2013.06.26 Williemow darts back into view


My old friend David Wilamowski makes his way into this space every few years. Every so often we get a rare visit from the man or maybe a phone call from somewhere or a letter addressed from some far-off location.

This time it was a letter from Oregon. The last I knew he was in southern California following a particular bird around the countryside. That's often what WillyMow, as we know him, does. He gets a temporary job studying birds, then lives off the savings for a few months.

"In recent history," he wrote, "I've had several jobs doing bird surveys, mostly with federally listed species such as the marbled murrelet, southwest willow flycatcher, least Bell's vireo, etc."

He didn't need to tell me that—it was the willow flycatcher that I last remembered him studying—but when contact only comes every three or four years, it's hard to keep track of our interpersonal history. 

Actually, our hazy connections are probably a little one-sided. Willy can guess what I've been up to—making newspapers, working all the time. He's only confused about the details of the extended family—"who is where, how many there are, etc."

I would have guessed that he had a birding job, but I wouldn't have known where. I think southeast Oregon is new territory for him. 

"This year (mid-May - late August) I'm doing 'point count' type surveys at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in the Great Basin of southeast Oregon. It's very nice here — an abundance of large mammals and vast open spaces that regularly make me think — Africa!"

I read about the "point count." Stations are established and observers spend a few minutes at each, looking around and listening and recording species present. This is why WillyMow refers to his job as "work" and I know just what he means. Walking around the Great Basin surveying birds is not work; it's a joy.

WillyMow must be about 65 years old now and he's part of a four-person crew of which he is definitely the old guy. He says the crew gets along surprisingly well despite the "almost vast age difference," even though he isn't constantly sending text messages to the others. The other three must spend time talking about—texting about—the strange guy they work with.

They arise by 3:30 every morning, drive to the vicinity of the day's survey, hike 20 to 40 minutes to the site, then spend two to three hours recording every bird observed for population studies. A beautiful location, physical activity, out into the natural world—this is a good job for David Willy.

It's certainly not a permanent job nor does he want it to be.

"For some reason or another, I never stay with a job more than one season," he wrote.

WillyMow leads a life that probably few people would envy. They might think they would like to follow his lead—get out of the office or the factory and go outside to walk—but other realities of his life would set in. He has no place to call home. He has little savings. I wonder if he owns a vehicle now. He has no family other than a brother back in Michigan. His friends are scattered across the country. He has nowhere to go other than the next job or maybe a trip to South America like he's done in the past.

There's also Mexico.

"I plan on going to Oaxaca, Mexico, in early September. Twice in the past seven years I have rented a house and spent the winter in a small village in the mountains north of Oaxaca City. It's a great place. The village is called Lachatao and is a pre-Columbian Zapotec Indian village."

The village borders a large forest preserve (humid pine-oak forest at 7,000 to 8,500 feet) and that's where Willy does his work—hiking and birding. No, it's not for pay. This is just what he does in life—this along with growing a vegetable and flower garden.

His letter includes a statement that surprised me a little: "I'm seriously thinking about trying to live there more or less as a resident." What? Is he about to settle down? Davis, Calif., is the closest to what he would call home over recent years, but he says California is getting too expensive and too crowded.

WillyMow always makes me ponder my life. We're alike in a lot of ways but we've chosen very opposite paths. There are people who are probably still surprised that I'm doing what I'm doing instead of living a life closer to WillyMow's. It’s true, compared to my life when I was in my 20s, I've given up a lot, but I've gained a lot, too. All those things lacking from his life are well placed in mine. Willy follows birds; I follow a wife and three children and now grandchildren.

I won’t say one path is right and one is wrong. I won’t say one of us made a mistake. We just took different routes and we’ll have to sit down and discuss that—if we’re ever in the same place at the same time.