"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Monday, November 23, 2009

"A Year On the Wing" Enthralls

 Dee-licious, Dee-lightful!

"A Year on the Wing: Four Seasons in a Life With Birds" by Tim Dee

I'll cut to the chase: this is the most beautiful piece of nature-writing I have ever read. Period. There are other contenders, other great reads, but this taut, marvelous volume blew me away like no other.

I'd already been browsing this offering in a local bookstore for a couple of weeks when, serendipitously, the publisher sent along a copy for review. Brit Tim Dee is a BBC radio producer and writer, but "A Year On the Wing: Four Seasons In a Life With Birds" is his book-writing debut... And WHAT a debut!: This book sings... and soars... and sizzles, with prose that doesn't seem so much written, as poured onto each page from a wonderful carafe, like fine wine. Promotional material for the book uses words like "mesmerizing," "mystical," "moving," "gorgeous," "thrilling," "luminous," "poignant, "compelling," "poetic"... and all are apt for the rich text.  I'd additionally call this book intensely 'biophilic' --- a sendoff on E.O. Wilson's famously-coined term "biophilia," referring to the innate human need for connection with nature.

Generally, I like science books to bowl me over with empiricism, interesting facts, logic, reasoning, thought-provoking ideas. But nature books are a different ballgame... here I like to be swept away in lyricism, feeling, sentiment, connection, imagery. And Dee's book delivers in spades; a tour de force of nature-writing, reminiscent of early Annie Dillard.

Despite Dee's references being to British birds and locales, any American birder will easily follow and be swept up in the images and feelings evoked here.
The second chapter of the book narrates at length on the Woodcock, a fascinating bird familiar to both Americans and Brits. Here's a paragraph to give you the flavor of Dee's prose (if not the flavor of a Woodcock itself!!):
"Eating a woodcock, as I did once, is like eating earth. No wine has ever released its terroir to me as that bird did. It tasted like a prune, sweet and sour at once, a mixture of loam and chalk. The bird's dark purple flesh crumbled on my plate like a dried worm cast and the worms that made its meat. I had held the bird in my hand before it was plucked and cooked among the white surfaces and steel utensils of a smart London kitchen. Its cryptic moth-wing colors gave it the look of a worn fireside rug. To hold its book of browns, the wings falling open on either side of its body, was to sense the humus of dead leaves mulched into a bird over thousands of years --- the woodcock as a surviving fragment of an old earth, from a time when leaves became birds, branches grew wings, and the dark moved."

And this is the norm... There isn't a mundane page, a weak paragraph, a dull sentence in this amazing volume, as the author dances from woodcocks, to classic bird books, to swirling starlings, ravens, poetry, migration, nightjars, and other topics unforeseen, like literature, childhood escapades, and a suicide. I've always loved warblers, but I attained a new appreciation for Redstarts, in particular (another bird shared by America and Britain), from Dee's treatment of them here. And nightjars will never be the same for me again either. But every bird Dee touches turns magical and memorable. And there are dozens of species that take flight in these pages, some but briefly, some more front-and-center.

Each of the book's twelve chapters address a different month of the year and Tim's birding activities therein, but he really weaves his entire life into the narrative, sometimes hauntingly or sadly, or contemplatively or joyously. August is focused around bird banding, September on migration. The "October" chapter interestingly recounts Dee's own dual background in birding and nature-writing, telling which writers impacted him most growing up. His mini-discussions of literature, writers, and natural history are as interesting as his verbal portraiture of nature and birds.

I wanted this book to go on and on (it is only 200 pages), and was expecting some sort of profound crescendo as it did approach the end. Instead, it seemed to me to end in mid-air, a tad abruptly (the last chapters just as good as the prior chapters, but with no climactic finale), but maybe I missed something along the way. I'll be reading it again to see if the ending brings more closure, or if it simply makes you want to start over and read it again... and again.

I have to believe this volume is in line to win several awards for 2009 books, in nature writing and possibly other categories as well. And I hesitate to even look forward to Dee's next book --- I mean how could he equal, let alone top this?!! The volume is a bit reminiscent of Jonathan Rosen's wonderful work and ode to birds, "The Life of the Skies" which I previously rated a high "A-" --- what's left for me to give Dee's volume, except an A++ (...and no, I've never given that before).

Having heaped on all this praise though I must add that the potency of Dee's prose may be lost on those who lack great experience with the subjects he is addressing: nature and birds. Anyone with no interest in these topics just won't feel the power of Dee's vividness, passion, imagery. So this is not necessarily a book for everyone, or for non-nature readers, nor even beginning ones; it is for those already somewhat seasoned, even immersed... and ready, or primed, to be carried away.
But hey, I'll quit beating around the bush... I liked this book... A WHOLE... DANG... LOT!!!


Jeanne said...

The woodcock passage is lovely; it surprises me that a birder would eat a bird, but perhaps it shouldn't. He certainly makes it part of the whole experience of appreciating the woodcock!

Gunnar Engblom said...

Thanks ARJ

That was a nice tickle for a book to wish for xmas. Beautiful review!