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The Birdwatcher’s Wings

Aug 28, 2017

Willis Hall used a trip wire to photograph himself with a trio of red-tailed hawk fledglings.

I sat in the hospital room, watching my friend breathe. He was 86. I felt a little guilty watching him, because he was the most private person I ever knew, and I'm not sure he would have approved; yet it is hard to look away when you love someone. Sometimes we think if we do just a little more, it will be all right. Of course it is not our decision. Willis would have us know that.

I knew Willis Hall for 25 years. He was my mentor and my friend. That he and Rosamond let me be with them was a gift.

I met Willis for the first time when they came to our house to show a group of Yankton College teachers some bird slides. It was love at first sight. He, his Rosamond, and their incredible photographs are the things on which I imprinted as fast as a gosling on the goose. I was cooked. At 7 the very next morning, the three of us began our first of hundreds of birding trips. We three, and sometimes my husband too, eventually would cross what seemed like every prairie pothole and dusty back road in the six-state region. We never took the main road except to get to another dirt road. My gift to Willis was to find a back road he hadn't traveled before.

By canoe in the summer, he introduced me to least terns and piping plovers on Missouri River sandbars. Above the river, in the low oak hills and on grass-covered bentonite clay cliffs, we found Dutchman's breeches and the pasqueflower in the spring and buffaloberries and LeConte's sparrows in the fall. We hiked the hills, checking wild plum bushes for Bell's vireo and spotted towhee nests and scouting for deer, turkeys, prairie ring-necked snakes and his favorite, great horned owls.

In the winter, we kicked the soccer ball over the park trails or skied the woods in search of red-bellied woodpeckers and bluebirds.

And in the last two years, I played my first tennis ever, with a man who had played for 70 years. Ever patient, he never gave up on me; he just kept putting the ball over the net. If we were distracted by nighthawks and nuthatches at his favorite park counter, so much the better.

In the early days we spotted and counted birds, and he photographed. Rosamond judiciously jotted their numbers and exact locations on the back of recycled envelopes in writing so small a magnifying glass was required to read it. From him I first heard very patient answers to my questions about bird identification, photography and all things having to do with the natural world. If I spotted a bird, impulsively calling it out, Rosamond would always say, “Willis?" and only when he confirmed a sighting, would she add it to the list. I think it was five years before they accepted my birds.

His friend Phil Hall from North Dakota, who explores and writes on the natural history of the Badlands, also writes of Willis' patience. "One spring, I believe it was in 1982, I noticed that a golden eagle had reclaimed its nest high up in the wall that defines the east side of Red Canyon. I phoned Willis, and 36 hours later he and Rosamond appeared in the pasture by my cabin. After the obligatory tea for an Englishman, we set out for the eagle's nest, which was about 10 miles down the canyon. While the nest looked close to the road, it was a deceivingly long hike, and just short of vertical. Willis led the way, hauling a camera, a big lens, binoculars, and a heavy camera bag. At the time, I was 39 and he was 69. I struggled to keep up with him.

"We advanced as far up the canyon wall as possible. There, we ducked behind a scrubby cedar tree. Out of his bag, Willis produced a small piece of camouflage cloth, which he draped around us. We sat like rocks for two hours. However, I twice shifted my weight and once had to scratch an itchy nose. We waited without breathing.

"The eagle never came, and Willis finally announced that we should hike back to the pickup. I was chagrined at not being able to show him the eagle. As we gathered up the equipment, I asked, 'Willis, why do you think the eagle never came to its nest?'

"'We moved too much,' he replied."

At home he was constantly on the move. If Rosamond was his ears, he was her legs. She might say, "Willis, get me the bird notes from the kitchen."

He would respond, "Where are they?"

"In the pea bag on the counter." He would go, and return empty handed and baffled. She would carefully repeat, "Pea bag!"

"Oh!" he said, "I thought you said tea bag."

And they both would exchange glances that said, "Pay attention, dear. Speak more clearly, dear." But they were smiling at each other.

Their relationship was a curious delight to the college students. She regarded her students highly and held extra classes at their home. One of her former French students wrote, "I remember one time Miss Burgi called to Willis to please bring that cereal box to her. When she had it she reached in and pulled out my homework. Of course! Homework in a cereal box. He was dear and I knew there was some serious devotion going on in that house. "

Theirs was indeed the language of serious devotion. They chose their cadences carefully. She may have been the professor of Latin, but he was the poet. He spoke plain English.

From her I first heard exotic bird terms. "Is that a bird or an excrescence?"

I asked for translation, and Willis, in all seriousness, answered, "Excrescence — a bump on a log — excrescence." And looked at her. And she smiled.

Rosamond once told me she would rather be struck from a mountain than linger aimlessly. In 1992 she suffered a stroke and passed from her mountain. He believed he would be with her again. In 1998 he wrote the poem Almighty God.

A few leaves flutter in the breeze.

These too shall all be gone.

Almighty God shall bring them

back again.

Each one, its perfect self, shall be

A part of me, as it has been.

She too, My Rosamond,

shall be again.

Willis never wanted to impose. Waiting at the doctor' s office, he had a sniffle. I told him I had taken a zinc lozenge for my sniffles. He seemed absolutely mystified. He looked at me, and rather than have me repeat, an imposition, he tried to further the conversation by eliciting more information. He questioned, "Where does one get such a substance?"

"Oh, probably from chewing rocks," I replied.

Somewhat alarmed, Willis said, "From chewing rats?"

Now this was a man who rescued bats and carried indoor insects outside so they'd have a fighting chance. "No," I said, "from chewing rocks, r-o-c-k-s." Concerned that I had confused rather than amused him I said, ''I'm only kidding, Willis. It's a joke." He, waiting for me to breathe as I watched his face, looked me straight in the eye and said the only zinc he knew was the kitchen zinc.

With deep relief for the moment and for so much else, I laughed. I detected a sly smile on his face. I knew that once again — I'd been cooked.

We moved Willis from the protected environment of his hospital room to an adjoining nursing home where we hoped he could convalesce from the pneumonia for which he'd been hospitalized. His beloved brother, Winston, had died six weeks before, and he was greatly saddened.

Several times over those weeks in the hospital, health care workers asked me if he was my father. One day, through deafened ears, he responded , "Daughter ... and mother."

I combed his gray hair and said he looked like a tufted puffin, the longhaired seabird whose wings are better suited for diving for fish than for flying. He said he had never had a higher compliment. Two weeks later he said he felt he had come to the end of a long race. The next week he said he wished he could start over. When I asked if he wanted anything he replied, "What I want is unobtainable." Three days later he had a small stroke. He did not recognize the oak bough I brought. For another day he said nothing.

And then he revived.

A long time ago, trying to keep up with him, I had asked Willis if he could live without walking. He said he guessed on his deathbed he'd get up and take a walk. And he did. At sunset, we went outside and walked the half block to the edge of the bluff. In silence we looked down at ducks silhouetted on a silver bend in the river.

I told him I had spoken with his oldest friend, Wes Cook, who now lives in New Mexico. His eyes widened. "Is he well?" Willis asked. Those were his last words.

I had brought him a gift, a large photo I'd taken in Alaska, a single tufted puffin facing the sea. He looked at the bird. He smiled at me and nodded. This time he would have to fly.

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the May/June 2000 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.


07:22 pm - Thu, September 7 2017
Vicki Iverson Stead said:
Hi Juli! It's been a day or two since we were at USD together, living in Norton Hall. All is well with me, and I hope the same holds true for you! Take care!

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