A Man for All Seasons
“Just as the ‘proper study of mankind is man,’ so the only way to study wild animals is in their own element, without their being aware of your presence. To learn for myself what no books could teach me, my hands must hold and examine not one, but many, of the same species. The truth must be discovered by my heart as well as by my head.”
— John Kulish, Bobcats Before Breakfast
John Kulish learned best by immersing himself in nature. He was at various times a trapper, a hunter, a teacher at Boston University’s Sargent Camp, and the Harris Center’s first staff naturalist. Eleanor Briggs and the nascent Harris Center Board hired John in 1971 to shape the Harris Center’s outdoor education program. Fifty years later, it’s still the cornerstone of our work. John’s ecology course at ConVal High School ran from 1971 through 1982, and is well remembered to this day. Susie Spikol says,
“I regularly meet people who had him as their teacher at ConVal, and each one says that his classes stood out to them. They were inspired, moved, engaged, and felt alive when Mr. Kulish was in their world.”
Bobcats Before Breakfast
John’s zeal for the outdoors is captured in Bobcats Before Breakfast, a book he and his wife Aino wrote in 1969. The compelling memoir chronicles John’s life in the outdoors as told by John to Aino, who penned the stories and also illustrated the chapter headings.
Although the book had long been out of print, Stackpole Press republished Bobcats Before Breakfast on its 50th Anniversary, with support from the Harris Center. (When John passed, he left his estate to the Harris Center, including publishing rights to his book.) Bobcats Before Breakfast invites the reader into a fascinating world, rarely experienced firsthand, of a kinship with the elements, the contours of the earth, and the various animals who inhabit it. John began a lifelong journey to discover man’s place in that world, and frequently pondered the deeper philosophical questions:
“What good to fly to the ends of the universe if we do not understand our place in it? What good to kneel in churches when we do not know how to love one another at home? What good to land on the moon while we still kill each other for power, for pleasure, and for profit?”
A Life Forged in Relationship with Nature
Stan Smith and Vic Starzynski recently came to the Harris Center to chat about John and to join in on a Bobcats Before Breakfast book discussion. Stan’s and Vic’s fathers had frequently hunted with John in the 1950s. Stan and Vic hunted with John for a few years much later in his life as well, and have quite a few stories to prove it!
“He had a lot of stamina. He could go through the woods like no one I knew!” said Vic.
“He would gladly answer questions,” said Stan. “He was really knowledgeable about everything in the woods. Back then it was all walking; sometimes we had to hike in for two miles.”
Stan and Vic recalled how John grew up in Gardner, working in a factory doing a job he hated. Then he met a trapper, Arthur Leonard, and that set the course for the rest of his life.
“He realized what his calling was – being outside and trapping. Eventually, he knew everything about the animals by being in the woods all the time,” said Stan.
John became skilled enough in the art of trapping (bobcat, beaver, otter) to support Aino and their daughters, Heidi and Johanna. It was a hard, rough life, a life forged in relationship with nature. From Bobcats Before Breakfast:
“For 35 years, we lived close to the bone, so close the marrow was often in jeopardy. . . . We lived off the land.”
“University of the Woods”
John’s world was the outdoors. He was a modern-day pioneer, a frontiersman making a life and a living from what nature had to offer. From Bobcats Before Breakfast:
“My aim was to learn as much as I could about every wild creature.”
He liked to say that he learned ecology while attending the “University in the Woods.” Learn he did, usually with a dog by his side. Perhaps most notable among his canine hunting companions was Jiggs, who earned himself at least one full chapter in the book.
Vic said, “Jiggs was John’s dog — only loyal to John. He and John were like bookends. They knew each other.”
John’s other love was otters. The clever, playful animals “thrilled” and “delighted” him to no end, and he considered them to be the best “teachers” among all the creatures he encountered.
When John eventually decided to hang up his gun and traps, Boston University’s Sargent Camp and then the Harris Center were fortunate to benefit from his enormous natural history knowledge and talents. Although John retired from the Harris Center in 1982, he continued to lead Harris Center hikes for years afterward. John himself left indelible tracks, which still lead others into the great outdoors. From Howard Mansfield’s book, Bones of the Earth:
“ . . . I did not hike with him for the tracking or woods lore. Around here you could swing a “fish’ cat” and knock over a dozen knowledgeable naturalists. I showed up for the freedom. In the woods John Kulish was that rarest animal, a free man. He was home.”
John died in July of 1996, at the age of 84. From the Peterborough Transcript editorial:
“John Kulish died a wealthy man. In his long life he acquired two things more important than money — knowledge and respect. If you add in his wisdom and compassion for wildlife, he was richer than any magnate who lived.”
John’s intense love of the outdoors lives on, inspiring others to taste the freedom he experienced — to catch his spirit and follow it on a trek through nature.
Sean Kerwing, John Kulish, and Ben Allison cooking trout in Allagash.
Bob Boynton, John Goodhue, John Kulish and others on a hike.
John Kulish on a snowshoe expedition
For more information on the Harris Center’s 50th anniversary celebrations, please contact Lisa Murray at (603) 525-3394 or by email.