Don Knowler

Describing my new life in Tasmania, after I had left Britain in the mid-1990s, I told friends I was “dancing on the edge of the world’’. I had borrowed the phrase from the Beat Poets who migrated to San Francisco from the East Coast of America in the 1950s, and it described perfectly a world so different from the one I had left behind – the hectic Fleet Street where I worked on the Independent newspaper. The less frenetic life in Tasmania gave me time to write a weekly column on bird-watching for my new employer, the Mercury in Hobart.

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Wanderers and Monarchs – Linking Tassie to NYC

I’m sitting on a bench looking up at kunanyi/Mount Wellington, the peak wreathed in the fine blue haze of eucalypt oils which ooze from blue gums and stringybarks on hot days, the colour of the satin flycatcher.

The gums on Mount Wellington might cement time and place in Tasmania, but I’m not thinking of this island state at the tip of Australia, next stop Antarctica, and the things you see from a park bench there; butterflies and birds with names like the mountain blue and the mountain parrot.

I’m sitting on a park bench in Central Park, New York, in the spring of 1984 with an elf of a man, adorned with white beard and woollen hat. His name is Lambert Pohner.

Lambert is looking forward to the butterfly season when monarchs and swallowtails flit and flutter through the magnolias and azaleas, and over the heads of roller-bladers, and joggers, and lovers, and muggers and all the other people who make up the population of Central Park.

For now, though, he is contenting himself with birds which arrive before the butterflies, and is waiting on his favourite bench, near a place called the Azalea Pond, for his first sighting of ruby-throated hummingbirds for the year.

Like birds and butterflies arriving in spring, and leaving in the fall, Lambert often flits through my thoughts, usually when I sit on a park bench wherever I am at the time. Park benches always summon the spirit of Lambert, it’s as though he’s sitting there with me, talking birds or butterflies, or the people who watch them.

All those years ago, as a foreign correspondent posted to New York and cutting a lonely furrow on weekend visits to Central Park, I was lucky enough to find in Lambert someone to reignite my interest in birdwatching, and someone to open my eyes to the marvels Central Park held for the nature lover. And the natural world beyond.

Lambert’s interest in butterflies, however, I found difficult to share. The migratory adventures of birds arriving in Central Park meant more to a young Englishman with a zest for foreign travel. I hunted the magnolia and Canada warblers, the bluebird and Baltimore oriole while Lambert enthused over the swallowtail, the mourning cloak and the snout.

One butterfly stood out, though, probably because I had learned of its remarkable migratory journey from its breeding grounds in Mexico. It was the monarch, or “da monaark” as Lambert would announce it when it fluttered by. The arrival of the migratory monarchs each spring filled him with as much excitement as the first glimpse of the hummingbirds hovering above the azalea blooms. We cut curious figures, Lambert and I, when I joined him in his search for the monarchs and on his insistence on searching for the rarer snout; Lambert the urban naturalist, the sage of East 83rd Street, a bachelor who had devoted his life to birds and butterflies, and this young gung-ho correspondent, out of Africa, with girlfriends dotted
up and down the East Village.

I’d forgotten all this, at least the butterfly part of it, until I sorted through some yellowing newspaper cuttings from my days in New York, mainly reviews of The Falconer of Central Park, the book I wrote when I lived there. Among them were not just reviews, and letters about the book, but a cutting from The New York Times which gave an account of Lambert’s butterfly passion, with the headline “A butterfly aficionado stalks the snout”.

“This is the summer of the snout”, Lambert had told the reporter, who observed in her story that the butterfly enthusiast, then 57, had seen more than 40 summers come and go in the park. And there was an observation by me, on Lambert’s obsession with butterflies and the snout, about Lambert boring me with butterfly stories, of phoning me to say: ‘‘We had the snout today!”

The snout, the monarch and the butterfly which announced the arrival of summer that year – the mourning cloak – were, along with the birds, to enrich what had been a bereft, lost first few months in New York. It had been a hard city to settle into without friends and the ones I found in bars were soon replaced by Lambert and his wonderful tribe of birders in Central Park.

The three years I spent in New York were to prove the most memorable and rewarding of my life but eventually the time came for me to return to my homeland of Britain. I had been away from Britain too long, 13 years or so travelling Africa and North America, and I felt I needed to return home to touch base.

I didn’t lose Lambert, and his snout and monarch sightings and stories, however. He still kept in touch, sending me weekly letters with poems and drawings of what he had seen in the park. His last communication told me of a roosting long-eared owl in an evergreen and, on a London subway train, an owl’s feather fluttered to the floor when I opened the letter.

A few weeks later I received a telephone call from New York to say Lambert had died suddenly. I had no idea Lambert had been ill, his letters never revealed it, a lump in the neck had been checked out and had turned into something sinister. He died shortly after the diagnosis.

If he had said, told me he was dying, I would have been on a plane immediately. I don’t think he wanted that though. The butterfly and bird wanderings would never have been the same with the mourning cloak now taking on a different meaning. And I never got to go to the funeral. I had severely injured my arm on another sortie to Africa and I was awaiting surgery to have the pins removed which had held the broken arm in place.

I was sent the obituary which appeared in The New York Times, of course, with a reference to Lambert being the “hero” of the book I had written about a year in the life of the park. And I sent a brief eulogy to be read at a memorial service the birders held for Lambert at the Azalea Pond. But it wasn’t closure and most painfully I never did get to return to New York, to go birding again with Lambert, as I said I would. And I have never since returned, it would still be too painful. All those wonderful memories relived would come at too high a price.

“One of these days,” I merely say to my family when they suggest we take an overseas holiday far from the Tasmanian city of Hobart which we now call home, to Central Park, so they can witness themselves the places I wrote about, and the landmarks they see so often on the television and movie screen.

I have my memories. That corner of the planet, just 341 hectares of it, made such impression on me – when I was still at a relatively young, impressionable age – that I sometimes think a part of me resides there. I travel between two worlds in mind and spirit.

That’s a thought so bizarre, irrational, that it makes me feel uncomfortable, and uncomfortable, uneasy I certainly felt one day towards the end of the recent Southern Hemisphere summer. I was sitting on a bench in the Waterworks Reserve hear my home and thinking of that parallel universe, Central Park. A beautiful, if robust butterfly the colour of chestnuts in the fall bounced by on jerky undulating flight, carried by a warm northerly breeze blowing in from the Australian outback.

It looked incredibly like the monarch which had first been pointed out to me by Lambert in the summer of 1982, and when I trained my binoculars on it, its black, veined pattern on the upper wing told me it was. The spirit of Lambert was in flight, my old, long-dead friend fluttering right before my eyes, carried on an upward draft against a backdrop of the Tasmanian high country.

I soon discovered the butterfly I had known during the years I lived in New York did indeed reach Tasmania on occasion. In Australia it is called the wanderer, instead of the monarch, and this was perhaps the reason I had overlooked it in the past, at least the knowledge of its existence in the far south.

Migratory monarchs, wind-blown from their southern migration in the fall within the United States, had reached Pacific Islands, had established populations there and in turn had colonised Australia, although sightings of them on the island of Tasmania remained rare. Although all the evidence was there, I was not after a rational, scientific explanation for the monarch’s arrival on a sunny day in Tasmania. I wanted to believe my monarch had come all the way from the Azalea Pond in Central Park. It was Lambert come to look for me.