Nancy Nash is a towheaded woman of considerable elegance and efficiency, and I was surprised at the massive gold watch on her slender wrist. Marvelous watch, but it weighs a ton (I hefted it) and she said:
"I had to have a lot of the links taken out of the watchband, and I've kept every one. Each link costs $350. It's a bonus that came with the Rolex Award." This recent windfall gives her $34,000 cash to spend on her favorite project of the moment, persuading the world's major religions to make the treatment of nonhuman life a moral issue.
It already is, of course, but Nash thinks more could be done to teach children as well as adults that humans have a particular responsibility for creatures that cannot vote or buy or sell. And this insight, that living creatures are valuable in their own right, is often ignored in the general hassle of daily life.
"I've started with Buddhism, since that faith has always emphasized our connection with nature. Animals and plants can't be harmed in any Buddhist temple or sanctuary -- the open-billed stork has probably escaped extinction in Thailand, for instance, mainly because its nesting sites in Buddhist courtyards are inviolate."
She spoke to the Dalai Lama about this, and he wrote a page insisting on man's responsibility for the animal kingdom, and authorized a scholarly review of Buddhist texts of the past 2,500 years. That became the basis for a small book, "Tree of Life." She produced a line drawing from the book showing a hunter giving up his arrows while a Tibetan saint watches, and a batch of rabbits at the side are probably saying thank God in Tibetan.
"I've also been to Geneva to talk with the World Council of Churches, and I want to speak with Islamic leaders also. If the great religions take a more active part in preserving nature I think it can make a great difference."
As a kid in Prairie Village, Mo., she grew up beside a golf course (her father was a golf course architect) and apparently spent most of her formative years lifting gophers, garter snakes and other fauna from the jaws of her father's bird dogs.
"They all had very soft mouths, but they were forever bringing terrified animals home with them. I don't know how many I liberated. I guess that's why I didn't have many pets of my own.
"Later, like most people who have loved animals since childhood, I didn't see what I could do -- I didn't have a fortune and had to support myself and deal with animals on the side.
"When most of my generation were turning into flower children, I was in Germany and Japan -- working the Axis, you could say. But I always wanted to learn German to read Goethe, and later I wanted to live in Asia. I had worked for an insurance company in Germany, and when I went to Japan I just walked into a Chamber of Commerce-type building and said I wanted to work. They were horrified. I had no place to live, no work permit, nothing. I never did get a work permit, but I got a little work sufficient for a ticket to Hong Kong.
"There I worked in public relations for Hilton hotels for some years, and I wrote a proposal to the Republic of China to allow people in to study pandas. In China they call me the panda lady."
She was in the lounge of the Grand Hotel, having a cup of espresso with Dr. Michael Fox, science adviser to the Humane Society of America, then to lunch with the Society of Women Geographers at the Cosmos Club, but never ate as it was time to meet a senator at the Capitol.
Her home is in Hong Kong, where she works with the World Wildlife Fund and keeps four cats, careers of equal weight, I gathered. The book on Buddhist perceptions is not yet available here, Fox said, but copies are on the way, and it is a calming thing to peer at the pages of ideograms, knowing they are saying good things about animals.
Buddha had a different notion from us on why lions roar.
"He roars with the idea, 'Let me not cause the destruction of tiny creatures wandering astray.' "
We usually think he roars because he wants to eat somebody. But we know little what a lion thinks, and Buddha may have been right.
The conversation turned to cicadas, and Nash heard several horror stories of otherwise sane people going out of their way to do in the choiring bugs.
"Dreadful," she said.
But not necessarily wicked and vicious. After all, cultural depravity is common enough, and when it expresses itself in killing cicadas, kicking dogs and drowning babies, fury is not always the best response. Neither is too much understanding. Education does wonders. The kid who learns to love cicadas will probably grow up to love other beasts, including humans, though of course that takes quite a while as a rule.