I'm not the Charles Johnson who is a professional baseball player, nor a well-known novelist, nor probably a million other people with that name. I'm another one, a naturalist, writer, sailor, and dyed-in-the-wool conservationist. I live in East Montpelier, Vermont, with my wife Nona Estrin, who is also a naturalist, writer, conservationist, and, unlike me, an artist (we co-authored the book In Season -- see Books). I have three sons, two grown and one deceased.
I’ve lived a life close to the environment and writing about it. I have a bachelor's degree in botany and zoology from Wabash College, a master's degree in wildlife biology from the University of Illinois, and a doctoral degree in environmental science from the University of Vermont. My career was as Vermont State Naturalist, working within the Agency of Natural Resources. I am the author of several popular books on natural history (see Books).
I come naturally by my love of the outdoors, the sea, writing, and old-time polar exploration. They've been in the family blood for generations. My maternal grandfather was a steamship pilot and harbormaster in Lyttelton, New Zealand, at the time when the famous explorers Shackleton, Scott, and Mawson staged their Antarctic expeditions there. My paternal great-grandparents emigrated from Norway, settling in the upper Midwest to work in farming, logging, and sawmilling.
In my childhood and youth, I lived twenty-three summers with my family on a road-less, car-less island off Cape Cod. My father, a physiologist who spent time in the Canadian Arctic in World War II developing survival rations for the military, was an avid polar historian and wrote a biography of explorer-doctor Sir John Richardson. My mother, born and raised on the coast of New Zealand, was a fiction writer of novels and short stories, and an inveterate journal-keeper all her life.
As an adult, I served in the U.S. Coast Guard, on ships and as pilot of search-and-rescue vessels on the Maine coast. (One of my cases was putting out a fire at the famed explorer Robert Peary’s house on Eagle Island in Casco Bay. It was before the home became a state historic site, and I gawked at the original journals, books, and Arctic fur clothing lying around.) I also spent sixteen years in the Coast Guard Reserves, retiring as lieutenant commander.
Polar regions have always fascinated me. As young person, I'd pour through the old first-edition expeditionary accounts in my father's extensive library. In high school, I studied the emperor penguin and had dreams of going to Antarctica as a researcher. Later, with my wife I went twice to Baffin Island, exploring with Inuit guides its Arctic world. I have been to Norway on two occasions to research the Fram. I studied northern ecosystems in my education and career.
I also love wooden boats. Over my life, for pleasure (and sometimes wide-eyed excitement and fear), I've rowed and sailed them on the coast of Maine and Cape Cod, and in Lake Champlain, Adirondack lakes, and Vermont lakes and ponds. I've built two wooden boats, one a 16-foot sailing Swampscott dory (including sail), using thirteen different species of wood from trees I harvested and milled myself in Vermont.
Finally, there is home: the place where all my interests come together and reside, where, for six months in a good year, my wife and I can ski out the back door across our own ‘frozen wastes.’