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Birds of a feather (03/23/2008)
By Janet Lewis Burns

Peek-a-boo! Spring creeps up on us, not abruptly like winter with its bitter vengeance, but in ripples of winking, awakening streams, through spring green artfully turned from drabness, and in the trill of robin's renascence.

As my longing for the forthcoming season peaks, I engross myself in one of many all-time favorite nature books. One is "The Land, Always the Land," a book of essays written by the late Wisconsin environmentalist Mel Ellis.

Of spring fever he mused, "In severe cases, the patient seems to take leave of his senses, and goes golfing in a snowstorm, gardening in frosty ground, driving in the rain with the top down, staring glassy-eyed at passing girls, and doing all manner of things insane and unpredictable." A true nature enthusiast!

Since I began writing my column, going on nine years ago, I've had the privilege of corresponding with many colorful people. Some have become friends. Since I've been a fan of her Fillmore County Journal column, "At Home in the Big Woods," Nancy Overcott and I began exchanging infrequent letters in October of 2001.

In 2002 I wrote her story in the Winona Post, after I had attended the book signing of her first publication, "At Home in the Big Woods," in collaboration with artist Dana Gardner. His striking black and white sketches enhance the book's charm.

Nancy's writings have become treasures to return to. A rare adventure in the natural world, her life story is simply enchanting! She and her husband Art built a 24 ft. X 36 ft. house in eastern Fillmore County, on a 62-acre plot in a limestone region of wooded, hilly terrain with a perennial stream and springs.

Having labored side-by-side erecting their self-sufficient residence in the "Big Woods," moving there in 1978, Art made furniture and Nancy sewed, baked, and canned from their huge garden's bounty. It's no surprise that this once RN nurse became an avid birder.

What became a noble, dedicated endeavor, Nancy Overcott has also transcribed the 57 notebooks compiled by Dr. Johan Hoveslef (1840 - 1920) of Lanesboro. His

recording of daily activities, as well as countryside observances, imparts an image of life in Fillmore County in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A recent publication by Overcott, "Fifty Birds of the Upper Midwest," is vividly illustrated in watercolors by Dana Gardner. Now in my collection, it will accompany Pat and me on our return in May to our camper at Chetek. The sequel, "Fifty Uncommon Birds of the Upper Midwest" came out last August.

Personal accounts in Nancy's "Big Woods" book of essays are interestingly candid and at times poetic. A chapter entitled "Birds, People, & Domestic Cats" provokes thought and recognizes both the light and dark side of life in the "big woods." "Ironically," she writes, "domestic animals and the people who breed them comprise an enormous threat to native wildlife."

She reflects on her place in the environment, "My boundaries expand when I go deep into the world of birds mentally and physically. I feel larger than myself when I find a cat on my lap, with my hand stroking his neck."

"When I listen to a Beethoven symphony, or read Whitman's poetry, my edges blur and I have a feeling of clarity, a moment of knowing how the world works and an understanding that the artists who brought me here are still present and are experiencing the moment with me."

I was shocked and saddened by Nancy's Christmas letter! She told me that she had survived surgery last March for two brain aneurysms. Fortunate to be alive, her writing is as keen and enchanting as ever. Since the first of this year, we've been e-mailing each other regularly, and have discovered that we have a great deal in common.

Just like spring, friendship creeps up on us. Relationships can come and go, but never without leaving an indelible impression.

"Dear Nancy,""

Janet Burns is a native of Lewiston. She can be reached at patandjanburns@embarqmail.com



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