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Viewing The World Through A Birder’s Binoculars

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November 16, 2010 by wcobserver

By Steve Winkler

South Washington County is a diverse world. There are critters, large and small…reptiles, butterflies, and a cacophony of fin, fowl, flora and fauna. The land is abundant with geological formations, millions of years old buffs, and caves, deep ravines and rivers and springs. The region is alive, as well , with traces of early pioneers and of the carbon footprint of more recent settlers.

Whether it’s natural history or human history in Washington County, Joseph C. Neal has probably written about it in articles, books, list serves and wherever readers go to satisfy their appetites for nature and historical writing, wit and life commentary (he has been a regular columnist in the Observer since we began).If you’ve lived in this area many years there’s a good chance you’ve seen Joe. Perhaps you wondered about the fellow peddling down some dusty back road early one Sunday morning, with rucksack and binoculars. Or wondered about some guy crouched under the golf umbrella with long lens camera sneaking up on the duck pond behind a big box store on I-540.

Now his brand of naturalism, history and homespun humor and wisdom will be able to be enjoyed by a wider audience. He has a new book, his first(others were co-authored), in fact, being released this month from Half Acre Press titled The Birdside Baptist and Other Ornithological Mysteries. It is a collection of essays on birding, ecology and natural history of our area.

The title originates, Joe explains, from his sister’s perspective on staying in bed on Sunday mornings listening to radio preachers. She refers to it as attending services at “Bedside Baptist.” If questioned about birding on Sunday morning Joe just claims to be attending “Birdside Baptist.” He acknowledges follow birders who have “given your Sundays to join me for divine ornithological services at Birdside Baptist in the Field.”

The essays in Birdside Baptist first appeared as posts on the Birds of Arkansas Discussion List (ARBIRD-L) and in addition to containing all the essentials for fellow birders, Joe, sometimes injects a glimpse into his personal take on religion. And there’s never any regret for his southern conservative roots.

“I grew up Southern Baptist,” Joe explains, ” as a young college student in 1964 at the U of A, I began to see the world through different eyes, politically and socially. That said, I have never felt a need to refute the morals, values, and spiritual teaching of my parents. I also never rejected that the right to think for yourself is the best of our American values.”

“As I grew older, I decided that God must have created a heck of a lot more than just brick and mortar churches. I arrived at the settled opinion that we may worship and give thanks just about anywhere in this vast creation. It has to do with how you see it. I often see it through binoculars; hence, my life as a Birdside Baptist and backslider. ”

Joe’s interest in Washington County began in the 1950s with family trips to the area, and then blossomed when he became a student at the University of Arkansas, earning a degree in history in the 1960s. Beginning in 1971, Joe began writing feature articles for a Fayetteville weekly, The Grapevine, all the while nurturing a love of birds. His reputation as an accomplished birder grew from amateur to expert. He’s currently the Curator of Bird Records for the Arkansas Audubon Society.

In the mid 1970s during his birding and history field work, much of it in south Washington County, he met Winslow resident Don West. Joe wrote that, “Shaking hands with Don West was a wonderful novelty for me. He is a legend among certain University folk in Fayetteville. I knew that he was the author of a ‘New York published novel’ about Arkansas called Broadside to the Sun.” I became friends with him and went to all those places mentioned in his book,” Joe said in a recent interview.

His interest in history led to his work with Bob Besom at the Shiloh Museum. Financed with a series of small grants they put together the History of Washington County Arkansas, published by Shiloh Museum in 1989. It is a formidable tome of about 1700 pages and photographs. The first 366 pages is an academic history of the county that begins with the earliest geological record of the Boston Mountains, continues through the prehistoric period and into the arrival of early settlers. Chapters Five and Six bring the historical account to the mid- 980s. It was during this time that Joe became friends with renowned south Washington County chronicler, Robert Winn, who contributed both articles and photographs to the book.

Joe’s articles for The Grapevine also included a nature column which caught the attention of an ornithologist with the University, Douglas A. James, who recognized Joe’s writing skill. Together they wrote Arkansas Birds: Their Distribution and Abundance (University of Arkansas Press, Fayetteville 1986) which focused on 366 species of birds in Arkansas. The book offered a significant contribution to the ornithological knowledge of the state but wasn’t enough to land a job with the USDA Forest Service which Joe had his sights on. To do that, he needed more education. No problem. So in his mid-fortys, Joe returned to the University and earned a masters degree in Zoology which opened up a 17 year career as a wildlife biologist working to restore the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker in the Ouachita Mountains.

As happenstance would have it, Joe’s first book is being published by a new publisher. Liz Lester, owner of Half Acre Press said it was Joe’s work that inspired her to open her own publishing company. Ms. Lester said she first read Joe’s essays from the Listserve on a website belonging to etching artist Richard Stauffacher. Joe had saved the text in PDF on the site basically because people told him he should archive them. She suggested he publish them, but Joe responded that he had no interest in publishing, “I just want to go birding, and I’m busy speaking to groups,” he told her. An experienced book designer formerly with the university, Ms. Lester took Joe as her first client and launched Half Acre Press in Fayetteville.

Not limited to words and photographs, he also records the sounds of birds and wildlife which are presented as commentataries for “Ozarks at Large” on KUAF, the local National Public Radio affiliate. Joe is also a Visiting Scholar in the University of Arkansas’s Department of Biological Sciences.

Joseph C. Neal is certainly one of Washington County’s favorite sons. And in this book he will delight his readers, listeners, and fellow birders as he wraps his personal world view, one that is practical, moderate and concerned, around the social world of bird watching. The book is a comfortable blend of solid science and subdued humor coupled with social and environmental awareness.

Nightbird Books in Fayetteville will host a program and book signing with the author on Saturday Nov. 20 at 7 p.m., and the Shiloh Museum in Springdale Saturday Dec. 4 at 11a.m.

The Birdside Baptist: And Other Ornithological Mysteries will also be available at the WC Observer office at 104 N. Centennial, West Fork.

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