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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
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Fred Homer of Williamsville.

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A barn for the birds — and a coffin

Wildlife rehabilitator, artist, and educator Fred Homer discusses nature, life, and mortality

Wendy O’Connell hosts the award-winning series Here We Are: Brattleboro’s Community Talk Show, which airs weekly on Brattleboro Community Television and features conversations with a very wide variety of local people of all ages.

BRATTLEBORO—Fred Homer is a jack of all trades and a master of many, though he might be blushing at that description.

A wildlife rehabilitator, Fred has created a haven for injured animals in need of care and a safe place to recuperate.

Fred has really created a sanctuary on his property in his barn, where each bird has its own enclosure — sort of an AirBnB for them. They come, they stay awhile.

He is also an accomplished artist in wood and metal.

And for a shy guy, he is one of the best storytellers around. He writes fabulous stories about his life in the wild for Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC) in West Brattleboro.

* * *

W.O.: I think most people know you from your wildlife rehabilitation mini-program that you have going on at your own home. Can you tell us a story about one of your first experiences with animals or wildlife?

F.H.: I always was attracted to nature and spent a lot of time in nature. And when I was a little bitty kid — 5, 6 years of age — I found a dead bird. I remember its iridescence; I think it might have been a starling.

I thought it was something that I wanted to keep. And so I took it up into my room and I put it in the top drawer in my bureau.

And not too long thereafter, my mother smelled the smell and discovered it. And that was sort of my first inclination that some things weren’t going to stay as they were found.

I had many rocks and branches and collections of things, but live birds was a short-lived acquisition.

W.O.: So to speak. And a first taste of mortality, too.

F.H.: Absolutely. My mom was great because she allowed me to explore and learn through mishaps. I found praying mantis cocoons — they look like Styrofoam globs the size of a ping-pong ball. I’m not even sure I knew what they were. But I brought some of these home and put them somewhere in my room.

Wendy, these things hatched and there were hundreds, probably thousands—

W.O.: Oh, my god.

F.H.: Of these miniature praying mantises climbing up my wall.

W.O.: Oh, my god. Oh, my god.

F.H.: I don’t know how that was resolved. I’m hoping my mother didn’t use a vacuum cleaner, but I wouldn’t be critical if she did.

But I always had snakes and turtles and tadpoles and chrysalises.

I played as a kid. We grew up. We were playing baseball pickup games — Little League didn’t even exist back then. But I also spent a lot of solitary time just out and about finding stuff and bringing at home.

I would bring home seed pods and things like that, a branch that had a nice configuration. And rather than saying, “Fred, get this out of here,” my mother would put it in a vase and arrange it and have it on the coffee table. She really encouraged my interest.

School never made any sense, even college. I was so wanting to be somewhere else, and I wasn’t strong academically. I bet you in this day and age, I might even had some sort of a diagnostic term given to me. But fortunately, I had [encouraging] teachers like Miss Harper in fifth grade. She taught 36 kids, all by herself. No special needs teachers. No reading specialists.

W.O.: [As an adult, you went on to] work at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

F.H.: Yeah, that was a wonderful experience. For two summers I worked there and I was in charge of the programs that would be presented to the audiences that would come to the academy. That involved handling hawks and owls. We had a Mexican beaded lizard. We had a porcupine.

I used to teach a five-day program — two days of reptiles, a day of birds, a day of mammals, and a day of insects — for inner-city kids. It was so great — they were just eyes wide open. And I got this wonderful note from a little girl. I have saved it all of these years.

“Dear Mr. Homer, thank you,” she wrote. “When I first came, I was afraid of snakes. But now, every time I see a snake, I’ll think of you.”

W.O.: Did that kind of pique your interest in teaching? Because you had a bit of a career as a teacher,.

F.H.: I did have a career. Did it pique? It certainly tweaked. And I incorporated it into my classroom. I had a ferret. I had a snake, several snakes, turtles. I used to bring my dog to school.

Things were so different then, Wendy. I don’t think teachers are now in Vermont allowed to have live animals in their classroom. But it allowed me to continue with my interest. We got out of the classroom whenever we could.

I was in Cherry Hill, N.J. for four years, married, two children from a previous marriage. And one day I just realized I could be anywhere that I wanted to be. And I love to ski. I just sent out applications and landed a job at Whitingham School in Whitingham, Vt.

W.O.: In Vermont. You had your eye on Vermont a little bit for the skiing?

F.H.: I did indeed. And my former wife and I drove to Whitingham. We met Don Ford, the principal. He said, “I want to call down and see if the superintendent’s available.” Bob Burnell came up. They said, “I wonder if such and such, the head of the school committee is [available]?” And he came up on his motorcycle.

So we were all sitting there, and it was almost a done deal then and there. They said they just needed to make a further check, to make sure I wasn’t some weirdo.

W.O.: So you got pretty ensconced in Vermont?

F.H.: Oh, yes, absolutely.

W.O.: And you were teaching for a number of years.

F.H.: Eight years in Vermont. I went through one of those midlife crises and went through a divorce. Then I applied for a job in Rowe, Mass. and took a teaching position there.

Then I became an administrator after several years. And ... what is it, the Peter Principle? Rising to your level of incompetence? Oh, Lord, have mercy. I was no more suited to be a principal of an elementary school than a neurosurgeon. I just — it wasn’t working out well.

W.O.: Yes, but you got bitten by another bug, right?

F.H.: Well, the blacksmithing bug. So I remarried. My wife, Debbie Feiner, a physical therapist. We’ve been together for 40 years. So I would have been 40 years old. She said, “Fred, you know, this is a good time to be evaluating your life.”

I used to hang out with this delightful guy, Percy Dodge, and he had a old tumbling down barn where he would do iron work. And I just enjoyed hanging out with him. He’d habitually smoke Camel cigarettes and was chewing tobacco at the same time.

So Debbie said, well, you know, there’s an iron work shop on Western Avenue. Why don’t you just see — maybe they need somebody? And I called and they said, “Yeah, we’re looking for somebody.” I said, “When can I start?”

W.O.: Lee Morrell. In West Brattleboro for a number of years. You weren’t able to do your own work. But you were learning.

F.H.: I was learning. And it was an important initial step. It really was. And then this fella, Ed, from Poland, was a political refugee, and he was phenomenal. I certainly learned that, with iron, the limitation is your creativity rather than the material that you’re working with.

W.O.: How did you get into wildlife rehabilitation?

F.H.: Yeah. I sort of formalized my interest when Dr. Ron Svec at the Vermont-New Hampshire Veterinary Clinic had a broad wing hawk and he set a wing. It needed space to recuperate. It needed food.

We had built a barn, and I had a stall that was available. That initiated me taking the steps to get my license.

He’s the only vet in the southern part of the state who does wild bird rehabilitation.

W.O.: Had you ever rehabilitated birds before that, Fred? Besides when you were a kid and you didn’t get to rehabilitate that one bird?

F.H.: My experiences at the Academy of Natural Sciences were quite exciting. We had a red tail that I would use and a barred owl, and a great horned owl. So I had quite a bit of interaction with these birds. But no, I hadn’t done any rehabilitation other than as a kid maybe helping something out.

Actually, I started with both mammals and birds. And that’s a whole other demand. Patti Smith is the one who does the mammals now. Baby birds sleep at night, but baby mammals need 24 hours a day of attention. So from dawn to dusk, you might be feeding baby birds every half hour or so, but at sundown, they quiet down.

W.O.: So was that one of the reasons you stopped with mammals?

F.H.: That, and then the kids grew up. They used to participate.

So many stories with them. Once we got this little meadow vole that was the size of this joint on my finger, totally naked. And my daughter Kestrel said, “Daddy, you have to take care of it.” I said, “Well, we’ll try. But there’s not much hope.”

And I would, with a hypodermic syringe, squeeze fluid into it, and the skin was so thin you’d actually see the belly fill up with the formula.

The damn thing lived!.

She got a terrarium. It had swings, it had ramps, and it was — I don’t want to exaggerate, but it connected to her.

After the vole was feeding totally on its own, we had a wonderful father–daughter moment. I said, “Kestrel, you know, we have to let this meadow vole go.”

“But... It might not survive,” she said.

I said, “Yeah, it might not. But this is what we have to do.”

She said, “We’ll find other meadow voles?”

“I can’t guarantee that. I think so,” I said.

So we went on this early, gorgeous autumn day into our field, and we sat down. She had the meadow vole in a little box. She took it out and was holding it.

“Do you think it’s ready?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” I said.

She put this ridiculous thing down that would be, you know, snapping in our traps on other occasions, and it scampered away.

W.O.: And she did OK with that?

F.H.: You know, it was a tough moment for a little kid. Tough moment for a dad.

W.O.: That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. But it’s another moment of mortality, right?

F.H.: Oh, my goodness. Yeah. Yeah.

I had to euthanize a bard owl. And that was the poignancy. I will never take that lightly. I know the protocol, and I know what needs to be done. And I know it’s supposed to be fairly benign. I use a CO2 tank, you know, an enclosure. But I just hate that ominous burden of being the one who turns on the gas and takes its life, you know?

And conversely, the moment when you release these birds into the wild, there’s a lot of poignancy with it.

I’m not supposed to keep birds on a permanent basis. To keep a bird, you have to have all sorts of federal licenses. And you can’t just keep it because you’re a nice person. You have to be utilizing it in some public way.

W.O.: And, Fred, you get a lot of phone calls, don’t you? People who find any animal in the wild gets hurt and they bring them to you?

F.H.: Yeah. I think I think a part of my service is just being empathetic to people when they call. And some people are just really desperate to do something. And I’ve certainly told people to bring me birds that I don’t think have much chance to survive. But in some way, it serves them to be able to hand it over to someone else.

I’ve had such a diversity of people bring me birds. I’ve had seedy guys and gals with a case of open beer between them and a pickup truck come to me holding a great blue heron, which is a pretty formidable creature. I’ve had a woman once drive up in her Mercedes convertible. I think the birds give us the opportunity to put aside political, social, religious beliefs — all judgments. And it sort of touches a common place in us.

W.O.: You have worked so beautifully with metal work from your blacksmithing experience and also wood. I have seen many of the things that you’ve made over the years, which are just really wonderful and delightful and beautiful. I appreciate them very much.

I think especially with your the work you do with wood. I know that you see pieces of wood all over the property and you’re culling from your own backyard, literally. What is the process that you have with that piece of work? Because something draws you to it.

F.H.: Well, sometimes it suggests something right from the get go and then sometimes it’s just a configuration that’s unusual. And sometimes I trip over these things for years and years before I finally do something. But I guess my modus is to see something that resembles something in my mind. And then make it a little more close to what I see. But I like to maintain that original integrity.

W.O.: The little project you had with the metal figures. Can you talk about that a little bit?

F.H.: A neighbor, JoEllen Falk, gave me a claw-foot bathtub. And she said, I thought you might do something with it. And I’ve had a great time just grinding away and modifying the feet. I don’t add anything to them. I made faces and then you can turn them over and set them up and they just look like little people. And each one has its own unique personality, which is a wonderful aspect.

W.O.: You also have something else in the barn that’s unusual. Can you tell us about that?

F.H.: Well, if we are both talking about the same thing, would that be my coffin?

W.O.: Yes, indeed.

F.H.: Gracious. Years ago, I had a dear friend and her father died and she asked if I would come with her to help her select the coffin. And I just found the process incredibly exploitive of a woman in pain and incredibly expensive.

I said, no way. I don’t want to do that. In Newfane, at least — I don’t know if this is the case throughout Vermont — you can be buried on your own property. The Board of Health comes, checks out your site, makes sure you aren’t going to be leeching into somebody’s well.

I picked up $80 worth of lumber at the most and I made my own coffin. I made six handles so it’ll be easy to carry. So for a grand total of probably less than $250, I’m set to go.

And in part, this is a great leverage for anybody who is married. Deb often accuses me of not thinking beyond where I am at the moment. And so whenever she says, “Fred, did you remember to take out the —?,” I say, “No. But I got my coffin ready to go.”

W.O.: And it is absolutely plain. But the other remarkable thing about it—

F.H.: I had a friend who gave me a quote. It’s a John Prine quote: “He lived in heaven before he died.” And she said, “Fred, I really think you ought to stick this on your coffin.” So I stapled this quote up there, and then other people said, “Oh, I have a quote you might like.” So I have quotes from everyone from Yogi Berra to Copernicus.

And just one other aspect about that coffin. It seems a little macabre to some people. It doesn’t seem at all macabre to me because I look at it every day.

But it’s a reminder of the fragility of our existence.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #533 (Wednesday, October 23, 2019). This story appeared on page A1.

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