Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Nature Writing Entry #4

2-8-15 at 12:45 pm
At the Stewart Park Promontory

  • Temperature: 32 degrees
  • Wind: 5 MPH   Gusts: 6-9 MPH
  • Misty, heavy, low clouds
Animals seen:
  • Canada geese, Gulls flying overhead
Humans seen:
  • One runner
  • Three cars passing by



It’s February 8th. A storm is coming. Some say rain, some say snow. But I ventured out looking for birds anyway. After reading Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge all morning, I want to see some flying and flitting and hopping about from branch to branch.

I wander toward the Boat House, where a small stone terrace sticks out over the mud pond. It’s drenched in snow, but I tramp closer, imagining the lush greens, the splash of cormorants touching down, the daisies and black-eyed Susans that will cling to this watering hole come summer.


There are two pillars at the entrance to the terrace. On one is a plaque honoring Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

In her chapter titled “Pink Flamingos,” Tempest Williams references Louis Agassiz Fuertes, and I admit it put him on my mind. I know a bit about Fuertes because I've written about the Cayuga Bird Club and the Lab of Ornithology for the local paper. And I'm intrigued. 





There are few birds at the Promontory today. I amble around the edges of the Boat House, wishing I could get inside. And then, a ghost. A Gull? Where was he gliding to across this porch?



Drawing by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Fuertes was born in Ithaca in 1874. He became a prominent ornithologist of his time and a revered wildlife artist. He sketched and painted birds his whole life, equaling John James Audubon in his talent. He worked at Cornell University and was the founding President of the Cayuga Bird Club. Upon his untimely death in 1927 due to an oncoming train, his colleagues and peers became determined to honor the great ornithologist. He’d had a plan for a bird sanctuary at the tip of Cayuga Lake, and so his friends set about the work of building a wildlife pond on the location where he had intended to offer refuge to traveling birds. 

The Promontory. 

My Promontory.




Canada geese honk overhead. They have become backdrop here. Standard. I want more. As I look to the skies at the latest passing flock, I see a relic that could well date back to Fuertes’ time. It’s the oldest birdhouse I have ever seen: creaky and rickety; roof caving in, and rusted metal fastenings. It is about twenty feet in the air, perched on a pole that I desperately want to climb to examine the insides. Do birds actively use this hotel in spring? If so, who? And when will they return? 


Photo from Cornell Daily Sun, March 22, 1928
The plan was this, according to Cornell Daily Sun, in March 22, 1928: “You remember the old Cascadilla Boathouse, on the little cove where Fall Creek empties into Cayuga Lake? Well, the sanctuary will include the boathouse and the marshy land near the Lake shore as far east as Stewart Park [goes]. The southern section of the marsh will be dredged, and water allowed to enter through sluices. A constant flow will be assured through this pool, which will be about four feet deep. At the southeast corner will be a feeding pond, where free food will be supplied in winter. An artesian well will be dug, so that the feeding-pond will be kept open all winter. A moat will encircle the swampy area, to keep out cats and other preying animals, including the bathers who will continue to use the beach between the moat and the lake….The boathouse will be made a seasonal museum of feathered fowl; an observation balcony will be constructed upon it. Birds with clipped wings will be kept in the sanctuary, to serve as decoys to passing fowl.”

Much of this came to fruition. Much of it didn't. I can’t help but wonder what this sanctuary would have been like had Fuertes himself overseen the creation of it.




But another presence. Someone was here. There is a distinct wing mark in the snow. An indentation in the middle where a body would have landed. Was it a falcon taking a sitting sparrow? Or an innocent landing? A foot away is a feather. A single grey feather tipped in a vibrant red like nothing else that colors this landscape. A Cardinal. It must have only just happened, the marking and the feather are not spotted with a single snowflake. 

Photo from Bird Lore Magazine, 1934
They call my Promontory the Swan Pen. One article states that the little stone terrace was the idea of Arthur Allen, one of Fuertes’ peers and the ornithologist who created the first graduate ornithology program in the US and founded the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In 1934, in Bird Lore magazine, Allen wrote, “...a group of us decided that we ought to have some method of observing the Ducks in our refuge without having to look through or over a fence. Accordingly, we drew up a tentative design, which, after passing though the hands of more experienced draftsmen, finally resulted in the stone gateway and look out shown in the accompanying photograph….”

I round the mud pond, the Swan Pen, to see the wind off the lake has been playing: two and three foot high snow banks create waves perpendicular to the wind, to the direction I am walking. I have to step over the drifts to move forward, again and again, snow slipping into my boots.


I wanted to see birds today. Instead, I found evidence. They’re here. The hearty ones are here. And, I think, Fuertes is here too. Ninety years later, the Promontory looks significantly different than it did in the old pictures. But the heart of the project is still here, offering refuge to souls who seek it, bird and human alike.

I look up from the drifts and spy one more spirit fluttering madly in the wind. A feather. Incredulously stuck into the end of a branch. It’s downy, from deep down at the warm underbelly of a bird. It somehow tugged free and swept up against this branch. I cup it gently with my mitten and take a picture. It looks like white fire. 


Fuertes was born on February 7th. A fact I did not know until I researched him. Yesterday he would have had his 141st birthday. I’ll celebrate by doing what he would have done. I’ll keep looking for birds.
Photo from Division of Rare and Manuscript
Collections, Cornell University


Read more about the history of Fuertes' influence on Stewart Park at the Cayuga Bird Club website.
Find Fuertes's paintings and papers at Cornell's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
Read PBS' account of the Harriman Expedition to Alaska that Fuertes' traveled on.
Read a memorial about Arthur Allen at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

7 comments:

Andrea said...

Fantastic! I love, love, love Refuge. I've never heard of Fuertes (well, I must have, since I read Refuge, but apparently ejected the name from my brain). Such an interesting story. And so tragic to die being hit by a train! Also, lovely bird sign--tracks and feathers. I found a cardinal feather like that last week. I wasn't sure what bird it was from. It's so beautiful and delicate. Sounds like you had a good day.

Athena Gabrielle said...

I love the way you weaved your own experiences with the history of Fuertes. How ironic that his birthday was the day before you went! His spirit most definitely was there. My favorite description you include is of the downy feather: white fire. What an interested juxtaposition of temperature and color which absolutely works.

Laura Roberts said...

It's a purple martin house. They are always a large condo with many rooms, and always on a pole. That's definitely an old one. I loved following you on this journey looking for birds. They really are everywhere, their evidence is everywhere. They're just so good at blending into the background that we miss them.

Reading about Fuertes was very interesting! Thanks for including that.

Melanie Fox said...

I love the intense focus with which you're looking at this place on this visit. And I especially appreciate that you subtly teach us so much, with every entry.

Brianna Snow said...

You mix the historical with the present. The flow of facts and observations was engaging. You transition so well.

Also, I really enjoyed the pictures that accompanied this post. Your picture of the wings in the snow is beautiful. I've never seen an imprint of a birds wing span before. I'll be on the look-out on my next walk through the snow for one. You have a great eye for nature.

Brittany Hailer said...

I absolutely loved this post, Amanda! I learned so much and couldn't wait to see which birds you were tracking. Makes me want to venture out on my own and snap some pictures. You weave the historical with the personal narrative expertly. Thanks for sharing. : )

Erica Scaife said...

This is a great post, Amanda. You weave everything together effortlessly, from Refuge to Fuertes to your own experiences. I really enjoyed it!