Thursday, May 11, 2006

History lesson


I’ve been reading Stephen Moss’s A Bird in the Bush these past days, which as the tagline says is a social history of birdwatching.

This is a highly informative book, rich in anecdote and birding lore. My one grouse is it is predominantly Britain-centric apart from some references to developments in the Americas, mostly North of course. However, once I’d put that disappointment behind me, I was absorbed by the view this book afforded me of birders and birdwatching in times other than this one, in their context, their mileau, with their values and resources.

Starting with the Reverend Gilbert White who made his home patch so memorable with his work The Natural History of Selbourne to the latest advances in bird ringing technology and optics today, Moss traces it all. He also peppers his account with passages by birders and naturalists and it serves to vividly bring their times to light, not merely by what they're saying but with how they're saying it as well. Birders, if these quotes are anything to go by, seem to make charming raconteurs, because these men are articulate, prone to description and frequently poetic. I'm taking the liberty of quoting a few pieces here because they're so telling.

For most of us today, birding is also a social activity. There is an insistent feeling of community flowing along a line of birders with their bins raised to the flighted ones.

The companionship too of those who are prosecuting with zeal and enthusiasm the same path of science, is not the least delightful feature of such excursions... the pleasing incidents that diversified the walk, the jokes that passed, and even the very mishaps or annoyances that occurred – all became objects of interest, and unite the members of the party by ties of no ordinary kind.
JH Balfour, on a similar pursuit, the search for rare flowers.
That doesn’t mean to say that it can’t be enjoyed alone, of course; it is glorious to be on your own, feeling the sun on your shoulders and all the time in the world at your command as you commune with a woodpecker, or even an owl:

Before that moment I had, like every young keen birder, compensated for experiences of the real thing with long hours poring over bird books and bird pictures. But on Goldsitch Moss I realised, perhaps for the first time, by how much life can exceed imagination. A Short-eared Owl had entered my life and for those moments, as it swallowed me up with its piercing eyes, I had entered the life of an owl. It was a perfect consummation.
Mark Cocker, Birder: Tales of a Tribe

However, there are times when you must, absolutely must have someone to tell what remarkable birds you saw that morning. And so, it was curious for me to see the loneliness that hung over many early birders. It was oddly brave of those early birders to persist in birding in complete isolation, in making meticulous notes of habitats, markings and observations in a time when it cast you in dubious light to carry field glasses (only race-goers sported them, apparently).

It has long been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress…
Gilbert White

It was a bit shocking to know that even as close as the early 1970s, there were closet birders.

At the time, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were far more alluring… As such, the last thing I would mention to anyone was that I enjoyed watching birds – it just wasn’t, well, cool!
Neil McKillop
It was the standard joke when people heard I was interested in birds – ‘oh, the two-legged kind, I hope!’… That kind of constant crass innuendo made me wary about disclosing my bird interests.
Mark Cocker
Moss talks at length also of the shotgun naturalists and the egg-collectors – a period that by the simple expedient of holding the (dead) bird in hand, added much to the collective pool of scientific knowledge – and the social and ecological values that led to their condemnation.

Particularly thrilling for me were accounts of young men in Britain and America who stepped out to explore their worlds with dogged single-mindedness. Specially the story of American birder Kenn Kaufman, who at the age of 17 dropped out of high school and took off with fifty dollars in his pocket to travel his country looking for birds. Then there were Britons Nigel Redman and Chris Murphy who charted a 10-month epic journey of more than five thousand miles from Britain to Nepal via Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.

Moss presents the debates around the more recent day obsession with twitching also. Even as I wondered at listers for not seeing the woods for the trees in their pursuit of another tick, I couldn’t help gasp at Phoebe Snetsinger and her haul of 8500 species when she died in 1999. Diagnosed with cancer and told that she had less than one year to live, she fought back and continued in her quest for ‘lifers’ till she died in a freak bus accident in Madagascar.

The book narrates many such stories, engrossing to anyone who’s interested in how birding came to be what it is today. Fascinating stuff.

___
A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Birdwatching
Stephen Moss (2004)
Aurum Press, London

21 comments:

Sharada said...

cool book Naaah! I feel so greedy right now! I want to lay my hands on all those books that are mentioned in Moss's book! Kauffman's Kingbird highway and Bill Oddie's little black book of birds and more.And I even would love to visit one of those bird fairs that they have! I finished reading Simon Barnes's How to be a bad birdwatcher. Didn't think much of it. Bird in the bush is much much better!

Sheetal said...

I know, Kingbird Highway seems fascinating - can't wait to read it! Also Birder: Tales of a Tribe. When am I getting Selbourne, by the way?
Agree about How to be a Bad Birdwatcher - I don't know where he was pitching it.

And nice article in Pitta, Sharade!

Sharada said...

I will get Selborne along with me to EPTRI on 21st.Take it from me then. I will also bring along the 'last curlew' with me. Remember I had written about the book to you a long time back? I haven't read Selborne yet. Saving it for some other time. I have read so many books over the summer,and have so many more to go,I am going mad! But,then please keep Selborne safe and return it on the next field trip. I get nightmares about people losing my books whenever I lend them! :)

Arjun said...

ahem ahem if tehre is lending going on..can I stand in queue?

Sheetal said...

Perfectly understandable - this noble sentiment only places you higher in the rungs of humanity, Sharade.
yes, yes, do na worry - I will wrap book in cotton wool, read with pages opened at angle of 45 degrees or less, and return safely next field trip.

Guess what I've got hold of now? Snowball Earth!

Aasheesh said...

Guys, guys, I've been away and missing so much about books, my great mania! Say, where did you get hold of Moss's little history?

By the way, you should try and get the fantastic 'Diary of a left-handed birdwatcher', no, alas, not this left-handed birdwatcher, but, Leonard Nathan. A little gem of a book in which there is reference to Valmiki and his encounter with the Sarus, at the beginning of the Ramayan. It is a superb book.

I could lead you through an entire library of such works. Just prod me with replies!

Sheetal said...

Hi Aasheesh! I don't own Moss's book, alas, merely borrowed from the British Library.

Guide us through an entire library? Do, do!

Sheetal said...

People, an excerpt from Nathan's Diary of a left-handed birder is here. Mouthwatering.

Aasheesh said...

Another of Nathan's gems: "Where there is real presence, there we should put down our burden and abide."

He quotes Donald Culross Peattie, "Man feels himself an infinity above those creatures who stand, zoologically, only one step below him, but every human being looks up to the birds. They seem to us like emissaries of another world which exists about us and above us, but into which, earth-bound, we cannot penetrate. It is not the strength of the lion that we give to angels, but wings." What an amazing thought!

Aasheesh said...

Sharada, I am quite a fan of Simon Barnes. His column in RSPB's BIRDS is quite a piece and I look forward to it eagerly. By the way, BSAP gets an exchange copy for its publications. You could ask Mr Siraj Taher and borrow it from him. There are several articles that are great eye-openers.

Sharada said...

Aaaah! Sheetal!!! You have got hold of Snowball Earth!!! Hmmm... Let me guess, the Hard-bound copy? I loooove Snowball Earth! I didn't get it photocopied though. Will borrow it for the umpteenth time and get it photocopied.;) This is like the coolest non-fiction book I've read. I can't stop raving about it! Anyway! Happy reading!! I recommend it to everyone who contributes to this blog and all the visitors. I even saw The Blind watch-maker the other day in british Library, by Richard Dawkins, but I already had chosen 5 books. Oh god! there's so much to see, so much to do, so much to read! And wouldn't I love to read all those books reviewed in the copies of BBC wildlife! Greed Knows no bounds. And Sheetal, You have got to read 'The last Curlew' by Fred Bodsworth. Didn't get it to EPTRI cause my backpack got too heavy. Will get it for you in june's field trip.

Sheetal said...

"Where there is real presence, there we should put down our burden and abide."
Aasheesh, this makes me want this book very badly. A reading club of and for birders wouldn't be out of place, I think - shauqi chaps.

Sharada, I'm going to very very nice to you, never fear.

Sharada said...

BSAP has a library in Banjara Hills, doesn't it? Time to raid it! Chaaaarge!:)

Aasheesh said...

Sheetal, Sharada! These treasures are not in the BSAP library. They are mine! I had promised to lead you on a different birding trip, remember, through the immortal labrynths of a library of nature writings. To start at the beginning, some favourite authors. Aldo Leopold, the greatest of the greatest, the father of ecology. Murder to get his A SAND COUNTY ALMANAC. I've read it thrice already. Stupendously marvellous, it is. I began underlining preferred text in it, words that imbed themselves into the reader's heart, like arrows thudding home, but gave up in despair. How can one highlight every sentence in a book? I'll quote the opening 'bars' of a chapter called "Too early".

"Getting up too early is a vice habitual in horned owls, stars, geese, and freight trains. Some hunters acquire it from geese, and some coffe pots from hunters. It is strange that of all the multitude of creatures who must rise in the morning at some time, only these few should have discovered the most pleasant and least useful time for doing it."

Have you been touched by Thoreau? Walden Pond, etc? But of him in another post.

Sheetal said...

Yes, yes, yes. Aasheesh, we need need a series from you.
Touched by Thoreau? Very much so. One of my long-held gods. But we still need that post.

Sharada said...

Aasheesh uncle, could I please raid your library?? I promise not to fold, bend, spindle, mutilate, tear or damage the books in any way!! Right now, I'm filled with a sense of anticipation and wonderment at the sorts of treasures that lie in all those books on nature. I just feel glad to be alive so that I can rejoice in nature and nature writings!!

KB said...

Hi Aasheesh, Now that you have bared the secrets of your bookshelves to all, please do record my presence in the queue as well. Being in Bombay, however I do wonder how will I ever get to savour their delights. Mail order perhaps, with the courier charges paid by me off course!
By the way I did enjoy a few books that you have generously donated to the BNHS library. 'Hope is the Things with Feathers' and 'Biography of Brian Hodgson' come to my mind that had your name on them and I enjoyed reading in the recent months.

The review of the social history of birdwatching was also informative. Many of us who have been watching birds for almost two decades or over now can really appreciate the changes that have happened. Hard to belive now, but for many- many years for many like me who were stationed away from hubs like Bombay, Delhi, Bangalore or Hyderabad, the only connection with other birders was the bimonthly NLBW.

Aasheesh said...

Hi KB, great to hear your voice amidst this babble! You should also ask for and read Erwin Stresemann's 'History of ornithology: From Aristotle to the present', which I donated to the BNHS. It is a classic and hard to come by.

Just added Vincent Legge's spectacular 4-vol 'History of the birds of Ceylon', to my collection. Originally published 125 years ago. Its the 1983 reprint, but what of that, it was apparently the only one left with the publishers! The BNHS does not have a copy of this, which is rather surprising, unless, well, it has flown. The reprint run was of 600 copies of which mine is # 305.

Its good to know that you are fond of books and make good use of them.

Aasheesh said...

KB, I forgot to add that the NLBW is now edited by Sridhar. The indomitable Zafar Futehally is not a part of it any longer. I suppose you know about all this. But yes, the NLBW really was a brilliant cardinal flitting among birdwatchers, wasn't it! ZF, almost singlehandedly, like the pope of Indian ornithology, networked to produce NLBW. I hope you follow his column, 'Recoveries...', in INDIAN BIRDS. It is pregnant with history and insight.

KB said...

Hi Aasheesh, offcourse I have borrowed from BNHS library and read over a year ago Erwin Stresemann's 'History of ornithology: From Aristotle to the present'.
You also mentioned it, but I knew the value of the book when I first saw it and therefore got it photocopied from cover to cover prior returning it back. A breach of copyright surely and a prick on the conscience too, but a small price, I guess, for the pleasure of being able to return to the book again whenever desired:)
Yes, I do enjoy very much the 'Recoveries' from NLBW. From about end 1980s onwards, I have my own copies too, all chronologically filed.

KB said...

There was some mix up there. It is the 'Concise History of Ornithology - The Lives and works of its founding figures', a delightful history of Ornithology, by Michael Walters that I enjoyed reading earlier and now also have with me in a photocopy format.
As regards Erwin Stresemann's 'History of ornithology: From Aristotle to the present', I just went to BNHS library today and borrowed. Thanks Aasheesh for suggesting this book to me. It looks really worthy enough to occupy my days ahead. In fact Shahid Ali, after seeing the book in my hands today, promptly booked it for issue after me!