As he does often, White draws from the natural world for a metaphor: As a species, he says, we are flowering and getting ready to go to seed. On a global level, we're steadily using up our resources, and food and habitat is becoming inadequate. "Mother nature has catastrophes," White points out, "forest fires or floods that kill off major numbers so you can have growth again. If this is true for grasshoppers and gophers, for lemmings and lions, then why wouldn't it be true for us? ... We can either make a concerted effort to control ourselves, or maybe the controls will come from outside."

But humans are among the most adaptive animals of all, and White manages to keep himself positive by focusing on the present. "That's why it's so important to maintain the matrix of all life," he says. "The future will take care of itself and it will be a better future if I take care of the present. ... I don't live in the past. Hell, I can't remember

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