Adaptation, sacrifice key to success for nature journalist

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BY JESSECA WHALEN

Before he was walking, George Harrison’s parents moved his crib next to the window so he could watch the birds. Seventy-four years later, he’s still doing what he loves.
“Birds are unique in the animal world, because they are so dynamic. The fact that they can fly so effortlessly, alone, is a good enough reason to enjoy watching them,” Harrison says. “But there is more to it. Their entire behavior is fascinating … color, movement, feeding, song, sleep, migration, bathing, breeding, nesting, eggs, etc. No other life form can match it. I never get tired watching birds.”
Raised in Pennsylvania, Harrison has made a living sharing his passion with others. Now a resident of Wisconsin, he has written 13 books, worked for National Wildlife Magazine for 42 years, and was a founding editor of Birds and Blooms, the largest birding magazine in the world with a circulation of 2 million. He’s also amassed a personal photo portfolio of more than 80,000 images.
“Photography has undergone many changes, just like print,” he said. “Film is a four-letter word, and it’s extinct for the most part. Photographers have had to work on compensating for that by exploring new genres of images.”
It’s interesting and frustrating, he added. Being a writer means being a jack of all trades, something that excites Harrison unless he’s stuck behind a desk.
“Writing is something I’ve had to force myself to do,” he said. “It’s not necessarily hard for me; I’d just rather be outside.”
An OWAA member since 1963 and Board president from 1985-86, Harrison said the organization was a vehicle that allowed his passion for the outdoors to be conveyed to more people by increasing his contacts within the outdoor journalism field. Among Harrison’s many awards in writing, broadcast and photography are those he received as an OWAA member. He received the Jade of Chiefs Award in 1981 and the Ham Brown Distinguished Service award in 2006.
He has also met many friends during his years in OWAA, including 96-yearold Homer Circle, an OWAA legend who was president from 1967-68.
Circle said that he and Harrison have known each other at least 25 years.
“I liked him from the start,” Circle said. “He had a ready smile, and I liked the way he responded to questions.”
They still correspond at least once a year, and Circle always receives a letter or card on his birthday. He said Harrison excels at what he does because “He is George Harrison. He has a great honesty. When he says something you know it’s the bottom line.
“I gave him lots of assignments,” Circle continued, matter-of-factly. “He did them very fine.”
Harrison and Circle even took a trip to South America together.
Now retired and living in his Florida home, Circle worked for a time as the angling editor for Sports Afield magazine, while Harrison was the nature editor for 25 years. Although Harrison has visited more than 50 countries on six continents, he recalled the South America adventure for one reason: the unparalleled birding.
“We went to Cotemaco, [Mexico], where the previous year, Sports Illustrated reported that the largest bird count in the world had taken place,” Harrison said. “There were 325 species in a 24-hour period.”
The Christmas Bird Count, as it’s officially called, happens all over the world every year on a selected day between Christmas and New Year’s. People count from midnight to midnight, getting little to no sleep in the process. Harrison said that
anyone can partake, from any locale.
“You can even sit in your own living room!” Harrison said with a chuckle.
He’s not joking. As the former host of numerous PBS specials such as “The Backyard Bird Watcher” and “Garden Birds of America,” Harrison believes in rediscovering places you’ve looked at — but maybe haven’t really seen – until you pick up a pair of binoculars and do some backyard exploring. He and his wife, Kit, who was the conservation editor of Sports Afield, try to get outside as much as their schedules allow. According to Harrison, Kit also dislikes being behind a desk.
“Kit is a very good writer, but enjoys writing less than I do,” Harrison said. “It’s
like having PMS twice a month;’ that’s her quote, not mine.”
He laughed warmly before digging into the issues modern journalists face, aside from “the age-old” writer’s block.
“Journalism has become an insecure vocation,” Harrison said. “It’s important of course — I mean, it’s in the Constitution, but employers don’t value it as much as they used to.”
He added that in general, print media has been replaced by electronic media.
“I’m listening to a book a week on my iPod,” he said. “I don’t read anymore. Even my newspaper is electronic.”
But Harrison was quick to say that print media will still matter in years to come.
“There’s always going to be a market out there,” he said. “I’ve gotta say, my income is less than it used to be, but I get by just fine.”
Because of the cost, he and Kit recently had to give up a cottage they owned in
Gloustershire, England, where they lived two months out of every year for 30 years.
Sacrifices are sometimes necessary, he said. His voice is light, his tone optimistic.
“You have to be adaptable,” he finished.
Some things never change. ♦
—Jesseca Whalen is an intern at OWAA HQs. Born and raised in Idaho, she’s been in Montana for five years while completing a B.A. in journalism and B.S. in marketing. Her intern duties include crafting Character Sketch articles and compiling department items for OU. Contact her at info@owaa.org.
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