[OUTLOOK]Bird-watching with Mrs. Ferrar

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[OUTLOOK]Bird-watching with Mrs. Ferrar

"My favorite pig used to live there. She was the biggest, fattest pig you've ever seen, and she used to have litters of 16 or 18. Then one year she wasn't there any more."

Pause. Then, laconically:

"I think we can imagine what happened."

We were bird-watching with Gertrude Ferrar, passing a farm house on Ganghwa Island. It was her Saturday pleasure to drive into the country and look for birds. As she said, "Koreans work hard. This is why they have accomplished so much. I'm in Korea, so I have to work hard, like a Korean. But my one day off is very restful."

Arthritis slowed her steps, and Mrs. Ferrar did most of her bird-watching from her car. It was a big, rugged Jeep-like car, comfortable on the inside, but capable of bouncing over any terrain to get to where the birds were. Mr. Lee drove, and in between bird sightings their droll banter spiced the wandering. They quarreled gently over which road to take, where to stop for lunch, whether they were seeing cranes or herons, even how long he had been driving her: Three years, she was sure; just one, he insisted.

A pink car passed. "My next car will be pink, with fuzzy pink seat covers. Mr. Lee will love that. He looks so good in pink." In fact, it was easier to imagine the unflappable Mr. Lee retaining aplomb in pink than the astringent Mrs. Ferrar.

When the car left the road for the tidal flats, "You're going to get your wheels dirty, Mr. Lee," she scolded. "You should have known better than to clean the car on Friday."

"You can trust me, Mrs. Ferrar. I'm the driver."

"Well, I do trust you, Mr. Lee. Anyway, what would you do on Monday if you didn't have a car to clean?"

What Mr. Lee did Mondays and all workday mornings was drive Mrs. Ferrar to work. She came to Korea in 1963, founded Language Arts Testing and Training two years later and built the business while writing children's stories, often based on Korean tales. Mrs. Ferrar ostensibly retired in 2000, but worked until shortly before her death last weekend at age 82.

She had grown up in comfortable circumstances near Philadelphia. As a young mother with small children, she took flying lessons and became a pilot. Her husband was an engineer who linked up the first telephone transmission relayed by satellite. He made the historic first call to Gertrude Ferrar. "He said, 'Say something,' so I said, 'What do you want me to say?' And history was made."

Mrs. Ferrar and her husband parted in Korea. He returned to the United States; she stayed. She founded her company (with a Korean partner) because "I had to support myself. There weren't that many ways for an American woman to support herself in Korea at that time."

Mrs. Ferrar adopted a Korean son, Kim Chung-hoon. And always she spent as much time as she could in the Korean countryside. Another favorite spot was two lakes, poetically named No. 1 and No. 2, created by the Asan Dam in Gyeonggi province. The lakes and a surrounding land-reclamation project were the brain-child of Chung Ju-young, the late founder of the Hyundai jaebeol. He planned a trade and industrial area that would have access across the Yellow Sea to China. "You can't say that Mr. Chung didn't think in grand terms."

The lakes are lined with bulldozers and mud. They are wonderful bird habitat. "I came here with two ornithologists who estimated 15,000 birds on this lake," Mrs. Ferrar says. "But not today. Either it's the wrong time, or the road work has chased them away, or there's been a catastrophe."

There are coots and crested grebes, lots of spotbills and pintails. A loon swims behind mallards, its head up as if sniffing the air. It is only the second loon she has seen in Korea. But mallards do not stir the bird-watcher's soul. "A mallard is a mallard is a mallard ?the most common duck in the world."

Geese and slender egrets watch from stubbled paddies, recently plowed. "It stirs up all kinds of goodies for them. If you will run down and get one of those geese, Mr. Lee, I will roast it for you tomorrow."

"I've never seen so many geese here. They must be moving up from somewhere. ... But which kind I don't know. I keep hoping one of these little flocks will be swan geese."

A white bird -- a smew. No, as Mr. Lee maneuvers the SUV closer, the smew turns out to be a seagull. But there are goldenrings and common sheldrakes. A white stork wheels overhead.

"How nice!" says Mrs. Ferrar. "Isn't it a joy to watch them? Thank you, Mr. Chung, wherever you are. ... Onward and forward, Mr. Lee."

* The writer is editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Hal Piper

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