Blue Ridge Naturalist: Peter Brask, My Tribute to a Friend of Nature

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Three Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) sleep the day away in (the late) Peter Brask’s living room. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Peter Brask, a decades-long Batesville resident, passed away this September. He had been a close friend as he shared my love of nature in its entirety, although he may have been most fond of birds.

Peter lived as I imagine some folks might think that I live—with doors literally wide open to the out-of-doors and the critters that inhabit it. As a result, he experienced nature as most of us will never experience it, with an intimacy that was hard to imagine.

For example, he knew how much I enjoy observing the Carolina Wrens around my home, so he made sure to invite me over to see the ones nesting in his kitchen. Yes, you read that right. A pair of Carolina Wrens had built their dome-shaped nest inside his kitchen. The female had laid her eggs and the two birds went about their business as if there was nothing unusual about the location of their nest, and in a way, there wasn’t.

Carolina Wrens are fairly comfortable around humans, and often make their nests somewhere around houses, albeit on the outside! There’s a good reason they do this. Wrens and their chicks are more sensitive than most birds to chilly and wet weather, and several spots around houses often provide better shelter from the elements than more-natural locations. If you have a garage and you leave the door open, you may well come home to find this species either trying to nest there during the warm months or sleep overnight during the cold months.

I once made the mistake of leaving my shed door open for just a few minutes on a very cold winter day after getting seeds out of there to fill a bird feeder. My male wren flew inside almost immediately, and it took me many minutes to get him out! Luckily for him, I had already provided shelter boxes on my porch where he and his mate could sleep together (Carolina Wrens stay together year-round).

I found the thought of wrens nesting in Peter’s kitchen to be incredible, but a telephone call from him a few days after I’d visited was even more unbelievable—a Black Rat Snake had come into the house and eaten the wren eggs! The snake had slithered right into Peter’s living quarters and found itself a meal.

You’ve probably seen those signs that some people have placed outside their houses proclaiming that no matter where you have come from, you are welcome in the community. Well, Peter didn’t need one of those signs in his yard. Actions speak louder than words, and his nondiscriminatory welcome extended to all kinds of critters as well as people, which is just as it should be.

Being Peter’s friend meant sharing many more wildlife encounters. One August day he called me up to say he had bats in his living room. No, they were not in the rafters above the living-room ceiling; they were in a corner at the ceiling! He wondered if I could come over to identify them, and of course, I grabbed my camera and drove over there as fast as I legally could.

I got to Peter’s at 12:30 in the afternoon. Sure enough, there were three Little Brown Bats resting at the ceiling in the corner of the room. Peter told me the bats had been entering the room every night for the previous three weeks, and they had started sleeping there during the day about a week prior to my visit. He said he heard them flying around in the darkness the past night, and they settled in for the day about 3:30 a.m. This man knew how I loved details, and he had paid attention so he could report them to me! That is what I call a dear friend, indeed.

Apparently, the bats were content to roost there, because they stayed for several days, going out each evening and coming back early the next morning. Common roosting sites for the Little Brown Bat around and near human structures are more typically on the outside of buildings, often behind shutters, and perhaps most often, inside tree cavities. I suppose Peter’s living room just seemed like a super-sized tree cavity!

You may be thinking Peter must have been a real kook. Obviously his open-door (and window) policy was highly unusual and didn’t follow the norms of societal behavior. And yet, so long as he was happy with living as he did, why should it matter to anyone else?

I personally found his nonconforming behavior a delight. Here was someone who lived in a house (though he often slept outside in a small open shed), but who enjoyed the out-of-doors so much that he didn’t let the boundaries of his home restrict him. Peter Brask lived his life as he saw fit, and you have to admire him for that.

But there was much more to appreciate than his degree of independence. He was every bit as kind to people as he was to wildlife, being quite willing to assist anyone in need of help.

Peter deeply loved and cared about the natural world, and it saddens me greatly that he is gone. There don’t seem to be too many of us left with such an abiding and sincere affection for nature. I certainly feel more alone in this regard with each passing day.

But Peter will always hold a place in my heart, and every summer I will think of him when I see my Touch-me-nots growing. He called them Jewelweed, but I prefer the name that references the manner in which they disperse their seeds—propelling them outwards several feet when the seed pod is touched, whether by a person, an animal, or a nearby plant swaying in the breeze.

After Peter had finished putting in a pond (almost 30 years ago now) at my house, he brought a few Touch-me-not plants (Impatiens capensis) to place near it. Every year more and more plants shot their seeds out, and now, Touch-me-nots surround my home. Their hundreds of late-season blooms feed migrating hummingbirds and late-season insect pollinators.

I’m sure Peter never imagined how much those plants would spread and how much they would help the wildlife I care so very much about. Nor would he have ever realized how much his legacy of Jewelweed would mean to me at his passing, serving as a heart-touching remembrance of a special person who befriended nature and me during his life, and who continues to do so following his death. 

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