A Childhood Encounter With Roger Tory Peterson

By Mel White
October 15, 2013
On the facing page, Mel White with his sister and mother, “who set me on the bird-watching path.”On the facing page, Mel White with his sister and mother, “who set me on the bird-watching path.” Photo courtesy of Mel White.
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At some point in my adult life I began having a recurring dream. Or rather, a particular landscape kept showing up in my dreams: a curving street, bordered by a low rock wall, in a hilly, leafy neighborhood. It was a pleasant scene, and made me feel good: cheerful, and anticipatory, as if beginning an adventure.

I’m not one to remember my dreams much, so it took me a while to realize that this scene had become a theme. Oddly, it took me even longer (truly, years) to finally recognize the setting: Kavanaugh Boulevard, in Little Rock’s Heights area, just a few blocks from where I lived. Why, then, did this everyday street seem so different, so distant, so drenched in nostalgia that it was practically sepia-toned?

And then it came to me: it wasn’t the contemporary scene I was picturing. The dream landscape was a memory from my long-ago boyhood, when Little Rock was the Big City, far from the flat, familiar streets of the small town where I rode my bike. In my dream, I was reliving the day I met Roger Tory Peterson.

It’s exactly a month since the first day of spring, but winter hasn’t quite given up in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. Stecoah Gap lies at an elevation of 3,200 feet, and as I get out of my car in the parking lot on Highway 143, I’m darn glad I have a fleece jacket. Gloves would be nice, too.

Rather than walk the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the highway here and heads uphill in both directions, I start along an old road that hugs the hillside to the east. It’s a compromise: birds in the canopy on the downhill side are near eye level, but those on the uphill side are way, way above me.

Up, down, left, right—for one bird it doesn’t matter: Black-throated Green Warblers sing everywhere, all the time. If I had a buck for every one I’ve heard in the past few days I could pay for the gas it’s going to take to drive home to Arkansas. Ovenbirds are nearly as ubiquitous. And Blue-headed Vireos…why didn’t I know how common they are around here? It’s been a long time since I’ve been near the Smoky Mountains in breeding season.

A Northern Parula buzzes; a Blackand-white Warbler squeegees. I hear a short, simple song and, since I’m not sure what it is, I assume it’s an American Redstart. Sure enough, a male flits and spins in a small cove ahead. High above, two or three Blackburnian Warblers fly from branch to branch—the brightest things in the sky, at least until the sun rises over the ridges.

Three birders approach. It’s a little slow this morning, isn’t it? Yes, it is. But we agree that any day you see a Blackburnian Warbler is a good day.

As the road rounds a couple of corners the view opens to a brushy hillside. From below comes a song that a few days ago would have puzzled me, or that I might have thought was a Chestnut-sided Warbler. I know now that the Hooded Warblers here sing a different song from the ones in the Ozarks, lacking the forceful wolf whistle at the end.

Back at the parking lot, a young man with a big pack rests at the picnic table. He’s a solo through-hiker on the Appalachian Trail, and apparently in need of a little human company. I move ever closer to my car, but he really, really wants to talk. Where am I from? Bird watching, huh? What birds are around here? I’m sure he has better stories than I have, but I wish him well and I’m gone. My third-grade friend Theo called me “Birdbrain,” but I didn’t mind. My obsession was probably pretty wearying to other people—sometimes, I imagine, even to my mother, who set me on the bird-watching path. She taught me the backyard birds; she helped me talk my father into going on Sunday-afternoon bird-watching drives in the country; she took me to see the Painted Bunting that showed up at a house over by the fairgrounds.

And she bought me books, among them The Burgess Bird Book for Children and How to Know the Birds and A Field Guide to the Birds (second edition, 1947 printing), the latter two by Roger Tory Peterson. How much did we use that Peterson guide? Enough that the front cover came loose years ago, despite the tape I applied at some point.

I don’t remember what happened when we learned that Peterson would be coming to Little Rock, just 30 miles away, as part of the Audubon Screen Tours lecture series. Did I pester her to take me? Maybe…maybe not. To describe me as a shy kid would be a massive understatement. I was eight years old; I may well have been nervous, if not actually scared, about going to a strange place to see an actual Famous Person.

But go we did, on the winding old highway and across the Broadway bridge over the Arkansas River and along Kavanaugh Boulevard to the Heights Theater. We heard Peterson narrate his film Wild America, shot during a 30,000-mile trip he and British ornithologist James Fisher made around North America in 1953. The two also wrote a book about their adventure, which my mother bought, as well as a copy of A Field Guide to the Mammals. Peterson autographed both: “With my best regards, Roger T. Peterson.”

(Fifteen years later I met and became good friends with another local birder and learned his story of the Peterson visit. Then a college junior, Bill Shepherd had been chosen to take the author on a special quest to the Little Rock airport. Unfortunately, an appendectomy put Bill in the hospital, so someone else showed Peterson his life Smith’s Longspur.)

I read Wild America more than once, absorbing its stories of Newfoundland gannet cliffs, Florida tern colonies, and Arizona owls. But one sentence in particular captivated me: “Be near Asheville, North Carolina, the third week in April and you will see the warblers pour across the mountains.” Warblers! I marveled at their colors (in books; I’d never seen a real one) and their odd names: Bay-breasted, Cape May, Cerulean. And there was a place where they “poured” over the mountains. What must that be like?

Years of birding didn’t lessen my admiration for the beauty of warblers, though the wonder necessarily diminished as familiarity grew. Nonetheless. I remembered that sentence from Wild America when I learned that work would take me to Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a few days. That’s near Asheville, and I’d be there in the third week of April.

I found my 54-year-old copy of Wild America and discovered that neither Peterson nor Fisher wrote the sentence that had stuck in my mind. They were quoting Edwin Way Teale from his 1951 book North with the Spring, and he was quoting advice given him in the 1940s by famed Massachusetts ornithologist Ludlow Griscom. Well, no matter. I would finally get a chance to experience something that had been only a dream for an eight-year-old.

It’s unseasonably cool and seasonably wet in the Smokies when I arrive, but I mostly manage to dodge the intermittent showers. Although wildflowers paint hillsides everywhere, birds are disappointingly scarce. Blue-headed Vireo, Black-throated Green and Black-and-white warblers, Ovenbird, and Eastern Towhee rank as the most common species, and soon I realize that at this point in a late-arriving spring (it was snowing and sleeting at middle elevations just a week earlier) I won’t be awash in migrant warblers.

There’s consolation in Black-throated Blues, an eastern bird I seldom see. They don’t show up in the Tennessee part of the park, but a few males sing on the North Carolina side, and more than once I find a rock and simply sit and take time to admire them. Hooded Warblers are common, and their brilliance always thrills. Who doesn’t enjoy Pileated Woodpeckers and Scarlet Tanagers, and of course trilliums and orchids and violets? But my hopes are on one last shot at a good birding day, my final Sunday when I have nothing to do but bird.

The birds at Stecoah Gap have encouraged me as I head up the Blue Ridge Parkway toward Asheville. The road rises and falls thousands of feet in elevation, and spring’s progress up the slopes is shown in the blooming of dogwoods and red maples. I stop hopefully at various trails and scenic overlooks, but there’s little activity anywhere.

Icicles decorate roadside bluffs, and it finally occurs to me that it may not have been the smartest option to drive the highest section of the entire 469- mile parkway. At the Haywood-Jackson overlook (6,020 feet), a pair of Goldencrowned Kinglets comprise the entire avifauna along a nature trail.

The road descends steadily to the French Broad River (2,100 feet), the sun shines bright, the temperature climbs, and all signs are good as I walk some of the many trails alongside the parkway north of Asheville. Yes, it’s a beautiful day, but there just aren’t any birds. At Bull Gap, more Blackburnian Warblers reward my search, or maybe taunt me with what might have been, with the right confluence of season and weather. I head down to Interstate 40 and start toward home, reminded of the unpredictableness of spring migration and knowing, in birding as in baseball, that there’s always next year.

Maybe I shouldn’t have expected too much from this quick visit. Before my trip I’d called a North Carolina birder, who sighed when I asked him about good migration spots around Asheville. “Ah, yes, the legendary ‘river of warblers,’” he said. “We really don’t have days like that. The birds just aren’t there anymore.”

To be honest, my experience with Roger Tory Peterson was a little disappointing, too. He autographed books in the theater lobby after the lecture, and when we met him he was snippy enough to my mother and me that we left with our feelings hurt. My mother was a chatty woman who never met a stranger, and she tried to engage Peterson in conversation, telling him that we used his book all the time and her boy was crazy about birds and had been looking forward to this for so long and… Peterson cut her off, telling her that there were other people in line and that we needed to move on. In the car, she had an explanation for her son. “Well, what do you expect from a Yankee? Those people can’t help it; they just weren’t brought up to be polite the way folks should be, no matter how famous they are.”

I don’t know if my mother knew the word “supercilious,” but I know that her perceptions were influenced by having grown up a country girl in one of the most rural parts of a state that had fought against, and generally yielded to, an inferiority complex for more than a century.

The caveat of blurred memory: was Peterson really rude to us, or did it only seem so relative to my mother’s garrulousness? Were we unthinkingly holding up the line of other people who wanted their books signed, their moment with the author? Had my anticipation of this meeting with a hero grown unrealistically weighty, too much so to stand up to reality? It was a long time ago. My disappointment caused me to begin immediately to block memories of that night, but I know that it stung for a while.

Once I figured out the origin of that dream scene with the leafy, winding road, I never had it again. Kavanaugh Boulevard is just a way to get to the grocery store; the Heights Theater, once the city’s last old-style holdout against multiplexes, was long ago broken up into a bank, an upscale women’s clothing store, and a pizza restaurant.

And yet, decades later, another dream endures. That boyhood obsession was in a very real way responsible for the career I settled into, one that’s taken me from the tropics to the Arctic, from the Andes to the Alps. The infinite wonders of natural history have enriched my life beyond measure, and it all began with Roger Tory Peterson’s illustrations of the familiar companions of a boy’s backyard—and in time there were other field guides, full of birds I dreamed of seeing someday, around a bend in a winding road, somewhere I could only imagine.

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