The Nature Corner: The story of Ole and Hanne

Published 11:19 am Sunday, January 27, 2019

By Ernie Marshall

My late wife Karen and I went to Europe in the summer of 1998.  A couple of things created the opportunity.  Karen had a paper accepted for presentation at an international conference in Innsbruck, Austria (which meant that her university would help pay travel expenses) and Sammy, our beloved German Shepherd of seventeen years, had died of cancer the previous summer.  (He would have been too old to leave behind.  Sammy went everywhere we went, always up for an adventure, until his last days.)

As soon as the trip was decided on, Karen was pouring over maps and travel materials planning the “side trip” to Denmark. The true object of travel was to make a return visit, after thirty years, to where she spent over a year working and studying on a graduate student fellowship.

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One other circumstance needed to fall in place to make for this marvelous journey.

Karen was in correspondence with an avid birder (bird watcher) living near Copenhagen named Ole, on an internet site called Bird Chat.  He and his wife Hanne were eager to meet us, and have us meet the avifauna of Denmark.  Karen and I were also both passionate birders.  I had introduced her to this pastime some years previously (a good courtship ploy, by the way), and she took to it like a duck to water (all puns intended).

So there we were, Karen and I, coming down the escalator in the Copenhagen train station, scanning the crowd for our Danish stranger who was to meet us there.  But oops – we forgot to ask how to identify him.  We had heretofore known Ole only as an e-mail friend.

But of course, he would be the tall grinning fellow with binoculars hanging around his neck, the universal accouterment of birders.

Ole and Hanne insisted that we bunk and sup with them, full Danish hospitality.  Among the ingredients of our deepening friendship was of course our birding outings.  A tradition we introduced was “skol birds.”  A “skol bird” (as we defined it) was a bird species you observed and identified, and had never seen before.  Naturally there were lots of “skol birds” for Karen and I, never having birded in Europe which is separated from North America by 3000 miles of ocean.

But there’s more.  “Skol” is the traditional Danish toast, which calls for a shot of Aquavit (Viking white lightening?) and a Danish (Carlsberg or Tuborg) beer as a “chaser.”   Out birding we would break for lunch, a traditional Danish picnic complete with tablecloth and cloth napkins and a smorgasbord meal, and with plenty of skols to new feathered friends.  “Here’s to your first Lapwing.  Down the hatch.”  (I can’t recall who drove home.)

We returned other summers when we could to visit, and bird (and skol) with Ole and Hanne.  And as life will have it, we aged and health problems began to overtake us.

Ole developed a palsy that affected one of his eyes with constant tearing.  So he put aside binoculars for his spotting scope (using his “good eye”), and finely refined his knowledge of shorebirds, sandpipers, plovers, and their feathered kin, probably the most difficult group of birds to master.

Then because of continuing eye problems he exchanged birding for the study of moths, exchanging binoculars and spotting scope for a magnifying glass. This allowed Ole and Hanne to spend time together evenings.  Hanne had back problem that put her to bed early.  So Ole was outside her window talking to her through the screen and collecting the moths attracted to her bedside light.

This was a scenario even more moving that the balcony scene in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  It went something like this (what I could overhear).  “Hanne your garden is doing well this year, despite the dismal summer . . . oh, a new moth species here, new genus I think . . . your roses are blooming so well.  Must be your tender touch.”

Karen and I talked about plane tickets to attend Hanne’s funeral, since her health was so tenuous.  But my wife died first, from cancer, that bolt of ugly, angry lightning that rips the heart out of the tree of your life.

Hanne died a year or so later.  So two lonely widowers were left behind to mourn.

I never returned to Denmark.  Too many memories.  Ole and I continued to correspond, but it gradually became less frequent.  I missed saying, “How’s Hanne doing?,” and missed hearing, “I hope Karen is fairing well.”

I no longer hear from Ole.  I surmise that he is no longer living.  It is as if a bright star had faded and then disappeared from the firmament.

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