Another "Ivory-bills Live" interview is finally here, this time with the author of "Ghost Birds" (a book I highly recommend), naturalist Stephen Lyn Bales. I very much enjoyed Stephen's answers to my questions, and think you will too:
1. CT: For those readers who aren't familiar with you can you say a little about your background and credentials, and what brought you to the James Tanner story?
SLB: I'm a naturalist at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tennessee, a member of the local chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOC) and a nature writer. Nancy Tanner is a member of Ijams and TOC; I've known her for years. In the fall of 2005, I was finishing the manuscript for my first book Natural Histories for UT Press and having lunch one day with Nancy when conversation drifted to her late husband Jim. Stories about Tanner and his search have fascinated me for years and all of a sudden I realized I should attempt a book about his ivory-bill studies and asked Nancy to help me. Such is the way that these projects usually begin.
But before you write a book, you have to find a publisher. I had been already working with UT Press, I approached them and they gave me the go ahead. Since, Jim Tanner taught at UT for over 30 years, it seemed like a natural fit.
2. CT: Your book puts a little more "flesh" on several of the names long associated with the Ivory-bill story. I particularly found the portrait of J.J. Kuhn interesting, almost semi-heroic. Besides Tanner which other figures did you develop a special admiration or respect for from your research?
SLB: Albert Brand’s story is tragic. A self-made man, he was able to retire from his first career as a stockbroker when he was only 39-years-old and begin a second career as an ornithologist. As a student at Cornell he developed an interest in the fledgling science of recording birdsong, which led him to publish two pioneering books, Songs of Wild Birds, which included two small 78-rpm phonograph disks and, in 1936, More Songs of Wild Birds, containing three disks and 43 bird songs. (I have a copy of the second.)
Because Brand had money, he helped plan and finance the 1935 Cornell Expedition and would have accompanied Allen, Kellogg and Tanner all the way but his health collapsed. That must have been heart breaking, to be on the threshold of such a great adventure, and not be able to go. Brand’s name perhaps would have become synonymous with recorded birdsong, he was already on the forefront, had he lived to complete other projects but his health never improved and he died of kidney disease on March 28, 1940. He was only 51-years-old.
3. CT: Your discovery (with Nancy Tanner) of additional photos of "Sonny Boy," the juvenile Ivory-bill, received a lot of publicity. Other than that, what were the most unusual or surprising findings you made in the course of researching the book?
SLB: Without a doubt, Jim’s 400-page field journal. Tanner donated it to Cornell a few years before he died in 1991. (Twenty years ago this month.) Most of it was handwritten, notes and maps he scribbled in the field or after a long day in the swamp. His handwriting wasn’t always easy to read, but I worked my way through it one page at a time and really felt I relived his peregrinations with him.
4. CT: Even given a 3-year period and all of his skills, with so much time spent at the Singer Tract and in Ithaca, NY., I've always found it difficult to imagine how Tanner could have adequately searched the rest of the Southeast for hideouts of the Ivory-bill. From your study can you say what level of confidence you have that he sufficiently explored all areas to reach the final conclusions he did?
SLB: He actually spent very little time in Ithaca those three years. Tanner put in long days on the road, month after month. I think it is safe to say he did everything humanly possible for one man to do, up before daylight and out all day until dark plus he had to pack in supplies to wherever he was at the time.
I do think his assignment was too broad and his time-frame too brief. He was asked to 1) Learn all that could be discovered about the historic range of the ivory-bill, 2) Discover where they still could be found, 3) Study the ecology of the species: what was its favorite foods, how did it raise its young, where did it nest and roost, what kinds of trees did if prefer, in short, learn everything possible about its life history. All in three years. This put him constantly at cross-purposes and must have pulled him apart, having to first: stay in one place observing ivory-bills and second: travel extensively throughout the Gulf Coast states searching as many locations as possible. If such a study were commissioned today, ten or more people would be assigned to the task.
5. CT: Your book focuses on Tanner's 3-year study in the late 1930s, but he didn't pass away until 1991. Can you say a little more about what his involvement was with Ivory-bill claims over the last 50 years of his life?
SLB: Books are assigned parameters by editors. My contract called for a manuscript of no more than 300 pages, 85 percent of which about Tanner’s field years. This gave me a time-frame of 1935 to 1941. But I know that Tanner remained outdoorsy after the war, explored the nearby Smoky Mountains constantly for birds, albeit not ivory-bills. He did take many canoe trips down the same rivers and others in the South during his vacations. On these, he was always searching for signs of IBWOs.
6. CT: A little more specifically, I've previously referenced (on my blog) Herb Stoddard's claims for IBWOs in Georgia. Did your research indicate whatever thoughts Tanner may have held towards Stoddard's claims? Or how about his attitude toward John Dennis, another IBWO claimant well past the 1940's, who more clearly seemed to feel some friction with Tanner (and others)? In short, were there any (U.S.) claims in the last 40-or-so years of his life that particularly excited Tanner as to a possibility for IBWO persistence?
SLB: Since my project became defined by the dates 1935 to 1941, I only concentrated of those years of his notes and letters. I was also under deadline, so I had to really focus on that time period. I do not have copies of his notes and letters dated after 1941; the originals should be at Cornell with the rest of his papers. The Tanner/Dennis friction is unfortunate. From what I have read about both men they are very similar. Both believed in spending long hours in the field. The truth is out there; go find it. James Tanner the professor always required his students to spend more time in the field than in the classroom or lab. He was no PhD snob. If he was on campus, his office door was open. Any student could stop by for advice at any time.
I think Tanner always hoped that someone would someday find living ivory-bills that he could go and observe. He was much too humble a man to let his ego stand in the way of the delight of seeing the species once again wherever it was found. What a thrill that would have been for him. In January 1968, after the Dennis report surfaced, Jim returned to the Big Thicket in Texas with Paul Sykes of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Almost 30 years after his initial visit, they found no feeding sign, good habitat or credible substantiating reports. Jim’s belief that the species was not in the area remained unchanged. Tanner and Dennis just simply disagreed. I’m a Colts’ fan; I have a close friend that’s a Packers’ fan. We just agree to disagree.
7. CT: What, if any plans, are in the works for a paperback version of the book? Also, any possibility of a movie (documentary) version of the volume, possibly for TV if not the big screen?
SLB: Once a manuscript is turned into the publisher, it’s out of his hands. From that point on, the book belongs to the publisher. They own it. Whatever happens next is up to them. I assume if the hardback sells well enough, they may produce a paperback. But sometimes that can take years.
8. CT: Are you planning or working on a new book project now?
Writing a book is a long, tedious process, hours and hours and hours. Since I have a day job, I write early in the morning, at nights, on weekends and use vacation days. For every hour you put in, that’s an hour you do not get to spend with your family, or hike a trail in the Smokies, or repair that leaky gutter over the front porch. I’ve spent much of my free time the past seven years writing the two books. That’s a lot of hours. But once you become an author, and understand how the process works, I suppose you are always thinking about other projects. I’m sure I’ll write a third, I’m just not sure what or when. I’ve been pulling together material for a sequel to Natural Histories, but here again, I have to find a publisher willing to give me the go ahead before I commit myself to the long hours to would require to complete.
9. CT: Is there anything else you would want my readers to know about the Ivory-bill story from your vantage point and research?
SLB: It’s a wonderful, bittersweet story, a story of hope and of sorrow. It’s obtained a mythical standing. I feel honored to have been able to flesh out in more detail, one of its chapters: Jim’s story.
Unless you have actually seen an ivory-bill recently, you have to wonder: Is it extinct or not? As I write in my preface, “And there the magnificent bird teeters, one zygodactyl foot in the here and now, the other in the hereafter. For over one hundred years, the grave has been dug, but no one can confidently fill it in. Dressed in black, we stand around the gravesite with no final corpse to bury.” Let’s hope there never is a final corpse. No Martha the last known passenger pigeon, or Incas the last known Carolina parakeet.
You often see the word “hope” associated with the ivory-bill. We all hope it’s still tucked away out there. Scott Weidensaul’s book The Ghost with Trembling Wings is filled with such stories. I’ve spoken to many people who feel they have seen it. Their stories are very believable. As Tanner would say, “If your observations do not match the books, go with your observations.” But getting the evidence to convince others is how science works. We all wait for that truly non-contestable photo. We’ll all breathe a sigh of relief and do back flips when it appears.
Jim Tanner came to believe they were extinct, BUT he hoped he was proved wrong. And he was very sincere in that desire.
CT: Thank you Mr. Bales for your illuminating answers here, and giving the birding/naturalist community such a wonderful reading experience with your book; wishing you much success in the future.
ADDENDUM: just occurred to me that I should've given a plug to Mr. Bales' own blogs somewhere in this post: