Julie Zickefoose: Nature Artist & Writer
A Room With a View
It started in New Jersey, in 1991, this notion of building a bird tower. Bill and I weren't even officially courting, just seeing as much as we could of each other across the miles between his noisy apartment in Baltimore and my tiny cottage in the Connecticut woods. I was slated to give a program on bird painting at The Wetlands Institute, and Bill came up to listen. With time to kill the afternoon before, and the institute's visitor center closed, we climbed the spiral staircase to a glassed-in square room. It seemed all New Jersey's salt marsh lay spread out below us. We could peek into an active osprey nest, spy on feeding yellowlegs, scan for ducks in the channels. Heaven on earth. The tower gave a completely different perspective on what was otherwise a flat and inaccessible landscape. Bill took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, "Someday, Zick, you and I are going to have a house with a tower like this."
Had I been a hen turkey, and Bill a displaying gobbler, I'd have preened absentmindedly behind a wing, pecked at a seedhead, and walked slowly off, leaving him to his bombastic, but undeniably alluring, display. Being a human, I returned his gaze, smiled, and thought, "What a dreamer! Wonder if he's a Pisces?"
And yet ... I remembered that moment, and every once in a while I'd pull it out and turn it over, like a pretty stone in my hand. I've always been unable to visualize where life might take me in the next year, much less the next decade, being content to be led by events into the next passage. An introvert, working happily away at my drawing and writing, not seeing much beyond the next deadline. Visualizing, on the other hand, is Bill's reason for being; he's always dreaming up the next big thing he'd love to do. We're an interesting match; he's a rocketship, I give new meaning to the term "ball and chain."
By that fall, I was with Bill in northern Maryland, and by the winter of 1992, we had been looking for nine months for a property in southern Ohio, where he could be close to his work (as editor of Bird Watcher's Digest). Before making another move, I made Bill promise that we'd find a place that had both bluebirds and hummingbirds, with enough land to grow gardens and meadows of wildflowers. A livable house would be nice, too. Bill looked worried, and offered me a diamond instead. My thoughts sprang to Canadian songwriter Bruce Cockburn's verse:
All the diamonds in the world
That mean anything to me
Are conjured up by wind and
Sparkling on the sea
Sorry, dear. Bluebirds and hummingbirds and land.
We took dispiriting rides with realtors who just didn't get it. Not a few trees, then a ring of neighbors' houses. Land. Lots of it.
Not a mobile home perched on a hillside over a highway. A house. Not a bulldozed, cut-over, grazed-over gully. Woods. Not starlings. Bluebirds. It seemed we'd never find a haven, but we weren't about to settle for less.
We heard through a friend of a house on 40 acres, 18 miles out of town, that might hit the market before long.
As we topped a hill and saw the property, we knew we'd found it. The place by which all others would now be measured, the one that we wanted. We'd seen enough that we didn't want, to know it when we saw it. Being a pessimist, my heart leapt, then sank. We'd never be able to afford it. Bill's simply leapt. He saw us on the deck on a spring morning, watching warblers in the old orchard.
Negotiations followed. Months passed. We borrowed. We prayed. We closed. Two years passed, and we bought 40 more acres, to link with a neighbor's protected, 80-acre parcel. We painted the chocolate-brown house, a 14-year-old raised ranch, pale sage green, and it simply melted into the meadow.
The meadow, for its part, had been mown, all 12 acres of it, three times each season, and it was about as interesting, floristically, as a lawn. That, we let go for three seasons, until some forbs and wildflowers invaded the grasses. Easy enough. From then on, we coaxed the cranky pimiento-red 1954 Massey-Ferguson tractor that had come with the place to help us keep it in check. Bill learned a lot about tractor maintenance in a short time. His pronouncement, on a sunny Saturday morning, that he will "go mow a bit of the meadow" is almost always followed by an hour or two of hopeful-sounding engine rumbles, clouds of blue exhaust, clinking of tools, and blue air. Once he gets it started, though, he's a fine sight as he tools around the place, in a torn white shirt and wide-brimmed straw hat, with a big cigar poking out from under it. He mows it standing up, the better to see any box turtles who might be crossing, and he comes back with a full report of age, physical condition, and sex of any he rescues.
A pastiche of woodland and orchard and meadow, the old farm gives snapshots of many different stages in the succession from field to forest. As such, it's alive with birds, many of them dependent on those varying successional stages. Early spring finds up to six woodcock whirling and twittering above the mown meadow. On summer evenings, yellow-breasted chats launch their rude-sounding flight songs from one briar patch to another. Towhees cheer from the sumac-strewn edges, and I sometimes find their jewel-like nests hidden in the clay banks. Indigo buntings fuss and fight and weave ill-concealed nests of grape bark and grasses among the brambles.
Deeper in the young woods, Kentucky and hooded warblers haunt the pole groves of young tulips, with their understory of smilax. In the older sections of woodland, redstarts, ovenbirds, black-and-white warblers, and cerulean warblers flit among the oaks and maples. A Louisiana waterthrush graces the intermittent stream each spring, and in wetter years, nests successfully. One year, a pair of pine warblers built a fluff-lined nest in our growing grove of tall Virginia pines, making a year total of 13 species of nesting warblers on our 80 acres. What more could a nonmaterial girl need?
In a word, space. As a naturalist and painter, I have always had an embarrassment of, well, stuff, that I move around with me and use for my work. All this equipment was crammed into a small bedroom, along with three bird cages and a jungle gym for my macaw. When visitors came, the studio door was the first one I closed. "So this is where it all happens?" they'd ask, with barely concealed incredulity, as Charlie took swipes at them with his wicked beak from his tightrope dangling just overhead. Embarrassing, but true. I needed a studio, badly, one I could turn around and walk in, with a separate room for the birds. And this time, I was the one with the dream.
Bill and I started to talk with architect and friend Richard Anderson about an addition to the house. A year later, we had some computer-generated sketches from him that showed a master bedroom/bath suite, topped with a studio, topped with a tower much like the one we'd admired in New Jersey. And a cost estimate, that threatened to bring our high-falutin' dream down with a crashing thud. We learned lots of things about home additions that we hadn't known. For instance, the two most expensive things to build are stairs and windows. Who'd have thought glass and stairs would be so expensive? How can you construct a bird-watching tower without them? (You can't.)
There came a moment in the pricing phase when Dan Harrison, our contractor, asked us if we would consider building the addition without the tower. He felt he had to warn us that it would be very costly, and add only questionably to the resale value of the house. Buyers looked for nice kitchens and bathrooms; most people aren't in the market for a bird-watching tower. I didn't need to look at Bill to know the look he had in his eyes. "The studio is Julie's dream. The tower is mine. We'll find a way to build it." At that point, I realized that the difference between a dreamer and a visionary may be in the size of the bank loan he is willing to take out. We reasoned that, with interest rates below 7 percent, we may as well assume debt now as later, and try to bring our addition from paper to block and wood while we were still young enough to enjoy it. A similarly difficult realization was that we would be in our mid-70s before it was paid off – just in time to install lifts in the tower stairways.
While Richard's drawings evolved and took form, new life was beginning inside me. By July 12, when the first backhoe arrived to scoop out a foundation, I was five months pregnant with a little brother for three-year-old Phoebe. The countdown began. Who'd finish first, me or the work crews?
A peculiar feeling it was, to see my flower and vegetable gardens excavated away for the new addition. For years I'd cherished my shady north bed, awash in columbines and coral bells, ferns and delphiniums, abuzz with hummingbirds. It all had to go, and I had nowhere to put it, for blazing sun baked all other sides of the house. Still, I dug and wept and tried to save a few plants, puffing with exertion, even as the backhoe growled nearby. The lush yard quickly took on the aspect of a moonscape, with every blade of grass crushed to powder under the heavy equipment. I wasn't expecting this. In a fit of need, I scattered six bags of "instant meadow," the cheapest I could find, on the newly disturbed earth, and roped off a parcel to be left untrampled, where I could see it from the kitchen window. Those modest poppies and bachelor's buttons reminded me that beauty would once again reign someday, when all the equipment had rumbled away.
Our foreman, Tom Morrison, took a special interest in the addition; he'd spied the plans in the construction office and demanded to be put in charge of the project. He wanted to build a tower. The day we met, he shyly scuffed his boot in the dust and said, "Pardon my language, ma'am, but this is going to be one hell of an addition." Tom swiftly became a dear friend and confidante, the "ma'ams" fell by the wayside, and we laughed about that opening line as the hot summer rolled by. I grew accustomed to the roar of equipment, and hooked on the camaraderie I enjoyed with the crew. As my belly swelled, even Tom began to regard me as one might eye a ticking time bomb, and he fretted about our completion schedule, and my increasingly precarious ascents to take in the view at the top of the tower. For my part, I basked in the knowledge that, if need be, I could get my ride to the hospital in any one of several pickup trucks, with a nice strong man at the wheel.
The tower was taking shape. It would have one level that was all glass, heated and air-conditioned, a 10 x 10 room where we could view the property year-round. This would be accessed through a trapdoor that, once we'd gained entry to the room, could be closed and walked on, to maximize the usable floor space in the glassed-in room. Atop the glassed-in room would be a roof deck, protected by a waist-high wall, that we could climb out on for a dose of fresh air and eye-level looks at flying birds. This would be accessed by a folding attic stair, and a roof hatch that could be closed and walked on. The architect's thought process and the construction ingenuity that went into this feature are hardly given justice here. The folding stairs cascade down from the hatch with barely an inch clearance from the wall, and disappear back up into the ceiling of the glass room. We have access to the roof without having to live around a permanent set of stairs.
One August evening, early in construction, Bill put the ladders up, handed Phoebe up to me, and climbed out on the roughed-in structure, some 40 feet above the ground. For a long time we sat awestruck. This was high, dizzyingly high. We looked down on the roof of the original house, out over the chimney, and to a 360-degree panorama of woodland and meadow and distant, blue hills. A pair of great blue herons rowed over in the dying light, croaking hoarsely. We'd never have seen them from the old deck. Bill's eyes lit up, and he wrapped his arms around me and little Phoebe, as we watched the sun sink behind indigo trees. We would have our tower, after all, and the birds would come to us.
Through the scorching summer and into the welcome coolness of fall the crew worked, and finally the walls were painted, the tile went in in the bath and foyer, the water was hooked up, the light fixtures arrived--the finishing touches that make a shell into a home. In part as a money-saving move, and in part because I'd always wanted to do it, I decided to paint the plywood of my studio floor in a spatter of favorite colors. Over a rolled-on base coat of dolphin gray industrial enamel, I flung brushfuls of Corsican purple, banana yellow, and masterpiece tan. In my compromised condition, I found it necessary to grunt loudly, kung-fu style, as I flung each heavy brushload of paint across the floor, and the more vigor I gave it, the better the droozly spatters looked.
It is a dream studio, with room for my huge ficus trees, track lighting, a computer table with a brand-new iMac that's much smarter and more polite than I am, my copier, fax machine, light table, all lined up handy by the drawing board. Charlie the macaw is ensconced in an attached room, separated, when need be, by sliding glass doors, but usually roaming the studio while I'm working. I'm now convinced that in order to live peacefully with a loud-mouthed, very messy, and endlessly amusing macaw for its considerable life span, sliding glass doors are required equipment.
Outside, gray birches are festooned all day with goldfinches, cardinals, and bluebirds, and the deer come shyly each afternoon to feed on the young ryegrass we planted.
Harrison Construction won the race with baby Liam. The crews had been gone a week when I took myself to the new bathtub. I lit a candle, stared into it in the dark, and reflected on the realization of our dream, on the dizzying speed with which it had all rolled out. July to November, and it was done. It was the first time I'd taken the time to lie down, other than to sleep, in all the hubbub of moving into the new addition and seeing to the finishing touches. I felt the enormous, roiling energy that had been churning away in me all summer circle, then lie down for a rest.
Warm, safe, and still, I floated, and when I finally struggled up out of the tub and upstairs to the kitchen, Liam decided it was time to enter the world. Pulling a half-gallon of ice cream out of the freezer, I sat down, began to eat, and drew up a list of telephone numbers to call when he'd finally arrived. Bill wandered in and regarded me. "Labor's started," I commented, in between spoonfuls of ice cream. "Why are you eating ice cream?" he demanded. "Because they won't give it to me once I get to the hospital, and I happen to want it." "Aren't you going to call the midwife?" "Eventually," I said, flipping Rolodex cards. "I like it better here than in the hospital, so why spend any more time there than we have to?"
Bill charged to the bookshelf and began pulling down pregnancy and childbirth references. He dithered about me for awhile, until he could see that nothing was going to happen until my call list, and the half-gallon, were finished. Then he went to the bedroom to assemble the new crib we'd bought, in a fit of last-minute nesting, just the day before. Two and a half hours later, I was finally ready to head for town. At the stroke of midnight, we climbed into the car, and Liam, with his tiny rosebud mouth and fine fuzz of champagne blonde hair, was in our arms by daylight.
As winter drew on, the tower room was a fine place to nurse Liam, rocking in an old chair, the sun streaming in on us. He'd konk out, and I'd let the monitor babysit him as he basked on the sun-strewn carpet. I could gaze out at the herd of 10 deer who wander up into the yard every afternoon, or spy on wild turkeys as they clambered after grapes and smilax berries.
For towertop, Bill came up with some ingenious cabinet doors in the walls of the roof deck, where we could store folding chairs, field guides, and snacks for tower birding. Electrical and phone outlets added to the comfort. A cheap home intercom allows Bill to radio down his sightings to the kitchen-bound cook, and give me odds on whether I'll be able to make it to the top before the bird quits the premises.
Columbus Day found us doing a Big Sit with friends, the tower top as our count circle, sharing beef stew, chili, chips, oatmeal raisin cookies, and Tums. Fifty-one species of birds winged over or around the tower that day, a new tower record, with fine looks at several species of warblers in the tops of the gray birches we'd planted all around the yard. The tower acts as a blind, with birds conducting their business all around and below without paying much mind to lofty observers. With the height advantage, we can see far into the old orchard and woods, and we pick up species we'd never see from the ground.
Watching fall warblers, vireos, and tanagers, aided by two scopes, was superb. Fall also brought us breathtaking looks at raptors on migration, with an adult peregrine burning by, mustaches blazing, leaving us open-mouthed in wonder. The foliage changed hour by hour, and every time we climbed the tower, another patch of trees was in blazing color. With spring came budpop, fine filmy hazes of pink and green and yellow drifting over the valleys. Birdsong seems amplified somehow as it floats up to us, and we can spot songsters from amazing distances.
Again and again we marvel at the birds we see from the tower that we'd never have noticed from the ground. Looking down on flying birds, or seeing them at eye level, aids identification in unique ways. On a fine late March morning, Bill and I stole a few moments to watch the first yellow-rumped warblers and brown thrashers try their songs in the orchard. "We're going to see a Eurasian collared-dove from here," Bill predicted. "They're turning up all over the place." I didn't reply, but thought to myself, "Now why would a collared-dove show up here, of all places?" (I never stop questioning his insight; it's just part of the marriage game.) The next morning, after a sleepless night, Bill urged me to get some fresh air. "Somebody's got to see what's flying over this morning, and you need it," he said, shouldering fussy Liam. Feeling grateful, I escaped to the top. Not five minutes passed, and a big, pale, long-tailed dove came pumping in from the east, its wingbeats slow and irregular. Awestruck, I watched it veer to come just below eye-level, over the roof of the house, within a stone's throw of me. An inky black collar marked its hindneck; a red eye glinted, and the sun hit its smooth, blue-gray back. Looking down on it was surely the best way to clinch our first Eurasian collared-dove. I was more than a little spooked as I rushed down the stairs to confirm yet another of Bill's predictions, and I resolved to believe him the next time he made one!
No one could have predicted the next sighting, only four days later. Watching a group of feeding turkeys on a distant hill, we were startled to hear them explode in loud putts of alarm, and scatter in every direction. A huge raptor rose up from its dive over them, trailing a gaggle of crows behind it. A white tail with a dark terminal band; white "silver dollars" in the wings, shining golden neck hackles: our first Ohio golden eagle. Hooting like hyenas, Bill and I watched it mount into the sky and begin a leisurely circling pattern right over the tower, as curious, perhaps, about us as we were about it. Despite my entreaties to him to stay and enjoy the view, Bill tore down three flights of stairs, grabbed the video camera, and committed the spectacle to film. As often as we've replayed it, we still can hardly believe we saw that beautiful young eagle.
We've learned a lot about the daily movements of familiar feeder birds. I'd always wondered if the pair of hairy woodpeckers who live a quarter-mile distant on the southwest corner of our land was the same pair that used our feeders. I suspected that even an 80-acre parcel might hold but one pair of hairy woodpeckers. This spring, that question was answered, as we heard a male hairy rattle, spotted his tiny form in the top of a poplar on the southwest corner, and watched him make a quarter-mile beeline for the feeders just below the tower. Now, when I see the pair as I make my rounds deep in the woods, I greet them warmly, and they squeak back to me, knowing, I feel sure, that I am the Peanut Lady they watch for every morning.
For Bill and me, building the tower was a new way to connect with our beloved land. When we bring guests to its top, and hear their gasps of delight (and occasionally fear), we're reminded anew that this view, these bird-watching opportunities, were always there. It simply remained to us to access them. We knew the steep wooded valleys were beautiful, clothed in diverse trees, and alive with birds. We knew that peregrines flew over occasionally, that red-shouldered hawks screamed and cartwheeled on the north border, that kestrels streaked past in the fall, that meadowlarks sang from budding maples. Now we can see them whenever we want. It's all there below us, like a map suddenly unfolded, a vision realized. We can collapse in our folding chairs and watch the sun down to its rest; lie on our backs, gazing up, as Perseus hurls his sparkling diamonds into the August night. Such are the rewards of marrying a visionary.