Walk This Way: The ‘Gospel of Greg’ is Everywhere
March 18, 2020
PROVIDENCE — The North Burial Ground has a surprising amount of wildlife: geese, ducks, turtles, frogs, deer, a muskrat, an otter on occasion, and even a resident coyote.
It also has an omnipresent human: Greg Gerritt.
“If we’re lucky that red-tailed hawk will just sit there for a while, and we can take a video,” he said, squinting at the screen on his camera. “Because red-tailed hawks sit in trees for you, I have a whole video series called ‘red-tailed hawks sit in trees.’”
In fact, the 66-year-old Providence resident is a jack of all trades: climate activist, retired carpenter, part-time administrator for the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and wildlife aficionado who sends videos out to his email subscribers with titles like “An epic battle: A Hooded Merganser wrestles with a crayfish in real time and slow motion.”
BuzzFeed doesn’t have anything on Gerritt’s headlines.
While he spends plenty of time shooting and editing cemetery critter videos — he said he’s produced some 750 videos since he started about eight years ago — Gerritt also spends a good chunk of his time walking the city, about 10 miles a day, and spreading the “Gospel of Greg.”
“I’m everywhere, that’s part of my job,” he said, lifting his neon-green sunglasses to get a better view of a sneaky turtle. “I say stuff that nobody else says.”
Gerritt, in his mind, is first and foremost a climate activist, and, as he said, he is truly everywhere. In one week, before the coronavirus pandemic gripped the country, I saw him at least three times: at the crossroad of Point Street and Interstate 95, at the North Burial Ground, and at the Statehouse.
“My job is to stay ahead of the curve on almost anything,” he said. “I organized my high school for the first Earth Day in 1970. I helped found the Green Party and was the first Green Party candidate in the U.S.”
His passion for the environment started as a kid, when he would read books about endangered animals.
“I was born and raised in the Bronx [N.Y.], and I spent a lot of time in parks, and I had the Bronx Zoo and [American] Museum of Natural History nearby, so I was always exposed to nature stuff,” he said. “I also read nature books, and when I was fourteen, I read a book on endangered species and I said well that’s what I need to do. I switched from thinking I was going to study Miocene mammals to living stuff.”
After graduating high school, he enrolled at the University of Maine at Orono to study forestry, but, in his words, got “thrown out” of the department when he was critical of their friendliness with paper companies, and switched to anthropology.
“After that, I dropped out of grad school because I said there’s gonna be no grants, no jobs, and I’m sick of western civilization! I’m gonna go live in the woods.”
Before settling into his backcountry life, Gerritt hitchhiked around the country, then returned to Maine where he lived for 15 years running his own carpentry business.
Love brought him to Providence in 1996.
“I put an ad in the paper and that’s how I met my wife,” he said. “She was a nurse until she retired and appreciates my activism, but she said she didn’t think she could live in the woods, and she had family down this way, so we moved to Providence.”
Gerritt and his wife, Kathy Rourke, live on Sixth Street near Miriam Hospital, a convenient 10-minute walk to the North Burial Ground. The quick commute leaves him plenty of time to write, walk, videotape animals, and educate people.
For a person who is always out and about, it’s odd that, in a 2013 profile by the Providence Journal, Gerritt described himself as an “outsider” and said he “isn’t the most social person.”
But as we talked, it became clear that educating people and calling out politicians about the climate crisis and social and environmental injustices are more important to him than any social discomfort.
He was the first Green Party candidate for a state legislature, running for a Maine Statehouse seat in 1994. He also ran for mayor of Providence in 2002, after the fall of Buddy Cianci.
Perhaps to Gerritt, we are the subjects of his lifelong anthropological observations.
“Eventually, you figure out it’s not the animals who need the help; it’s the people who have the problem, so I switched from wildlife to anthropology to figure out the people,” he said.