I went to Bert’s Bench today. If I walk from my home I can get to there in about half an hour. Probably faster if I wasn’t so poky, but poky I am.
Just leaving the yard can take awhile. My bird feeders always need a refill, the magpies look forward to a handful of coarsely torn bread crumbs, the flicker prefers a good helping of suet and then there are the ravens who always greet me, watching every move I make.
“Good morning,” I said to them in my singsong raven voice. “I’m taking a walk to Bert’s Bench. See you later.”
Donning my YakTrax and stomping down Milward Street, I waved to a shy little girl wearing her bright pink coat. I paused at my favorite old-fashioned white picket fence where the big black dog often comes to say hello as I measure the growing pile of snow on the bed where hollyhocks and columbine will sprout in the spring. It’s not unusual for the ravens to follow me here.
“Hey, watta ya lookin’ at?” they ask through clucks and chatters.
Idle chitchat with birds always makes me feel better. I wonder if other people feel as I do. I’d like to call Bert to ask him.
I realize that if I really had called Bert as many times as I considered calling Bert with a question, he probably would have stopped answering his phone. I suffer from Unbridled Curiosity — an affliction Bert I believe suffered from as well.
In one of Bert’s books, “Valley So Sweet,” he wrote, “I have invested innumerable hours looking into the clear water one finds in the Rocky Mountains. Wisely spent hours.”
I feel the same. Which is why I went to Bert’s Bench today. After a short walk, I could see the expansive views of the Elk Refuge, Miller Butte, Flat Creek, the swans, the grebes. Or maybe a common loon. Or is it cormorant? A double-crested cormorant? How the heck do I know? I am not a bird watcher — more of a bird appreciator. I also like to look deep into the water and think.
The first time I called Bert on official bird business was in reference to a pair of smallish black birds I absolutely swore dove into Fish Creek, swam under water and then sprang up onto the top of an almost submerged log. I watched and I stared and I couldn’t believe my eyes. This happened in February, on Valentine’s Day.
“I have to call Bert,” I said out loud to no one.
I was a little shy about bothering Bert about some plain old birds on Fish Creek, but it was Valentine’s Day and I was so excited.
I took a deep breath and called him. “I saw a pair of unassuming birds on Fish Creek,” I told him. “They were diving into Fish Creek and trilling like crazy. It looked like they were walking on the bottom of the creek. Is this even possible?”
Bert was patient with me. Amused, I’d say.
“American dippers,” he said. “Ouzels.”
“Ouzels?” I replied.
From that day forward, ouzel, my new favorite bird, became my favorite word that I always try to work into any avian-based conversation: “Cinclus mexicanus, the ouzel, looks just like a little blackish robin!” I tell anyone who will listen. “When I saw my first pair, I just had to call Bert!”
And do you know what’s wonderful? I never had to explain who Bert is. Everybody always knew.
On Christmas Eve Day this year, I saw a frost-covered robin in my crabapple tree. Later the same day a sharp-shinned hawk came for a visit and sat in the same tree. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I immediately referenced Bert’s bird guide, which always sits on my windowsill, now faded and worn. The tiny hawk wasn’t listed in “Birds of Grand Teton National Park and Surrounding Area.” I went to Sibley’s guide, to the computer. I watched the hawk and took an amateur snapshot with my iPad.
“I have to call Bert,” I said. But I didn’t. Cookies were on the counter ready to be frosted. A roast was about to go in the oven. I didn’t know if Bert was well enough to take a call.
Bert died on New Year’s Day.
How honored I am, how blessed, to have lived in a community where Bert could be intertwined in my life, our lives. Reading Bert’s weekly column in the Jackson Hole News&Guide was like having a friendly visit.
“To look into a creek and see cobbles or rocks, fish, aquatic insects or plants is a joy,” Bert wrote. I agree.
On Bert’s Bench today I observed puddle ducks, big old mallards feeding on the water by dabbing and “tipping-up” without diving. I like to think Bert was watching them too.