By Sue Tiffin
A few minutes into a video of an interview Don Smith participated in as part of a Haliburton Highlands Land Trust storytelling series last year, he pauses, cranes his neck behind and to the left, then a little bit more, and says, “Oh, there’s a woodpecker on the suet.”
The background music quiets as Smith reaches down, still with his eyes on the bird, to grab his ever-present binoculars that are tucked between his body and the arm of the chair he’s sitting in. “Where are you?” he asks the bird as he focuses the binoculars out the window. And then, “It’s a female downy woodpecker.” He puts the binoculars down and pauses, hand on chin: “Which I will write down eventually, but they’re here every day.”
It’s a scene so telling of Smith’s passion for nature and conservation, that he might be interrupted mid-sentence by the sight of a familiar bird, which he then takes the time to acknowledge and appreciate.
Last month, Smith died at age 90, his obituary noting “[h]is legacy will live on in the lessons and teachings about nature he so freely shared with all lucky enough to have known him.”
One of the people counting themselves fortunate to have known Smith is his lifelong best friend, painter and fellow naturalist, Robert Bateman. The friends were classmates, and joined a naturalist group for young people at the Royal Ontario Museum. Through “a flick of fate,” they both enjoyed cottages in the Haliburton area.
“He was very, very steady, level, kind of quiet and you could always count on him,” Bateman told the Echo from his home in Salt Spring. “All my memories of Don are warm and comfortable and favourable.”
Some of Bateman’s earliest memories of Smith are of the trio [together with Al Gordon] playing and hiking, sometimes in among the poison ivy, hopping on their bikes and heading “in all kinds of different directions,” or on the TTC to go to Sunnyside, or to the Humber River.
“We were very keen naturalists and almost every weekend we would head off on our bicycles or go hiking,” said Bateman. “Don and Al would come and hang out because I was busy painting, and they would just sit around and watch me paint or chat or carry on conversations and then often we’d go and stretch our legs and hike along the valley and see what we could see.”
The Bateman family sunroom was an ideal spot to watch for birds.
“We used to own a few bird books,” said Smith in the land trust video. “We would quiz each other. We’d cover up the name under the picture of the birds and quiz each other on them, so we learned a lot there.”
“In the early days we listed birds to see how many we could see,” said Bateman. And then, laughing: “And then we became sort of scientific snobs and said listing is for little old ladies in tennis shoes. We’re young men and we’re vigorous and we don’t do that anymore. But then we went back to it again, I guess when we grew up to become little old ladies in tennis shoes ourselves.”
Smith called himself a “small mammalogist,” spending most of his life studying small mammals, which was encouraged through the naturalist club, and which he was able to pursue further when he joined Bateman at the Algonquin Wildlife Research Station in the late 1940s, participating
in small mammal and bird surveys.
“That might have been one of the turning points of his life, but he was already interested in that, and he was very good academically and so he went into the sciences, and obviously became a PhD,” said Bateman.
He remembers Smith sharing a grant with him, so he didn’t go into the forest alone, to work on researching two different types of mice and how their locations might overlap.
“We camped in that section between Belleville and Ottawa trapping every night, setting up these traplines to try to sort out which mouse was living in this area and which was living in that area,” said Bateman. “Well, then he would try to figure out how it could be explained. I’m not sure he ever did explain it. But we collected dozens and dozens of mice. … That was one time that he did hire me to be his assistant. Even though he was younger than me, I was his assistant.”
Smith worked on Southampton Island in the Arctic, as British Columbia’s first park interpretation specialist at E.C. Manning Park, and studied at the University of Toronto, completing three advanced degrees in zoology, including his PhD.
His interest in small mammals continued as he joined Carleton University as a professor of biology, and as curator of the Museum of Zoology until he retired in 1995, at which point he said he became a sort of full-time field naturalist.
“I’m sure, and because I wasn’t one of his students or anything like that, I’m sure there were individual students who, Don would have changed their lives, through his influence and teaching and his wonderful, quiet demeanour that was just so appealing,” said Bateman.
While small mammals were Smith’s passion, Bateman notes they are nocturnal, and so not as “obvious” as birds, which “are kind of like a starter for most naturalists.”
The friends went to Bonnechere Caves together to study bats, but they would also visit Point Pelee or Long Point with a few others to take in migratory birds as they return from the south – trips so affecting that Bateman’s younger brother chose to move to Long Point.
“Every single bird, if we were driving along in the car, and a bird would fly up, we would need to make mental note, almost without thinking, what is it?,” said Bateman. “Sometimes if we didn’t know what it was we’d pull over and get a better look at it to see what it was. It was just a compulsive, we had to know every bird that crossed our path. That would be typical
Ed Poropat, a local birder himself, had numerous occasions on the trails in Haliburton County with Smith, who he said was a well-rounded naturalist whose knowledge extended beyond mammals, and whose information was always incredibly detailed and accurate.
“Don was renowned for speaking slowly and deliberately,” he said. “A
quick five-second response often led to a five-minute detailed explanation. Apparently, his students would fondly joke that Don spoke ‘in 90-minute bursts’.”
Sheila Ziman, a member of the HHLT board of directors who met Smith through the field naturalists’ group said Smith participated in bird walks in Haliburton County for at least 20 years, traveling here in more recent years from Stittsville “at some ungodly hour” to participate.
“I’d arrive and he’d already have his binoculars up, and he’d already have six or seven birds identified,” said Ziman, who noted he could identify birds by ear, and was always patient and willing to share the knowledge he had.
“He’s so unique, there will never be another Don,” she said. “He was never impatient with anybody, or condescending. He just treated everybody equally, every question was worthy of an answer, and every observation was worthy of further prying into to make sure that it was correct or to get more information from it. He knew so much, but he was always
looking to other people to add to his knowledge.”
Smith was part of the Haliburton Highlands Field Naturalists, as well as the Kawartha Field Naturalists club, walked along the Rail Trail with his beloved dog, Goldie, and also participated in smaller group walks in this area.
“He was never far from his binoculars, which were a permanent feature around his neck, but also this little notebook,” said Ziman. “He always had a little notebook, and in his sort of chicken scrawl writing, he would write down every bird that he saw or heard, and I just think there was a treasure trove of information in those notebooks … it goes back quite awhile.”
Don Kerr remembers Smith as being a great friend to everyone in the field naturalists group.
“Don Smith was always a strong pillar of our group and an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding anything to do with birds, animals, plants, or nature,”
said Kerr. “He would always bring specimens to every meeting, and when he talked everyone always listened with great attention to every detail which he methodically explained. He laid everything out in a detailed manner which was an inspiration to all of us.”
Poropat agreed that Smith was a very patient person.
“During spring bird walks, for example, Don would always take the time to not only point out birds, but he made sure you would ‘get on it’ with your binoculars,” he said. “All the while, he would mention what field marks to look for to help you identify it accurately.”
Poropat called Smith “the consummate scientist,” and remembers his passion and enthusiasm fondly.
“On a bird walk one spring, our small group suddenly realized that Don had dropped back and was no longer with us,” he told the Echo. “We turned around to see where he was and found him lying in the middle of the rail trail. Immediately, there was sheer panic as we all thought Don had possibly had a heart attack, or had fallen and injured himself. We rushed back to find Don alive and well, laying comfortably on his back. He said his back was a little sore so he would was just taking a short break. Besides, the birding was good from down there.”
While appreciating what the natural world offered, Smith worked throughout his life to preserve it. In 1962, Smith worked alongside other
likeminded naturalists to bring attention to the value of the Mer Bleue peat bog, a 28-square kilometre wetland in Ottawa that is now one of the few of its kind in the southern part of Canada.
He was awarded for his efforts almost 50 years later in 2010 with a Mer Bleue Wetland Conservation Award from the National Capital Commission, which Smith attributed to his “persistent badgering.”
“In December 1962, there was a little squib in the Ottawa Journal that just said, the [National Capital Commission] was considering for the local municipalities to dump garbage in the Mer Bleue peat bog. When we read this, we were quite alarmed,” Smith was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen as having said during the awards ceremony.
“We talked about this and thought: What should we do? We’ve got to stop it. We’ve got to mobilize some naturalists and anyone who might have some
influence on the NCC to stop this.” Smith had been coming to Haliburton since 1947.
In 2011, four years after the death of his wife, Lorraine, he honoured her wish to protect, through the land trust, what is now known as Smith Forest, 72-acres of property bordering a wetland complex on the Burnt River.
“We were scientists, we were field naturalists, people like me like studying living things out in their natural habitats,” said Smith in the land trust interview. “We started a survey of the plants that grew there, a survey
of the birds that we heard singing, the mammals that we saw, the droppings, all that sort of thing, doing inventory of the property, because it was so interesting. It went on the one side, it was Little Black Lake. On the other side running through it was the Burnt River. There was wetland on part of the property. Most of it was forest. But we thought, why not give it to the land trust. We didn’t want to see the whole of the county either lumbered, or filled with golf courses and cottages and motorboats and
noise and all that sort of thing. But that some of the natural features of the county should be preserved. And Lorraine was one of the first people to offer this Black Lake property and have this little piece of forest in Haliburton preserved forever.”
“They were, both of them, very generous, very supportive of the land trust,” said Ziman. “He gave us both the property that was to be protected, and [a] cottage lot, and he said he wanted us to sell the cottage lot so that we could make enough money to support the stewardship and management of the protected property but also to further the goals of the land trust.”
Smith was also generous as a contributing member of the community, taking part in cycling groups, square dancing and as a patron of local theatre, the farmers’ market and local businesses. And always, regardless of
whether he was sitting for lunch with the Diner’s Club or in conversation with shop owners who he knew by name, he was generous with his time.
Ziman remembers at the end of naturalists meetings, there was a time set aside for when people would share their “nature notes” – what they had seen on their outings in the past month.
“Don was all ears at that part, and he would never go first, he would always let other people [have their say], that would be a chance to ask Don questions if we weren’t sure about something and he would offer his
opinion and observations, and then he would always go last, and you would sit back in your chair because you knew that it wasn’t a two-minute thing like everyone else,” said Ziman, laughing. “You had to be patient, but it was wonderful.”
Smith is survived by five children, ten grandchildren and his younger sister and her family.
“Dad was kind, wise, funny, thoughtful, precise, and dedicated to the people and things he loved,” reads his obituary. “In his final weeks, he was able to enjoy looking out at his bird feeders and forest property. He was taken to visit the beloved Haliburton cottage in his last months. Dad kept up with his family by phone, and was engaged and telling stories to the end.”