We interrupt the road trip for an update from The Future (dun dun dun….) which is to say, the present.

Classes have started at the University of Montana, among them my first nonfiction workshop! Among my tasks for the semester is to select, read, and comment from a writer’s perspective on four nonfiction books that have something to teach me about the craft.

I’ve decided to pick four books on birds and birding (or on nature with a strong bird component), but with different forms and themes. Unfortunately, books I’ve already read are discouraged, which rules out some strong contenders like Of a Feather and Season at the Point. Some of the possibilities I’m looking at include:

Wild America by James Fisher and Roger Tory Peterson (maybe paired with Weidensaul’s Return to Wild America if I get hardcore ambitious)
Life List by Olivia Gentile
Birding Babylon by Jonathan Trouern-Trend
Flight Maps by Jennifer Price
The Birds of Heaven by Peter Mattheissen
Mama Poc by Anne LaBastille

Please throw out suggestions in the comments, if you have any! I’m looking to cast a wide net, so the bird-ness of the book need not be the central focus. All selections do, however, have to be nonfiction.

And please, don’t suggest Jonathon Rosen’s The Life of the Skies. I already know that one can be a beautiful writer and wrong as hell*. And you’ll hear more about Rosen’s wrong as hellness in this very blog, in The Future (dun dun dunnnn…..)

*I learned from Annie Dillard, actually.


You’re going to have to, I’m afraid, because I’m STILL trying to get moving-in details sorted.

But in the meanwhile, you have until this coming Tuesday to get your submissions to the next I and the Bird to me, at labenc AT gmail.com. Send ’em in!

While I am out of blogging commission traveling the country, Jonathan Franzen has nobly agreed to take up my slack!

Well, not really. But he does have an article in the current New Yorker about bird poaching in Cyprus, Malta, and Italy.

Artistic differences note: If I were him, I wouldn’t have eaten the ambelopoulia.

Birding lends itself, no question, to amateur ornithology and to what in the old days was called nature-study and might now be referred to as basic field ecology. But that’s not the only way that it’s educational! Consider:

Geology, hydrology: If the uphill end of the field is muddy, the downhill end will be very, very muddy.
Physics: The mud will try to eat your shoes.
Phys. Ed.: But after a vigorous fight, you can thwart it.
History, Logic: If the barn burned down two years ago, you can’t use the hose in the barn to wash your shoes off now.
Sociology: Take your muddy shoes off before you go in the house, dammit.
Meteorology: Maybe it will rain again and wash your shoes off for you!

There are two political issues which, as a birder, are currently at the forefront of my mind. One, in light of the disaster in the Gulf, is offshore drilling; Nate has said everything I could possibly say about the issue, and very ably, in this post. If you haven’t read it yet, go ahead. I’ll wait right here.

(Seriously, go read it. This may be the worst single-source environmental catastrophe of our lifetimes.)

The other is Arizona’s recent passage of a “papers, please” law targeting undocumented immigrants, and the resulting boycott. Many people with better knowledge of the legal ins and outs than I have explained why this law is unconstitutional, why it can never in practice be anything other than race-based, and why it’s a generally crap idea. But what does it have to do with birding?

Three things:

1. It robs us of opportunities to catch and punish polluters. Businesses that hire people illegally at sub-minimum wages have already shown themselves willing to break the law to make money. Many of these businesses are in industries like landscaping, sanitation, meat-packing, and agriculture, where regulations on the use of pesticides and the disposal of waste are frequently and flagrantly ignored. The witnesses to these violations? Often the lowest-level workers, these self-same undocumented immigrants. If local law enforcement is forbidden to cultivate a relationship other than adversarial with such people, they won’t trust any law enforcement, and they’ll have no incentive to whistleblow, witness, or testify against their exploiters. (This is already somewhat the case, but the new law will make it worse.)

2. Following on from the last, by going after individual violators of the immigration laws instead of systemic violators like employers, it validates the whole mindset that brings us such environmental disasters as the border wall and the troops of Minutemen scattering ATV tracks, powerbar wrappers, and shotgun shells across the desert. Just as targeting drug addicts rather than the root causes of addiction creates a War on Drugs mentality that leads to urban blight, targeting “illegal” immigrants rather than illegal employers is liable to create Southwestern rural blight as groups of people, some too desperate to care and some too focused on their own self-righteous rage to give a damn, trample the fragile landscape in large-scale, long-term games of cat and mouse that don’t solve the actual problem.

2a. The same thing, but on a macro scale: it slaps a band-aid on the problem of economic inequality, and economic inequality is the Sauron to most of the various orc-like threats that the environment faces today. People living relatively comfortable and stable lives can often be persuaded to care about the environment, even if they’re not nature-lovers by instinct; they’re accessible via expanding circles of NIMBY-ism and the promise of a better world for their grandchildren. The ultra-rich, however, often suffer from the delusion that their wealth will insulate them from environmental disaster. And the very poor, understandably, can’t be persuaded to care about the kind of world their grandchildren will live in until they have some reasonable hope that their children won’t starve to death tomorrow. In the particular case of Arizona, the immigration problem is an outgrowth of economic exploitation that’s occurring throughout Central and South America, and that same economic exploitation is the
driving force behind deforestation, pesticide abuse, overhunting, and other issues that are threatening birds throughout the hemisphere. Human misery and envirocide are growing out of the same rootstock. But the United States will do nothing to address its own very large role in the problem if we keep masking the symptoms with punitive laws meant to keep the issue out of sight and out of mind.

3. The law is a direct threat to birders. We’ve already seen that birding is a suspicion-arousing activity in some minds. Every community contains its share of cranks, racists, and resentmentphiles, and with this law these people are basically deputized via the power of lawsuit and hopped up on the chance to add some drama to their lives. Wandering around will no longer be a safe activity – not just for birders of Hispanic origin, but for those of Middle Eastern descent, Southeast Asians, Native Americans (I think this is called irony by some), etc., etc. And while it’s all well and good to explain to a concerned officer what you’re doing once or twice, having it happen frequently would put a serious cramp on birding as a leisure activity. Moreover, having to carry your passport or birth certificate (a simple driver’s license won’t cut it) with you in the field could lead to their loss and thus to identity theft. Chances are, the hassle will lead to people dropping the hobby, or never getting involved in the first place – and for those concerned that birding skews too much to old white dudes already, this is bad news.

Arizona contains many areas of unique natural beauty that I’ve always wanted to see. And I will be overjoyed to finally see the Grand Canyon, Ramsey Canyon, even the famous Patagonia picnic table… after this law is struck from the books.

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I must say, it’s very generous of Corey to make sure I’ll have a new image of New York City every day when I get homesick….

This is my favorite so far for some reason.

Some time ago, I mentioned that I had sold a story that was inspired by a photo taken by the notorious bird blogger and swamp monster Corey Finger.

That story, Plastic Sargasso, is now available online for your reading delectation.

I will also note that I had a beautiful and perhaps too exciting weekend, of which more in due time.

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