Ever since Charles Darwin made nature popular, nature writers have tended to fall into two categories: the dryly scientific and the wetly sentimental. When a writer of one school looked at a ferret, for example, he saw only a species of Mustela. To the writer of the opposite persuasion, the ferret was likely to be a cloyingly cuddlesome, semi-human baby with a darling fur coat.
In Bil Gilbert, whose Pop Goes the Ferret! begins on page 98, we have a different kind of naturalist and a nature writer who is attracting national attention. Gilbert's outdoor world is vibrant with birds and animals that do things—often foolish, sometimes wise, things. His subjects are highly individualized ("There is a great deal of difference between any two hawks," he insists) but are never anthropomorphic. Their behavior is illuminated by his profound knowledge of animal ways, and by his wit and felicity in communicating that knowledge.
Our own relationship with Bil (from his father's initials, B.L.) has not been a long one, but we have had a proprietary interest in him since he submitted his original story three years ago. We have listened patiently as he has explained why he wanted to write pieces on falcons, the bison, shrews, minks, and an exploring trip on which nothing got explored. We have learned to say: "Go ahead, Bil, if you really want to." The resulting prose has been distinctive and memorable.
Gilbert has not been content to be categorized as a nature writer, albeit an unusual one. At various times he has proposed articles on smoke jumping, caving, canoeing, taxonomy, snow-shoeing, the Georgetown football team and how a U.S. Open is run. We put our O.K. on the last one, and in came The Amateur Hour in Pro Sports (SI, June 15), a deft story which proved that a man who can tail a shrew has no trouble seeing what people are up to.
December 7, 1964
Now 37, Gilbert was enrolled in the Foreign Service School at Georgetown University in 1947, and had plans to see the world as a diplomat. He got sidetracked when one of his short stories won a $200 prize. Gilbert married Ann Leander in June 1950, and they bicycled through Ontario, then went by canoe through the Lake Timagami district—a 1,600-mile honeymoon trip.
While Bil's marriage flourished, his writing promise was not fulfilled immediately. In fact, until he began contributing to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED he was known principally to naturalists for careful papers on such topics as the Smithsonian Institution's efforts to control the screwworm.
One of our editors visited Bil at his home in Fairfield, Pa. last week, and reported that the scene at the Gilbert ménage (or menagerie) was quite as expected. "When I arrived," he said, "the oldest child, Ky, who is 11, was walking across the yard with a handful of beef hearts to feed to his hawk. Lyn, who is 9, was being watched by two younger Gilberts—Lee, 7, and Kate, 3½—as she balanced her hawk, a tiny kestrel, on her gloved arm. The afternoon soon began to ring with cries of, 'Grab the string!' and, 'Help!' and, "Daddy, he got away!' This last could have applied to hawks, falcons, shrews, dogs, finches, a guinea pig, a goat, a cat, a canary or even small Gilberts."
Imperturbably presiding over this happy chaos was Bil himself. It was a proper setting, perhaps the only setting, for a man whose work combines casual humor, exact observation and poetic evocation of the wilderness he loves and the creatures that inhabit it.