The Ivory-bill has frequently been described as a dweller in dark and gloomy swamps, has been associated with muck and murk, has been called a melancholy bird, but it is not that at all—the Ivory-bill is a dweller of the tree tops and sunshine; it lives in the surroundings as bright as its own plumage."

- James T. Tanner, 1939

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Heavy hearted after Nancy Tanner passes

I first met Nancy Tanner in the early 1990s. We were both members of the local bird club: the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. She was also a regular at Ijams Nature Center where I work. 

In time, I became an invited guest for lunches at her home in South Knoxville. Nancy had a nimble mind and needed to exercise it. A race horse has to run. She loved to converse, tell stories, jokes, unleash a sharp repartee. We'd talk birds, books, magazine articles recently read, current events and sports. And, of course, her Jim.

It was at one of those lunches in October of 2005 that a topic for a book came up. I was just finishing the manuscript for my first book "Natural Histories" published by the University of Tennessee Press. We were talking, as we often did, about her late husband Jim and his Cornell fieldwork in the 1930s on the ivory-billed woodpecker, when I said, "Someone needs to write a book." And after a short pause, I said, "That someone should be me." 

Thus a project was born.

Nancy was the last living person to have a universally accepted sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker. That happened in December 1941. She was with her late husband Jim (James T. Tanner) in the Singer Tract in northeast Louisiana.

Over the past six years, Nancy and I became good friends. For most of that time, I would see or at least talk to her almost weekly.

The first three years: 2006-09, we met to discuss and assembly the piles of reference I needed to copy, absorb. Over time, I assembled three-ring binders of material, not knowing exacting what I would need when I actually sat down to write. Pulling together a book is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle except all the pieces do not come in one box. They are scattered helter-skelter. But, in time, the pieces just slowly fall into place.

Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, 1935-1941 was published by UT in the fall of 2010. It was followed by an article in Smithsonian magazine about our research which I penned. 

For the next two years Nancy and I worked to promote the book locally, doing numerous talks and book signings. We developed a playful banter, because she loved to laugh and make me laugh.

She called me her "young friend" and never wanted to talk about health, aches and pains or even aging in general. Those topics were for old people. When you were with Nancy, you were in a match of playful minds. And she used wit the way a fencer uses a foil. En garde. Prêt. Allez. Oh, yes. So true. Touché. Or the way Oscar Wilde used a well turned phrase like a craving knife: "Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them more." At times we both were laughing so hard, all conversation ceased. I always left her feeling better than before I arrived, her vitality and good humor were so contagious.

Her beloved Jim passed away 22 years ago. She couldn't understand divorce because losing her husband had been so painful. Nancy once told me that for five years after he died, she wanted to die too, but when she didn't, she decided she might as well go on living. 

That she did, to the fullest, ten decades of indomitable determination to live each day as a quest. Like the Energizer bunny, she just kept going and going and going.

A week ago, I visited her in a local hospice facility. Her frail body was betraying her strong will. After my lunchtime visit—our last—as I got up to leave, I reached out. She took my hand and clasping it with both of hers, looked deep into my eyes. And with a tone as tender as the moment deemed due, she said, "Good bye love." 

We both knew it was just that. Good bye.

To paraphrase the Belle of Amherst, "Because she did not stop for death, it kindly stopped for her, the carriage held but the two, and immortality." 

After a short illness, Nancy died last Sunday, June 30 just sixteen days after her 96th birthday. 

As a writer, you're taught to avoid clichés, nothing slows down a narrative like a worn out phrase. It's like the gritty build-up on the bottom of a snow ski. But in this case, I hope you forgive me. When God made Nancy, he broke the mold. 

I will miss, miss, miss her dearly.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Nancy Tanner celebrates birthday at Ijams

Photos by Vickie Henderson

Nancy Tanner celebrated her 96th birthday a few days early at last evening's meeting of the Knoxville Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. The meeting was held at Ijams Nature Center.

Nancy is the widow of Jim Tanner. She last saw an ivory-billed woodpecker in December 1941 while with her late husband on a trip to the Singer Track.

Happy Birthday, Nancy!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

French journal Alauda reviews Ghost Birds

Vol. 81, #1, 2013
Alauda is the journal of the Ornithological Society of France. Here's an excerpt:

"Cet ouvrage est écrit dans un style très vivant.  Il relate avec moult détails la vic? quotidienne et la quête scientifique d'un ornithologue conscient des le début de son entreprise que l'espèce charismatique qu'il a choisi de connaitre est vouée a disparaitre sous ses yeux.
Ses efforts pour alerter les autorities et tenter de sauver l'espèce n'ont pu aboutir dans le contexte difficile de la second querre mondiale et a un moment ou il etuit sans doute déjà trop tard.  Voila un récit a lire et méditer sur l'itinéraire d'un ornithologue de XX siècle captive pur une espèce dont lu disparition récente témoigne de la brutalité avec laquelle notre propre espèce truite la nature." - Jean-Marc Pons

Karen Sue translates, "This book is written in a lively style.
The author recounts in great detail the everyday and scientific pursuit of a conscious ornithologist from the beginning of his adventure as the cherished species he has chosen to study is doomed to disappear before his eyes. His efforts to alert authorities and try to save the species were not successful in the difficult context of the second world war and at a time when it was probably already too late. Here is a story to read and meditate on the route of an ornithologist in the twentieth century and the inability of one man to save this species. The Ivory-billed's recent disappearance reflects the brutality with which our own species treats nature."


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Bird Life of Louisiana 1938

The Bird Life of Louisiana, Bulletin 28, produced by the Department of Conservation of the State of Louisiana in 1938 obviously had copies of Tanner's photographs. An unknown artist used them as reference for the cover illustration. 

Inside, the text reads, "Few birds in Louisiana have had so much attention during the past few years as has the Ivory-billed Woodpecker...It formally occupied the bottomland forests of all the southern states, extending then as far north as southern Indiana and North Carolina, but at the present time its numbers have been so greatly reduced that it is confined to a few restricted areas in the wilder parts of a few of the southern states. It is a bird of heavy bottomland forests, and is not so frequently seen on the uplands. Owing to its retiring habits, and the fact that it is dependent on the deep forests for a home, it naturally disappears from areas when the forests are cleared or otherwise destroyed. This accounts for the great contraction of its range during the past 100 years."

The frontispiece for the book was the same illustration by
George Misch Sutton that Jim Tanner used in his book.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Well written account of another tragic disaster

You’ve authored another wonderful book. I thoroughly enjoyed Ghost Birds—a well written account of another tragic disaster thanks to our lovely myopic species. I have never read Tanner’s notes or journals but as I read your book I wondered if he wrote with such an engaging style.

Thank you for writing this book and I eagerly await your next one.

Sam Moore

(Thank you Sam! And I am currently working on the "next one.")

Friday, May 18, 2012

It made me cry at the end of the Afterward.

Ghost Birds, a review

I did a post recently on this amazing book. I had only begun reading it at that time. At its conclusion I have to tell you, it is a fascinating and enjoyable way to spend your reading time! I learned so much about the Ivory-bill but also about other birds and I was swept away by the discovery aspect of Jim Tanner's quest. 

Each trip into swamps and deep forested areas of Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and elsewhere kept me on edge about the possibilities of finding the ghost birds. I was saddened by the widespread deforestation and the lack of understanding that fashion isn't the driving force in our planet! I was saddened by all the specimens that were collected even by experts.  

But, there was so much more to the story, and I loved every page of this well-written and beautiful account! Overall, it was an uplifting and hopeful rendering of an important education and conservation effort told by a wonderful writer and written about a man with a deep understanding and love of birds and of scientific knowledge. It was about a time in our history just prior to WWII when we were becoming more informed and aware of our natural world. I recommend this book to everyone who loves nature!

I just want to tell you how much the book means to me!  It made me cry at the end of the Afterward.  I felt my heart breaking over the "Trees for Tea" and other aspects of the Ivory-bill's death-knell.  And yet there were those glimmers of beautiful hope.  Sightings that may or may not be really true.  And I do believe with all my heart that we NEED that hope as human beings.  It allows all the negative things we have ever done as a race to the plants and animals that surround us to receive a shadow of possible absolution.  

Your writing is wonderful...I can't tell you that enough.  You did indeed have much more of a story to tell than just things about "a woodpecker."  I came to love Jim Tanner.  I would have been so proud to have been one of his students.  Please tell Nancy how much I respect him as a person and as a scientist, and how much I respect her for the person that she is as well

Marie from Tucson (Click here for her blog)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The ivory-bill remains regally beautiful

Since Jim Tanner last saw a living ivory-bill, over 70 years ago, the bird has remained "regally beautiful" either dead or alive.

Yesterday, in an editorial titled "Science and Truth: We’re All in It Together" for The New York Times, Jack Hitt writes:

"THE greatest bird news of our lifetime occurred at the height of the George W. Bush administration. In April 2005, amid a pageant of flags and cabinet ministers in Washington, John Fitzpatrick, the director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, announced that an ivory-billed woodpecker had been spotted for the first time in more than half a century in an Arkansas swamp. 

President Bush pledged millions for habitat restoration. This and hundreds of other papers heralded the news... 

"The weirdest part of the ivory-bill’s resurrection is that if you look back through the past four decades, it turns out the bird has come back to life many times before. The ivory-bill seems to rise like a phoenix at times of environmental anxiety. And each time the sighting has been debunked, and then afterward some great section of wilderness has been declared protected and everyone feels better for a while.

After a 1966 disputed sighting in Texas, 84,550 acres became the Big Thicket National Preserve. When the ivory-bill was sighted/not sighted in a South Carolina swamp in 1971, the outcome was the creation of Congaree National Park. Alex Sanders, who as a member of South Carolina’s House of Representatives fought to preserve the land, told me that when people ask him where the ivory-bill is, he says, “I don’t know where he is now, but I know where he was when we needed him.”

In short, "the ivory-bill is charismatic megafauna, regally beautiful and a natural mascot for fund-raising." Wherever it appears, habitat gets bought and protected. Perhaps remaining a ghost is the Ghost Bird's greatest legacy.

For the rest of the editorial, go to: Science and Truth

Thanks, Gene.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Article highlights Tanner's career post-ivorybill

Bridging the Sciences
Jim Tanner: birdman with a mind for math

Young James T. Tanner arrived at East Tennessee State College (today: University) in September 1940. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians with Buffalo and Cherokee mountains to the south, Tanner must have felt at home on the wooded campus, it looked all the world like his homeland: western New York State. The new biology professor had just finished his PhD in ornithology at Cornell University and was ready for a new challenge. 

Dr. Tanner had also just completed a three year, ground-breaking study and follow-up dissertation on the ivory-billed woodpecker, the famed “Ghost Bird” of the Southern swamps. It was the first such detailed field study of a single species on the verge of extinction; and the first research fellowship funded by the National Audubon Society. With it Tanner set the gold-standard for others to follow.
Shortly after arriving on the Johnson City campus, Tanner met a new assistant professor at the college, fellow New Yorker and Harvard-educated Nancy Sheedy. The two became inseparable, soon fell in love and were married in August one year later. Except for his four year stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Jim and Nancy Tanner lived the rest of their lives together in the Volunteer State. 
In January 1947, Tanner joined the faculty of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, becoming an assistant professor of zoology. At UT, Tanner’s fieldwork continued. One significant early study was a comparison of black-capped and Carolina chickadees, two closely related species that coexist in the Southern Appalachians. His findings were published in The Auk in 1952. In 1953, Tanner was promoted to associate professor at the university and full professor in 1963. After a visit to Mexico with his son David, Tanner published a report the following year in The Auk on the decline and status of the imperial woodpecker, native to the Sierra Madre from northern Sonora to northern Michoacán...

For he rest of my article look in the March/April 2012 issue of The Tennessee Conservationist.