The egrets have landed in Berkeley. For the next few months, longtime Berkeley resident Gerry Traucht (pronounced “Gary Trout”) is exhibiting his egret photography all over town. The venues include an art gallery, three cafés, the North Branch of the Berkeley Public Library — and even a hair salon. The 60 or so works are collectively called “Wild Elegance: Egrets in Our Midst.”
In recognition of this body of work, the City of Berkeley plans to give Traucht an award in the spring. Art Ambassador Susan Duhan Felix honors an artist at City Council meetings almost every month. She said she chose Traucht because his beautiful work prompts people to consider what our responsibility is toward birds and toward nature. “I think that’s worth honoring,” she said.
Traucht has exhibited egret pictures in Berkeley before, including at Expressions Gallery and Au Coquelet. But, with the cluster of new exhibitions as well as the award, his career is peaking in a way that one might not have expected. After all, Traucht is 72 (albeit youthful), and his fascination with egrets emerged just six years ago.
Before that, Traucht mainly photographed dogs, dancers and other artists’ work. Prior to that, he was a spoken-word performer who read his poetry on the university circuit from Toronto to the Bay Area, rubbing shoulders with Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
A sudden obsession
Traucht’s egret obsession developed quite suddenly in 2011. He has since come to feel that his encounters with egrets have altered his life — and that they could affect the rest of us profoundly as well.
He sees the egrets as messengers trying to awaken us to the perilous state of our environment, and he views himself as their humble stenographer, one who seeks to capture their message and pass it along.
Believing that we’re on the “eve of destruction” in terms of both environmental degradation and our government’s misdeeds, Traucht feels an acute urgency to have others interpret the egrets’ message as soon as possible. In a deep, gravelly voice, he says that that just “may save us from where we’re going.”
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Traucht did not have such views.
“The way I was brought up, we really didn’t look at nature as having anything to say,” he says, laughing. “Nature wasn’t something that anybody talked about very much at that point. Nature was more for hunting and fishing.”
Many decades after that Catholic upbringing, he has quite a different perspective.
“Nature is a religion, and I never understood that before. But now I can see what the great naturalists are talking about. It’s absolutely profound if you open yourself to it.”
Traucht now sees nature as producing art as great as anything in museums.
Before his transformation, he attended Bowling Green University, where he majored in English and pop culture. He then taught English in Ohio for a while, subsequently touring as a poet working “in the oral tradition,” though he also published his poems in his 1978 book 13 Women.
Traucht first visited the Bay Area during summer 1969. Five years later, he and his wife, the artist Ellie Fidler, relocated from Toronto to Berkeley, and they’ve lived in the same house ever since. They chose Berkeley partly because he felt so moved by the place and by the views of the bay. Plus, he says, the poetry scene here was very active at the time.
Since the time he was young, he says, his main focus was the spoken word. For him, poetry provided its own way of seeing and feeling things. “It’s another language, another way of speaking.”
He gave poetry performances until 15 or 20 years ago, doing multimedia shows at Yoshi’s and at the Oakland Museum as masters of the sitar, flute, violin, taiko drums and didgeridoo accompanied him, collectively “weaving a magical spell through poetry and music.”
But, he notes, “Poetry isn’t for everyone.” Although poems have their own “magic and music,” they also present a barrier and even a stigma.
“Photography,” he says, “is another way of doing poetry. People don’t necessarily read a poem, but they’ll look at a photograph, and they’ll have a reaction” if the picture has “that power.”
Who isn’t interested in pelicans?
After shifting his focus to photography, Traucht spent years going to Aquatic Park in Berkeley, taking pictures of all kinds of wildlife, especially pelicans as they dove and fished.
Why pelicans? Traucht is taken aback by the question: “Who isn’t interested in pelicans?” he responds. “They’re the modern-day version of the pterodactyl. They’re incredible. They’re ancient.”
He then recites the well-known rhyme “Pity the poor pelican! His bill can hold more than his belly can.” Traucht notes that the pelican can actually invert its own pouch to air it out. “They’re such a wondrously strange bird. To think that anything could divert my attention from a pelican was unheard of!”
That changed in 2011. Throughout the year, more and more birds arrived at the lagoon near Potter Street, which is parallel to, and just north of, Ashby Avenue. Traucht enjoyed the increased presence of pelicans, cormorants, grebes, coots, swifts, herons, hawks, owls, ducks, stilts, peeps, turkey buzzards, gulls and yes, egrets.
Normally, he says, there are two egrets at either end of the mile-long lagoon, each pair consisting of one snowy egret and one great egret. But that year, there were increasing numbers of both.
Then came a disaster
Then came a disaster. On Dec. 10, 2011 diesel fuel spilled on the UC Berkeley campus — 1,650 gallons of it. More than half seeped into Strawberry Creek and flowed into Aquatic Park and the bay.
By Dec. 12, about 30 egrets had congregated at the lagoon, says Traucht. Soon the number swelled to about 50.
“There seemed to be something more than fishing going on,” he says, noting that egrets go where the fish are but that he actually saw very few fish then. “This was something special.”
Spotting a great deal of plumage raised in “magical displays,” he focused on photographing each breathtaking bird.
When Traucht later reviewed the photos, he was particularly struck by the distinct, powerful personalities of the birds who appeared to be the leaders. He dubbed them the magician, the royal couple, the emperor and the Shinto priest.
Traucht says of the priest, “You could just feel his aura, even when he had his back to you. There was something very powerful emanating from him. He wasn’t interested in fishing whatsoever. He seemed to be somehow meditating and healing the lagoon.”
Rising above stress
The egrets didn’t shy away from the fuel spill.
“What amazed me was that they seemed unperturbed by it,” says Traucht. “They studied it for a while, doing a Zen-like meditation on the water, and eventually they waded into it. And they began ceremonies that you’d expect a tribe of Native people to perform.”
He believes that the heightened behavior was a direct response to the stress on the environment. “The lagoon was fevered at that point,” he notes. And certain egrets rose to the occasion.
As Traucht puts it: “All living things have a higher dimension. You can see it in humans, and you can see it in all sorts of animals. When there’s a war or when you’re under stress, certain individuals rise to something beyond themselves, something where they’re not aware of what they have. And I was seeing this in the egrets.”
After wading into the water, they began stirring up the mud and the microorganisms with their feet and moving the air with their wings, he says. “It was as if I was suddenly feeling the lagoon begin to stir and breathe.” With their movements, he adds, they healed its heart and soul.
Calling such a display holy, Traucht says, “They’re a very spiritual, inspiring bird.”
For the next three years, egrets kept coming to the lagoon in groups of 15 or 20 during winters, and Traucht continued to show up, as well.
I was just humble. Whenever I would go down there, I’d wait a few minutes, and there they would be,” he says.
Initially, as Traucht witnessed their unusual movements, he felt like someone who has found hieroglyphs and wonders, “Were these just a child’s paintings on the wall or did they mean something?” He couldn’t tell whether the birds were going through their normal routines in the wetlands or whether they were communicating.
He’s now convinced that the egrets were trying to convey something. They were seeking a stenographer, he says. “All I did was record. I recorded it to the best of my abilities.”
Calling himself unprepared for what they gave him, he does not take the situation lightly: “There are times when you discover something so life-altering and off the chart and magical that you need to do something with it.” He adds, “They’re giving something profound, something that I hardly know what to do with, so I’m just passing it on.”
Traucht believes that it’s essential for his egret photos to get out into the world as soon as possible.
“I feel that there’s something extraordinarily valuable here. And to me it seems like there’s a timeline on it, so that people can hear what nature is trying to tell us. Our survival depends upon it,” he says.
John Kelly, Director of Conservation Science at Audubon Canyon Ranch in Marin and Sonoma Counties, is an egret expert who has provided scientific comments alongside pictures of birds on Traucht’s website.
Kelly said Traucht “beautifully captures the life of these birds … with far more sensitivity than most other photographers.” He added, “His images illuminate so many of the elegant and graceful behaviors that account for how these birds actually live.”
In the same vein, Cindy Margulis, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, said she would like to see Traucht’s exhibition going places. (Much to Traucht’s delight, the Audubon Society has taken the great egret as its symbol.)
An ongoing quest
Traucht keeps going to Aquatic Park whenever he can, managing about two or three times a week, but the egrets seldom reciprocate. There isn’t much egret activity these days, he says, certainly not with 50 present at a time and not with the vivid personalities he saw before.
If they’re going to show up at Aquatic Park, they’ll likely do so from November through January, though some of them migrate south in the winter.
In the spring and summer the egrets move over to Alameda, where they nest and mate in a pine tree on Bay Farm Island behind Safeway. Traucht has photographed them there extensively.
He notes, “There are other pine trees around, but they always come back to the same pine tree until there are hardly any needles left on it. The male egret will build a nest and also present the female with a branch to enchant her, to win her affection. They’re very romantic!”
In Alameda, Traucht has seen more of the egrets’ culture and has developed “a feeling for their families.” For instance, he observes that the babies are nasty. The parents feel so annoyed by their badgering that they roost in an adjacent tree and keep an eye on the little ones from a distance.
He is happy to photograph egrets “all over the Bay Area, hither and yon,” but he knows there’s also more to explore in the photos he has shot and not yet printed. “Even years later, I’m discovering things in there that I totally missed before. The more you begin to see, the more you begin to piece it together.”
He recognizes that it’s quite easy to live in Berkeley and never be aware of the egrets at Aquatic Park. “But man,” he says, “this might be the most important part of Berkeley and the Bay Area.