How many times in your reading do you cry out "Oh, my god!" or "No, no ki dding, no"? How often is it likely to be in a book that intends to be mostly informative? I read a lot of nature memoirs or narratives in which writers wander around outdoors and contemplate what they see—Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, John McPhee, and others. I've read a few birding memoirs as well: T. H. White's The Goshawk, Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk and Vesper Flights, Jonathan C. Slaght's Owls of the Eastern Ice: A Quest to Find and Save the World's Largest Owl, Susan Cerulean's I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird, and J. Drew Lanham's The Home Place. I own several different bird guides, some a uthored by familiar names—John James Audubon, Roger Torey Peterson, and David Allen Sibley (men who write bird books usually have three names). National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America (Third Edition) rests on a shelf near our front door, so I can identify the birds who snack at our front yard feeders, and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern Region travels with us in a backpack in our car. I'm pretty certain that none of these made me blurt anything out loud.
But here I am reading a lovely gift from my daughter and her Florida family, What It's Like to be a Bird by David Allen Sibley. I imagine that Sibley has authored the most read bird guides after Audubon. Here I am, past the fact-filled multi-pages of introduction and into the dual-page treatments of individual birds, and I find myself having to stop on pages about Alcids to exclaim once again "Oh, my god!" and "Are you kidding?"
We're past the Loon, perhaps the bird I admire most, denizen of Lake Superior and favorite sites along the shores of Isle Royale, of whom I've written before, having discovered how fast their offspring grow to become independent feeders and what good parents they are—I know this—and how they need open lakes to catch flight into the air—but three pages later I'm looking at Alcids, "equivalent to penguins but unrelated," their large bills "strange and wondrous" and unexplainable, and how their related Murres can dive 200 feet below the surface, "unlikely using vision to locate and pursue prey, but"—and I quote here—"nobody knows what senses they are using." "Similarly, no one knows how the birds withstand the pressure of those depths . . . or how they can travel that far and fast without breathing."
And then Sibley goes on to Cormorants, another of my favorites, "the most efficient marine predator in the world," where he explains that, unlike humans, whose vision blurs underwater, they have a flexible lens that lets them see clearly. When talking about Sandhill cranes, which I encounter annually, he tells us that "what we call a bird's foot is really just the toe bones," and what we think is the bird's shin is actually its ankle. The book is rich in this kind of information.
Did you know that if you record bird song and then play it back at half-speed, you'll hear a wider range of notes and pitches than you thought you'd heard? My recent reading, in a variety of nature books, has made me aware of how much more complicated and sophisticated relationships within and among other species are than our human-centered attention to the world has led us to believe. I noticed this in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and anticipated it in Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, our current dinner read. I'm learning it in Elizabeth Kolbert's writing on the shrinking of Lake Powell and Rivka Galchen's article on the potential to view the earliest ages of the universe, both in the August 16 issue of The New Yorker.
Almost weekly, sometimes daily, I realize how much what I've always taken for granted was wrong, partly because I gave no thought to it at all but partly because little in my information sources or, to be honest, in my education made me consider it. We're living in an age where what we're doing to our planet's climate is rapidly altering the kind of future it will offer us and learning what we've overlooked in the life forces all around us, including the nature of humanity as well as the nature of the other creatures that we need to share the planet with. Even as I'm exhilarated by what we're discovering about existence, I'm dismayed to realize how long it's taken us to get here and how little time we have left to understand it more fully.
Notes: Sibley, David Allen. What It's Like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing—What Birds Are Doing, and Why. New York: Penguin/Random House, 2020.