I first saw Rich at a compilation for the Sacramento Christmas Bird Count, the first birding gathering I ever attended. I was a quiet high school kid, a genuine gawky nerd, and had been identifying birds by myself from books for a couple years. Suddenly, among the first birders I met was the best. With great luck, a few weeks later I was off with him on the first of many weekend rambles, enfolded into his tribe.
|Photo courtesy Janet Wessel.|
What a revelation it was to be with someone who identified (and identified with) every bird that we passed as we drove. In the many joyful adventures of the next few years, Rich showed me what a sentient being could be. Every interaction with him in the field taught me that what we see is conditioned much more by our mind than by the quality of our optics or our eyes.
He was my master/teacher/mentor. He quietly put opportunities in my path and receded silently when my path went a direction he himself did not wish to go.
Rich cared deeply about our treatment of the other creatures that share our home on Earth. Environmentalism was environmental justice—sticking up for our brothers and sisters without a voice. His bumpersticker read “Support your Right to Arm Bears.”
|Dave Winkler and Rich Stallcup at the Honey Lake (California) Christmas Bird Count in 1972. Photo courtesy Dave Winkler.|
He was concerned about, and dedicated to, the plight of Mono Lake, and it is with Rich that I first saw the lake. We were on our way to Death Valley in one of those mad Memorial Day weekend desert dashes that we did annually then. We briefly stopped at the lake to gaze out at the gulls and at Negit Island, Rich filling my mind with the first seeds of understanding the magic of the place.
Later, our studies and campaign to save Mono Lake took root. Rich would come through the Mono Basin at unpredictable times, and we were always glad to see him there. But as I grew in that work, and at U.C. Berkeley, as a scientist, I grew away from Rich. I grew more analytical, more focused on data, and into the long traditions and discipline of science—the divorce from personal involvement that objectivity requires. But I never lost my respect or admiration for the fact that Rich was so connected to other creatures that he seemed one of them at least as much as one of us. I was blessed to spend as much time with him as I did—a wild “Cloud Bear” who could speak, who forced me to consider that which I could not see.
Profound Sense of Place
The last time I saw Rich was a handful of years ago. I spent a morning with him on outer Point Reyes, on his home ground. Everywhere I rambled with Rich, he always had the uncanny sense of what odd bird to expect where. His mind was ready with the vibrant possibilities of what his eyes would bring it. But Rich at Point Reyes was different. He had spent so much time there, knew every bush and tree, had memories of birds in each of them, that his blending of mind and seeing came to a fruition that I had seen nowhere else. He embodied such a profound sense of place that he was the Point. In his presence there, I had the sense that he knew what every individual bird was going to be before it was seen.
This was what the connection between human and nature could be. This was a connection that we mongrel immigrants to foreign shores could aspire to—and what many in other cultures, living in and with the land for many generations, take as their birthright. It is what can be achieved by one rare man, in one generation, with focus and skill and devotion to the wild world outside our ken.
This, then, was Rich’s final lesson by example. A paragon relationship to aspire to. A lesson in his way of living, and of being, on the Point.