One year ago this week, as it happens, my longtime friend Rob Simbeck had his fifth book, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, published by the University of South Carolina Press. Five is a goodly number (his fellow Pennsylvanian, ecologist Rachel Carson, only wrote four) but his total count should rightfully include the six books Rob has ghostwritten as well as the eight he has edited.
It was my good fortune to attend college with Rob in the early 1970s. I can’t recall how we met — we lived in different dorms, had different majors and never took a class together — but one of my earliest memories of our friendship was working with Rob on his psychology class project, “The Freud Game.” As it turned out, we would spend much Id and Ego time together in our college years.*
I know three people who were English majors: my son, my spouse’s sister-in-law, and Rob. According to Data USA, most English majors become schoolteachers, magistrates, judges, lawyers or legal workers. The number who make their living as writers or journalists (as I once hoped to be) is fairly small. But Rob made that tough choice: he focused his talents, he honed his craft. Rob dedicated himself to dedication.
I don’t review books per se but I won’t hesitate to recommend the ones I like. As such, I happily endorse Rob’s latest, The Southern Wildlife Watcher, in spite of (or respecting) the fact that it took me months to finish reading it. Which I must now explain.
In TSWW, Rob organized 36 nature essays, originally written for South Carolina Wildlife magazine, into sections titled Air, Land and Water. There is a comforting retro feel to this schema, like those white-tablecloth restaurant menus which helpfully sorted your food choices into “Surf and Turf” or “Farm, Fish and Fowl.”
Rob devotes equal time to each of these categories and to each of the species he writes about, giving the crusty Eastern Oyster (almost) the same love and respect as the pretty Monarch Butterfly. If the essays in TSWW convey a common message, it would be Rob’s conviction that every lifeform plays an important, but often hidden, role on our planet. Rob strives to reveal these hidden roles, which I found to be the strength of these essays.
You may ask, if this trove of five-minute essays was so compelling, why did it take me nine months to finish it? The answer is simple: I read Rob’s book as comfort food; I harbored it for that purpose. I would pick it up and read an essay or two when I felt the need for that certain kind of connection. And for me, these essays were best enjoyed when read outside, on quiet mornings.
To dot the i and cross the t here, I must mention a couple of things I learned from TSSW that really surprised me. First, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are not bass at all, but belong to the sunfish family! Second, bald eagles are not only hunters but scavengers, which gives them something in common with crows. Third, earthworms are 82% protein, so no wonder birds love them. (The other 18%, Rob doesn’t mention but we can imagine.)
Rob, I’m sorry it took a year for me to promote your book. But I’m more sorry that there remains no more of it for me to read. Here’s hoping we can get together again soon and talk about your upcoming adventures.