Just before Jerry Gorsline died he loaned me a book: “Black Brant: Sea Goose of the Pacific Coast.” We had exchanged stories about this bird through email; Jerry was eager to get the book into my hands. When I went to his home to pick it up, he was having difficulty breathing.
Though Jerry’s physical health was poor, two of his core attributes remained intact: his deep appreciation for the natural world, and his generosity. Despite his suffering, he was determined to share the book, and stories of a bird he loved, with me. He spoke of the striking plumage of this small sea goose, the soft cronk of its voice, the eelgrass it grazes at the ocean’s edge.
Jerry’s legacy is large in many places I care about, including Kah Tai Prairie, a remnant of the wildflower-strewn meadows that once carpeted much of the land around Port Townsend. Jerry’s legacy also lives on in many people I admire.
Tim McNulty has given the Olympic Peninsula an eloquent voice with his poetry and his many natural history books. Tim considers Jerry a mentor, as well as a friend. Willi Smothers, who inspired me to learn about botany with his boundless enthusiasm for endemic plants in the Olympic high country, credits Jerry with sparking his interest in native flora a few decades ago. Even if I hadn’t met Jerry, I still would have benefited from his influence on the land and people of the Olympic Peninsula.
I first met Jerry when I was launching an effort to preserve an old-growth forest. I had heard he’d led some successful conservation efforts and was excited to get to know him. With his eyeglasses and plaid shirt, he looked woodsy and studious. As we chatted in his home surrounded by books and views of Discovery Bay, his voice hardly rose above a hoarse whisper, and he seemed painfully thin. His health was deteriorating, but I imagined him lean and soft-spoken as a young man, eager to share natural history knowledge with fellow tree planters in the forest, eager to get books into their hands as they hiked through the wilds.
Jerry was born in New York in 1940. At age 18 he headed west to San Francisco, and in the 1970s he arrived on the Olympic Peninsula. He was a founder of Olympic Reforestation, a forestry co-op, and he helped organize Salal Cafe, a cooperative restaurant in Port Townsend. He worked as a consulting forester for Washington Environmental Council until retirement, and his volunteer work through the Washington Native Plant Society and other organizations was extensive.
While talking with Jerry I learned that, like me, he had no formal training in forestry or conservation biology, and was self-taught. It’s always great fun to meet a fellow autodidact—I liked Jerry immensely, as well as admiring him for his pioneering conservation work and outreach. The more I spoke with Jerry, the more I felt the comfort of encountering a kindred mind. As our conversations progressed, we realized we’d both had our worldview shaped by Buddhism and our readings of the Stoic philosophers.
Jerry gave me copies of books he’d written and edited—“Rainshadow,” “Working the Woods, Working the Sea,” and “Shadows of our Ancestors”—and in our conversations he gave me practical conservation advice. But more importantly, he gave me inspiration. When I was feeling overwhelmed and underequipped for the effort to save the forest, Jerry convinced me to continue. When I was inclined to quit, he gifted me his tools.
One day when I was feeling particularly daunted, I went to visit Jerry. He placed in my hands his increment borer—a long drill used to core trees and count their growth rings. I felt like an apprentice knight being presented his first sword, or Luke Skywalker receiving Obi-Wan Kenobi’s lightsaber. Along with the increment borer, Jerry handed me his D-tape, or diameter tape, a tape measure for quantifying tree diameter. This tool was holstered in a leather pouch rubbed smooth from years of use.
Jerry also gave me a handmade wooden box, its drawers filled with maps, many of them worn thin as tissue paper and deeply creased. I carry these maps with me into the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula to show me the way. The maps seem to remember how to fold themselves, having been in the hands for many years of someone who came before me.
A few months before Jerry died, we started corresponding by email about the remarkable resurgence of life in Discovery Bay: the prolific herring spawns, the return of humpback whales after many decades of absence, a plant called harvest brodiaea blooming on a prairie slope scorched by fire.
When I visited Jerry to pick up the book about brant geese, I told him what I’d witnessed the day before: a gray whale feeding in the mudflats of Discovery Bay, and one of the most prolific feeding frenzies I’d ever watched—rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, cormorants, mergansers, grebes, gulls, eagles, seals, porpoises all corralling bait balls of silvery forage fish. Jerry told me that years ago the bay had been a “biological desert.” Nature is resilient, we agreed, and given a helping hand from us humans, places we have damaged can regenerate with remarkable vigor.
As I shared with Jerry all the life I’d encountered on the bay below the bluff on which he’d built his home, he said, “That’s so wonderful to hear.” Between sips of oxygen delivered from a machine, he asked me if I’d seen a western grebe on the water, one of his favorite birds. His phone rang. It was time for me to go. He died that night.
The tools Jerry gifted me are among my most prized possessions. But I am only their temporary keeper. I’m getting too old to be among the “new guard” of conservationists on the Olympic Peninsula. One of the last things I told Jerry was that in my work as a naturalist and educator I meet so many young people who are determined to make a difference—they give me hope that this planet can be healed. Soon I will be placing Jerry’s increment borer in their hands.
When I pass Jerry’s forestry tools to the next generation, I will tell them about a man who so loved the natural world, and was so determined to share this love with others, that he summoned me to his home when he was dying to give me a book about geese, and to tell me about the beauty of these birds. Jerry is survived by his wife, Beth MacBarron, who has also inspired many people to preserve the natural heritage of the Olympic Peninsula.
Top photo: Black Brants in flight by Joel Rogers