Why Do Writers Love Birding So Much?
An Investigation, Featuring All of Your Favorite Bird Lovers
My husband and I spend much of our free time in remote places, walking the trails and fields and dirt roads looking for birds. We seldom meet anyone in the wildlife refuges and bogs we regularly visit in northern Vermont, up on the Canadian border. Over time, walking in these landscapes empty of humans has a cumulative effect. I slip into the world of the birds; I listen for distant calls and songs; I study the leaves for the slightest sign of movement. My husband and I are one in the silence, searching without speaking. Not only is my speaking voice stilled, the voices in my mind are stilled, given over to something purer and richer—the air on my skin, sunlight and bird song, the brilliant colors of a blackburnian warbler.
For many years, birds were a reminder of the outdoors glimpsed through the window while I sat at my desk writing. Chickadees came to the feeder in the maple tree in the yard. Occasionally a hawk perched on an upper branch, and I consulted the bird guide to try to determine which species it was. I had an interest in birds just as I had an interest in gospel music and Vietnam War novels.
My casual notice of birds began to shift on a trip to Florida, when my husband and I encountered a stranger on a boardwalk at an Audubon sanctuary. The woman, who was staring intently into a patch of reeds, dipped her head and whispered, “American bittern.” I followed her gaze and saw nothing. She smiled at us and moved on, leaving us to peer into the foliage for a good five minutes before we could make out the bird standing just a few feet from us. With its pale coloring and striped breast, long neck and thin beak pointing skyward, the bittern was perfectly camouflaged, a reed among the reeds.
My delight, and chagrin, came not just from the fact that I had never seen a bittern before. I hadn’t even heard of this bird. Though I occasionally flipped through the bird guide, I ignored most of it, with no curiosity about the pages full of species I had not encountered. The bittern, and the many birds that followed, were like messengers telling me to wake up. How had I reached my forties without knowing these extraordinary creatures? How could I have been so blind, so self-absorbed, so just plain witless?
Being a writer means living in an inquisitive state. I am constantly turning over my own experience, looking for the stories beneath the surface and questioning my hidden motives and the motives of others. Writing demands a strange double vision, with a gaze focused simultaneously outward and inward. In order to write works of substance that speak to our times, we must be connected to human society and culture, but the act of writing requires separating from the din of people and news and striving. In the years I have spent writing three novels and a memoir, I have shut out a great deal. I have stayed sequestered in my house for days on end and maintained an almost maniacal focus on myself.
Until I went out looking for birds, I did not understand how much I hungered to leave the self-consciousness of the writer behind.
With birds I have found another way of being in the world. The time devoted to watching birds is about nothing but what is right there in front of me. I am released from myself instead of sent deeper within. I am immersed in the senses, and freed of turning that experience into a narrative. Until I went out looking for birds, I did not understand how much I hungered to leave the self-consciousness of the writer behind.
Anyone can become a bird-watcher, but the number of writers who have revealed themselves as birders in recent years and written about birds suggests there might be more than a casual connection. I sought out a few bird-watching writers to learn how they see the relationship between their work and the time they spend with birds.
* * * *
When I asked Margaret Atwood what makes her pick up the binoculars and head out, she responded: “On the level of knowledge: An involvement with birds is a reliable hook into the state of the planet. (Hint: we’re not doing so well.) On the personal level: Watching birds takes you out of yourself. It’s a flow state. Writing ideas come in sideways during such states. So perhaps it is a form of meditation.”
Atwood and her husband, the writer Graeme Gibson, are co-presidents of the Rare Bird Club of BirdLife International. The first volume of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, the 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, was inspired by a birding trip in Australia. She was watching red-necked crakes dart around in the undergrowth and the book came to her in a sudden and complete vision. In tribute to the crake, a secretive waterbird, she gave the name to one of her main characters.
In September, Atwood is publishing her first graphic novel with Dark Horse Comics. Titled Angel Catbird, the book is the first volume of a trilogy featuring a superhero who is part cat, part bird. Atwood is coordinating the book’s publication with a campaign by Nature Canada—Keep Cats Safe and Save Bird Lives—to encourage pet owners to keep their cats indoors.
Atwood spent a lot of time in the northern woods of Canada when she a child. Her father was a naturalist, and she did not attend school until the age of eight. She told me, “I feel at home in nature, not surprisingly. It’s how I grew up. Being among the phytochemicals is also—now, demonstrably—good for your blood pressure.”
Howard Norman, whose novel The Bird Artist was a finalist for the National Book Award, prefers to be alone when he observes birds. His only regular bird-watching companions have been his daughter and the late Peter Matthiessen, whose knowledge of birds he describes as having been “truly astonishing.”
“With Peter, it somehow never felt like merely bird watching,” Norman says. “This take on things might be somewhat framed by Peter’s Buddhist notion that looking at shorebirds—being ‘truly in the moment’ with them—provided a momentary reprieve from the natural condition of man, which is suffering.”
Norman’s most recent book, a memoir titled I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, is divided into sections that delve deeply into different times and places in his life. Birds appear throughout the book, not as subject matter or even exactly a thread, but as a vital presence, often in the background but always there. Norman is currently working on a new memoir titled Homesickness Guides the Plovers, which he describes as “a personal theology of birds.”
“I see being out where shorebirds dwell and looking at them as a spiritual endeavor, and think of birds themselves as not only intensifying the spiritual condition of life on earth, but also representing the eternal past,” he explains. “I would never feel worthy of the full anointment of reincarnation; I would just like to be a pelican for a couple of hours, just a couple of hours when ‘life is less insufferable’ (poet Larry Eigner) and happiness not so elusive. I suppose that sentence could be construed as a prayer.”
Nell Zink was, in her words, a “generalized environmentalist” when she was introduced to birding by an ornithologist in Germany, her adopted country. She helped him gain publicity for EurNatur, a nonprofit devoted to protecting migrating birds through international conservation efforts. By the time they were done with this project, Zink says, “It was like I went from seeing nature as a majestic postcard setting to answering the question ‘Setting for what?’” The answer for her had become birds.
Zink’s novel The Wallcreeper opens with a car accident that occurs when the narrator’s husband hits the bird that gives the book its title. The husband takes quick note of his bleeding wife (it turns out she is having a miscarriage) and hustles out of the car to retrieve the wallcreeper, a lifer for him—the term for a bird you have never seen before and can add to your life list. He explains on returning to the car that he identified the bird before he hit it, when it was alive, so he can count it. Dead birds cannot be counted. But fortunately the bird is only stunned, not deceased, and they take it home and name it Rudi.
Zink fills the novel with highly entertaining details that nail the sometimes competitive world of birding. The wallcreeper, and the other birds they go out looking for, become a stable element in the volatile lives of these characters with their fidelities and infidelities. Along the way, Zink has a lot of fun with birding lingo and practices, like the crowd of birders who descend on the couple, trying to glimpse the wallcreeper through their kitchen window.
Zink says she is still bewildered that birds make her so happy. “Bird watching taught me a whole new set of social skills,” she adds. “You can observe people, or birds, a whole lot better if you’re inconspicuous and quiet instead of somehow ‘being’ or ‘expressing’ yourself. Also, you can’t sit at home waiting for new birds to come to you. You have to seek out their habitat, just like with people.”
Jonathan Franzen has become almost as high profile a birder and environmental activist as he is a writer. In a 2005 essay appropriately titled “My Bird Problem,” he says this about his passion for birds:
The California towhee that I watched at breakfast every morning, the plainest of medium-small brown birds, a modest ground dweller, a giver of cheerful, elementary chipping calls, brought me more pleasure than Half Dome at sunrise or the ocean shoreline at Big Sur… And there were 650 other species that bred in the United States and Canada, a population so varied in look and habitat and behavior—cranes, hummingbirds, eagles, shearwaters, snipe—that, taken as a whole, they were like a companion with an inexhaustibly rich personality. They made me happy like nothing outdoors ever had.
Franzen’s series of articles for The New Yorker on birds and conservation have, predictably, caused controversy, in one case over his criticism of the National Audubon Society for focusing too heavily on climate change and in another over his revelation that he ate a songbird in Cyprus as part of his research into the widespread Mediterranean practice of capturing birds and selling them as a delicacy. I should add that, thoroughly nauseated, he took one bite of a blackcap, hid the rest in his napkin, and buried it outside.
The cerulean warbler, a gorgeous little bird whose numbers have declined by 75 percent since the 1960s, plays a starring role in Franzen’s novel Freedom and is featured on the cover of the book. Although Franzen says he did not intend the novel to be a mouthpiece for environmental causes, protagonist Walter Berglund’s work to save the cerulean warbler allows for long passages of facts about endangered birds and their habitat. At the end of the novel, Franzen, like Atwood, takes up the cause of keeping cats indoors. Berglund captures a marauding pet cat and attempts to educate his neighbors about the estimated one million birds killed daily in the United States by domestic cats (yes, that is one million each day).
In an interview with Audubon Magazine, Franzen said of birding, “It’s very much like any other religion. It spreads through direct contact with other believers. Birders think the same way. We want there to be more birders. We want more people to be interested in birds because when you create somebody who cares about birds, you create somebody who is concerned about the environment.”
In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen refers to “the happiness of pure and uninterpreted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same.” It is perhaps no surprise that the word most often invoked in connection with birds by the writers I surveyed was happiness. We have such a need to stop interpreting everything for a few moments, to experience another kind of happiness from the sort writing brings at those fortunate times when the story seems to tell itself.
On a summer day, the song sparrow in my back yard gives his sweet, loopy song over and over in a repetition that is insistent. Listen to me, he says. Look out the window. Feel the sun on your face. I lived in my house for more than ten years before I noticed and identified the song sparrow. It seems inconceivable that he was calling to me all that time and I did not hear him, but I’m listening now.