Guest post by Kari Jo Spear, Photographer, Novelist, and Daughter of Bob Spear
“Take a shot in that direction.” My father pointed down toward the brook through some hemlock trees. “Good ruffed grouse territory.”
“Okay,” I said. My job was to take an interesting photo. So I crouched down, trying to get into ruffed grouse mode, going for an eye level perspective. If I was a grouse, I’d lay my eggs right under the trees. Of course, I wasn’t a grouse, and this was another of my father’s crazy attempts to get me into his “carve all the birds in Vermont” project. He thought it would be helpful to have a plastic sleeve hanging from each display case with some facts about the bird and a photo of its nesting habitat. I thought all the leaves and flowers and stuff he was putting in the cases would be enough to clue people in, but he wanted photos, too. Wouldn’t it be nice if I took them?
Well, I liked taking photos, and my father’s fancy Nikon with interchangeable lenses was pretty cool. But nesting habitat was not exactly an exciting subject to photograph. We’d been hiking for hours, and I’d been dutifully taking shots of deciduous trees, evergreens, moss, and even dead stumps. That part wasn’t really so bad. The real problem was that habitat shots had to be taken in the spring when the birds were nesting. The birds needed to take advantage of insects, who were also doing their multiplying thing. Right now, every black fly in Huntington was taking advantage of their favorite food source—me. They didn’t care about my artistic endeavor, they didn’t care that I reeked of insect repellant, and they didn’t care that I was allergic to them. My eyes were going to be puffed shut tomorrow, I knew it.
I am a grouse, I thought. I snapped two more shots down toward the brook, even climbing into the brush to get a nice, curving limb to frame the top.
“Okay,” my father said. “Now I want to go to a farm up the road. There’s a pair of cliff swallows building under the eaves of the barn. We can get barn swallow habitat inside. And all the apple trees are in bloom. They’re real pretty, and they’d be good blue bird habitat.”
Anything to get away from the buggy brook. I swatted my way out of the woods—flies never seemed to bother my father—and scratched my way up the road to an old farm that looked as thought it had been there since the glaciers moved out. I liked the way the buildings nestled into the hillside. Sure enough, there was a small colony of cliff swallows building their funny little jug-like nests under the eaves. I didn’t even ask how my father had known they were there. While he chatted with the farmer, I photographed the eaves, then some rafters inside where some barn swallows were busy irritating the cows, and then I wandered around the apple trees in full bloom and thought about how nice a big bee sting would look right between my puffy eyes. Maybe some poison ivy to set it off. Then I tripped over a branch buried in the new spring grass and landed in a woodchuck hole, twisting my ankle.
My father got the car and drove me home. Fortunately, I wasn’t bleeding—my father was not good with blood—and the camera was okay, so there was no harm done. “An old war horse,” my father said, seeing me looking at it on the seat between us.
I didn’t think he was referring to me. A young warhorse, maybe.
“You may as well keep it,” he added.
“Until next weekend?” I asked, wondering if my ankle would be up to more traipsing around.
He kind of shrugged. “Till whenever. If I need it for something, you can bring it back.”
“Oh,” I said, it slowly sinking in that he’d just given me a really nice camera. On a kind of permanent borrow.
“Might as well take the lenses, too.” I noticed that they were in the back seat. A 300mm lens and a wide angle.
“Thanks,” I said, meaning it.
“It’s a good camera,” he said. And that was that. Then he added, “But we need to get the film developed right away.”
“What’s the rush?”
Right, I thought. The state capital.
“Library,” he added.
“You’re going to carve books next?” I’d believe anything.
He shot me a look. “No. Going to have the carvings there next week.”
“There’s an art gallery upstairs in the library,” he said patiently. We’re going to have a big opening. Newspapers will be there.”
I looked at him, wondering how he’d known how to set up something like this. He’d probably enlisted Gale. He didn’t even look nervous. I’d be frantic.
“We’ve got to start getting people interested in the project, you know,” he went on. “Need to find someplace to house them.”
At the rate he was carving, he wasn’t going to have room to breathe in the shop much longer.
“There’ll be a reception. With food.” He looked at me hopefully.
“Of course I’ll be there,” I said. And not just for the food.
“Good,” he said. And then he smiled, just a little. “It’s upstairs. Your ankle will be better by next weekend, right?”
Of course it would be. Who wouldn’t want to get all hot and sweaty lugging bird cases to an upstairs gallery? I heaved a sigh. I’d never figure out how he managed to talk me into getting deeper and deeper in this project of his.
The next morning, I limped into school with my eyes puffed mostly shut, my arms and legs sunburned and dotted with red spots, and my left ankle wrapped up.
“What happened to you?” my homeroom teacher asked. All around us were kids with honorable injuries, acquired by heroically sliding into home plate or after bursting through a finish line. Everyone turned to me, waiting to hear my glorious tale.
I dropped into my desk with a sigh. “Wood chuck hole.”
Everyone’s eyebrows went up.
I nodded wisely like this was a big deal. Lowering my voice, I said, “Okay. Let me tell you guys about… habitat shots.”
Author’s Note: Visitors to the museum will notice that there are no photographs hanging from any of the cases. My father finally realized, as someone had tried to tell him, that people would get the idea where the birds nested from all the leaves and flowers and stuff in the cases. The habitat shot phase passed quickly, but to this day if I take a photo with no apparent subject, my father will look at it, smile a little, and say, “Looks like a habitat shot to me.”
And I still have the camera, tucked away somewhere safe. Permanent borrow: thirty-five years and counting.