Pausing next to a tamarack tree, Rick Marsi ’69 purses his lips and exhales, “pshhht, pshhht, pshhht, pshhht” in staccato breaths. A male common yellowthroat, wearing a black mask, answers the call and alights on a nearby branch. Marsi — ornithologist, naturalist, writer, and photographer — is seemingly satisfied.
Crunching through fallen leaves at Brier Hill, his 30-acre property in Vestal, N.Y., on this balmy, mellow Monday, Marsi points out landmarks: a towering white oak that he refers to as “the matriarch,” a grove of red pines that grew from seedlings he and his mother planted in the mid-’60s, and mini-waterfalls created by stones that he and his wife piled in the creek. All the while, his feathered friends warble overhead, and the birdman is always listening.
“This is our playground,” Marsi said. “I cut all these trails myself over the years.” Having inherited the property from his parents, he not only learned from his mother, Harriet, how to shape the land, but he also acquired her deep love and knowledge of nature.
Here, Marsi gives Scene readers a peek into Brier Hill in the fall. As he invites in his book Wheel of Seasons: “Take a walk, a little walk.” Especially in autumn, he adds, “As well as offering the universal lessons inherent in all seasons, it may reveal special ones of its own.”
It is a matter of opening your eyes, of seeing the extraordinary in the commonplace. Wilderness is a state of mind, unleashed by the imagination, always there when you want it to be.
— Wheel of Seasons
After graduating from Colgate as an economics major, he spent a couple of years in the Peace Corps in India. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania’s master’s program in South Asian studies, but he stopped short of completing his degree. “I’m a country guy, and Philly is not country,” Marsi said. “So we [he and his wife] abandoned ship and came back here.” His mother, a well-known naturalist in the area, convinced the Broome County parks commissioner to hire Marsi part time to develop trails and lead nature walks.
Donning a Smokey the Bear hat, “Ranger Rick” discovered that he had the gift of gab. The part-time gig evolved into a full-time position when Marsi finished natural history courses at Binghamton University and SUNY Cortland. Over the next decade, he developed an outdoor education program and transformed an old schoolhouse into a nature museum.
In his mid-30s and on the hunt for a new opportunity, Marsi found another way to share his zeal for the outdoors with an even bigger audience: writing. What started with a nature diary in the county newsletter turned into a 35-year career writing a weekly column for Binghamton’s Press and Sun Bulletin, which he still pens to this day.
There’s no such thing as eternal fall in these latitudes. … seek in the late autumn landscape a lesson in change and adaptation. As the winter solstice approaches, there’s not one wild creature alive wasting time hoping it will take a wrong turn. Each is preparing for the inevitable. By watching them, we can prepare as well.
— Wheel of Seasons
The award-winning author has also written four books. Log Cabin Year, which just landed on shelves, is a compilation of Marsi’s photographs and essays that take readers on a jaunt through the changing seasons at Brier Hill.
He still gives tours at local nature preserves and state parks. There was a time when Marsi led group trips abroad, but these days he prefers his wife, Jan, as his only travel companion.
Back at his log cabin, a map in the office is studded with pushpins showing where they’ve been. His diaries and field guides line the shelves, noting the more than 2,000 species of birds that he’s seen around the globe. On another shelf, jars of spruce cones and acorns ground visitors in central New York.
“See the world, soak it in, then come back home and open your eyes,” Marsi advised in a 2014 column. “It’s your world. It’s your forest. It’s home.
Eye-popping changes have swept through the forest. Let the red maples flame, let the hickories beam brilliant yellow.
— Log Cabin Year
“I like my wrens and my goldfinches; every day I can count on their songs. I like home; it’s my place. All the trees know my name.”
The presence was monkey-faced and real. A barn owl — with eyes of its own, like dark brown marbles. Where silage once blew through the opening and settled in fermenting heaps below, the owl passed on silent wings. A ghostly traveler had found new quarters. It would roost in this abandoned barn for the next six months. One night in late October, the presence left and didn’t come back. It hasn’t since. Maybe it flew where you are. Be gentle when you find it. The barn owl means no harm.
— Wheel of Seasons
For more, visit rickmarsi.com