Editor’s note: Candace Page is a Burlington freelance writer. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
HUNTINGTON – Bob Spear often stood this summer, staring silently at the disaster wrought by a July flood. A rainstorm had ripped a deep ravine outside his Birds of Vermont Museum, destroying the entrance walkway and cutting off access to bird-watching trails in the woods.
Trees tipped precariously over the edge of the ravine, its bottom a tumble of gravel, exposed culverts and debris. Repairs may cost $40,000 or more, money the museum doesn’t have.
“I think it is driving him crazy,” Erin Talmage, the museum’s executive director, said one bright October day. “Bob’s always been the one that if there was a problem, he would go out and fix it himself. Maybe it’s seeing your own mortality — seeing something you can’t fix.”
Bob Spear, self-taught naturalist, woodcarver, environmental activist, museum builder, is 93. His hands are mostly still now, though once they moved almost ceaselessly and rarely were without a tool held by broad, strong fingers.
Those hands built – literally — his little museum in a big brown barn on a dirt road in the hills of Huntington. The site is so far off the tourist track that some visitors find it almost by accident. It contains the 488 birds Spear has carved over 35 years. It holds the cases in which he mounted those birds, most sitting or soaring in a perfect 3-D re-creation of their habitats.
Spear built the barn and the outbuildings around it. He dug the ditches, cleared the trails through the woods, constructed the wooden bridge across the brook. He dug the pond on the hillside to attract water birds, planted apple trees, erected bird feeders.
Over the museum’s 26-year history, dozens of helpers have donated money, run heavy equipment, hammered nails and volunteered to guide visitors. Income from an endowment, the gift of his longtime partner, Gale Lawrence, provides about half the museum’s annual $124,000 budget. Today the museum is an independent non-profit, visited by tourists, bird lovers, elementary school students and college classes studying the diversity of Vermont’s bird life.
But make no mistake, the Birds of Vermont Museum remains a monument to the man who spent much of his life with a block of basswood and a carving knife in his hand or his pocket.
“I started in the 1930s when a parakeet flew into the woodshed on our farm in Colchester,” he said last month. “I still have more birds to carve.”
At 90-plus Spear has acquired a substantial paunch beneath his red flannel shirt. His eyes gleam above the white stubble of a beard. He leans on two walking sticks as he leads visitors through his workshop, where two wooden geese, Canada and snow, sit unfinished on a bench.
In the adjoining gallery, rows of cases hold the finished birds. A ruby-throated hummingbird flits in mid-air sipping from a pink-flushed apple blossom. A peregrine falcon clutches its prey, a blue jay plucked from the air. Golden-crowned kinglets perch above a nest of downy feathers nestled in a fir tree. Each real needle on the tree has been anchored in place with a thread of glue from a hypodermic syringe. The striations on every feather of every bird have been meticulously cut into the wood.
“Look at those mad big eyes!” exclaimed University of Vermont student Sean Breen, stopping to consider a gray jay, the intrepid, bright-eyed bird known for its apparent fearlessness. “We saw one last week in the Northeast Kingdom, but it was flying super fast. It was just a blur.”
It’s Spear’s accuracy as a carver – and the fact that his birds hold still for a visitor’s examination – that brings every student in the required first-year course at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources on a pilgrimage to the museum each year.
“The crazy detail he has gone into, putting birds into their setting, with the carved vegetation – there’s an amazing amount to learn,” says UVM ornithologist Allan Strong.
“It’s the difference between seeing a bird 100 feet away and seeing it from six inches. In the museum you get a truer picture of its color and shape,” said Paul Pelletier of Newington, N.H. Pelletier and his wife had made a detour to visit the museum on a rainy day during their October vacation.
“The quality is astounding,” Pelletier said. “Each bird looks like it is going to fly away. Each one looks like it would take a year to carve.”
In fact, Spear said that in his carving heyday, a small bird might only take him a few hours. Big ones, like the hefty wild turkey, could take hundreds of hours.
Spear left the family farm as a young man, served briefly in the U.S. Navy, then spent 22 years as a technical specialist at General Electric in Burlington. On his lunch break, he would sit in his car and carve life-sized birds. The car floor, according to his daughter Kari, was always covered with shavings.
Spear was an early environmentalist, wrote the first comprehensive guide to Vermont’s birds, co-founded a Vermont chapter of the Audubon Society and campaigned to protect Camels Hump and Victory Bog. In the 1970s he was a founder and the first director of the Green Mountain Audubon Center.
“Bob was bird-watching before there was bird-watching in Vermont,” said Bryan Pfeiffer, a naturalist, writer and expert on Vermont’s birds.
Spear left Audubon in the late 1970s and began carving in earnest. Soon his collection overflowed the red farmhouse he shares with Lawrence. When no other home could be found for the birds, he built one.
He kept carving until health setbacks two winters ago. The two geese he was working on remain unfinished.
“I work on them sometimes, but I get distracted by all the other things going on around here,” he said last week. He still walks the 50 yards from his home to the museum each day. Always a quiet man, he speaks relatively little now, but lights up and becomes almost voluble when museumgoers stop in front of his showcases.
“Now that is made of Styrofoam,” he said, as he peered at the riverbank he constructed as nesting habitat for a pair of basswood kingfishers. “They’ll burrow into that bank four or five feet.”
Downstairs, director Talmage was writing grant proposals, talking to engineers, reaching out to potential donors. She hopes not only to reconstruct the museum walkways, but to improve the entrance with a bridge over the new ravine that could also serve as a bird-watching spot.
In the meantime, students at the Essex High School Technology Center are constructing a kind of tree house – an elevated bird blind for the backyard that also will expand the museum’s outdoor offerings.
Spear said he isn’t worried about his museum’s future despite the recent setback.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said.
“Most of us have no legacy after death,” Pfeiffer said. “This museum is something tangible. You can study the birds in the museum, then see them outside in nature. Few of us get to create something like that. It’s a loving tribute to Vermont birds.”
The Birds of Vermont Museum is open by appointment between Nov. 1 and April 30. To learn more, go to www.birdsofvermont.org