Man who unwittingly inspired greatest federal statute dies

Here’s a quiz: who is the creature defined by 16 United States Code sec. 580p(1) as a “fanciful owl” who wears forest green “slacks,” a brown belt, and “a Robin Hood style hat” with a red feather.  

The answer, of course, is Woodsy. 

A fanciful owl

A fanciful owl

It’s unhealthy, but I’ve spent at least a few hours of my limited earthly existence pondering the so-called Woodsy Owl-Smokey Bear Act of 1974 and its implementing regulations.  Maybe it’s because I teach natural resources law.  Maybe it’s because I had recurrent nightmares about Woodsy as a kid (those huge eyes!).  Maybe it’s because I’m seriously screwed up.

In any case, in addition to defining Woodsy as described above, the Act defines “Smokey Bear” as “Smokey Bear” (no further description needed, apparently) and “Secretary” as the Secretary of Agriculture (sadly, the statute does not say what color slacks the Secretary of Agriculture wore, or his preferred style of hat.  That would have been awesome.).

A few questions:

Why did Congress feel the need to define Woodsy as a “fanciful” owl?  Was it concerned that the statute might be overbroad, unintentionally encompassing real owls who wear green slacks and hats with feathers?

The Act claims that the United States government owns the phrase, “Give a hoot, don’t pollute.”  Later, the Department of Agriculture claimed rights in a second phrase: “Lend a Hand, Care for the Land.”  Did the Department of Agriculture exceed the scope of its authority under the Act?

Who came up with a lame saying like “Lend a Hand, Care for the Land,” and did they notice it doesn’t scan?

What circumstances compelled the Department to state in its Smokey Bear Guidelines  (March 2009 at 13) that “The costumed bear should not force itself on anyone”?

Unfortunately, a man who might have been able to shed some light on these questions has died.  Herbert Bell, who died at age 90 last week, created Woodsy with a group of forest rangers.  He also marketed Smokey, Lassie, and Mr. Magoo.

According to his obituary in the New York Times, Mr. Bell considered using a trout instead of an owl.  A trout.  Now that would have caused nightmares . . . . but it could have been a great statute.

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7 Responses

  1. Joseph Slater says:

    Re: “What circumstances compelled the Department to state in its Smokey Bear Guidelines (March 2009 at 13) that ‘The costumed bear should not force itself on anyone’?”

    I wish I had known the circumstances before drafting my torts exam. I suspect they might have been inspiration in that regard.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I’m not convinced that “Lend a Hand [/] Care for the Land” doesn’t scan, notwithstanding conventional English foot-counting. First, both lines contain the same number of stresses, including on the first and final syllables. Second, the prosody works even better if it’s considered to be quantitative. The nasal cluster in the first line, /nd/, can be read as adding a mora to “Lend”; or, alternatively, “Care for the” could be read as a resolution of the trochee into a tribrach. Either way, both “Lend a” and “Care for the” take up three morae, with stress on the first. A related test is whether it would be easy to chant this slogan in a demonstration; for sure it would, as long as the demonstrators were motivated.

  3. Mark Edwards says:

    “Re: “What circumstances compelled the Department to state in its Smokey Bear Guidelines (March 2009 at 13) that ‘The costumed bear should not force itself on anyone’?”

    I wish I had known the circumstances before drafting my torts exam. I suspect they might have been inspiration in that regard.”

    A related question, for media law professors and fans of true crime tv: is there video?

  4. Mark Edwards says:

    A.J. —

    Isn’t “care” bimoraic? You yourself said it is stressed, and the coda of stressed syllabes are a mora (thus the word cat is bimoraic). That would mean that “Care for the” is actually composed of four morae, not three. If “lend a” is three morae and “care for the” is four, then the lines are unbalanced.

    That is the result of my furiously googling the word “mora” (two syllables; the first is bimoriac, the second monomoraic). I will now furiously google “tribrach.”

  5. Perhaps he’s defined as a “fanciful” owl for trademark reasons — so that no one would mistake him for a “descriptive” owl, or worse, a “generic” owl. Calling him a “suggestive” owl would probably come too close to the possibility of the costumed bear forcing itself on people.

    Sadly, the government retired that great Woodsy costume and replaced it with a much less distinctive one.

  6. A.J. Sutter says:

    Mark, you may be right for traditional English prosody, but I anticipated that and fudged. I resorted to quantitative meter (e.g., classical Greek, Latin), which is based on the lengths of syllables, not on stress. The /nd/ cluster in ‘lend’ would make that syllable long, i.e. bimoraic. The scansion of ‘care’ would depend on whether you pronounce it with a long diphtong or a short one, /kɛ:ər/ or /kɛər/. At least to my ear, the second reading isn’t so tough. I don’t know if there are tribrachs (three shorts) in English metrical verse, but there are in classical Greek (though they more often substitute for iambs, another fudge).

    The chanting argument may be less of a stretch. If you imagine each line in 6/8 time, then it would be easy to set ‘lend’ as a ¼ note (2 beats), + a (1 beat) + hand (3 beats); care + for + the (1 beat each) + land (3 beats). In 2/2, ‘lend’ would be a dotted ¼ note, ‘a’ an ⅛ note, and ‘hand’ a ½ note, ‘care for the’ would be a ¼-note triplet, + ‘land’ another ½ note. I was in plenty of demonstrations in my youth, and recall chanting much clumsier stuff.

  1. December 21, 2009

    […] (Hat tip to Concurring Opinions.) […]