Denver Bar Association
April 2004
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Marsh: Author’s First Truly Tough Bird

by Mark Obmascik

 

Editor’s note: This is taken from the foreword of The Big Year, a book by former Denver Post reporter Mark Obmascik, about a very special year for those who watch birds. Many will remember the "hobby" of DU law professor Thompson Marsh.

The first time I met a real birder, I couldn’t tell a tit from a tattler.

Thompson Marsh

 

I was a cub newspaper reporter, stuck on the graveyard shift and scrambling for some way, any way, to get off. If I wasn’t chasing some awful car accident, I was hustling to find the relatives of a homeless man slashed in a railyard knife fight. Nobody was happy.

Then one night, an anonymous call came in to the Denver Post newsroom.

There’s a man right here in Colorado, the caller told me, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on birds. He’s a law professor and he’s old, and you should write something about him before he dies. His name is Thompson Marsh.

A chance to work among the living? I grabbed it.
I called Professor Marsh the next day.

 

Professor Marsh, however, never called back. This really bugged me. In my line of work, even grieving widows returned phone messages. Surely a man who was one of the best in his field would want to talk, even if his field was a bit goofy. I decided to chase the story.

Slowly, from some of his friends, a picture emerged: Thompson Marsh was a birdwatcher possessed. To chase rare birds, he would rise before dawn on weekends. He would take expensive vacations on desolate Alaskan isles and pray for foul weather. He would wait for phone calls in the middle of the night, then rush to the airport for the next red-eye flight. Only five others in history had seen more species of birds in North America.

He managed to do all this while becoming a lawyer so sharp, so demanding, that many of his former students still felt intimidated by him. When Thompson Marsh was hired by the University of Denver in 1927, he was the nation’s youngest law professor. Now he was eighty-two and the nation’s oldest, having worked the same job for fifty-eight years. Some days he still walked the four miles from his home to class. A few years back, he conquered all fifty-four of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains.

But the old coot wouldn’t pick up a phone to call me. To hell with him, I decided — until his wife unexpectedly called and arranged a meeting at their home.

I rang the doorbell on time, and his wife sat me down on the couch and poured tea. Behind her, in a room facing the garden, I spotted a tall, thin man with a shock of
silver hair — the birdman himself.

""I stood and offered a handshake, but it wasn’t accepted. The master legal orator looked down at the floor and said nothing. His wife apologetically explained there would be no interview.

"He is a bit embarrassed by it all," Susan Marsh told me. "For some reason, he thinks it’s a little silly. Why, I don’t know."

Actually, she did know. The professor was a proud man who had been thinking about his newspaper obituary, and he didn’t want to do anything now to change the story. Or, as his wife eventually confided, "He wants to be known as an attorney, not a birder."

Thompson Marsh, browbeater of future judges, was struck mute by a bird.

I returned to my newsroom and wrote a general story about the quirky world of competitive birdwatching and then moved on to covering murders and politicians and other typically depressing newspaper subjects. But my memory of that famed law professor, fidgeting horribly before a twenty-three-year-old reporter, still nagged me. What was it about birdwatching that gave a man such joy and discomfort?

I couldn’t let the question go. Over the years I learned more about birds and their lovers, and I wrote the strange stories with glee. There was a Baikal teal that caused an international stir by wandering from its native lake in Siberia to a creek behind a Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop outside Denver. There was a biologist who implanted microchips in geese so he could track the spring migration from New Mexico to the Arctic by computer from the comfort of his home. There even were twitters about a new species of grouse -- North America’s first new bird species in a century! -- having sex in the sagebrush somewhere in the Utah high country.

Slowly but certainly I realized I wasn’t just pursuing stories about birdwatchers. I was pursuing the birds, too. Marsh’s obsession was becoming mine. My relentless pursuit of a rare subspecies of law professor had tapped a trait repressed deep in my character.

Today I stroll in the park and I no longer see plain birds. I see gadwalls and buffleheads and, if I’m really on a hot streak, a single old squaw. A road trip finds me watching the sky as much as the pavement. It gets harder to pass a sewage treatment pond, that notorious bird magnet, without pulling out my binoculars. When somebody cries, "Duck!" I look up.

If Thompson Marsh were still alive -- he died in 1992, at the age of eighty-nine, from injuries in a car accident on a birding trip -- he might even talk to me. He was, after all, my first truly tough bird.

As I spend another winter night by the fire, fingering David Sibley’s 545-page birding guide and trying to memorize the field marks of thirty-five separate North American sparrow species, I’m jarred from self-absorption to self-doubt: Am I weird? Am I crazy? Am I becoming Thompson Marsh?

There is, I decide, only one way to fully understand my condition. If birding is an obsession that takes root in a wild crag of the soul, I need to learn how strong it can grow. I need to study the most obsessed of the obsessed.

I need to meet the birders of the Big Year.


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