This Week in Block Island’s history, June 12, 1963'One Robin' — 49 years ago
This week in history on June 12, 1963. Elizabeth Dickens, an 85-year-old lifelong islander, entered the temperature in her diary as “55” degrees, followed as usual by the birds she had seen on her sweeping farmland near Southwest Point: “1 Barn Owl, 1 Crow, 1 Pheasant, 6 Barn Swallows, 5 Redwings, 2 Song Sparrows, 1 Northern Yellow Throat, and 1 Robin.”
Presumably, the word “Robin” was the last bird she ever wrote on a piece of paper, capping 50 years of daily written accounts of her bird sightings.
Passing through her years like a steady vessel at sea, Elizabeth Dickens had emerged in the last half of her life as the Block Island’s ship-of-state — the most well-known, beloved, written-about person of her lifetime on the island— all because of birds. Due to her, binoculars replaced on Block Island the gun barrels of turn-of-the-century bird hunters, and the island’s fame as a welcoming mat for both the birds and their watchers spread.
Living at the end of a dirt road, facing the sea and the setting sun, Elizabeth Dickens must have led one of the last pure island lives. Surrounded by silence — cut off by that rutted lane from the noises of cars and trucks, and by time from the din of planes and mopeds — her world was the sound of wind changes, barnyard animals, and the singsong of a bird or the whoosh of an entire flight.
In the fields around her, she could bask in the sun warmth of a cool fall day. No soap opera on TV in the afternoon for her. No romance novel or courtroom paperback filled her time. Outside, the book of nature was spread open, its pages turning magically by themselves — from morning to evening, from winter to summer. And she recorded that world by listing her observations on the empty pages of notebooks: each bird sighted on each day, each book comprising of five years’ worth of days.
She started her bird diaries in 1912 at the late age of 34. Two years later she began teaching classes in bird lore to the island’s school children. Both endeavors would last another 50 years.
By the fateful month of June in 1963, the living room of Elizabeth Dicken’s small family homestead was stacked with piles of her diaries, and with binoculars and other bird related items lying nearby. Among them were articles that had been written about her in newspapers, ornithology journals, and popular nationwide magazines such as Life and The Saturday Evening Post.
On June 13, 1963, Elizabeth wrote the temperature “55” in her diaries and, uncharacteristically, not a word more.
There were no entries for June 14 and 15, 1963.
She was visited by friends the next morning, having been missed at the High School graduation she annually attended. As described in Herbert Whitman’s biography “Elizabeth Dickens, the bird lady of Block Island,” published in 1982:
“They found her lying in the long grass between her house and the barn with a soup can in her hand. The back door of the house was open and the lamps, their chimneys standing beside them, were ready to be lit … Elizabeth was barely alive. Her arm was broken.”
She was hardly able to talk. The next day, after transportation to Westerly on the mainland, Miss Dickens died. Islanders would no longer hear her familiar phone call: “Run to the window and look at the sunset!”
As the woman who taught generations of island children to appreciate not only birds but all of nature, her stature has only grown since her death. In the 1986 book “A World of Watchers” by Joseph Kastner, she dominates a chapter titled “The Imbuers: Elizabeth Dickens and the Woman Writers.” Her literary company in that book would have pleased her: from Audubon to Forbush to Roger Tory Peterson.
If you look past the many modern summer homes, you can see much of what Miss Dickens saw. And a large portion of her former farmland is now preserved as the Lewis-Dickens Nature Preserve, with a public path stretching toward the sea.
Photo: Miss Elizabeth Dickens standing on the porch of her home near Southwest Point, on the lookout for birds.