Friday, December 14, 2007

A great man passes

Recently, the partner of one of the women in my book group, died after a long and difficult battle with cancer. I knew Peter only as a partner to Priscilla. We knew each other's names and could make pleasant conversation. But I can't say I ever spent more than 30 minutes in his presence.

I did know his work however, Peter was an ornithologist with a specialty. He could preserve birds as study skins or mounts for museums. The next time you see an exhibit that contains a preserved animal, you might notice something important: the people who do the work are not credited. Peter was one of those people.

The following is information I have discovered about Peter since his passing. I never knew what an amazing person he was.

Peter was a bird lover who was a walking encyclopedia on birds. He could mimic bird song and bird calls. He could describe the science and the behavior of hundreds of species of birds. The birds he used for exhibits were birds that had died from window strikes or vehicle strikes. He studied the bird's behavior and structure intensely so that he could arrange the mounts in realistic settings and positions. He was a scientist and a master craftsman.

Because I was Priscilla's friend, I had the opportunity to see many of Peter's birds in process. His craft involves tedious, patient practice that combines science and artistry. There are no taxidermy stores where you can pick up a few eagle eyes or falcon feathers to put together a bird. Peter began with a dead bird, but he would use anything and everything he could find to create a realistic looking model. He was self-taught and his amazing skill is lost with his passing.

He work is in the Smithsonian, in the museums across the world, and in DNR displays here in Minnesota. If you go to Lake Itasca, the birthplace of the Mississippi, you can see one of Peter's eagles.

So this is what I didn't know about the man I knew slightly and who has passed away recently.

His work was a passion and did not pay well. He had no insurance when he got sick and his care became Priscilla's full-time job. Because I did not know Peter well, I was not able to help as much as I would have liked. He did have many amazing friends and people who did what they could. The process of being ill and uninsured in the U.S. was a never-ending battle for the two of them. It was unbelievably frustrating and incredibly sad.

Priscilla has been forwarding eulogies from ornithologists expressing their memories and fondness for Peter and I am suprised to learn how widely respected and admired he was in his little corner of the universe. It seems I was in the presence of a genius and true artist, but I never knew it. Neither Peter nor Priscilla talked about his genuis or bragged about his accomplishments. To me, he was simply a nice guy, a good partner to my friend, and he had an unusual job.

This has reminded me that our fellow human beings can do amazing things, make awesome contributions to the world, and we may never know it. And, of course, it reminds me that capitalism sucks. Why should a man with his knowledge and skill be allowed to wither away without any real help? Why should his entire care be placed on the back of my friend, with no hope of relief?

I fucking hate cancer.

Edited to add:

I got together with Priscilla and a bunch of friends today. Apparently Peter was told there was nothing the doctors could do for him. He left the hospital and went into hospice care. Two weeks later, he passed.

I don't know what to say. I'm angry and I'm sad.


bint alshamsa said...

I just feel enraged whenever I hear about someone having to deal with cancer without having health insurance. How many gifted people will have to die young simply because we're willing to allow the government to fail to provide them with basic services.

Ravenmn said...

Yeah, and I thought of you and all your wisdom on this issue when I was writing this. Thanks for understanding!