Cover Story

Gone Native

by Mary Tutwiler

Acadiana’s premier nature expert, Bill Fontenot, retires after more than two decades.

photo by Terri Fensel

To our immediate west, we’ve got about 6,000 Snow Geese milling about; and to our immediate — and I mean immediate — east, about 300,000 Red-winged Blackbirds. The combined bird voices are nearly deafening.

What does a human do in such a setting? How should a human react? Take it in quietly. Try not to think.

A single bird gives Bill Fontenot equal joy. Even after 22 years of keeping a meticulous journal, he still watches birds every day. At 5:45 p.m. on a recent July afternoon, he’s positioned on a double bed just inside the glass doors that open onto his back porch. Right on schedule, a young prothonotary warbler lands on the edge of a small bird bath. Brilliant golden yellow with blue-gray wings, he perches, poses, plunges into the shallow water, creating a fluttering fountain with his wings. Seconds later, the adult male warbler joins him for a bath.

Tommy the cat presses his nose against the window and the birds bolt for the holly tree that overhangs the porch. Fontenot chuckles and scratches the cat behind the ears. “No warblers for dinner, Tommy,” he admonishes. Tommy blinks his eyes and settles down next to Fontenot to await the arrival of the mother warbler, who waits for the males to finish before taking her daily bath.

The scene from Fontenot’s back porch has been the subject of many of the more than 1,000 Sunday nature columns published in The Daily Advertiser that he has written as director of the Acadiana Nature Station. In his rambling anecdotal way, Fontenot educates Acadiana on the subject of prairie plants, bottomland hardwood trees, secret sites to view migratory birds, the proliferation of nesting roseate spoonbill in wetlands, and how to grow bird peppers — which he says also makes great salsa. His knowledge of native local flora has aided countless gardeners over the years. And his commitment to protecting habitats and the wild creatures of our swampy woodlands has tripled the size of Lafayette’s nature trail system from 42 to 152 acres. “That’s what you can call a concrete piece of satisfaction,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to look back and recognize if you’ve accomplished anything in a real sense. Just getting to work every day is an accomplishment.”

Luckily for Fontenot, 9 to 5 is not his daily beat anymore. This May, after 22 years, he retired from his job as director of the Acadiana Nature Station. “He’ll be missed for sure,” says wildlife photographer Dave Patton. “He’s the expert.” Fontenot got Patton started on birding in 1986, with a Beginners Bird Watching program at the nature station. Patton has gone on to become a licensed hummingbird bander, has participated in various bird research projects, and is well known for his bird and butterfly photos. “I owe a lot to Bill,” says Patton. “His course led to my love of birds. And half of the plants in my yard came from him. They’re all for butterflies and hummingbirds.”

Fontenot is a bear of a man, 6 feet 4, his gait slowed by two aging knees. He moves slowly through his wilderness gardens, which are a sprawling mix of chosen native species nearly overwhelmed by upstart thorny invaders. “This is the darling of all plants as far as wildlife goes — Turk’s Cap,” he says, pointing out a bush with vivid red blooms that twist to a yellow pollen-dusted stamen. “Hummingbirds and butterflies get nectar from the blooms, brown thrashers and catbirds eat the berries, and it behaves itself in the shade.”

Thunder rattles the quiet of the evening and mosquitoes buzz with blood lust, but Fontenot doesn’t seem to mind. He’s naming the native species — indigo, Indian pink, red buck-eye, prickly ash — as he walks, snagging a weed in what looks like a hopeless effort to free a prairie plot from being overgrown by vines. When the rain begins to fall he finally gives up and settles down on the sofa with his new kitten. Seven of the nine dogs he and his wife Lydia currently own have come inside because of the thunder. The three cats aren’t allowed out until after dark; their job is catching wood rats, not birds. Fontenot takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes, considering how to describe his days.

“I’m semi-retired,” he says. “I do ecological assessment contract work for different companies. I do writing and fieldwork, and I’ve still got the nursery. I have plenty to keep me busy.”

The nursery is Fontenot’s plant business, Prairie Basse. He raises native species that are difficult to find in most commercial nurseries, but are sought after by those who want to cultivate low-maintenance, wildlife-friendly environments in their yards. Fontenot fell into the business. “It’s just happenstance,” he says. “I started germinating seeds of natives, and then I found out about this guy. ...” And Fontenot launches into one of his long, circuitous stories, ending as most of his tales do — back at the beginning.

Storytellers are considered the wise men of society, and with his greying beard and knotted ponytail, Fontenot resembles a sage. But when he’s asked about wisdom gained by a life of contemplating nature, he snorts derisively and refers to a passage from one of his columns.

We could all take a lesson from animals. Animals depend upon routine for their very lives. Be it through deduction, stealth, or sheer luck, when a bird finds a good nesting spot, you can be sure that that same bird will seek out that same nesting spot next season. Ditto for bathing/drinking spots, roosting spots, wintering spots, etc. Chances are, this is not the first winter in which the adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk that dashed away from us at the beginning of our walk has spent here. In the animal world, survival boils down to the repetition of beneficial patterns. This might seem boring to us humans. If so, it’s because we have no peace, so we have to keep moving and trying ‘everything under the sun’ in hopes of finding . . . what?

photo by Terri Fensel

Fontenot didn’t start out to be the voice of the wilderness in Lafayette. After graduating from high school in his hometown of Ville Platte, he headed to Northeastern in Monroe. Both of his parents were pharmacists, and he simply assumed he would become one as well, while pursuing what he really wanted to do — write poetry — on the side. After more than a year in pharmacy school, Fontenot realized that he would go stir crazy in a pharmacy. “My dad told me that even before I started,” says Fontenot. “It finally became apparent to me too.”

It wasn’t until a 1977 visit to a friend in Lafayette that he found the first signpost on his journey. Fontenot and his buddy were looking over a neighbor’s fence, admiring a small flock of wild geese in the yard next door. “It was a Sunday afternoon, about 4 p.m.,” Fontenot remembers. The owners came outside, and Fontenot thought that he might be intruding, so he started to walk away. But the property owner was renowned naturalist and pioneering conservationist John Lynch, who invited him over to get a gander at the geese. Fontenot asked Lynch what he did.

“I do native orchids, I do irises, I do a little bit of this and that,” Lynch responded. Intrigued, Fontenot asked him who he worked for and was surprised by the answer: Lynch was a biologist for The U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Department.

On the drive back to Monroe that evening, Fontenot thought about his conversation with Lynch. He’d never earned less than an A in any biology course he’d ever taken, and he had been interested in living creatures since he was a child. That Monday he dropped out of pharmacy school and got into the biology department.

Fast forward nine years. Fontenot is married to Ville Platte native Lydia Daigle. In another of his abrupt changes, he dropped out of the Ph.D. program at the University of Alabama, came home to fast money during the oil boom, and found himself unemployed in 1985 after the oil bust.

It was again birds that showed him the way. In February 1986, he was out goose hunting in a rice field when a thunderstorm came up. Fontenot and his hunting buddy were so far from their truck they stayed in the field with rain pouring down and lightning hitting everywhere. “When it passed, we stood up,” says Fontenot, “and the black clouds parted above us and a big shaft of sunlight burst through. Just as that happened, three wild swans flew, right in a line, about 100 feet right over our heads. Neither one of us had ever seen wild swans. We were freaked. We knew they were swans from the length of their necks and the size of their bodies.

“When I got home,” he continues, “I went straight for my bird book to see what kind of swans we had seen. Or at least get an idea of the choices. When I opened the bird book, a newspaper article that my mom had sent me fell out of the book. And I picked it up, and before I stuck it back in, I glanced at it. It was a rather recent article about biologist Steve Shively, who was leading a bird watching trip for the Lafayette Natural History Museum.

“It hit me squarely. I said wait a minute, Natural History Museum, in Lafayette? What’s going on here? Come to find out it was the Planetarium. Everybody called it the Planetarium; I assumed it was a planetarium. I never had visited the place.”

Fontenot had done his master’s degree and Ph.D. work in natural history museums in Monroe and Alabama. So he took a shower, grabbed his résumé and headed to the museum. Director Beverly Latimer hired him on the spot. He began doing ecological research for exhibits at the museum, and some children’s summer classes. Within a few months, Fontenot was introduced to Diane Bullard, the curator of natural sciences for the museum, who worked at the Nature Station. Another look at Fontenot’s resume and he was lined up to replace Bullard, who was pregnant and leaving her position. “And that’s how it happened,” he says. “It was those swans on the goose hunt that did it.”

For two decades, Fontenot has presided over the wetlands acres at the end of Alexander Drive that comprise the Nature Station. At first he led tour groups of school kids. “It was the walk, stop, point, talk — which is so obscenely boring,” he says. “But that’s all I knew to do. I didn’t have any experience in elementary education. I worked doing tours for kids for 11 years.” In 1998, control of the Nature Station was moved from the Natural History Museum and to Lafayette Consolidated Government’s Division of Arts and Culture. Fontenot was given some badly needed operating funds and promptly hired Stacey Scarce, who revamped the education programs, much to Fontenot’s relief. That allowed him to start grant writing in order to acquire adjacent land for the Nature Station, as well as doing more outreach into the community. And then there were the phone calls directed to Fontenot. “‘There’s a weird bird in my back yard,’ or, ‘Help, I have a snake.’ We’re sort of the informal clearing house for any natural history related stuff,” he says.

photo by Terri Fensel

Part of Fontenot’s celebrated career is the weekly nature column he has written for The Daily Advertiser since 1987. Latimer wanted Fontenot to write a nature article for the paper but was also fearful her new employee might run out of topics after a while. Fontenot told her, “As long as there are plants and animals, rivers and what-have-you around, that’s quite a lot of potential subject matter.” So she called Daily Advertiser editorial page director Charlie Lenox. “We didn’t know what we were getting,” Lenox says, but his fears were quickly dispelled. “It was kind of like we found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” says Lenox, as Fontenot touched a nerve in Acadiana. “People looked for it in the paper.”

“I was getting six to 12 phone calls a week about the article,” says Fontenot. “I pretty much write what’s going through my mind rather than trying to construct things or adhering to whatever writers are supposed to adhere to.”

The writing life suits Fontenot. At times gruff and prone to fatalism about the future of the planet, he finds solace in the solitary work of observing, recording, and documenting the natural world. His house itself is a refuge, with the constant flow of dogs and cats, courtesy of Animal Aid, and the resident and migratory birds that inhabit the 50 acres of surrounding wetland Fontenot and his wife have purchased over the years. Twenty-seven years ago, when the young couple was looking for a house near Lafayette, they told friends to find them some land at the end of a dead end road, preferably gravel.

They bought the property sight unseen, unaware the land is in a flood plain. “We realized it because it flooded the following January,” says Fontenot. “We were cut off from civilization suddenly. When you’re in your 20s, you just don’t think about certain things. Lydia thought it was fun, taking a boat for a week or two. A quarter of our road goes under when it rains. So you’ve got to move your vehicle up to the front or you’re stuck. Then you just take a boat back.”

Stories of floods, hurricanes, falling trees and the bright rebound of flowers in the newly sunny spaces have all colonized Fontenot’s column. Recognized throughout the region for his expertise on native plants and birds, his journaling style has steadily informed nature lovers for 22 years. “I know people who save all of his columns,” says Lenox.

They won’t have to house all those yellowed clippings much longer. Fontenot has just finished editing a collection of his best articles, Watching a Forest Grow, due to be published in the fall of this year. This will be his fifth book, joining Native Gardening in the South, A Cajun Prairie Restoration Chronicle, Louisiana Bird Watching and Birds of the Gulf Coast. He’s also worked on publications for the Barataria-Terrebonne Natural Estuary Program, and wrote about the state’s new birding trails for the Louisiana Department of Tourism.

With retirement, he’s picked up the guitar again, and finally has time again for his first love, poetry, which he’s turning into song lyrics. “All of a sudden it just came back and it’s like finding the other half of you, that you buried somewhere,” says Fontenot. “It really has made a huge difference in my soul.” The one aspect of his work that he has no plans to relinquish is his column in The Advertiser. Fans can rest assured that every week, they can fill their coffee cups, settle in on the porch, open their Sunday paper and view the world through Fontenot’s eyes.

_It’s a dawn to beat all dawns. A low, slightly-broken cloud deck is lit up from the east like a Hollywood set. Though still sunken below the horizon, the sun has spray-painted the softly rippling ceiling with every imaginable hue of metallic-orange, swirled with blues ranging from midnight to powder, at each of the breaks.

Elapsed time for this unspeakably beautiful — almost frighteningly beautiful — show is about 5 minutes, if not less, before the sky returns to its late-winter mundane self. Now it’s just another day. Or is it?_