Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes

Friday is Forgotten Book day at Patti Nase Abbott's blog, PATTINASE. Don't forget to take a looksee at what other forgotten books other bloggers are talking about today.

My choice for today:

How to Be a (BAD) Birdwatcher (2005) by Simon Barnes

Barnes is the award-winning chief sportswriter for the London Times and author of many books, including several on wildlife and three novels. He is also a much admired though not uncontroversial columnist for Birds magazine, a publication of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. So, the guy certainly has his bird-watching credentials - if any are needed.

I’d never heard of him until I picked up this little book (a mere 220 pages or so) a while back and, bemused by the title, began reading. Barnes is that rare thing, a man who loves the natural world and can write about it without being icky-sticky.

Early on, he explains exactly what he means by ‘bad birdwatcher,’ and I leave it to the reader to discover this on his or her own. It is a delightful take on the sometimes deadly serious world of birders who trudge about the countryside with their wellies, notebooks and binoculars looking to score one on the competition.

“Mad collectors are all very well.” As Miss Jean Brodie said, “…for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like”. So let us leave the collectors on one side for the moment. The point of bird watching is not birdwatchers but birds. Birds have always been part of human life; not just as things to eat, but as part of the way we see and understand the world.”

 Well of course, but rarely have I seen it explained so simply and so to the point. Barnes has a knack for stating the obvious as though it’s never been stated before and making you stop and think about a point as though it were new.

 “But before the understanding comes the wonder. Comes the delight. And that is the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected.”

 Barnes doesn’t want us to forget the delight. He has a calm British way with words that is quite winning and makes you want to go hang out with him on one of his birding expeditions, accidental or otherwise.

 Eventually, you realize that what Barnes is talking about is not necessarily ‘birds’ per se, what he’s actually rhapsodizing about is life in all its glories -  personalized here by these  feathered descendants of dinosaurs.

 “There is a myth about evolution: that evolution is a search for perfection. It is one of humankind’s great self-glorifying misunderstandings, for guess which species always seems to embody that perfection – the paragon of animals, noble in reason, infinite in faculty? Yes, the whole point of evolution is you and me. Vast suns whirling through space, spinning planets, the collision of asteroids, the primordial soup, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs: all of it was planned and preordained in order to produce me, writing a book about birds, and you looking through the window at the bird feeder and wondering why the blood doesn’t rush to the head of the chickadee as he hands upside down on the feeder.

That is the myth. But there is a real story of evolution that is much grander, much bigger, wider and higher – and infinitely more glorious. No one can say that a man is better than an Arctic tern – a bird that spends every Northern Hemisphere summer in the Arctic and every Southern Hemisphere summer in the Antarctic, commuting the entire length of the globe to live a life of almost perpetual sunshine. What human could do that/ Or want to?

 No: evolution – life – isn’t looking for perfection; it is looking for survival, and life has come up with uncountable millions of survival plans. Each species has a different plan, and they all work. The summit of evolution is the arctic tern, or the wood louse, or the blue whale, or the brown rat.”

I suppose it’s a wonderful boost to the ego to read a book that bolsters what you’ve always believed but had never put into words yourself. So you can imagine my delight when I read these words and why this review today is more unabashed fan letter than anything else.

 Barnes also talks about trips he’s taken with friends and family to outposts around the world:

 “I took my father to Luangwa also.  (In Zambia)  He came for a fortnight; I was in the middle of a two month sabbatical. It was shortly after my mother died; deeply healing it was, to be surrounded by such abundance of life, by such weeds, such wilderness.

 At times I would slip out of camp and sit in the ebony glade, back to a tree, still, silent. After ten minutes this gets boring; after twenty minutes you never want to move. And I became invisible. I became another part of the forest. I had long-tailed glossy starlings going through the leaf litter within pecking distance of my Timberlands; once a warthog and hoglets just beyond touching distance; once a male bushbuck I could have stroked had I wished. Well, I did wish, but I had the good manners to refrain.”

 See what I mean? So restrained, yet so perfectly beautiful. How could you not want to know more about this guy’s take on the world we all inhabit.

I think I’m in love.

Note: This would be a wonderful Christmas token for any bird-lover, nature-lover, lover of fine writing, on your list. There's a new edition with a redesigned cover available.


  1. I don.t like too much change, so I like the original cover.
    There is an Artist in the next village he is a surgeon and I am in love with his art work. His oils hit me in the heart. Sooo, I know what you mean, being in love.
    wonderful post again.. Yvonne

  2. I like them both, Yvonne. Though the green cover is more traditional, more for when you're feeling in a 'traditional' state of mind and heart. :)

  3. This looks like something right up my alley, and it's the kind of thing hard to find out about, so your review is a real score. I have put it on my A-zon wish list. By the way, the book they show has yet a different cover.

  4. I loved this book, Richard. I hope you will too. It's not hard to come by at all even if the covers are changeable. :)

  5. My comment was eaten, I think. Trying again.

    I like these books where the writer ends up transcending the content and original point of the book. The passages you cite are intoxicating. I want more.

  6. John: Get the book. You'll thank me. :)


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