Origami passenger pigeon display at Minnetrista, Ball State U.

Origami passenger pigeon display at Minnetrista, Ball State U.

I have written in an earlier blog how Terri Gorney and I became good friends. The first time we met was at the  Bentley  Historical Library at the University of Michigan when she agreed to drive up to Ann Arbor from her home in Fort Wayne to help me with research on passenger pigeon author William Butts Mershon. Terri has been supportive of Project Passenger Pigeon ever since, sharing info from her own research and helping promote the effort in Northeast Indiana. She is vice president of the Friends of the Limberlost  and works closely with Randy Lehman, site manager of the Limberlost State Historic Site (Geneva, IN). (These efforts celebrate Gene Stratton-Porter, whose novels about the Limberlost Swamp were read by millions of readers throughout the world.) Teri would make a great agent and she put together and coordinated a three venue tour for me in her region from November 8-10.

pp tour ball state 9

The first night’s presentation was at the annual banquet of the local land conservancy, ACRES, an organization that has been preserving land in the region since 1960. They currently hold over 5,700 acres. I had a nice conversation with their executive director, Jason Kissel and the event was well attended. The second talk was at Limberlost. The date corresponded with Terri’s birthday and was close to my mine so the event was something of a birthday party. Most unexpected was the amazing birthday cake created by chef Cary McClure and decorated to look like the cover of A Feathered River. And the third talk was at Ball State University’s beautiful Minnetrista, “a museum for cultural exploration.” Minnestrista means “a gathering place by the water,” in this case the White River. The site takes up forty acres including archival space, display galleries, performance space, and a variety of gardens and natural landscapes. Nearby were three of the remaining Ball Brother mansions, one of which served as my overnight accommodation.

Red-tailed hawk in Adams County.

Red-tailed hawk in Adams County.

On my first full day, Terri gave me a tour of south Adams County. We did not see much in the way of noteworthy birds but Terri’s connection with the Amish provided fascinating insights. Indiana is home to the third largest Amish population in the world and Adams County has the second largest in Indiana, with 47 districts. The Amish, like many other small minorities, dance with modernity, knowing that jettisoning traditions will weaken or destroy their group identity yet recognizing that modern technology can open important opportunities and even save lives. So, on an earlier trip, she showed me a farm house owned and operated by an “English” family (how the Amish refer to others). Local Amish asked if they could install a telephone in the outhouse on the English farm: they acknowledge the importance of that device in reaching emergency services but don’t want it located in a comfortable place where people might be inclined to use it for recreation.

An Amish church service.

An Amish church service.

Randy has reached out to the Amish to see if he can offer programs at Limberlost that they might attend. In the process, Teri and Randy have become friends with an Amish midwife named Sylvia. (When a pregnancy proves problematic, she has no hesitation recommending that patients go to nearby Lutheran Hospital for the more advanced care that is needed.) Over time, a program developed where a remarkable high school-aged student named Alexandra Forsythe, who is passionate about birds and nature, was allowed to teach bird classes in Amish schools. Teri and I visited Sylvia’s home , and it is the first time I have been in an Amish home. Sylvia was not in at the time but I met her husband and daughter.

An Amish steed.

An Amish steed.

I had never been to Ball State University before but I had been in correspondence with Barb Stedman, an English scholar who teaches in the university’s honors program, since at least 2007. In the course of doing research on my book, Of Prairie, Woods, and Waters: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing,. I came across a web site (no longer extant) she created where her students would write accounts of Indiana authors who addressed environmental themes in their work. She had been interested in Project Passenger Pigeon since I first brought it to her attention in spring of 2011. To mark the anniversary she collaborated with Kamal Islam, the university’s ornithologist, in teaching a class on passenger pigeons and the lessons inherent in its story. But this wasn’t all: the students had to create art pieces related to the pigeon, which were displayed at Minnestrata. One student composed a flute piece memorializing the bird; others created a hunting scene with origami pigeons, a net, and bushel filled with the “dead” paper birds. The whole effect was very moving. On display, as well, was the one passenger pigeon that is part of the bird collection.

Passenger pigeon display at Ball State U.

Passenger pigeon display at Ball State U.

I also spent some time with Kamal, for he showed me that bird collection. (His areas of research include the conservation of rare and endangered species, the evolution of mating systems, and the impacts of habitat fragmentation.) There was one individual in particular that received most of our attention. Earlier in the fall (2014), someone had found a dead jaeger along a road not far from Muncie. The bird was presented to Kamal, and he was surprised to see that it was an immature long-tailed jaeger, an oceanic bird that does occasionally show up on inland lakes, but rarely corn fields.

Long-tailed jaeger found near Muncie, IN.

Long-tailed jaeger found near Muncie, IN.

 

Ball State's passenger pigeon class with Professors Barb Stedman and Kamal Islam.

Ball State’s passenger pigeon class with Professors Barb Stedman and Kamal Islam.

 

The humble bungalow where I spent the night at Ball State.

The humble bungalow where I spent the night at Ball State.

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