The BWD staff asked director Wendy Clark to reflect upon her journey over the past year, one that has been full of trials and tribulations for those of us at the home nest. In the first part of this story, Wendy reflects upon the changes in 2019 that brought her to our team, and how birding has helped her along the way.
As I entered my forties, more than a decade ago now, my career led me to bird watching. In fact, as part of my job as VP of Operations at Lakeside Chautauqua, I was managing the 2009 Midwest Birding Symposium when I saw my very first bird through a spotting scope in September of that year. That’s the day my birding journey began. Before long, I was able to merge my newfound passion for birding and my professional work, which is the very best kind of career. Working in the bird-watching industry offered me the rare opportunity to travel the world to see birds, to meet interesting people, and to experience nature, wildlife, and cultures I’d only visited in books and movies. I explored more than 20 countries on four continents in only eight years. During this season of my life I became wholly immersed in ecotourism travel, and I was inspired by every new destination and experience. I was living the dream.
Married at the ripe old age of 21, I was 24 years old when I became a mom. By the time I was 28, I had three beautiful children under four years old. While most of my friends in their 20s were globetrotting, living the fun single life, and pursuing career and educational goals, I was changing diapers, driving carpool, and working three part-time jobs to pay for soccer, gymnastics, theater classes, and guitar lessons. My husband had a demanding job that required him to work late and travel a lot, so most of the parenting and caregiving responsibility fell to me. The truth is, I loved every minute of that life, and I wouldn’t trade those years with my children for the world. It was a busy, crazy life, but I loved it. Still, after a long day with three energetic, curious kids, when my head hit the pillow at night, I dreamed of traveling the world someday. Europe, Central and South America, Antarctica, Africa, Asia, Australia—I imagined myself in these exotic places filled with history and mystery. Little did I know that in just a few short years, many of my travel dreams would come true.
If you’re someone who has caught the “travel bug”—and I’m not referring to COVID-19, but rather the passion for travel—you will understand my sense of awe as I experienced 24 hours of daylight during summer solstice in the Arctic, hiked ancient rainforests, fell asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, and came close enough to touch giraffes and zebras on safari. I saw birds that most people in the world will never see. I felt my mind, body, and spirit enriched by every new birding and nature expedition, and I felt truly inspired for the first time in my life. Travel changed me for the better. It made me appreciate the beauty of my world, but also the uniqueness of the country I call home. It taught me that no matter where people live in this world, the same things are important to all of us: family, friendship, health, happiness, love. We are all connected, and we are all essentially the same, regardless of the language we speak or the color of our skin.
In late 2018 my life changed dramatically when my life partner and best friend, Bill Thompson, III, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Many of you know this story, so I won’t go into detail about it here. In a nutshell, Bill only lived 14 short weeks after his diagnosis on December 16, 2018. He died on March 25, 2019. I had the great honor of caring for him during that period of chemo, sickness, pain, putting affairs in order, and saying goodbye to the people he loved. Through laughter and tears we helped one another accept this fate. Other than the gift of being a parent, caring for Bill as he died of cancer has been the greatest privilege of my life. Holding him in my arms as he took his last breath—well, it changed me.
Through that experience Bill and I found that death is a different kind of travel experience. The night before Bill died, he and I stayed up all night talking about his afterlife journey, referring to it as “The Best Birding Trip Ever.” He was preparing to embark on the greatest adventure of all, and I would be there to see him off at the station. I would stand on the platform, saying goodbye with bittersweet tears, waving to him as he headed into the great unknown. Bill loved to travel, and it was one of the great passions of his life. We shared many remarkable birding tours during our years together, and he showed me the world through his eyes, for which I will be forever grateful. My life with Bill was a thrilling journey in itself. He was an extraordinary, unique person. As physical travel had bonded us during his healthy years, spiritual travel united us even more at the end of his earthly life.
The remainder of 2019 is rather a blur in my memory. After Bill’s death, I hit the ground running, and I didn’t slow down for 12 months. I was overwhelmed as I endured the grief following Bill’s passing. I timorously took the helm at Bird Watcher’s Digest, wanting desperately to manage things in a way that would make Bill proud. Bill’s mom Elsa was killed in a tragic accident in May of that year, and it seemed that my grief would never end. I traveled most of 2019, attending all of the major birding events on behalf of Bird Watcher’s Digest, keen to reassure everyone that BWD was still going strong and proudly carrying on Bill’s legacy. I worked around the clock trying to learn as much as I could, making sure our small business would continue to thrive. In truth, I poured myself into work and travel to cope with my inescapable heartache and loss. Our business flourished at BWD; I hired new key staff members, worked hard to inspire our team, and they rose to the challenge and exceeded my expectations.
The highlight of 2019 came in December as I joined seven other amazing women from around the world, all influencers and leaders in the birding industry, on an epic trip to Colombia. This was another journey that changed me. It changed all of us. This group of incredible women of all ages and cultures became knitted together in sisterhood, and we still reflect on that tour as the very best we’ve ever experienced. Another life-changing journey that was just what I needed at just the right time.
As 2019 came to a close, I was happy to see it go. The year had been the toughest of my life. Surely 2020 would bring happier times, new beginnings, and brighter days. But, as we all know, 2020 gave way to an unprecedented global pandemic. Like the rest of the world, I was unprepared for the impact this plague would have on our global health, our economy, and our everyday lives.
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which Wendy reflects on the unexpected journey she has taken in 2020.
About the Author
Wendy Clark is the president and publisher of Bird Watcher’s Digest, a career communications specialist, and an avid birder. She has three children and two grandchildren, and lives in Marietta, Ohio.