The hills and clefts of the Hudson Highlands--defined roughly by the Bear Mountain and Newburgh-Beacon Bridges--are a tangle of moss-stained boulders, mountain laurel, hemlock stands and small streams bound for the big river. They make good stomping grounds for mild eccentrics, full-blown eccentrics, and those who simply need the room to go their own way.
Suzie Gilbert fits into the last category. Her home is, not surprisingly, a little off the beaten path, at the end of a long, unmarked driveway, paved only with mud in this cold, rainy, reluctant April that has passed for spring. We were going to talk about rehabilitating wild birds, songbirds to hawks, as well as her book, "Flyaway: How a Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings
." Upon greeting me she was, for lack of a better word, asymmetrical. Her sweatshirt, bearing the single word "Garrison", was sticking out a lot further on the first syllable than on the last two. A little disoriented, I just missed sitting on a kitchen chair decorated with a large berry. Grateful for evading the berry, I decided to keep my peace about the other matter. I was glad, though, when Zack, a yellow-collared macaw, balanced things out by exiting Suzie's sweatshirt.
Suzie began working with injured birds 20 years ago, in Rhinebeck. "I was a woman finding her way to her passion," she says. "I didn't have a map. But I found out that I loved it."
What she came to learn was that it loved her just as much. When the Rhinebeck center closed, the bird world paid no heed and continued to produce its injured. Suzie couldn't say no. The result was Flyaway, her own home-based rehab center. Picture a bird arriving at her door--or fetched by Suzie. Her home, also populated by two children and a large dog, is, in effect, the emergency room. Stabilized, birds move outdoors, into a series of tunnel-shaped flyways, halfway houses which give the birds room to exercise their wings while holding them captive. When they are healed, they are released. They fly away.
Suzie closed the Flyaway center in order to write her book. Or tried. But she had developed a reputation as the Valley's go-to expert on wild bird rehab. "The birds keep coming, and I haven't been able to say no." She just doesn't sound frustrated by it all.
"Flyaway" was published two years ago. It is a memoir. Because it is about a home transformed into a home/bird hospital, it is among other things, very funny. And, Suzie says, it is not without a symmetry of its own: "I was trying to get out of a bad marriage when I wrote the book. When it was published, I could. I've come to love healing injured birds and watching them fly away. It turns out that they've done the same for me."
Photo: Suzie Gilbert and one of her charges, a temporarily docile red-tailed hawk. Credit: John Huba
Timothy Nolan usually writes about travel, golf, and traveling in order to play golf. He is delighted to write something about doings in the Hudson Highlands, where he has lived for more years than he prefers to count.