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Books about birds and addiction [Nov. 12th, 2017|08:13 pm]
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I have always thought of myself as someone who was not particularly interested in birds. I say 'always'. but it probably dates back to when I was nine, we moved house, out of the city and into the country, and I started at a new school. Each child in the class undertook a 'project', a scrapbook of words and pictures about a subject they found interesting. "Do you know what you are interested in?" asked the teacher. "Lots of people do birds." I was not, in this unfamiliar territory, about to stick my neck out and say that actually, I was currently very interested in antique Baccarat glass paperweights, so I said birds would be fine. In fact I was too short-sighted to see most birds, but it didn't matter because all you had to do was copy out chunks from the Observer's Book of Birds, but the process convinced me that I was Not Interested in birds. If things have changed since then, blame the puffins (the perfect gateway bird).

Reading the reviews of Amy Liptrot's The Outrun, I wasn't convinced I wanted to read the book: on the one side, dispatches from Orkney; on the other. I could see myself getting irritated by the this bright, glamorous, high achieving but interestingly damaged young person. What finally tipped the balance was the very attractive cover (credited to designers Kai & Sunny, and I could wish that the closest I could find on their website were not a design for a whisky promotion. Because, as Amy Liptrot says in the Guardian article</a> from which I stole the title of this post:
When people ask me what the book is about, I seem to tell them different things. Sometimes I say it’s about beauty, sensation and the feeling of cold water on hot skin. Sometimes I say it’s about birds and addiction. Sometimes I say it’s about a period in my life when I’d returned to Orkney after I got out of rehab in London.
The article as a whole does a better job than I could of explaining what kind of book it is, and gives you a flavour of Amy Liptrot's voice.

Which is important, because it's the voice that holds the whole thing together. The Outrun has won prizes both as nature writing and as autobiography. It isn't a lyrical tale of redemption through the beauties of nature, nor is it a wildlife book through which a few confessional details can be glimpsed: alcohol fuelled night cycle rides through Hackney are described with the same exhilaration as walking the entire circumference of Papay on a winter's day. She describes an Orkney which is not tourist-pretty, which is real and lived in; I was hooked by the first line of Chapter 1: "On my first day back I shelter beside an old freezer, down by some stinging nettles, and , and watch the weather approach over the sea."

The Outrun was written over a period of time, and it shows: parts of it were initially published as blog pieces, online essays, and their writing is described as part of the recovery process (the decision to spend the winter on Papay may seem quixotic, but Rose Cottage, despite its lack of insulation, has a workable internet connection). At times the scaffolding shows through, and at times I was aware that despite the immediacy of the narrative, time had moved on since it was written. I wouldn't have been aware of this, though, without information from other sources, and one of those sources was another bird book, read on a previous holiday. I read The Outrun in Brittany (and it made me see Brittany's stonebuilt fishing villages as less akin to Cornwall, more like the Northern Isles, than I have in the past). On Lindisfarne at midsummer I read Adam Nicolson's The Seabird's Cry, a gift from D., selected not only for the puffin on the cover but also because he knows I have read and enjoyed Nicolson in the past.

Chapter by chapter, The Seabird's Cry examines the lives and folklore of a selection of seabirds. It's a compendium of extraordinary bird facts and stories, one of those books I could happily read out loud, paragraph by paragraph, Listen to this! And now, listen to this.... There ought to be an element of Look at this!, too: artist Kate Boxer contributes a full-page illustration per chapter (here is her puffin). There are some tantalising archive photos, family photos and other images (Edward Lear's painting of a Great Auk, for example) - but these are mostly too small and grey to be satisfying. The best picture of all isn't even included in the book, and I had to hunt it down on the internet: the earliest known depiction of a bird is a Great Penguin from the Grotte Cosquer, east of Marseille.

Mostly, though, it's all about the words. I have already quoted Nicolson's description of the puffin in winter: "Winter puffins, dressed in grey, float in silence, picking at fish and plankton alone on the surface of the sea." It's still good. He isn't sentimental about puffins, at one point pouncing on a description og the young Colonel Gaddafi (yes, really) to remark "That looks like the world of the puffin, the arena of the pantomime kings." But he has the latest information about where they go in the winter: where Amy Liptrot talks about fitting birds with GPS devices which must be retrieved for their data to be harvested, Adam Nicolson sees the findings of those which can radio back to base, unraveling the mystery of puffin migration patterns - if "patterns" is the word for something so idiosyncratic. Scientists have been doing amazing things: apparently shearwaters find their way home by sense of smell...

This is all wonderful, but the book as a whole is depressing: seabird numbers are in steep decline. The Seabird's Cry picks up where The Last Seabird Summer left off: Nicolson doesn't name any specific programme in his acknowledgements, but he does say that several of the journeys described in the book were undertaken while filming for BBC4: book and film share the same themes and the same concerns. Both record a catastrophic fall in seabird populations, but the book, being later, does at least suggest that there are signs of hope: the albatrosses of the southern ocean seem to have learned not to entangle themselves in the long fishing lines, rats can be eradicated from small Scottish islands, and there are species that are doing very nicely, thank you, among them fulmars and gannets.

It turns out, though, that Marty Feldman had good reason not to like gannets - they do, indeed, have long, nasty beaks.

This entry cross-posted from Dreamwidth: comments always welcome, at either location.

[User Picture]From: steepholm
2017-11-12 09:27 pm (UTC)
The trouble with the Observer's Book of Birds was that half the photos were in black and white, presumably for reasons of economy. It did kind of destroy the point, even though I joined the Young Ornithologists' Club for a while.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2017-11-13 09:40 am (UTC)
I'd forgotten that! But then, I never got that far...

The best birder I know is colourblind; I wonder if that gave him a head start...
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