It was January 8, 2011, and I was wavering about going out in that gloomy day. Just the day before we’d had a heavy snowfall, yet the Meetup.com group I agreed to join for a hike through Inwood Hill Park had decided to continue with their plans. I wanted to meet up with other local shutterbugs, and so trudged on out of my apartment building, and into the dull, white day.
I arrived at my destination with plenty of time, yet when I got there I didn’t find anyone. After waiting longer than I should have, I decided that I must have gotten the location wrong. Since I had already waded through the deep snow, I chose to venture into the outskirts of the park, to see if it was worth the trip.
The air was crisp, the sky featureless, and the city was unusually quiet. The lull seemed almost alien, yet the serenity ignited inspiration like a flame over kindling. I pulled out my camera, and began shooting another park visitor; a dog whose master had not yet caught up with it.
Eventually, my eye took me along a path, into the fluff-covered boughs of a frozen fantasyland. Rather than feeling alone, I felt the intimate presence of nature.
One photo at a time, I trudged to an intersection, where a similar path crosses at a T. There I encountered an older gentleman who donned a hat. He was being questioned about a woodpecker in the trees, just out of my line of sight. He pointed, directing their attention to the little creature. As they spoke of wildlife, I introduced myself to others who were not engaged in that conversation. Eventually the group, my group, left the hat-wearing gentleman alone in my company, and we began to speak.
He introduced himself as Yung Jee. He visited the park daily, feeding the birds that had come to recognize him as a friend. I asked him if I had misunderstood something that I overheard him telling the others. Did the woodpecker in the tree really fly down to eat from his hand?
He explained that it was not that particular woodpecker, but another which he had befriended, and worried over for some time. He explained that his friend would visit him each day, venturing into his open palm where it would find a cap of seed. Unfortunately, the bird hadn’t visited for awhile. Mr. Jee felt that something had happened to his little companion, and that he would not be seeing it again.
He then asked about my camera, how often I visited the park, and what I did for a living. After the formalities were out of the way, and I thanked him for his time, he did something unexpected. He offered to give me a tour.
For five hours, Mr. Jee lead me through the winding paths that lead up hills, over to glacial pot holes, and to the edge of the Spuyten Duyvil creek, while birds followed in our wake. We talked about his entourage and how they hoped for more of the seed he had been feeding them for years. We discussed the tranquility that was in that wooded gem; silent in its cold and downy blanket. He showed me the artwork, which he had peppered throughout the park. He told me that he liked to create it so that others might enjoy them, or might be surprised by their discovery. He spoke of how his circles represented eternity.
Some of his art was out in the open, and others he tucked away as though he wanted to enjoy a private scavenger hunt between him and others, in the know. He was quite proud, and posed along side them. I offered to give him copies of the photos in return for his hospitality. It was the least I could do.
As the afternoon grew darker, we decided to find a nice place to warm up. It turns out that he wasn’t a fan of coffee, and was in the mood for neither tea nor hot cocoa. What he was interested in was some apple pie, from McDonalds. He offered to treat, but I would hear none of it. At the very least, I wanted to show my appreciation. He deserved that and so much more.
He spoke of coming from Korea some 20 years ago, or so. He didn’t want to get into the details as to why he left, but it seems that strife played a large part in his decision. After retiring in 2008, he chose to spend his waking hours enjoying the birds, his art, and speaking with those he encountered.
As darkness overtook the light, we exchanged email addresses and parted ways with smiles and plans to meet again.
We never did.
As promised, I emailed him hoping to re-unite; me with a disk full of photos, and he with more tales, and art, and soft-spoken wisdom.
He never responded. I never went back.
As the years passed, I would speak of the kind-hearted man with the YouTube videos of a woodpecker which would visit and eat seed from his palm. He starred in a favorite photo of mine, and would always be the face of Inwood Hill Park, to me.
Last week, as I began editing photos from our recent snowstorms, I remembered this gentle man and the photos I had taken of him. I thought that since he was savvy enough to post videos on YouTube, that he might have a larger virtual presence.
As it turns out, his presence was well established, but not by him.
You see, I had been unaware that he had passed away in 2011. At 75 years old, he died of natural causes. A following mourned him online, and I learned of his demise through a DNAinfo.com article that was dedicated to him. In fact there were many web pages honoring his memory, including this one, and this one, and this one, and this page here. He touched so many lives.
I was struck numb.
Mr. Jee planted a seed of inspiration that would have me looking at the things that nature would hide right before my eyes. Every bird, squirrel, or fallen branch had a story to tell, and he showed me how to find it. Even the clouds in a white sky paints pictures, if you you just take a moment to consider them. Any 5-year old could tell you this, but I had somehow forgotten that simple truth. Yet this man, in his gentle and proud way, managed to infuse me with a child's vision. I might forget the simplicity of such natural beauty on occasion, but when faced with its glory, I also remember his love of the world around us.
It isn’t often that you meet someone who was as in his element with nature as were his feathered companions. Neither those few who we met on our excursion nor myself were ever treated like strangers, but like fellow travelers. Like an oak in the forest, he demonstrated neither daunting nor arrogance. He was a part of the place, and I was neither his guest nor his trespasser. I was his companion, and he was mine.
No. I believe that at least during the time that he shared with me, Mr. Jee was my friend.
I will miss him.