Debra Patla

As a newcomer to Teton Valley in the 1980s, I discovered Bert’s weekly column in the Jackson Hole News with delight. The kind of news I most wanted to hear, about birds and other wildlife, plus wry comments on human folly and his wonder at the universe. Driving over Teton Pass for monthly Bird Club meetings was a savored treat. There in the municipal courthouse, Bert subverted the stern setting into nature-fandom and hilarity. With Bert presiding, prior to the evening’s program, each person recounted their recent nature observations.  There, we observed our leader Bert’s spontaneity, curiosity, and wit as we delighted in the stories.  Bert’s kindness there is memorable –a bird-watching novice did not fear ridicule. Near-impossible reports from a newbie were considered with gentle dignity. This was such a contrast to bird club meetings I attended in San Diego, where birders practically crawled out of the room after a stern grilling for a reported sighting.

Through field trips with Bert and friends made at Bird Club, this part of the world began to feel like home.  And “home” was very large indeed!  Wild remote places, urban parks, wherever one went there were wildlife posing glimpses into what kind of world we inhabited and how it might be changing. Visiting Bert and Meg at their home expanded how I saw things, as the conversation topics leaped from nature observations to local history, politics, and characters.  Our shared Cleveland, Ohio past provided a funny common perspective and new insights for me; how much I had missed in my years there!

When I screwed up the courage to go back to college in pursuit of a degree in biology, I took with me a vital lesson from Bert. Some academic postures deserve resistance, such as ‘We care about wildlife populations, not individuals’ and interpreting animal behavior as strictly ‘cost and benefit’. No shame in feeling and examining the connections between you and a critter, explore those thoughts! As Bert wrote, “After all, birds are only human”.  Talk to the animals you encounter!  A chickadee can and should be greeted cheerfully; a large female frog may be addressed as “Grandmother”.

I have been greatly assisted and encouraged by Meg and Bert Raynes Fund grants for amphibian field work, in two separate projects in Jackson Hole where other funding had vanished. I was able to do work that never would have happened without that support. But it was not just the funding…most valuable for me was enthusiasm restored, the vote of confidence that the work mattered.

The bridges Bert built between wildlife and humans endure and prosper. I delight in the growing body of knowledge from Nature Mapping. I jump back into Valley So Sweet when gloom threatens. The devotion of Bert’s friends and his grace in his difficult final years inspires and warms.  I will miss Bert forever…the wry responses, the keen questions, the comforting shoulder, the anger at what some humans and we as a species do, his vast love for life of all kinds.

– Debra Patla, May 2021

Photo credits: Debra Patla