A Present for Peter
I am imagining Bill at Wakkerstroom now, somewhere in eastern South Africa. Peter Lawson is there, and Bill is giving him something to unwrap. Peter is smiling and maybe a little teary-eyed if you look very closely. Peter Lawson was my guide on my first (and only) trip to SA in 1994. My dad had died in April of that year. It was August. I was ready for Africa. I'm so glad I did it then; I had no kids to forsake at home. I can't imagine being away from them for 11 days now. I don't think they'd do too well.
The South African Tourism Board wanted me to come back home and write a piece on my experiences, something that might make people want to come watch birds and wildlife in this incredible place. Nooo problem. The only problem was that the piece ran to well over 8,000 words, and Bill had a heck of a time fitting it into the rather small pages of Bird Watcher's Digest. There were paintings--of giraffe, a lilac-breasted roller, hippos, owls, barbets...not all of them would fit but BWD did its best. The article appeared in 1995, and won an Apex Award for Feature Writing. Wooo. It also got some people turned on to birding in this neglected but incredibly rich country, enough, I hope, for the South African Tourism Board to think bringing me over was worth it. (For an example of a travel article engineered to make you want to book a flight, this one on birding in North Dakota, click here)
My guide on this trip was Peter Lawson, one of the kindest, gentlest, most knowledgeable people I've met. His greatest gift as a guide is sensitivity--both to the people he's helping, and to the animals and birds they're observing. He sensed that I wanted to try to identify the hundreds of unfamiliar and strange birds by myself, and only offered an ID when asked. Guides who mechanically call out everything they see and hear might work for many, but I respond by dawdling behind, wanting to figure these things out for myself.There's nothing Peter doesn't know something about--Bushman life, archaeology, botany, herpetology, geology, tracking animals...he's a gem. And his passion is cisticolas--those drab-brown little wrenny things that come in about two dozen flavors, all of them bland. Hissing cisticola, zitting cisticola, plain cisticola; make up any name and there's probably a cisticola to match.
When Bill was offered his first trip in 1997, I told him that if the guide were to be Peter Lawson, he would have to go, marriage and production schedule be hanged. It was, he went, and a bond was forged. Peter came over to visit us in 2000. We did our level best to give some of the joy of North American birds to him, as he had introduced us to South African birds. Peter bonded with Phoebe and Liam, who was toddling around in diapers at the time. They adored him. Saying good-bye to Peter after having him as part of our family for three weeks was really hard.
When Bill went to Africa to meet Peter for the first time, I sent three things along with him. One was a note, telling Peter what a wonderful treat he had in store, having Bill on the trip. I asked Peter not to let Bill carry too many heavy suitcases for other people. I told him that Bill would knock himself out trying to help other people see birds. I told him that he would end up wishing he had a BT3 on every trip. All of that turned out to be true. I also sent along two field paintings that I'd done in South Africa, to hang on Peter's office wall. Bill's idea. Peter liked that.
For this trip, Bill would be traveling with another tour outfit. But he and Peter arranged to meet when Bill came to Wakkerstroom. He asked if I would paint a little something to present to Peter. A Kentucky warbler seemed just right. On Peter's last day in the States, Bill promised him that he would not go home without seeing a Kentucky warbler in our woods. They had tried repeatedly to see one during those three weeks, but just couldn't get a look. This was in the days before iPod birding, obviously, when we all WORKED for our birds instead of blasting their song into the woods, and hoodwinking them into landing on our hats.
For an hour and 45 minutes, on the morning of Peter's departure, he and Bill sat still in the woods, straining to locate a singing Kentucky warbler. It was dark and dull and rainy, which didn't help. For those who've chased them, you know that KYWA's like to relax, feathers fluffed and park on a long, horizontal branch, sometimes for many minutes at a time. The only motion you'll see is when they throw their magnificent, mustached heads back to deliver their galloping trill, Tree tree tree tree tree! They're the very devil to spot. But finally, they found the bird they were looking for, and Peter declared it the last bird he'd see in the states, and also the most beautiful. Oporornis formosa--formosa means beautiful! So this is what Peter unwrapped at Wakkerstroom.
Caught in the cosmic web, writing this and remembering our dear friend, I leapt up when the phone rang. It was Bill, calling again from South Africa, having borrowed Peter's calling card when they found a pay phone. He put Peter on the line, and I heard his dear voice. He loves his gift. How is it that people come to mean so much to us? He said, "It's so wonderful to be with Bill."
I answered, "I know. It's not wonderful to be without him."
"I imagine so, " Peter replied.
The song sparrows, who were huddled in their nest in an earlier post, fledged today, Day 12. One of them sputtered along at eye level in front of my riding lawnmower, provoking a peal of laughter from me. He did pretty well for a bird with a 3/4" tail.