Now Hear This! Gus Ben David Is Such a Beauty
By JULIA WELLS
Gazette Senior Writer
Today's lesson is turtles.
A tiny boy wearing a T-shirt, shorts and cap stands up suddenly and shades his eyes with his hands.
"I can't see, Gus - sorry!" he exclaims.
The boy is a Fern and Feather camper, from all appearances a veteran camper - however improbable that may be since he is barely north of six. Like most of the other campers, he and Gus Ben David are on a first-name basis.
Can't see, the boy insists agreeably.
But Gus can see and what he sees on this sultry July morning at Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in the outskirts of Edgartown amazes him. He looks at the ragged semicircle of children seated on the ground around him and says artlessly: "Oh my goodness such beauty, look at all these young faces. My, my, my what beauty."
And it is.
Today at 5:30 p.m. at the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center, Augustus Ben David 2nd will receive the prestigious Ruth Bogan Creative Living Award. A one-time honorarium from the Permanent Endowment Fund of Martha's Vineyard, the award goes each year to an Islander who exemplifies the spirit of the Vineyard and has made a contribution to Island life.
Contribution is somehow an inadequate word, but then it's hard to put a word on Gus, who has directed the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary for 35 years, and along with it Fern and Feather - the natural history camp for children which is at the heart of the mission for Felix Neck. Fern and Feather marks its 40th year this month.
But back to the turtles. Box, painted, spotted and of course snapping - all are scheduled to make an appearance this morning, and one by one out they come from an assortment of sheetrock buckets arranged in the cargo compartment of Gus's truck. Gus's hands are moving and he is talking and the turtles keep coming.
The chattering children fall silent.
"There are four kinds of turtles on Martha's Vineyard, and I worry about all of them," Gus begins.
He holds up a box turtle, and now his voice is a singsong of local dialect, the R's dropping off the ends of words like flower petals in a summer breeze.
"The box turtle is in such trouble and there are so few left, that if you take even one out of the wild, to be a good conservationist you don't have to do a heck of a lot. Put it back in the wild and you become a beautiful conservationist. Put it in your pocket and take it home and you become a poa-cha," he says.
But there is more to learn this morning than the difference between a conservationist and a poacher.
"A raccoon will kill one of these turtles, but that is not cruel, that's nature - there is no cruelty in nature, there is only one creature in nature that is cruel and you know which one that is. Animals don't hurt your feelings," Gus says.
One morning later the inveterate sanctuary director sits on a bench at the duck pond at Felix Neck, accompanied only by a newspaper reporter and two immature swans. A soft rain falls, dimpling the pond.
"My father told me not to take this job," he recalls. "He was old school, told me I could never be my own person working for a group of people."
Gus didn't heed his father's advice and 35 years ago on a misty, foggy morning much like this morning, the young man who grew up on a farm in Oak Bluffs, whose childhood dream was to own a wildlife farm and teach children about nature, began work as the director of the sanctuary.
"So I say, what if I had stayed with my dream of a wildlife farm. What if. But we live our whole lives with what ifs," he says.
He recalls the early board members at Felix Neck, people who were his mentors, including the late Anne Hale, Elizabeth Goodale and Arnold Brown. Then other names begin to tumble out - Mary Thomas, his first grade teacher, Mait Edey, Mary Ann Hoxsie, Horace Brooker, Emma Carmichael. Names beget more names, and this time it is old farmers: Everett Whiting, Ozzie Fisher, Arnold Fisher, Elisha Smith. Elisha taught Gus how to milk a cow and gave him his first calf.
"Mentors, all my mentors. You try to explain that history, but you can't," he says.
The only time he left the Vineyard was to go to college, where he earned a degree in poultry science at the state university at Stockbridge, and later to go into the service. He was graduated from college in 1964, went into the army in the same year, missed a tour of duty in Viet Nam only by the luck of the draw, and had friends who were not so lucky.
"When I was in college I couldn't wait to get back to the Vineyard and back to the farm. I didn't need to go to school, I did it to satisfy my dad," he says.
He returned to the Vineyard in 1966. His first job was an egg business, which he operated from Gus and Gus Farm. He had 500 laying hens.
He looks at the pond, lost for a minute in memories.
"All places change, we live in a dynamic system, but I don't think anyplace has changed so fast as Martha's Vineyard. The Vineyard is a victim of her own beauty, things have changed so fast it's hard to comprehend," he says.
Gus's credentials are too long to list, but among other things he is one of only a few people in the country licensed to fly and work with golden and bald eagles.
An osprey flies overhead.
The story of the ospreys is a Gus Ben David story all its own.
In the early 1970s the osprey population on the Vineyard had dwindled to almost nothing, along with the dead pitch pines, the fish hawk's favored nesting site. The birds had begun to build their nests on top of electric and telephone poles, and every spring work crews for the utility companies would remove the nests from the poles.
"Nobody was in the wrong, it was just one of the rites of spring - the Cape and Vineyard crews would take the nests down," he recalls.
So Gus started a project to bring back the osprey by putting up old telephone poles in coastal areas. It was a story of hard work and cooperation - the poles went up by hand on private property with the permission of landowners. Local utility workers, most of whom Gus knew, pitched in to help.
The result is now evident on the Vineyard every spring. This year there were 67 pairs of osprey nesting on the Vineyard.
"They are the harbingers of spring, and they are as loved as the pinkletinks," he says. A longtime resident of Trapps Pond had put up a pole at her house some years ago, and this year a pair of ospreys nested on the pole for the first time. The landowner called Gus, in tears, with her news.
"This is Gus's word about the poles: Put them up and then be patient," he smiles.
He turns 61 in November - by his own admission, 61 going on 30.
"You've got to be a kid to educate, you've got to be a kid to teach kids. You've got to try to make this life a little lighter," he says.
He has a few quotations he keeps around, including a favorite from Celeste Holm: "We live by encouragement and we die without it, slowly, sadly and angrily."
But on this day he also admits that more and more his thoughts point toward retirement, at least from this job.
The Wonderful World of Reptiles, a unique bird and reptile sanctuary that Gus operates from his own house, not far from Felix Neck, is where he wants to focus his attention full time.
Not this year, but soon.
"What I am thinking about now," he concludes, "is to realize that boyhood dream that's been on hold for 35 years."