The end of the year is a time like no other for taking stock. With that in mind, I decided to write to you about a man who had always exemplified scientific leadership and enduring values, a man who had once given me a miraculous gift for the new year. While locating the pictures you see here, I learned to my shock that Tom Lovejoy had literally just passed away. On Christmas Day, my long-time friend and colleague died of cancer. He was eighty years old.
Tom lived a life that will have a lasting impact on the world and on his friends and family. He was a giant in the fields of biodiversity and climate—“one of the most consequential conservation biologists of his generation”—and a thoughtful, caring man. He managed to recruit his friends and acquaintances to his cause, and many others who knew only of his work.
Tom and I had a special bond. Known for his untiring activism for the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, he was keenly aware of my personal interest in the place. For twenty years, my oldest daughter, Caroline, lived with her husband and four children in Manaus, Brazil—capital of Amazonas. She taught history and focused on her interest in sustainability—and no one knew more about that subject and developments in the region than Tom Lovejoy.
Tom and I met in the late 1980s. Our paths often crossed at different social events in the Washington, DC, area. A Yale Ph.D. in biology, he was committed to ecological issues, a passion that began as early as the mid-1960s when he began his research on bird populations and the impact of deforestation on them. He became renowned in the nation’s capital and beyond for his leading work with the Smithsonian and the World Wildlife Fund and his constant call to action to avert “climate change and the global extinction crisis.” His ground-breaking contribution came with numerous honorary degrees and recognition for being the first scientist to coin the phrase “biological diversity.”
Tom was a man of great warmth and an unwavering determination to share something of his experiences while studying the ecology of the rainforest. He managed to become a kind of tour guide for influential policy makers and other thought leaders, by taking visitors regularly to his research station north of Manaus. There his guests could experience, firsthand, the richness and terrifying beauty of the forest depths.
I can attest to the impact of such a visit. My youngest daughter Amy and I were his guests at Camp 41, an isolated outpost literally in the middle of nowhere. In 2004-2005, exactly seventeen years ago during these days, our small group saw in the New Year together—and Tom insisted on assuring that we also celebrate my birthday the night before.
To say that the experience was unforgettable would be putting it mildly. Despite my many adventures traveling the world, I had never imagined myself sleeping in a hammock with mosquito netting, while tossing and turning to the buzz and whirr of Amazonian insects and the screaming of howler monkeys. Terrifying nighttime trips to the outhouse, flashlight in hand and panicked at the thought of finding an anaconda or other slithering reptiles coiled up on the path or on the seat of the toilet, made the experience complete. Observing my campmates energetically waking up before the sunrise to go bird watching further convinced me of my total inadequacy in this environment.
Despite that, the exotic environment was enthralling, and Tom had a magical touch. I will never forget that moment, after dinner on New Year’s Eve, when balloons and an elaborate birthday cake appeared out of nowhere to mark my birthday, as champagne was also uncorked to celebrate the dawn of 2005.
Tom has left a legacy that will never dim. He understood the importance and the value of experience—of seeing for oneself. While later Tom and I worked on climate issues together, the foundation for the work of many people in this area was laid when Tom introduced us to the rainforest. It gave us a visceral sense of the impact deforestation was having on places with virtually untouched biological diversity. He knew that when we left Camp 41 we would go home as changed people. He also knew that the experience would fundamentally alter our perceptions of this region’s ecological role on the planet.
Tom managed to unite his many years of rigorous scientific research and activism with the importance of giving back to this community. He also understood his mission: to use his gifts and his knowledge to hold a candle of hope for us all when so many have deemed this cause too hard or already lost.
Sending you best wishes for the new year. Here is to 2022 and to reinvigorating our sense of common purpose,