Outside a country store in the Allegheny Mountains, she stood behind a table covered in mason jars of home-made apple jelly and pickles. It was one of those glorious fall days in
West Virginia, so I lingered to buy some of Bertie’s homemade apple jelly and a stapled booklet of poems. Seeing my interest, she recited a couple from memory. I recall one was an ode to her home state and the other a tragic-cum-humorous story about a mouse. I was told she memorized over 100 of her poems, most of them end rhymes or couplets that celebrated country life, family, friends and animals over a long and often hard life. I listened to more over the years whenever I visited her mobile home in a quiet hollow (‘holler’) of Webster County.
Eventually, I offered to help her reach a wider audience. I recorded videos in her home and have now compiled her best poems in a published anthology for her 96th birthday in June 2020.
Gordon Burness was born in London on May 7, 1928. When he died in the same city aged 86 he left no large footprint in history, but those close to him knew that a remarkable man had passed. He had none of the career achievements we expect in a notable life, but instead he excelled as one of those “great amateurs” British people are proud of.
In his own words, his school education “was virtually terminated” in 1939 by the outbreak of War. Two years later he was evacuated to the safety of Wales where he often got into trouble and “was punched to the ground by the headmaster for being the worst behaved boy in school.” He was exiled to a remote hill farm from which he rode on horseback to school, and absorbed practical knowledge birthing cows, slaughtering pigs and learning how to fish and shoot. He returned to London in time for the V-2 rocket bombardment in 1944, but the family home was spared.
His first phase of life over, he enrolled as an apprentice toolmaker in a factory until it closed when he received a redundancy payout of ₤200 ($300). He had no other paper qualifications, but eventually found a job as a security officer on a property where he had once hunted illegally: the poacher turned gamekeeper.
In the post-war years of meat rationing, poaching on private land was an irresistible temptation because he could earn a savory supper for his family and sell pheasants and rabbits to buddies at his factory. When the factory and poaching were behind him, his third phase was a deepening interest in wildlife for which he exchanged his shotgun with a camera. He learned how to track animals and became an expert mimic of bird song, but apart from a single trip to Scotland he never traveled far from his home turf. He published beautifully illustrated articles in magazines, and became widely known in naturalist circles after discovering a very rare albino badger in 1962, accompanied by two young brothers, Gary and Phil Cliffe.
That was when I met him for the first time, under rather inauspicious circumstances. I was a young teenager watching the same badger den (“sett”) one night when they surprised me by shining a flashlight up to my perch in a tree. Gordon was unhappy that I had stumbled on his project, but after our next meeting, this time in daylight, we became life-long friends. The first of his two books, The White Badger published in 1970, sold well, and the story was featured nationally on children’s television.
His fourth phase began in the early 1970s when he took up oil painting. He completed thirty-two canvases, which hung around his home gradually glazing with nicotine. He painted to a background of classical music, and particularly loved Wagner’s Ring Cycle which he called “a thirteen-hour cerebral orgasm.” His brush technique was excellent, especially considering he was untutored in the art.
When he was no longer inspired to paint he turned to poetry, his fifth phase. Despite little education in English prose and poetry, he was a natural wordsmith and told me his compositions reflected “our personal frailties and his personal views.” This oeuvre is not a large legacy, but as revealing of the man’s character and broad interests as his paintings. He could be very droll, loved concocting jokes and limericks, and was unfailingly cheerful even towards the end when nearly blind and weakened by ill-health. His fun-loving heart could spend weeks poring over a painting or poem created to amuse himself or a rare visitor.
He loved the ladies and they returned the favor because he was charming and funny. Although several fell in love with him he never married, which was a great kindness because he prized his privacy.
From 1987 he looked after an ailing brother and an elderly mother. For nearly two decades after they died he was virtually a recluse, only leaving home (and most reluctantly) for a medical emergency or a follow-up. His retiring habits were badger-like. Josie, a good-hearted neighbor, mailed his letters and brought home shopping, including the all-important cigarettes.
He smoked heavily from boyhood days in Wales, and over the years I noticed his ceilings and walls yellowing and finally turning orange. “Fags help me think,” he told me.
He had a deep interest in science, sometimes asking searching questions about astronomy and biology. He was ahead of me with news about the Hubble telescope, and invented plausible theories about the clocklike pineal gland and the tapetum in the eyes of nocturnal animals. His ingenious mind led to the manufacture and marketing of a couple of mechanical devices, but he forgot to take out patents.
I wonder what he might have achieved had he started life in better times and with more advantages. But he never complained and had no wants beyond a smoke, the latest test cricket score, and to chin-wag with a friend. He said he felt lucky because he had done everything he wanted. It is a rare privilege to have known a fully satisfied human being.
Gordon’s poems and samples of his nature writing have been compiled in an anthology published on the day of his funeral by Jamestowne Bookworks. It is available as a digital book for 99 cents from Amazon.
Gordon was an all-round naturalist, but he had a special fondness for badgers. My favorite poem is Badger Watch.