Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Fielding Lewis and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker

                   Fielding Lewis's controversial 1971 photo of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. 

One mystery I always hoped to sort out was the identity of a hunter who had taken two snapshots of a male ivory-bill in 1971 and sent them to George Lowery, a famed ornithologist at Louisiana State University. When the man had initially reported seeing a pair of ivory-bills, Lowery assumed he had seen pileated woodpeckers and encouraged him to try to get a picture. When he subsequently shot some pictures, Lowery was convinced and went immediately to the Atchafalaya Swamp of southern Louisiana, where the man had seen the birds. Although Lowery never saw the ivory-bills, he did see an excavation the birds had started in a tree.

The man asked that his identity and the exact location of the place he’d taken the pictures not be revealed. Like many southerners, he had a visceral fear that the feds would come in and impound the land, so he couldn't hunt there anymore. Lowery respected his wishes and never divulged the information.

That summer, Lowery took the pictures to the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, expecting all the scientists to be excited by this amazing physical proof of the continued existence of this species, even at that early date long thought extinct. Instead, he was met with immediate withering skepticism. One of the first things the other ornithologists did was to peer at the snapshots through an electron microscope. Their verdict: obviously a fraud—a taxidermied bird hung in two different trees. Some of them laughed at Lowery behind his back, jeering at his gullibility. Some darkly suggested he may have been in on the hoax. But no one who knew him could ever have believed that.

Lowery kept quiet about the affair after that, and a few years later he passed away. The story of the hunter who gave him the pictures grew from that point on until he became a legendary figure, shrouded in mystery—an old Choctaw living far out in the swamp; a greasy-haired hermit who only came to town once or twice a year to sell his beaver pelts. People speculated wildly in books and magazine articles about who he might be and where in the vast Atchafalaya Swamp he saw the birds. I had no idea who he was. I just knew that I wanted to talk with him, to look him in the eye and decide for myself whether I believed his story.

I did hear about a man named Fielding Lewis who supposedly had seen ivory-bills somewhere in the Atchafalaya in the 1970s. I wondered if there was any possibility that he could be the mystery man. One day I did an Internet search for his name and got only one hit in the entire state of Louisiana. And this Fielding Lewis did live in the southern Atchafalaya. Could it really be this easy? As I was getting ready to call him on my cell phone, I got the wicked thought: maybe I should pretend that I know he took the pictures and see what he says.

“This is Tim Gallagher from Cornell University,” I said as the man answered the phone. I’m interviewing people who have seen ivory-billed woodpeckers, and I’d like to ask you about the pictures you gave to George Lowery in 1971.”

Without a pause he said, “Okay.” Then he told me he lived out in the woods and I’d never be able to find his place. He suggested that Bobby Harrison and I meet him in front of a Cajun restaurant not far from his home. When I called my wife and told her this, she said: “Don’t do it! It’s the South. We’ll never hear from you again.” I assured her everything would be fine. Bobby is with me. What could go wrong? But to be honest, it did seem a little strange.

We ended up getting to the restaurant a couple of hours earlier than we’d planned, so I called Lewis again. A woman answered and told me he wasn’t home; he had gone to his office. His office? All my fantasies about this guy immediately imploded—the stringy-haired swamp rat living in a shack perched precariously on wobbly stilts above the swamp; the trapper poling along in his hand-hewn pirogue—all gone. And I missed that image. So who was this guy? What would he really be like?

By this time, Bobby and I were too excited to go inside the restaurant. We hung around outside, peering at every car that passed. Finally a big white Chrysler New Yorker pulled into the parking lot, driven by a portly man in his seventies, puffing on the biggest cigar I’ve ever seen.

“Fielding Lewis?” I said as he stepped outside. He nodded and we shook hands. He looked like a character from Tennessee Williams—like Big Daddy, larger than life, with a booming voice and a bone-crushing handshake.

As we drove behind, following him to his office, I noticed the frame around his license plate said “Louisiana State Boxing Commission.” I asked him about this as he opened his office door, and he told us he was the state commissioner of boxing and had been a boxer himself years earlier. Stepping into his office, we were hit by a wall of choking cigar smoke. It was like going through a time warp, passing into the 1940s. On the wall hung a black-and-white World War II era cigarette ad of a Hollywood starlet puffing a Chesterfield. Framed pictures of boxers stood on every available desk or table, including a nice autographed shot of Mohammad Ali as a teenager, when he was still called Cassius Clay.

Lewis was a great storyteller and he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his many exploits over the years and the numerous fascinating characters he’d encountered in his life. We finally got him talking about ivory-bills. He spoke about George Lowery—how he was the nicest person he’d ever met. They had become close friends, he said, and he had a picture of him posing with his grandkids. Then I hit him with the big question: “Did you know that those pictures you took caused a huge controversy with ornithologists and that some of them think the bird was taxidermied?”

He stared at me, visually stunned for moment, and then bellowed with laughter. “Now where the hell would I get a stuffed ivory-bill?”

Bobby and I came away believing his story. And when we visited the spot where he had reportedly seen the birds, we found numerous huge cypresses, but most of them were dead—victims of salt-water incursion back around the time he had seen the birds, which was interesting. Slowly dying trees like that would have been a natural magnet for infestation by wood-boring beetles and species that feed on their larvae, such as ivory-billed woodpeckers.

[excerpted from The Grail Bird by Tim Gallagher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt]