Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds

As an object, this is a beautiful book. Sized to fit comfortably in the hand, it has an elegant dust jacket; it’s printed on thick, serious stock, meant to last; and best of all, it’s illustrated throughout with lush watercolors by Mary Woodin.

Unfortunately, and contrary to what the cover led me to expect, this is not a book about birds. It’s a book about how one man took his self – his anxious masculinity, his spiritual confusion, his fear of death, his absurdly overinflated sense of purpose – into the field and offloaded all those feelings on to some birds he saw. This has always been a popular school of nature writing, but I dislike it intensely. No one can avoid taking birds personally a little bit, or at least I can’t, but to me the neat thing about birds is that touch of the alien, the magnificent indifference. If I thought that birds were coming around with messages for me, that would be cheap. That would be cheating.

Keen’s sensibilities clashed with my own most in his essay about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Our author, now elderly, was a young boy and just a budding birdwatcher as the Ivory-bill was going extinct/”extinct”. A friend of the family takes him to Tennessee, where she claims to still see the “peckerwoods” regularly. Staying with a rural family, he spots a suspicious Picus – only to have a member of his host family obligingly shoot it out of the sky for him. Horrified, he buries it without identifying it, and then walks around as though somehow his eleven-year-old ass is bearing a direct load of original sin. Understandable for a pre-pubescent child; inexcusable in an essayist of mature years, especially when said essayist uses the alleged re-emergence of the Ivory-bill to pontificate about how he won’t even attempt to see it, not wanting to taint it with his all-destroying gaze or whateverthefuck. Not a shred of scientific spirit in the man, is what I’m saying. This comes to the fore even more strongly in his essay on bird intelligence, where he conflates the theory of a mechanistic universe with a Descartian disregard for the possibility of intelligences other than human, apparently based on nothing more than the fact that this must be true in order for him to believe that mystics make better naturalists than materialists.

Still, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like. Keen can describe a bunting, that’s for sure. And as I said, it’s really very pretty.

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