Sunday, September 22, 2013

LIGHTS! ACTIONS! DRAMA! JIM BITLER on Ossabaw Island, Georgia, USA, 2008: Remembering and honoring a very special person to the Georgia coast

A WALK ON THE BEACH WITH JIM. Jim Bitler (left) and my husband,Tony Martin (right) walk on an Ossabaw Island beach at low tide on a cold December day in 2008. It was Tony's and my first visit to Ossabaw, and Jim was the perfect host for introducing us to the natural wonders of the island. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter)
Note: In December of 2008, Tony Martin (aka Chiboogamoo) and I decided to spend time on several different barrier islands off the coast of Georgia in order to track wildlife and do research for Tony’s book, Life Traces of the Georgia Coast: Unseen Lives of the Georgia Barrier Islands, which was published in January 2013. One of the islands we visited was Ossabaw, and a delightful discovery there was Jim Bitler, the nature interpreter for the Ossabaw Island Foundation. Why do I say that? Read on!

Jim Bitler created excitement about being on Ossabaw Island. It was as if he were a director with the stage already prepared for lights, curtain, and action! One of the best storytellers I have ever encountered, Jim blended the information about the island’s history, its grande dame (Sandy West), and nature so well you were engaged body, mind, and soul. Best of all, you were primed to truly understand the unique Ossabaw environment.
RATTLE SNAKE PERFORMER! Neither Chiboogamoo nor I had ever seen a rattlesnake on any of the Georgia barrier islands, yet this one magically appeared on the road in front of us within just the first few hours of being in the field with Jim Bitler. It was almost if he conjured it up for us! Lights! Actors! And, of course, cameras. (Photo by Tony Martin)
ACTION! CALLING ALL ALLIGATORS! On what turned out to be the coldest day of our whirlwind tour of the Georgia barrier islands in December 2008, we were pleasantly surprised to see this large alligator out sunning itself next to a marsh on Ossabaw! This spoke to both of us about some of the wildness of the island, and how it was really owned by the plants and animals that live there. (Photo by Tony Martin.)

WHERE IS OSSABAW? Here is a map just in case you want to be certain where Ossabaw is located among our amazing Georgia barrier islands! (source)
On our first afternoon on Ossabaw, when Jim was driving us around the island orienting us to its unpaved roads and natural wonders, we participated in what was an island ritual with Jim and his guests. 

We did not know when Jim stopped our jeep and exclaimed with great joy that we had “found” a “chicken of the woods,” that he ALWAYS knew where these yellow edible fungi were growing on the island, and that he ALWAYS harvested them for a special evening appetizer for his visitors. 

It wasn’t until returning to Atlanta that we learned in a news feature written about him that finding and cooking “chicken of the woods” was one of the things he did for island guests. The great thing about Jim Bitler was that he treated US, Chiboogamoo and me, like royalty, but that is how he treated everyone!
NATURAL SPECTACLE. "Chicken of the woods," a colorful and edible fungus (Laetiporus sulphureus) that grows on trees on Ossabaw and other Georgia barrier islands, but Ossabaw is the only place where we have eaten it, thanks to Jim Bitler. (Photo by Tony Martin)
WIFE FOR SCALE. Sure, it's delicious, but I also wondered how would this fungus look as a fashion accessory. As it turned out, not bad! Ha Ha! Being the wife of scientist means posing often in a photo to provide "scale." This is a large growing fungi! (Photo by Tony Martin)
Later that night, after roving around the wilds of Ossabaw, with much to-do, Jim came to our chilly Ossabaw lodging where we had a fire roaring in the fireplace. In hand, he had an entire stick of butter and the meaty yellow fungus (chicken of the woods) he had wrestled from the tree earlier that day! Ta da!

Did he sing while he saut̩ed this chicken of the woods for us Рor did he make it such a fun experience that I remember music!? After he had cooked this exotic Georgia island delicacy, he left Chiboogamoo and me to enjoy it by ourselves next to the roaring fire! What a delightful educator Jim Bitler was! The Ossabaw forest was his theatre where he engaged his island visitors in drama and learning about nature! He educated, amused, and fed our bodies and souls!
COMFORT ON OSSABAW. A warm fire was needed at the end of each of our two days on Ossabaw. Jim made sure that we had enough wood and good books to look through in order to have a cozy evening.
One of the best things about Jim were the stories he told about his experiences with Sandy West. Now, I wish I had written them down. He had assured us that he was recording them with the idea that he might have a book some day. I sure do hope his legacy will live on but suspect that his oral stories went to the grave with him. It would be great to be proven wrong on this account.

I remember that Chiboogamoo and I held our stomachs because we were laughing so hard at the stories Jim told us of the wild adventures that he and Sandy West had engaged in with one another on Ossabaw. He had anecdotes about an Easter ritual with Sandy of dyeing new underwear in Easter egg dye instead of eggs! He spoke about the annual Ossabaw art auction and how he and Sandy made sure that every piece of art sold—even if they were the ones to buy it. How one year, a special item, a sculpture, was purchased, and  it  had a way of turning up in mysterious places on Ossabaw, in places that either Jim or Sandy were sure to find it. They took turns hiding and finding this sculpture from one another! Just picture a sculpture hidden under the fronds of a saw palmetto peering at you as you round an unpaved road in the maritime forest!

Oh, and Jim had another story about an animal trophy hanging in Sandy West’s Ossabaw home and how he could convince visitors it moved or said something. I can’t remember any details of this particular anecdote. If only Jim had written it down!
LEARNING FROM THE GREAT STORY TELLER. It now seems "mythical" me walking with Jim Bitler down one of the many gorgeous beaches on Ossabaw Island in December 2008. Little did I know then that this was a unique experience, and that we would not have a chance to do this again with him. (Photo by Tony Martin)
Time passes… Jim died unexpectedly in his sleep in April 2011 without us having a chance to see him again (you can read his obituary here). As time passes…we begin to forget…a person…the stories of that person’s life. These stories are irreplaceable. I hope I have done something here to hold one precious memory in writing for Jim. Thank you Jim Bitler! As the Ossabaw Island Foundation prepares for its annual Hog Roast and Art Auction (see here), I wonder who is planning to make sure that every piece of art is purchased!

That’s Coffee with Hallelujah. SOUL BLOG with me. Tell me what you think of Jim Bitler and his untimely death at 55 years old. What stories do you have to tell? Will you write them down now, today?

IN THE DISTANCE. If you could look at this photo a bit more closely you would see Jim's Boston Terrier, Kate in the distance. He let her run the beach and frolic. It was a joy to watch that little dog. (Photo by Tony Martin)
KATE'S TRACKS. My Chiboogamoo took these tracks of Kate to document her happy galloping pace on one of the Ossabaw beaches. She was running so fast that only three feet were touching the ground. We all leave tracks of our presence here on Earth. Jim certainly left a trackway of story telling about the Georgia coast he knew well and loved. (Photo by Tony Martin)
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Many thanks to my husband, who is my traveling companion in this wonderful journey we call LIFE, and who has helped me craft this memory of Jim Bitler through his photos and our discussions.


  1. What an incredible tribute, Ruth, to a terrific man! I loved the pictures and the story. I wish my family had had the chance to meet him too. Thank you for writing it down and capturing what you remembered.

    1. Christine, I'm finding out so much more about him since I posted this blog this morning and shared it on Facebook. Perhaps the people who knew Jim Bitler well will collect his stories for a book so his part in Georgia coast history will not be lost.

  2. Hi Ruth,
    I photographed one of the old maples in Peacham VT that has a similar-looking fungus growing on its trunk. I loved the contrast with the old dark bark and the pristine, yellow beige mushroom. Maybe they are related? I don't see a place to include a picture here in the comments. Cheers!

    1. Would love to see your photo Cecelia and determine if too is edible.

  3. We always find out too late that we should have written it down, recorded it, ask more questions... but since we can't go back it is good that you did record what you remembered. He must have been an incredible person to know and explore with. I enjoyed this remembrance of a man I will only know through your writing about him. Thank you Ruth!

  4. You are so right Darlene! We can't go back. So let's record now. And also remember those who did not record their lives. Jim Bitler was a character, and I am treasuring the addtional stories I am hearing from other people via Facebook and messaging! I would hope that all of these people will find a way to formalize the stories in a book about Jim Bitler.

  5. The gods of happenstance must have been smiling upon me when I stumbled onto your blog. I'm Jim's niece. Reading your and your husband's adventures with Jim, or Uncle Freck as I called him, was another beautiful reminder of how many lives he touched. My heart is too full for words.
    I remember well the trophy story you mentioned, if you'd like to hear it again please feel free to shoot me an email.


  6. Uncle Freck! Wonderful Dougless! Thanks so much for contacting me after reading my blog about your Uncle Freck. I'm excited about the chance to re-hear the trophy story, so I will be emailing you. What is so wonderful about Jim Bitler is that he did repeat these stories, so they are remembered either individually or communally!