- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
A few years ago, Victor Emanuel was walking in Stacy Park near his Travis Heights home. He guessed in advance that there would be frost on the grass of the baseball field above Blunn Creek.
“I didn’t know that I’d be walking when the angle of the sun was perfect,” says the world-famed nature guide and bird lover. “The field was filled with jewels of blue, green, red and yellow. Most people walking by wouldn’t notice it. We notice things. That’s the great gift that birders have.”
Houston-born Emanuel, 74, has been helping people notice things for a long time. His Austin-based company, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, is among the largest of its kind in the world. His far-flung army of guides put people close to nature from Kazakhstan to Tanzania, but also closer to home in prime spots around Texas.
Emanuel, for whom the Travis Audubon Society’s annual awards are named, also promotes conservation through youth camps that have taught hundreds of kids about the value of the natural world.
“Based on solid science and decades of field experience, Victor tells the story of nature passionately and eloquently,” says George Cofer, director of the Hill Country Conservancy. “He was one of the first people to open my eyes to the extraordinary beauty of nature from a worldly, down-to-earth perspective. Victor was born to love nature and teach about nature.”
Emanuel has lived long enough to see bird-watching become one of the most popular outdoor activities in the U.S. In earlier eras, he points out, watchers sat in one place and waited for birds to show up. These days, birders, the systematic watchers, go anywhere the birds are.
“I am a birder and a bird lover and a bird-watcher,” he says of the three distinct roles. “Birds are very alert; they are aware of any movement. They are animals of sight and sound, which is the same for humans, with comparatively weak senses of smell. Watching them, we become more alert. We notice everything: the shape of clouds, a change of wind, drops of water that become more like prisms. It gives us a different life.”
Quiet, still and precise, Emanuel can weave enough enrapturing stories about his past to fill a long-form profile in the New Yorker magazine. Consider the following an extremely condensed preview of his promised memoirs.
His father, also Victor Emanuel, descendant of German and Austrian Jews, wrote about sports for the Houston Post.
“Dad was very intelligent,” his son says. “He started me on the intellectual path. He loved books and ideas, a man of very strong opinions. Somewhat of a curmudgeon. He would say things that offended people. He was not diplomatic or politic, but he was very kind.”
His father battled to keep the Houston Zoo free so that poor children could attend.
“He was interested in nature, but he was an urban man, so he liked animals in zoos,” his son says. “His favorite animals were snakes. He became a friend of the director of the snake house, who allowed us to watch the snakes be fed.”
The elder Emanuel had attended the University of Texas and served as sports editor for the Daily Texan.
“The three most important things in his life were his family, UT and the Democratic Party,” Emanuel jokes. “He became friends with a cub reporter named Dan Rather. At the time of my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, (Rather) told me that my father taught him everything he knew about poker and Texas politics.”
His mother, Marian Williams “Nancy” Emanuel, came from an old Southern family. She worked as a secretary and an antiques dealer and had been in on the building of the San Jacinto Monument by the Works Progress Administration. She met Emanuel’s father in a Houston hospital where he was recovering from jaundice.
“She went to see him because she’d never seen anyone who had turned yellow,” Emanuel says. “She was as sweet and kind a person as you would ever meet. Like her mother, she had a great love of life. Her mother used to say when she woke up in the morning, ‘I wonder what good thing is going to happen to me today.’ ”
Both grandmother and mother sold antiques in Houston.
“My grandmother had the first antique shop on Westheimer Road, and my mother had her shop behind it,” Emanuel recalls. “Like my father, she was a big reader. She had no education beyond high school but had a great interest in current events.”
In south and southwest Houston, Emanuel was an active kid, engaged in the natural world from the beginning.
“There were open ditches everywhere,” he says. “My favorite thing was catching crawfish with bacon on the end of the string. Not to eat, just to catch. If you went into a vacant lot, you could pick up wood and find snakes: Texas brown snakes, bull snakes. The prize was a coachwhip.”
Emanuel kept his snakes in a terrarium and charged other kids 5 cents to see them. A natural gardener, he loved his grandmother’s stories about her family’s farm on the Sunflower River in Mississippi.
“She said they had so many watermelons, they ate only the hearts and threw the rest to the hogs,” Emanuel says. “That sounded to me like the definition of luxury.”
His parents moved to the bedroom community of West University so that he would receive a better public education. There, he won a spot on Bellaire High School’s vaunted debate team.
“We traveled all over in tournaments,” he says. “Some of the very best debaters were from Muskogee, Okla. You could see a little town in Texas could produce a Colt McCoy, but a little town in Oklahoma producing the best debaters?”
An interest in biology took Emanuel next to Rice University, where a teacher encouraged him to switch to a program like, say, UT’s, that included zoology and botany rather than a pre-med emphasis. That was exactly what he did. In 1962, the UT graduate wanted to continue his studies in ornithology at the University of California, Berkeley.
“That summer I had one of these moments of truth,” he says. “Looking at articles in scientific publications about birds, it became clear to me my interest in birds was their beauty and going out and enjoying them, but not at the scientific level. That was not what I was cut out to be.”
Always interested, like his parents, in public affairs, he applied to five graduate programs in political science. Emanuel chose to attend Harvard University on a Woodrow Wilson scholarship.
Earlier in his life, he had met many famous people — Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt — and therefore was never intimidated by asking famous professors out for lunch or tea. He hung out with future author Doris Kearns Goodwin, constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson and movie director Terrence Malick.
“I loved being at Harvard,” he says. “Although it was hard being in the Northeast. During winter, there’s little life, fewer birds, not enough light.”
The brilliant political theorist Judith Shklar treated him with motherly sympathy. “You’re from the Southwest,” she said. “This is not unusual. It’s called homesickness.”
Indeed, Emanuel had felt like an alien in New England, so when the time came to write a dissertation, his attention returned to his home state, where he intended to write about the contrasting political cultures of Dallas and Houston.
“I am as rooted in Texas as the plants that are indigenous,” he says. “I am adapted to where the weather comes from, where the birds are, like the creatures who evolved here. You become knowledgeable about your local area the way the ancient people did.”
Back in Houston, an old friend, George Oser, was running for the school board and asked Emanuel to run his campaign.
“There went seven years of my life,” Emanuel jokes about his next phase, as a political consultant. “In 1972, I informed Harvard I wasn’t going to complete the Ph.D. and took a master’s degree instead. I was doing it for my father, but my heart wasn’t in it.”
Before that decision, Emanuel had heard from Dean Gorham, an Illinois resident in town for a convention. Gorham offered the Houstonian $100 to cover a day spent spotting birds.
“I was 29, living in one room, and nobody had offered me money to take them birding,” he says. “The whole idea of bird tours was just developing.
Emanuel admired Peter Alden, who had started a nature tour program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and wondered how he could do what Alden was doing for a living. Emanuel took out an ad in a birding magazine, offering personalized tours of the Texas and Mexico area.
When one hopeful group contacted him, Emanuel suggested a short trip to the Yucatan. His first group tour took off in the spring of 1975. All went well, but a bus trip arranged for mayoral wives turned into a complete bust: “Nobody wanted to go!”
Once president of the Texas Ornithological Society, he arranged to make Roger Tory Peterson, perhaps the country’s most famous birder, an honorary member. Peterson agreed to co-lead a trip from Houston to Brownsville and the Texas Hill Country.
“That gave a real boost to my young company,” Emanuel says. “I remember offering him $1,000 to be an associate. He said: You can’t afford that.”
He also befriended novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, adventurous journalist George Plimpton and environmentalist Armand Yramatagui, of the eponymous Armand Bayou near Space Center Houston.
Way back in 1955, Yramatagui had suggested that Emanuel start a Christmas count of bird species in the Freeport area. Emanuel set up camp at a Surfside beach house.
“I started in 1956 with 11 people,” Emanuel says. “We saw 111 species. By 1972, we set the all-time record at 226. There was some Texas pride in that.”
(The record has since been surpassed.)
An article in Audubon magazine about the Freeport count led to the friendship with Plimpton, who introduced him to Matthiessen, who had written a sweeping book about Africa that Emanuel admired.
“I went up to meet him, expecting an old man,” Emanuel says. “That began one of the most wonderful friendships of my life. We took 30 trips together to all the continents.”
“Victor has shown so many people amazing birds around the world, the importance of healthy habitats and how the two go hand in hand,” says Laura Huffman, Texas director of the Nature Conservancy. “He is deeply regarded by all in the conservation community as an expert and a friend.”
When Emanuel started his nature tour company some 40 years ago, he had few competitors.
“The timing was very good,” he says. “The first year, we offered 20 trips. Now it’s up to 140 a year.”
Emanuel, who moved his business to Austin in 1978, goes to great lengths to find the right tour leaders, then offers them professional salaries, benefits and a retirement plan, unheard of in most of the travel industry. Many of his employees have stayed with the company for decades.
“They need to know the subject, need to like people and be very good at relating to diverse kids, and need to be able to handle logistics,” he says. “Know how to get people in or out of a hotel, in or out of a restaurant, what to do when someone gets ill or the truck breaks down.”
Emanuel insists that clients receive top-shelf services.
“They must be treated in the best possible manner so that they have the most fulfilling and enjoyable experience on their vacation,” he says. “Some might have saved up for years to make this trip, or might be taking a break from a difficult situation in their lives.”
Some clients report that the trips were life-changing. One woman told her financial adviser that she needed enough income to live on — and to afford a couple of Victor Emanuel tours a year. Ninety percent of the clients have been on previous tours.
Since 1985, his company has also supported a summer birding camp for boys and girls interested in birds. The mother camp is in southern Arizona, but there are outposts in Washington, California and Central and West Texas.
“Part of my motivation was that, growing up, I had no friends who were interested in birds or nature,” he says. “Now this is doing remarkable things for their lives and deepening their love of nature. Some have discovered new species. Some are tour leaders or ornithologists. It’s more successful than I ever dreamed it would be.”
One of his campers later quit his job to bike around the country. He’s identified 583 types of birds and raised $26,000 for conservation.
Recently, Victor Emanuel Nature Tours has diversified into multi-thematic trips such as “Birds and Music” or “Birds and Art.” Also, it has added some more relaxed tours, without as much physical activity, shorter days, fewer hours in the field.
Meanwhile, Emanuel is writing his memoirs and contemplating a succession plan at work.
“I’m at a very good time in my life,” he says. “I feel good about creating this company, and it is evolving.”
A lover of classical music, he has depended on a series of hearing aids to overcome hearing loss from a childhood infection, an obvious obstacle for a birder.
Emanuel: “Luckily, I have good eyesight.”