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Interview: Bruce Harris
Do you enjoy talking to your grandparents? Learning about your family history? Well I do! My grandpa, Bruce Harris has Macular Degeneration. It slows him down a little bit but doesn't stop him from doing things he absolutely loves doing! He still tries to watch for birds and definitely listens for them and feeds them. Luckily, he still has his peripheral vision and manages to get by with most everything with just that!
What do you do to relax?
I do a lot of things. I guess I don't consciously relax. I lie down and take a break. I lie down on the couch for 15, 20 minutes, a half hour. I guess you could say I read about birds and natural history.
How did you get into birdwatching?
Spending every summer at the lake. Mom knew lots about birds. We found nests and I suppose that's how I got into it. Especially being at the lake every summer.
How many years have you been bird watching?
I suppose since I was ten years old. At least 70 years.
Is birdwatching expensive?
No, unless you wanna go to a different state or travel 100 miles to see something- otherwise just going out and walking around.
Where are the best places for birdwatching?
Around lakes and water or woodlands, prairies or mountains.
How does a birdwatching competition work?
We have nation wide bird counts. Every state in the union has eight or ten. We usually compete in groups. A group of people gets together. There is a regular established circle (of an area of land/a boundary) You see who can see the most birds in one day's time. We each keep state or local bird lists and in a way it's not really competitive. In a way we do compete. We usually compete as a group rather than individuals. More than anything we just help each other. You just have to trust people (when they say they've seen what they have). There are a few people that aren't really reliable and you get to know which people they are. Birders are pretty friendly types.
What is your favorite type of bird?
I suppose if I had to have only one type I would want a good singer. I don't have any favorites (as far as species), they're all good.
Do you ever take anybody birdwatching with you?
Who? Whoever wants to go and I know enjoys birds.
Do you know most of the species of birds?
Yeah. By the time I was 12, I suppose I knew 100 species...I'm sure I did and there aren't very many birds in South Dakota I don't know or haven't seen. (I know) about 360 species (in South Dakota) and about 800 species I guess that I've seen over a lifetime nation wide. That's all of the 48 states and two places in Alaska as well. There are only about 300 – 400 species of birds in each state.
What is it like trying to bird watch with your eyesight problems?
Well, I can't see birds, I have to go by call. I don't see much. I can see them flying by but I can't really identify them. I can identify a few by color. I know the songs or calls.
What awards do you have?
I don't really have many awards. I was on a committee with a group of people who wrote two South Dakota bird books and uh, that's all I can think of.
What are your hobbies and interests?
Hobbies? Other than birds you mean? Several sports, I used to play tennis and basketball in high school. That's about all. Well, reading and listening to music are two things I've always been interested in.
Why did you want to be a conservation officer?
Because I enjoy natural history and wildlife, birds and animals and I enjoy working in the outdoors.
How long were you a conservation officer?
Oh, probably 34 years I think with four different states. I got going when I was outta college, 33 years is close, over 30 years for sure.
What other occupations were you in?
Well, uh, I, uh, after I retired from birding I did landscape development and planting trees and shrubs for people, you know, I did a lot of the cutting, I guess that's the only other thing i did except for short term stuff in college. I had a tour business for a few years in college.
When did you get married?
Uh, we were married in 1955 cuz Gordon was born in '56 and Mark in '57. I was 32 when we were married.
What did you do after High School?
After High School? I went to college, got one year in. The Botany department gave me a summer job. The next summer I got drafted. Most of the kids I graduated with got out there and volunteered. They couldn't wait to get shot at. The only reason I wasn't drafted for a while was because I went to college. And the only reason I did that was cuz Aunt Gwyneeth said she needed help, so I went to college.
How many siblings did you have?
Three last time I counted.
What were your parents' occupations?
My dad was a medical doctor and had his own hospital. Mother had been a school teacher 'til she married dad.
How did that cabin come into the family?
My dad built it with the help of 12 or 15 men. It took them two summers. They got into it in August.
How old were you when the cabin was built?
It was built four years before I was born, they moved in. (When we were older) we didn't come to the lake till school was out and went back in September. Dad would always sleep on the porch when he was here because it was always late when he came.
Was there a time when the cabin was less civilized than it is now?
Well, sure. There was just the old lady's house down here but two or three cottages were built in about ten years. The old lady was mad dad was building it even though my dad ran a water line for her. She was a pretty mean old lady.
Has it always had an electric stove?
No, well, yeah I suppose we did. I don't think, no there was a wood burning stove plus a hot dish with two burners I think. I think mom almost always used the wood burner.
Has there always been running water?
Yeah, yeah there was running water from the very beginning, drinking water inside and running water from the faucet outside. Dad pumped water on the hill, it flowed down from gravity, and that's how we watered the lawn, with lake water.
Did you have a phone at the cabin?
We never had a telepohne for a damn good reason. Dad didn't want a telephone. He would have his work clothes on and people came down (to talk to us) if something serious happened. From 1930 the boat house was up and they had a telephone.
What is your favorite part about the cabin?
Oh, uh being able to sleep on the porch. The porch itself, being able to listen to the lake and the birds on the porch. It has a great view, I suppose you could say having the dock to fish and swim off of if you would count that as part of the cabin.
Do you have any special memories of the cabin or experiences while there?
Yeah, lots and lots of 'em. Uh, oh I guess the first Verio nest was one of the nice things I remember. There are 12 or 15 species of birds that sing regularly every year that's entertaining. One of the nicer things is the humming birds too. There is a good variety of birds.
Was the cabin always this way?
It looked a lot better. Sure, it's 87 years old now. It's changed very little except for the different colors of paints and the sink and kitchen cabinets are more modern now. There hasn't been a thing that's changed in the pantry, which is kinda unique. We have a fireplace now, where that was my mother's bedroom- that was a distinct change. The original paneling is still up.
When did you get your first job?
My first job somebody paid me for? Oh I don't know, ten years old when somebody let me mow lawn. Ten or 12. The dentist let me mow his lawn in Wilmot. I used to put on storm windows. Well, I sold newspapers by the time I was ten and had a paper route. I guess I used to shovel some snow in the winter I suppose.
When did you start driving?
Uh, well, I'm not sure. Probably not till I was a sophmore in high school maybe but didn't drive much till I was a senior, when dad would let me take the car out. Probably learned to drive when I was 15.
What are some important life lessons you're learned that you'd like to share?
Oh, I don't know. I suppose you could say to do some thinking before you talk. I think everybody's that way. Not to blurt something out without thinking about it.
Did you ever look up to anybody when you were younger? Who?
Well, sure, I looked up to my dad and mother and uh, I'm not thinking of any others. Well, my sister of course cuz they were so much older- ten and 14 years older. Florence is the only sister I remember living at home.
Did you have one or two best friends when you were growing up?
No I didn't pal around with a lot of people. I had two or three special friends.
What were they like?
Well, I don't know we all were in the same grade in school. They were good boys. I can remember catching hell from the superintendent. One day he taught history and I don't remember what I said but he let me know. I was arguing, jeeze I can remember that well! He said, “Bruce, do you wanna stay here or get out!?” He was a hell of a nice guy, he was our coach. I didn't catch much hell in general. I got along with my teachers pretty well.
One achievement I have is every one of us (kids) swam across the lake by the time they were 11 or 12 and we had a boat of course and we did a lot of swimming.