Open Mic: Remembering my Mentor
by Nate Swick
AT THE MIC: Greg Neise
Photographer Greg Neise, of Chicago, Illinois, has supplied images to National Geographic, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He administers the North American Birding Forum and writes at the North American Birding Blog.
My earliest memories—the nebulous, misty-hazy thoughts that dreams sometimes pull up—involve animals. I don’t have any real, solid memories from before the spring of 1972. I was born in Beverly Hills, California, nine years earlier. The first of three tow-headed boys that an actor and a dancer had while they were together. I lived there for seven years, but don’t really remember any of it…just vignettes. In 1970 we moved to Chicago. I’ve seen pictures of myself in that first year or so in ChiTown, but there’s nothing that I have a substantial memory of.
The actor and the dancer weren’t really prepared to have children, and certainly not three boys. They rapidly became rather violent, abusive alcoholics, and pretty soon the actor took off. The dancer tried, but couldn’t make it work. With the true object of her anger removed, she turned to the bottle more.
A big part of why I got so into birding was to be out of the house. In spring of 1972, one of the local birding clubs had begun walks three days a week in the park directly across the street from our apartment. I was there for every one. By spring of 1973, when I turned 10 years old, I was hooked. Studying animals, particularly birds, was all that mattered.
A few blocks from the apartment stood a massive, wonderful building: The Chicago Academy of Sciences. One day, in my quest to stay away from home after school, I climbed the mountainous front steps and my life changed forever. It was a cold midwinter afternoon and the museum was empty except for staff. The lobby had a small set of gift counters and between the staircases that led to a presentation landing before reaching the second floor, was a diorama depicting life in a carboniferous forest. It had a giant dragonfly perched on an elm-sized horsetail. The lobby ceiling was painted to look like a bright autumn sky with dozens of migrating birds soaring overhead.
It was love at first sight.
On the steps between the first and second floors, scaffolding had been erected and an older man was painting the wall. Not with a roller and a bucket. He was creating—freehand—the unbelievable murals that were the gems of Chicago Academy of Sciences. I sat there for over an hour and watched him paint. He took a break and noticing me sitting on the steps, climbed down and introduced himself. His name was Dr. William Beecher. He was an ornithologist, artist, inventor and director of the museum.
From that day forward, I went straight to the museum after school. On most days, I found Dr. Beecher on the scaffolding and we would talk while he worked. He quickly discovered my ravenous appetite for all things relating to birds and we soon became fast friends. After a few weeks of this, Beecher had asked questions around the neighborhood, and took a walk to meet my mother. I think it was fairly apparent that the situation at home was rather rough, and before I knew it, Dr. B had taken me under his wing.
I was given an after-school job at the museum. I learned photography and how to work a darkroom, illustration and taxidermy. Dr. B made a point of introducing me to his many visitors, including the president of Kenya and Roger Tory Peterson. When I met Peterson, Beecher was telling him about my passion for birding and described me to the Father of Field Guides as “sharp as a tack”. I was glowing.
Soon I met his best friends, William Jarvis and the two Kathies. Almost every week, the five of us would pile into Mr. Jarvis’ huge Cadillac sedan and we’d spend a day in the field. We weren’t just birding, we were naturalising. Everything was under inspection, from the plants and insects to the herps and mammals…and of course, the birds. I soon became addicted to taxonomy. Everything had a name and I wanted to know its name. I kept lists of all of the things I’d seen, with the locations and dates that I first encountered them: I had a wildflower list, a tree list, an insect list, lichen list and on and on.
We’d stop for lunch and out of the trunk came a cooler and a hibachi grill. Steaks or chicken and a beer for the adults. Burger and a Coke for me. Mr. Jarvis would call up Barred Owls by hootin’ for them. Kathy and Kathy knew the names of every flower, and the mushrooms too. Dr. Beecher was always testing his optics, especially the 1250mm mirror lens that was his trademark. In the middle of it all was me, pores wide open, soaking up every bit of knowledge that came flying my way during our excursions.
It all but consumed me. Learning natural history was all that mattered. If I wasn’t at the museum, I was out birding. Things started to get difficult at school…I simply didn’t care about it any more. Add to that the fact that I’m dyslexic and simply cannot do math—school became very troublesome. As I got older and went into high school, I really didn’t have anything in common with the other kids and days at school became a sentence. I just had to make it through each day until the bell rang and I was free to go to the museum.
Then came a day when my life took another hard turn. I was called to the principal’s office, and it was laid on the line. I could either buck up and do the bread-and-butter or I could ship out. The principal had intended this as a kind of “scared straight” tactic. But it had exactly the opposite effect. I left immediately.
I was free! I practically ran to the museum. I could now work at the Academy full time. Life was grand indeed.
When I got there, the receptionist shook her head and glared at me. My stomach somersaulted. Something was very wrong. The door to Dr. Beecher’s office stood open, and I went to stick my nose in and say hi, like I did every day. The principal was a friend of Beecher’s and had called him the minute I left his office.
Dr. Beecher was famous for many things, among them his legendary temper. I had seen it in action, but never directed at me—until that moment. He was beyond angry. He was disgusted. He had plans for me, and I broke his heart. I panicked and fled, never to return.
Our family continued ripping apart. By 1980 we were living on welfare, in a gang-infested neighborhood on the near west side. I left home just before my 17th birthday, and spent the next few years doing whatever I could. I was the guy behind the bullet-proof glass at the gas station from midnight to 7 am. I delivered firewood. Worked on a loading dock and at a couple of pet shops. I shared an apartment with a good friend’s older brother and was soon mixed up with drugs, gangs and before I knew it, I was dealing for some people who still scare me to this day.
But there was always a touchstone. Birds. It was always that little bit of solid ground when the world had turned to quicksand.
My roommate and friends started to make good-natured fun of my love of birds, and the hours I spent painting them. Then it wasn’t so good-natured and began to turn violent. I left that situation, winding up in a tiny town in Colorado. More odd jobs: delivering newspapers, grooming ski trails, working at a stables. For a short while I worked for the artist Eric Johnson, cutting marble blocks that he would make into wonderful sculptures. But the economy in Colorado in the mid 80s took a hit, and I wound up homeless, sleeping in the Redstone laundromat.
Blue-winged Teal. Watercolor by Greg Neise, 1984.
But I was still birding. I had lost practically everything, but I still had my binoculars and a field guide. I met some good people while birding in Colorado, and things started slowly to turn my way. More than once, birding probably saved my life.
Obviously, eventually I made my way back to Chicago and started over. Ten years after the day I fled the Academy, I was birding in Lincoln Park on a blustery October morning. Across a ravine, I saw Dr. Beecher out photographing birds with his giant mirror lens. I walked over to say hi. He didn’t recognize me. Well, I didn’t recognize me either. I was taller, very lean and had one of those wild beards that only a guy in his mid 20s can grow. When I introduced myself, Dr. B laughed so hard his eyes disappeared.
We spent the rest of the day birding together and wound up at the old hawk watch site at the south end of Illinois Beach State Park. We sat there for two or three hours watching Peregrines and Merlins zip by, catching up on my “adventure”. At one point Dr. Beecher called a Broad-winged Hawk a Peregrine, and I gently corrected him.
Dr. William J. Beecher, 1914–2002 (Photo taken in the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Chicago Academy of Sciences.)
He chuckled and patted me on the shoulder. “Still sharp as a tack”, he said.
You could have powered the entire north shore with the energy radiating from me at that moment. Nothing meant more to me than praise from Dr. Beecher, and nothing ever will.