IOWA / NEBRASKA
Several American airlines now have a policy of charging for checked luggage. And so many passengers take extra luggage into the cabin. This means that unless one is on the plane first, locker space is often already taken. This meant that on the flight to Omaha, Nebraska, our hand luggage had to be stored in a locker away from us. This worried me as we had all our camera and recording gear as well as my PhD questionnaires in our bags.
We were met at Omaha Airport by Lyn Silcock. Lyn and her husband, Ross, live across the border in Iowa, just forty or so miles away. Ross runs birding tours to New Zealand and for years had been reading my posts on the Birding Australia chatline. They lived in Tabor, a small town with a big history. In the 1800s Tabor residents opened their homes to fleeing slaves, as fact recorded in a park near to the Silcock home.
That afternoon we all attended a kid’s soccer match. One of the Silcock grandchildren was playing in the under 6 team. It was very cold, but the sun was shining and we were well-rugged up. After the game we attended the presentation of medals at a nearby stadium. But beforehand Ross, Michael and I did some birding and I got my first view of an American Goldfinch, a butter-yellow male. It was followed by Brown Thrasher,a large brown bird with a huge sickle-shaped bill An easy bird to see, so Ross said. But this specimen sat high in a tree and virtually out of sight and it took several minutes to spot.
After the ceremony was a barbecue where we got to know Ross and Lyn’s daughter, Jackie, and grand-daughters. When they visited later, “Mr. Michael” won the girls’ hearts by playing with them for hours while we all sat watch them and laughing ourselves silly at their antics.
My first lectures was to the Fremont Historical Society in the nearby small town of Sidney. The venue was a neat little church that had been restored by the Society. It was quite well-attended for a tiny town, mostly by senior farming couples and families with children. One family was intending to travel to Australia and consequently asked many questions about where they could see the most wildlife.
One surprise was the appearance of a couple I’d guided several years ago. Dean and Sandy had travelled for five hours just to hear me speak. Indeed, such people had attended many of my lectures or come to meet me where I was staying. One such couple, Anne Coulston and Bob Marcus, had come out with me in 1989!
When my Texas friends who had organised Barack Obama's campaign there, heard I'd be speaking in back-country Iowa, they doubted the audience would be receptive. After all, most of the people in the area held conservative views, and were Republican voters. It didn't turn out that way at all.
This lecture was similar to one I'd given in California to Indigenous American and African-American students, at Merrit College where the 1960s Black Panther movement began, and to Sierra clubs that had organised the voting for Barack Obama in Texas.
Unlike those other lectures I didn't mention Barack Obama, instead concentrating on intercultural and intergenerational relations. I ended as usual with a quote from the famous British anthropologist Colin Turnbull, that for hunter-gatherer peoples, “ “kindness, generosity, consideration, affection, honesty …., are not virtues. They are necessities for survival” (Colin Turnbull, The Mountain People, p. 27).
My approach was influenced, as it had been since the late 1970s, by Saul Alinsky, the same community organizer who influenced Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. His writings influenced my actions as an alderman on Darwin City Council in the 1980s, and in working with my semi-traditional Aboriginal relatives.
The next morning Ross took Michael and me to the Tabor Sewage Ponds where we spotted Black Terns, mostly in breeding plumage. There were also many sparrows including Clay-coloured and Chipping, and a couple of species of oriole. Again we saw Canada Geese and Spotted Sandpiper.
Later we visited Indian Cave National Park. Standing high on a hill we spotted a flock of wild turkeys, and Summer and Scarlet tanagers - startlingly beautiful birds - and in the grass below the hill several different types of sparrows. On a gate sat Red-headed Woodpecker, a rather glamorous bird with a head that glowed like a hot sun against the cool greens of the trees behind. Above our heads perched a Blue Grosbeak, another bird dressed in beautiful, improbable colours.
In the woods we saw yet another little migratory bird, Magnolia Warbler. But a search for Northern Parula and Cerulean Warbler, both calling, proved rather fruitless.
Indian Cave, a rather shallow but very picturesque cave surrounded by dense forest, was a resting place for various groups of Indigenous Americans who had carved petroglyphs in the walls. However much was obscured by graffiti, a rather sad sight considering the pristine state of Aboriginal art in much of the Top End.
My last lecture in this part of the US was at the Omaha Audubon Society’s annual dinner. About 200 members of the OAS and another group – the Down & Dirty Birders!attended. Framed photographs of wildlife and scenery, taken by members, were displayed on tables around the walls. These were to be judged by other members who noted their favourites on slips of pink paper. The winners were announced later in the evening, and there were some very nice prizes, for instance a large coffee table book on American birds.
Fortunately the microphone worked, a necessity in a large room with a big crowd and my soft voice, and my lecture was received quite well. Afterwards there were several questions and when I finally sat down several people approached me with other questions. A few had been to Australia and many wished to know more about the Top End.
It was an interesting night in other ways as well. I sat next to the president Dr. Clem Kapatke who turned out to be a professor of sociology. We had a long and fascinating conversation about the topic. On telling Clem the topic of my PhD research he offered to distribute my PhD questionnaire.
The next morning, very early again, we left for North Carolina. I was rather sad to leave Ross and Lyn as I’d grown to like them very much.
This time we were even less lucky with our hand luggage, and it ended up stored at the back of the plane. I’ve asked Michael to request seats at the back of the plane. These are generally filled first. This means we can get our hand luggage stored before most others board.
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