In Walt's Worlds: Natural Walt

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

In Walt's Worlds: Natural Walt

A friend was recently asking me about the Mineral King project that Walt was working on shortly before he died. He was under the impression that the reason the project met such resistance was that it would negatively effect the environment.

I pointed out that the real concern wasn't with the area of Walt's proposal, but with the possible impact on the surrounding area where others wouldn't be as environmentally conscious as Walt was for his entire life.

On Oct. 29, 1966, just six weeks before his death, Walt Disney received an award from the American Forestry Association "for outstanding service in conservation of American resources." Before Smokey the Bear was created, an adult Bambi and his friends warned of the dangers of forest fires on a series of nationwide posters.

During his lifetime, Walt also received recognitions and awards from groups like the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the U.S. Department of the Interior, the American Humane Association and many other similar organizations.

So for this installment of "In Walt's Words" where I dig through old magazines and other sources for Walt's actual words on certain topics, I thought I might focus on Walt's love of animals and the environment.

Let's start with a Public Service Announcement from 1956 where Walt appeared on camera and said the following: "You've probably heard people talk about conservation. Well, conservation isn't just the business of a few people. It's a matter that concerns all of us. It's a science whose principles are written in the oldest code in the world, the laws of nature. The natural resources of our vast continent are not inexhaustible. But if we will use our riches wisely, if we will protect our wildlife and preserve our lakes and streams, these things will last us for generations to come."

Here is a little sidebar that was included in the article for the January 1940 "Better Homes and Gardens" magazine titled "At Home With Walt Disney" by Elmer T. Peterson. Peterson couldn't comfortably include the following quote by Walt in the full body of the article but found it so reflective of Mr. Disney that he put in a sidebar, the only one in the entire story, to share the following:

"In one way, you know, animals are superior to human beings. People try to change nature to conform to their own queer notions. Animals don't -- they adapt themselves to nature. You never saw a wilderness wrecked by animals.

"Why do human beings, as soon as they move into a place, declare war on the birds, animals, fish, and wildlife of all kinds? Why do they declare war on natural shrubs and flowers, the rivers and mountains, the fields and forests? They make a mess of things by destroying the balance of Nature. They strip the land of trees and start soil washing into the ocean. You never see animals do that. The beaver even helps Nature to keep water where it is by building innumerable dams. At the same time, man, who is alleged to be far more intelligent, does just the opposite. He straightens and deepens streams so the water will get to the bigger streams more quickly and increase floods. Can you beat it?"

I love that insight by Walt but there was even more in that "Better Homes and Gardens" article and here is Walt describing his house and his outlook on the animals and the gardens:
"Would you believe it? Here in our grounds we have foxes, quail, possums, rabbits, chaparral cocks, and a lot of other animals and birds, and we try to make them feel right at home.

"I've watched a fox being followed by a dog. He would backtrack cunningly, to throw the dog off the scent, just as he would in the wilderness. Once I saw a possum here. I thought at first he was a little pig, then I took another look and thought he was a rat. He wasn't scared, and I had a great temptation to pick him up by the tail. But he turned and gave me a nasty look, so I let him alone. The quails have nests here. We have a lot of birdhouses and we plant seeds of various plants to tempt the birds to stick around. And they do.

"Mice may eat a few cents worth of cheese once in a while, but as destroyers they aren't in it with humans. They're in the same position as a lot of beetles, snakes, toads, and other generally harmless creatures. For some unknown reason, as soon as most people see a creature of this kind, they say, 'Ugh! Kill it!' Scientists tell us that most of these creatures are really friends of the human race.

"I couldn't kill any animal -- least of all a mouse. It all goes back to my cartooning days in Kansas City. I had a wastebasket, and mice would get in there to find scraps of food we'd sometimes throw there. I put them in boxes and feed them. One got so tame he made a playground of a little cleat along the top of my drawing board. He'd run back and forth on that shelf, while I was at work, and I became very much attached to him. I called him Mortimer at first, but changed it to Mickey Mouse. That's how it all started.

"Mice are clean. They don't do any damage to amount to anything. They're interesting. I don't care much for waltzing mice, though. They make me jittery.

"As far as gardening is concerned, my hobby is to use native material as much as possible. Few realize what a great wealth of beautiful shrubs, trees, and plants there are, right on the hillsides. We have wild yucca growing on the place. They're beautiful in bloom -- almost fairylike. Then we have all kinds of fruit trees-orange, fig, lemon, peach -- they bear great big delicious peaches, best I ever ate.

"No matter where people live, they can use native plant material. I don't like formal gardens. I like wild nature. One of these days I'm going to lay out a miniature ranch, so Diane can have a lot of fun riding her Shetland pony along a little trail, and pretend it's a real ranch. I'm even going to have a patch of alfalfa for the pony.

"Oh, yes, I've got two iron deer on the place. I found 'em in a curio shop. Supposed to be terrible old-fashioned, you know-that's what makes 'em interesting. Mrs. Disney couldn't see what I wanted with iron deer -- just the wilderness instinct in me, I guess."

There were several books devoted to capturing in text and color photos the wonders of the True-Life Adventure films. The forewords to these books were credited to Walt Disney but it would not be surprising if other hands including James Algar or Winston Hibler or Joe Reddy helped shape Walt's thoughts and feelings into a more formal presentation for publication. However, there is no doubt that these words do, in fact, reflect Walt's ideas, since whoever helped formalize Walt's words still had to get final approval from Walt himself.
"We feel we are seizing at history in the making. We are snatching a dwindling opportunity to record on film a kind of native American life which within two human generations has been all but crowded out of existence." -- Walt Disney Foreword to the book "Vanishing Prairie" (Simon and Schuster, 1955)

"What curious kinds of life may inhabit Mars and other planets? Do weird trees and flowers grow out there? These are haunting thoughts, for man wants to know the unknown. But until trips to Mars become feasible, we must be content to explore the mysterious worlds that exist right here on Earth. In truth, landscapes of great wonder and beauty lie under our feet and all around us. They are discovered in tunnels in the ground, the heart of flowers, the hollows of trees, fresh-water ponds, seaweed jungles between tides, and even drops of water. Life in these hidden worlds is more startling in reality than anything we can imagine on other planets. Some of Earth's own inhabitants are almost too startling for belief. They are graceful and gentle; they are horrible monsters; they are giants-or dwarfs. They communicate with each other by devices that are far beyond the reach of our senses. Modern science helps us to explore these hiding places of nature and to study the activities of their inhabitants-playing and fighting, eating and mating, taking care of their babies-living life in full swing. How could this earth of ours, which is only a speck in the heavens, have so much variety of life, so many curious and exciting creatures?"

--Walt Disney Foreword to "Secrets of Life" (Simon and Schuster, 1957)

"Nobody could ever guess, looking at the earth through a telescope on the moon, what strange and wonderful creatures hide in each tantalizing place. Even we, who share the same planet with them, have taken a long time to discover some of these creatures. Until recent times, people thought that life could not exist in the deep freeze of the Polar North, and in the scorched sands of the desert. Each world of wonder has its own kinds of plants and animals, and each kind fits its place, whether that be as big as a savanna or as little as a drop of water, as hot as a desert or as cold as an iceberg, as wet as an ocean wave or as dry as a sun-bathed rock, as dark as a tunnel or as bright as a mountain top.

"The creatures that live in such varied places differ widely in size and in body mechanisms. All of these beings have two things in common: they are all subject to the same laws of nature, and they all get their power from the sun. Some of the creatures are as beautiful as music, others as ugly as dragons; some are fierce and brutal, others delicate and gentle. They are caught in moments of attack and escape, of fun and family life, of stalking and pouncing and swooping and swimming."

--Walt Disney Foreword "Worlds of Nature" (Golden Press, 1957)

Finally, here is another "lost" article that I always see referenced in many Disney bibliographies but I will bet most Disney fans have never seen:

"Why I Like Making Nature Films" by Walt Disney from "Woman's Home Companion" May 1954.

"In all my years of picture making, I have never had more satisfaction or felt more useful in the business of entertainment than I have in making the True-Life Adventure features.

"In our curiosity about our fellow creatures, we urban folks look at captive animals in the zoo. But these animals, used to humans, guard their true-life drama jealously. Only the observant naturalist with patience, time, knowledge and his color cameras can record and bring back for our fascinated delight the wonders, the beauties from the wilderness.

"Our intent is not formal education in natural science. Our main purpose always is to bring interesting and delightful entertainment into the theater. But here nature's wonderful house is entertainment-and this entertainment is informative.

"Matters of fact have taken on tremendously new importance in the world today. Audiences responded enthusiastically from the moment we showed our first True-Life picture, 'Seal Island.' This led us to enlarge the films to full feature-length in "The Living Desert", the forthcoming 'The Vanishing Prairie,' two exciting features out of the Dark Continent -- 'The African Lion' and 'The African Elephant' -- and still others to come.

"It may seem odd that I am so beguiled with nature animals. Actually, there is a very close kinship between real animals and the creatures we invent for fable. Fabulous animals must remain credibly close to universal nature to be acceptably funny or have any meaning.

"Our plan to produce live animal drama first took shape while we were using wild creatures as models for study by the animators in cartoon tales, especially 'Bambi.' We made studio pets of deer, rabbits, squirrels and other little animals. They accepted us as friends.

"And their antics were endlessly fascinating. Their free-roving kin, we knew, would be much more so in a living document of struggle for existence.

"Fantasy -- that is, good acceptable fantasy -- is really only fact with a whimsical twist.

"We can learn a lot from nature in action. Each creature must earn his right to live and survive by his own efforts and the thing, which in human relations we call moral behavior.

"We are now applying the True-Life Adventure method to a new series of features called 'People and Places.' In these, with the same honesty of approach, we are showing intimate camera visits to our global neighbors-people of many races at work and play.

"It is to help open new channels of information about our old but ever-new world, in terms of exciting entertainment, that we are exploring and shall continue to record the wonders, the splendors and the endless enchantments of living nature."