Russell L. Brenneman, Pioneering Connecticut Environmentalist


Russell L. Brenneman, a Connecticut environmental lawyer, teacher, and activist, died peacefully at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on October 10th. He was 88.

Mr. Brenneman was born on August 15, 1928, in Springfield, Illinois, to Russell L. Brenneman, Sr., a banker, and Anita Seeds Brenneman, both of Columbus, Ohio. He was raised mostly in Tucson, Arizona, and Columbus. Mr. Brenneman received his undergraduate degree from the Ohio State University and in 1950 entered Harvard Law School, from which he graduated in 1953. While at Harvard, he met and married his fellow classmate and beloved wife of sixty-five years, Frederica Shoenfield Brenneman. After graduating from law school, Mr. Brenneman served as a lieutenant in the U.S Army in the office of the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

Mr. Brenneman came to love Connecticut as a boy, spending many happy summers at the second home of his maternal aunt and uncle, Charmé Seeds Speaks and Charles Speaks. He returned with Frederica to settle permanently in the state upon his honorable discharge from the Army in 1956.

Mr. Brenneman was a founding partner of the Connecticut law firm of Copp, Brenneman & Tighe. From 1976 to 1981 he served in the public sector as president of the Connecticut Resource Recovery Authority. In 1981 he returned to private practice as a partner with Murtha, Cullina, Richter & Pinney in Hartford, where he founded the firm’s environmental law practice group.

Mr. Brenneman was a pioneering member of the environmental movement, in which he was active for over half a century. From the movement’s infancy in the 1960s until his passing, Mr. Brenneman devoted countless hours to the conservation and management of wilderness and open land, the control of air and water pollution, and the development of environmental and energy policy. He was the author of the seminal Private Approaches to the Preservation of Open Land (1964) and, with Sarah M. Bates, Land Saving Action (1984), in addition to numerous speeches and articles. He co-founded the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters and served as president and a director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association. Through his teaching and mentorship as an adjunct professor of environmental law and policy at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Trinity College, Mr. Brenneman influenced a generation of young people interested in environmental issues.

In 2013 Mr. Brenneman received an Environmental Merit Award for Lifetime Achievement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier this year, the General Assembly of the State of Connecticut further honored him with an official citation recognizing his lifelong dedication to protecting the environment. In the words of the General Assembly, directed to Mr. Brenneman, “Your work established the state’s earliest community land trusts, enabling conservation easements across the state, and has made you an indispensable attorney of unparalleled skill.”

Besides the love of his life, Ret. Judge Frederica Brenneman, Mr. Brenneman is survived by his two sons, Matthew and Andrew, his daughter Amy, and five grandchildren, Granger Brenneman, Charlotte and Bodhi Silberling, and Ava and Charlie Brenneman. Donations in Mr. Brenneman’s honor may be made to the Connecticut Forest & Park Association or to the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters. The family welcomes friends and those who loved him to celebrate Mr. Brenneman and his long and fruitful life at Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport on Saturday, October 29th at 2:00 p.m.

“About Last Night” – Essay


I had music in my house last night, a jam session that roused the heavens. There was freedom, and harmony and joy. And it happened next to the Thomas the Tank Engine table.

My tribe from the east coast blew into town and we hung out all weekend. On Friday night, this group met up for dinner at a dear friend’s house. I had heard about this house – a massive palace not entirely in keeping with our hostess’ humble, generous spirit.

Now, I have visited my share of fancy homes, but this one took my breath away. It was, well, perfect. Tasteful, celadon kitchen cabinets, sparkling china all in a row, We ate home-made pizza by the outdoor hearth, cozy in a corner away from the palatial main house.

I came home. My house felt, well, tiny as shit.

So cue the weekend. I worked to make my hovel shine. I wasn’t afraid of judgment from these friends, it wasn’t that. It was the specter of that castle – the perfect 4-seasons decorating, the fact that it was utterly pristine. Where were the broken pens, go-kart ticket stubs, and crappy McDonald’s happy meal toys from days gone by? Where were the barnacles that grow on every suburban life?

Happy to report, my house spruced right up. Put into boxes “Bodhi’s crap” and “Charlotte’s stuff.” I chucked all manner of detritus from drawers that no longer sparked any kind of joy. I wiped down surfaces; I carefully placed votive candles like mad. Hey, the place wasn’t looking half bad.
The black hole (every house has one) was our guesthouse, which over our 18 years here has been a recording studio an editing suite, a guest room, a Thomas the Tank Engine Empire. It is “in transition” now, code for the room where all the crap goes to die: an enormous stuffed fish that Bodhi won in 6 Flags San Antonio, mounds of markers (some good, some not, who has time to discern which?), a paper-mache sculpture guitar (or is it a wand?!) from a play that Charlotte wrote long ago. It is the Island of Misfit Toys, waiting for permanent placement. I chucked stuff in and closed the door. Surely my elegant party would never migrate there?…

But after the hummus and kabobs, before the sunset and during all manner of wine, my guests wanted to play. They are musicians, after all, but musicians who had not brought their own instruments. So there they went – looking for instruments like pigs looking for truffles. Brad and I are somewhat musical, our kids too, but not currently so. So my friends scared up Brad’s electric guitar, Bodhi’s baby Taylor with only 5 strings, a banjo I didn’t know I had (who doesn’t realize she has a banjo in her house??)
I kept encouraging everyone to luxuriate in the luscious patio, but in the end, we were tethered to the place where the electric guitar and amp were enshrined – in the infernal guesthouse. We left the land of wiped clean counters and thoughtful flower arrangements, of carefully placed throw pillows and newly vacuumed rugs. There, amid long-ago-loved wooden castles ad bean bag chairs way past their prime, we piled up and watched the masters play: Chris Stills, his pop Stephen, our friend Natasha Bedingfield harmonizing with her sister and the brilliant David Saw backing her up. I stood—and listened – in awe.

Now I suppose we actors have some equivalent to jamming – riffing off each other improvising, witty word play. But for a non-musician, watching these musicians find each other – human tuning forks all – there is no other response but awe. Despite – or because of? – the baby Taylor with 5 strings and the crunching of Lego pieces underfoot, the music, if not the surroundings, became soaring, free.

At church yesterday, Richard Rohr reminded us that St. Francis deliberately wore patches on his habit to demonstrate his patched up heart within. External perfection never the goal, since it covers up the truth: that we humans are broken inside, and it’s because of this common trait that we stay open to intimacy and hope. To this day, Franciscans’ robes are brown – not the crisp white of other orders. I thought of that last night as the gleaming living room sat unoccupied and we negotiated Bodhi’s ancient stuffed animals. Our souls were freer in that patched-up space. Our bodies jived and us non-singers opened our throats boldly and off-key. We probably would not have dared to that, in the room where the tables were dusted. Thomas the Tank Engine? Way more forgiving. And way more fun than a 4 Seasons flower arrangement, come to think of it.

Deep contemplation…


Deep contemplation is always what’s in short order these days. In these days, of seeming world collapse – social, political, environmental – and social media pinpricks that don’t give you time to recover from another catastrophe.

Deep contemplation, soothing brain waves that heal from the constant affront. It’s not in evidence in my world, I have to grab in, greedily, like a carnivore with fresh meat. It is Life.

Across the street Mama Oak has lost a limb. Gently she lays down a graceful arm, sheared off the trunk, jagged shards. It is horrifying, and beautiful. An amputee who lost something not through trauma but through steady time. My neighbor is afraid she has to come down. I have great faith she won’t. She won’t have that limb, which we’ll grieve. It sheltered us – not only her family in their yard, but those of us who live nearby and even unconscious speeders who use our street as a commuting thoroughfare. Some part of their frazzled brain, some part they may not even be fully aware of, has had the thought: I like this street; it’s shaded and cool.

That’s mama oak’s arm, gently shielding her children from the blazing sun.

We are in a drought here in California. Time will tell what El Nino actually brought us. The Sierras are in good shape, and because we are all connected, we are better off than we were a year ago. But we here in the valley floor still thirst for water, and nothing impresses me more than these mature trees – my cedar reaching up hundreds of feet, or the oaks who spread their limbs wide and true – imagining how deep their roots must have to go to sustain that kind of growth.

I lost a cedar last fall, from a “drought-related” critter. So yeah, the drought cost me a tree, who along with mama oak, spread coniferous arms across the street, clasping hands with her over the third speed bump. . Her evergreen turned russet, which isn’t good, and the arborist told me that she was in a state of decay. Even her russet branches graced us, so I was tempted to keep her in hospice, love her til she lay down on her own accord,, but there were power lines nearby and I couldn’t endanger those.

We took her down. Her enormous trunk is part of my fence, so that will be with us, built into our house, forever. I have a new neighbor building a typically ginormous early 21st century house (what’s with the square footage, people? Don’t you want a yard???). We share a flag lot road, and in anticipation of huge trucks, I came out one morning last fall to see an innocent worker hacking the shit out of my cedar’s trunk. A bit of it edged into the road, I guess. I begged for him to stop, called my (still absent) new neighbor who also called the guy off. But now my cedar trunk remains with jagged, unconscious cuts. The unconscious worker a grave robber who ravaged my cedar’s final resting place.

Clearly, I was a tree in a former life. Many folks are karmically connected to animals, and though I am too, I am deeply, forever-ly, passionately connected to trees. I am happy when I am around them, a lost animal when I am not. For all the obvious reasons that people love trees, I love them too. But these days, with the pace of reactions and cognition speeding up, I long for the slow contemplation of my arborous forebears. They were here before me. They will outlive me. Their slow tree-thoughts are deeper than my own, their sense of time a balm to my soul. They observe us humans’ tantrumming, loving, worrying, celebrating, grieving and dancing; I like to think they do all those things too, but in ancient treetime.

I will help my neighbor and her mama oak today. I’ll let you know what happens. Til then, maybe unplug from Mr. Trump and his hate mongering and hang out with some trees. I know I will.

Love, love,

The Worst Mothering Moment Ever


There are so many, really, how to choose just one?

The time I had to wrestle my tantrumming 3-year old daughter as the plane descended into JFK?

The time I pretended to be asleep so that I didn’t have to weigh in with my squabbling children?

The time I let my son eat Ramen noodles for breakfast? (Oh, wait, that happens every day.)

But for some reason the Death of Ruby stands out as the kind of moment that before I had children, I couldn’t fathom happening. I was a great mother before I had children. I had the best ideas about how to nurture children’s minds and hearts, to remedy what I didn’t get as a child, to rectify the ills of the world. I really had it together as a mother. Before I had children.

Obviously a huge, profound, GINORMOUS thing we’re supposed to do as parents is teach our kids about death, right? I mean, it’s weird because none of us know anything about it (except those of us who have already, um, died), so I don’t know where I got the idea that it was my job to explain the unexplainable, but still.

Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1993 for good, when I was cast in “NYPD Blue”, I wanted to get a dog. I was through with the manic, single life of Manhattan, when doing an off Broadway play inevitably led to nightly pitchers of beer til 3 am which inevitably led to the ill-conceived hand job with your co-star. Even the ones you didn’t like. New York, for me, was confusion and growth and fifth floor walk- ups. New York was a sweet boyfriend whom I didn’t love in the way I felt I should have (i.e. the way he loved me.) My soul roamed through theaters and new agents and commercial auditions – the landscape of every young actor – looking for adventure and some semblance of sanity. It was a messy time. Moving to LA gave me a fresh start in a place that felt like home, where for the same rental money as my cockroach closet, I could rent the guest house of two gay gentleman in the Hollywood Hills, complete with a patio to call my own. Heaven.

I wanted to get a dog because I figured if I had a dog I wouldn’t be drinking pitchers of beer and giving ill-conceived hand jobs. I figured that at least half the reason for the aforementioned hand jobs was company and someone to come home to. Why couldn’t a dog supply the same thing? (I mean the company at home part.) Why couldn’t a seven-week old Basset Hound puppy named Maggy do the same thing?

I chose a Basset because a) a friend had one named Lucy back in New York, whom I coveted and b) they are hilarious. With all of the intensity of moving to LA, with the gritty world of corrupt police officers I inhabited for “NYPD” – what better antidote than to come home to a Basset Hound puppy? Plus, Maggy’s torso was roughly the same length as my own; we spooned effortlessly. Her legs were stubby and rough. She was, in essence, a canine Bonsai tree.

Maggy brought me comfort and hilarity and community up at Laurel Canyon Dog Park. She also brought me Brad.

Brad also reasoned that after a series of relationships – unsatisfying in one way or another – a dog would do. So he got an eight-week old chocolate lab named Ruby. When Brad and I first met and started dating in the fall of 1993, our primary activity was walking “the girls” who were tiny, needy and unbearably cute. My vow to not do late-night dates was made good; most of our early conversations happened at 7 am up on the magical fire trails which parallel Mulholland Drive. The dogs came everywhere. There were four of us in bed. Through caring for Mags and Ruby, we learned to care for ourselves, to tend to our own romance and practice parenting for our as yet inconceivable children.

Maggy and Ruby were 8 years old when Charlotte was born. Although we loved them no less, when our human child arrived the dogs became, well, dogs again. They still lodged in our hearts, reminding us of a time less burdened, more free, when an entire day was making love, getting coffee, hiking on the fire trail and woops! It was time for dinner. Now we lived in a house with a dog door – they took care of their own business — and we took care of the overwhelming business of keeping this tiny human alive.

They were 12 when Bodhi was born. Bodhi doesn’t remember Maggy at all. She died a year later. She died here in LA when we were in our home in Massachusetts. She died suddenly and without much pain. I got the call in our living room, surrounded by my children and my parents and gasped with tears. The end of an era.
Ruby lived for two years after that, increasingly frail and somewhat lost without her lifelong partner in crime. She became the old dog in the corner, a cloudy-eyed pillow that the children took little interest in. An old granny whose main value was the fact that she was always – and had been always – just there.

She diminished more and more. “Is it time to put her down?” I’d ask Brad and Melissa, who is a definite dog whisperer. “Not yet,” I was told, “we’ll know.” I was taught about kidney failure and stopping eating and as long as she was eating there was life and a desire for life in her. And then she wasn’t eating anymore.

Brad was shooting “Land of the Lost” which had him working dawn til midnight Monday through Friday. One weekend, it was clear that Ruby would not last the week. “Can you wrap early on Monday?” I suggested. “We can have the vet come to the house and do it there?” He agreed.
(This is the terrible mothering part.)

I told the kids that Ruby was sick, as clearly they could see. I told them that the vet was coming to the house to take her to the hospital. The dog was in my office. I told the Charlotte and Bodhi to say goodbye. I did not tell them she was going to be put to death momentarily. I told them she was going to the hospital, and that if she were well enough, she’d come home at some point. We left the office so Brad could have his goodbye (and so the vet could put her down, in the arms of her master whom she’d loved so much.) The kids and I were upstairs when the door opened and closed and Brad emerged, red-eyed but calm. It was done.

Months later – I mean six months – Bodhi, now four, Charlotte and I were in the car. Out of silence, my son asked: “So how is Ruby doing at the hospital?”

My memory is that I was sipping a latte, or changing lanes, or reaching for a tissue. Caught off guard, with no “special parenting” moment prepared, I blurted: “Oh! Sorry! She died. Forgot to tell you that part, buddy. Yup — Ruby’s dead.”

Odd, endless awkward moment as the kids caught up to my words. Whaaa?….

“Yes, she died in the hospital.” (Another lie, further terrible mothering.) “Sooooo sorry….. Forgot to tell you.”
When I want to really hate my mothering, I think about Waldorf schools. Home cooked meals, no screens, time to discuss things in a perfect, developmental way – yup. That’s my hair shirt. Back when my kids were at a Waldorf school, I would’ve imagined discussing Ruby’s death around a peaceful fire, invoking the cycle of life and all that. Perhaps one of the children cries quietly, and I gather him into my outstretched, gingham clad arms.
But that ain’t what happened, and maybe that ain’t what EVER happens. The parenting moments catch us off guard so we have no pretense, nothing but our own shoot-from-the-hip humanity.

I always say that Maggy brought me into the life I lead today. She kept me out of late-night bars, she taught me how to take care of a living being. There were endless days when it was just the two of us, when I would drive an hour to find the right dog food, and hike for miles with my stubborn, sullen hound. She was my transitional object — as tangible as a child’s blanky – that I clutched as I changed some very old habits and moved 3,000 miles across the country. Maggy brought me Brad and Ruby and Charlotte and Bodhi and my in-laws and all of it wrapped up together is Home.

Last Saturday I walked a red (actually green) carpet with my son and my dog Pablo. The spirit of Mags and Ruby hovered nearby, benevolently. Clearly Ruby has forgiven me for announcing her death to my kids in such an offhand, un-ceremonial way. Charlotte and Bodhi, however? Most likely scarred for life. It’ll be on me to pick up the shrink’s tab years from now as they also recount The Worst Mothering Moment Ever.


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