In the early stages of my career as a neophyte young naturalist, I was introduced to a variety of hawk watchers, mentors, bird Gods, animal-skinners, snake handlers, weed-eaters, and references to legendary and wise nature observers who’d lived on the same wildlife sanctuaries for decades and could tell you things about animals and trees and nature that no one else could hold a candle to. One of those such fellows, who combines many woodsy qualities and skills – Ted Gilman – is retiring this year after living and working for 43 years on a 265 acre Audubon wildlife sanctuary outside of Greenwich, Connecticut.
Ted is a very gentle sort of man, tall and thin with a long greyish beard and large dark eyes, and a demeanor between a Quaker minister, John Burroughs, and a Zen master. He is one of the very very few people I’ve ever met who I’d describe as a Pied Piper of Nature, a man whose innate and learned charms hypnotize the young and the old, and who is often seen being followed by those eager to learn some of Ted’s many, often esoteric, secrets such as trying to find spiders at night by the green glow of their eyeballs in a flashlight’s beam.
Ted has developed his own thoughtful and Buddhist-like ways of teaching people about nature, and I remember being captured by this as a young intern in the spring of 1979 when our little cohort of “newbies” from the Sharon Audubon Center were driven down to the Greenwich center for a walk in the woods with Ted. After about an hour or so following this amazingly knowledgeable guy, we were at the far boundary line of the sanctuary, at the edge of a deeply forested wetland. There we paused, for no particularly good reason that I could determine, which I fortunately did not question. Ted was quiet, and thus the four of us young learners from Sharon were left to look around at the black birches, the red maples, the occasional oak, the ferns, the wet and darkly muddy spots along the thin trail. It was at that point that I saw something I’ll never forget and about which I yelled out, “Oh my God, an owl!” And there, not more than 40 feet from us was a huge great horned owl sitting up in the crotch of a big old tree in what apparently was its nest. The highlight of the day, and also a window into how Ted very generously let us make the discovery, and thus forge an exciting moment in time into our memories forever.
Ted’s small and very old wooden house is part of the assemblage of buildings on Audubon Greenwich’s land, and it lies at the end of a dirt road, cozied up to the edge of the forest. “I live in the innermost house,” he says, in a humorous reference to Henry Beston’s classic book, The Outermost House , about a year spent living in a small shack on the very edge of Cape Cod’s shoreline and dunes in the early 1920’s. “I have the joy of a giant backyard,” Ted says, “and I’m serenaded by Great Horned Owls, Coyotes, Bull Frogs and Barred Owls.”
The Audubon sanctuary is in the most rural part of Greenwich, with the busy downtown only about 6 miles or so south. However, a surprising variety of animals call this part of Connecticut home. “People ask me if I’ve ever seen a bear here,” says Ted. “One time I did see one quarter of bear, and it was its behind. A big dark furry rear end, disappearing down the trail. We found our beehives knocked down like dominoes later that day.”
Bobcats regularly prowl the wooded landscape, the number of coyotes has increased since Ted first lived here in the late 1970’s, and river otters are “moderately frequent.” Deer, unfortunately, have greatly populated much of the suburban Northeast, and they have taken a tremendous toll on plant life and on the animals that depend on those plants. “I can remember seeing my last lovely White Trillium maybe ten years ago,” says Ted. “ To them, its deer candy, like a lot of other flowers which have disappeared…”
Ted and his wife Margaret are moving to Indiana this Spring, where they both attended Earlham College, and where Margaret has a house. But before then, a long and seemingly endless parade of people, of truly all ages, has been making their pilgrimages to the Audubon center to thank Ted for inspiring them, for teaching them, for being the gentle giant and loving soul who’s touched their lives and those of their family members over so many years. And I count myself, very happily, among this fortunate group….. Happy trails, Ted Gilman………