By Bob Curry
George Meyers and I met in the winter of 1954-55. That winter and the following spring, four of us – George, his brother Glenn, Brock Atkinson and I, roamed the old fields and woodlots of King’s Forest in East Hamilton. Unlike most teens, all of us were intensely devoted to natural history. I still remember in spring 1955 our “gang” watching kettles of hawks migrating over the Red Hill Valley, a precursor to the years and events at Grimsby. Not long after, the Meyers family moved to Grimsby Beach and, in fall 1955, Brock was killed in a terrible accident.
On April 1, 1956, the Meyers boys and I walked from Grimsby Beach up the escarpment and to the south. I saw my first Carolina Wren and heard its rollicking song that day; the next Christmas I got a beautiful oil pastel drawing of a Carolina Wren drawn by George, as a Christmas card from George and Glenn. The following Christmas, the first after a three-toed woodpecker invasion into southern Ontario, I received a lovely Black-backed Woodpecker card, again drawn by George. I dearly wish that I still had these cards.
George grew up in Grimsby, married Anita and they settled into married life on Bedford Park Drive. Dave Copeland put Beamer Point on the map, but George was seeing hawks and eagles migrating west along the Lake Ontario Plain and over his house for years before that.
George was not a world travelling naturalist. However, he did sally into the eastern United States on numerous occasions to study the forests and collect seeds and seedlings for his garden. And what a garden it was! Professional botanists and gardeners made Bedford Park a destination. Often George would take them on a tour of some of the Niagara Peninsula botanical rarities, plants and trees many of which were his personal discoveries. Later they would retreat to his garden for a thorough tour that involved the identification and status of all his plants as well as the biogeography of Eastern North America. He wrote one paper in a peer-reviewed journal on the identification and distribution of a species of his favourite taxon, Quercus, the oaks. Would that he had shared more of his knowledge and understanding of our natural history.
I was privileged to have a personal tour of George’s garden on numerous occasions over the years. George never raked the leaves. Rather they were left to decay in situ. The consequence was a thick soft leaf duff over rich soil; the perfect place for many trees and shrubs that just reach their northern limits in the peninsula or along the Lake Ontario plain. George always carried pruning shears on his belt. He knew the biology of all his trees and pruned them with surgical precision. Most neighbours cringed at the “untidiness” of it all, not realizing what a treasure they had in their midst. His daughters Teresa and Tanya knew – for one birthday they gave him a chrome-plated garden spade of which he was immensely proud.
George never referred to our area as the Carolinian Zone. In fact, he abhorred the term. True, there were southern affinities in flora and fauna, but the Carolinas were far to the south with their own distinct plants and animals. He detested even more so the plantings of exotic trees in Grimsby and most other cities. “Botanical rats”, he called the rows of Norway Maples and Norway Spruces. Being passionate and knowledgeable, he was often at loggerheads with local authorities. They in turn retaliated by enforcing a by-law that required him to remove native plants and shrubs from his front yard and replace them with grass. Naturally, George kept his grass much longer than the neighbours liked as he knew that longer grass shaded out the weeds and so he didn’t need herbicides.
Although George did not travel widely he had a huge library of natural history books from across the world. Moreover, he read them. Consequently, he could converse knowledgeably about almost any place and its biological riches. But there was much more to George than a love of nature, for he collected books on art and philosophy too. He was a true polymath. He wrote Haiku poetry about matters both personal and about hawks. Another example. About 25 years ago I became interested in opera. Feeling a little chuffed about acquiring such an intellectual pursuit, I mentioned it to George only to learn that he had been for many years listening to the MET live from New York on Saturday afternoons. I should have known this, as the house was always awash in classical music when I visited.
George knew all the birds but did not consider himself to be a mere birder. Perhaps his greatest claim to birding fame was when he, Glenn and Eric Bastin picked up a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel dead on the shore at Long Beach the day after Hurricane Connie struck a glancing blow at southern Ontario. Although he was a complete naturalist, many birders knew George as a colourful fixture for decades at the Niagara Peninsula Hawk Watch above the town of Grimsby. One spring at Beamer, George passed around “Love them Hawks” buttons. Apparently they were for supporters of the Wilfrid Laurier University Golden Hawks football team but George thought they had a much better use. Long before Peter Dunne’s marvellous Hawks in Flight was published, George knew and taught Beamer habitués the finer points of shape and flight behaviour that could be used to identify all diurnal raptors with confidence.
There are many stories about George at Beamer, where he was a regular visitor and occasional counter starting in the early 1980s. In 1993, when Walter Klabunde had to stop counting every weekday, George stepped up and took over counting three of those days every week. He got one of several “rewards” for his contribution on April 15 1994, when as the Official Counter he was able to record the first ever Swallow-tailed Kite seen at Beamer. A year later, on April 19, 1995, George was again Official Counter when Beamer’s first ever Prairie Falcon showed up and captured an Eastern Meadowlark. They say that George’s shout could be heard in downtown Grimsby that day! Mike Street recalls getting a late day phone call from a very excited George who described how a flock of six Sandhill Cranes not only flew over Beamer but also circled a couple of times and then landed in the vineyard the south of the circle! George had been alone at the park that day and just wanted to share his experience with someone.
George was not everyone’s cup of tea. He was never short of an opinion and certainly did not suffer fools. Even at HNC meetings he could not sit quietly when he knew something that the speaker said was incorrect. This afforded some awkward moments. However, it was on long afternoons at Beamer that George was at his combative best. We discussed much more than hawk identification. George could and did expound not only about “them hawks” but on politics, religion and other matters of the day. Usually his opinions were punctuated with roars of laughter. His possessed an immense intelligence. Sadly, his inquisitiveness and introspection did not always serve him well in terms of health over the years. Especially over the last 10 years, he suffered from ill health.
Whether I arrived at Beamer after George or he arrived after me, he would always shout “BOB CURRY” in a manner that always made me feel wanted. I don’t go to Beamer so much anymore. Perhaps it’s because George has not been there nor in his garden, down below the escarpment.
I will miss George’s prodigious intellect, his irrepressible nature and his incisive opinions. So will the entire naturalists’ community.
(Beamer anecdotes contributed by Mike Street)