Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl

This subtle, searing essay collection examines the griefs of family and of the natural world as one.

Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss is a quiet but stunning collection of essays merging the natural landscapes of Alabama and Tennessee with generations of family history, grief and renewal. Renkl’s voice sounds very close to the reader’s ear: intimate, confiding, candid and alert.

Renkl grew up in “lower Alabama,” the adored child of parents, grandparents and great-grandparents: in an old picture, “my people are looking at me as if I were the sun.” Her childhood was lived close to the red dirt, pine needles and blue jays of that space. As an adult, she lives in Nashville with a husband and three sons, and carefully cultivates a backyard garden with bird nests, baths and feeders. These are the backdrops to her observations of nature. “The cycle of life might as well be called the cycle of death: everything that lives will die, and everything that dies will be eaten.”

Sections are headed with simple, natural-world titles (Tomato, River, Thunderstorm) and adorned with illustrations by the author’s brother, Billy Renkl. Within these sections, the essays are brief–often just two or three pages–and can stand alone, but accrue to form a truly lovely larger picture. “Safe, Trapped” handles the duality of protective spaces: that shelter is also captivity. An echo, several chapters later: the realization that her childhood was never the sanctuary she thought it was at the time. Alongside the concern of how to keep loved ones safe, she writes about the natural cruelty of rat snakes, crows and snow.

Late Migrations studies family and loss: the deaths of great-grandparents, grandparents and parents; Renkl becoming a parent herself and worrying over her children. Spending a night in a prewar infirmary on the grounds of an orphanage, dreaming of babies in cages, Renkl goes to the window to view cardinals at a feeder and “watched until I knew I could keep them with me, until I believed I would dream that night of wings.” At about the midpoint of her book, this feels like a point of synthesis. Dreaming of babies in cages and trading them for wings, to “keep them with me,” represents a neat joining of her themes, which are of course not nearly so separate as they initially appear.

This is a book about the labors of bluebirds, red-tailed hawks and cottontails, and about grief: the loss of loved ones, the risks to her own children and the everyday struggles of backyard nests. A book of subtlety and sadness, yes, but also a tough, persistent joy in the present and the future. “Human beings are creatures made for joy,” Renkl writes. “Against all evidence, we tell ourselves that grief and loneliness and despair are tragedies…. In the fairy tale we tell ourselves, darkness holds nothing resembling a gift.” Part of her work in this book is to find and recognize the gift in the darkness, “to reveal it in its deepest hiding place.” Late Migrations is itself that gorgeous, thought-provoking gift.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bluebirds.

I sat reading, in Renkl’s chapter “Bluebird” at a state park in North Carolina, about bluebirds nesting in bluebird boxes. And I looked up to see a male bluebird, brightly feathered, ducking into a bluebird box, his anxious, drabber mate sitting on top and watching me and my little dog with concern. I couldn’t believe it: I looked down at the page, up at the bluebirds. We were a dozen feet apart. I kept reading and watching as the couple kept up their cycling through the box – she got a little more comfortable with me over time, but stayed watchful. A rare experience.

The Wild Boy by Paolo Cognetti

Best book of the year to date.


A city dweller returns to the mountains of his youth, and his gorgeous, reflective memoir is full of nature and humanity.

Having just turned 30, Paolo Cognetti (The Eight Mountains) felt restless and unfulfilled in the city of Milan. He missed his childhood summers–the first 20 years of his life–spent in the Italian Alps. Inspired by Thoreau’s Walden and the principled quest of Chris McCandless (subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild), he rented a renovated but rustic cabin alone in a village of ruins in a high alpine valley and undertook to learn what the mountains had to teach, to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” After years of frustration, he hoped to write again.

The Wild Boy is a memoir of three seasons spent in that cabin, or, more accurately, spent hiking and exploring the mountains he remembered from when he was a boy–that wild boy he hopes to find again. The account opens briefly in winter, for background, as Cognetti makes his decision and locates his mountain home. Spring, summer and fall form the bulk of the story, which ends when he heads back down the mountain again: “I already knew all the dreams that I would have that winter.”

In the interim, Cognetti gets to know the local flora and fauna; briefly attempts a vegetable garden; studies other writers’ words; travels far and wide on foot; and makes new friends, human and otherwise. Thoreau writes of the pleasures of solitude, but this narrator finds he desires companionship–if they are the right companions. Two men in particular make strong impressions. His landlord, Remigio, is a creature of the mountains, with whom Cognetti literally makes hay. They share few life experiences, but quickly become fast friends, and Remigio turns out to suffer from writer’s block as well: “This was the story I had strayed into, hoping to find how to write again.” The other is an alpine shepherd named Gabriele, with whom Cognetti shares meals and wine. Gabriele will give him a gift at the end of their season together that Cognetti didn’t know he needed.

The Wild Boy has a lovely and profound story to tell about connections to land and history and one another. In seeking simplicity and a new start in his life, Cognetti rediscovers timeless truths about the human condition. In addition to the strength of its contents, this is a stunningly beautiful book. It is a slim volume whose simply titled chapters (Snow, Hay, Vegetable Garden, Neighbors) carry significant wisdom and weight. Cognetti’s prose is incandescent when writing about nature, about human history, about friendship and, perhaps most of all, about words: “That was why he had become such a voracious reader. He was looking for the words that would allow him to speak about himself.” For any reader who has wondered about the next step, loved a mountain or a book, struggled with writer’s block or stared in wonder into a forest, this astonishing memoir is necessary.


This review originally ran in the June 6, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 10 words.

“A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry

In preparation for an upcoming visit to Kentucky, and because he appears everywhere around me and I have not devoted the time yet: Wendell Berry.

More than a year ago, my father bought me a copy of the new collection, The World-Ending Fire, selected and with an introduction by Paul Kingsnorth (who I do appreciate). I regret that I have not made time for it yet; and it’s currently boxed up in a storage unit (along with so many other excellent books) and unavailable to me. But Pops still set me up with some reading, beginning with an email explaining his selections, and outlining some of Berry’s major themes: sense of place; tragedies of American history; the urban-rural divide; humility; soil; honest work; naturalism; spirituality. Then he had me read Kingsnorth’s introduction to the new collection, and one noteworthy Berry essay: “A Native Hill.”

As an overall, obviously I appreciate Wendell Berry. All the right ingredients are there: strong attachment to place, defense of the land, argument against larger society, thoughtful, lovely prose. I had always assumed I would appreciate Berry. Also, I’ve heard that he can be difficult, and dated. Kingsnorth notes in his introduction that Berry’s writing technology of choice is, firmly, the pencil: I have no problem with tried and true technologies (recall Boyle). But I am a bit pricklier about gender and race, for example. Berry (like so many) uses “man” to stand for all humanity. And he is still using “Negro” in this essay, which admittedly was published in 1968. But one notices these things, in 2019.

This reading didn’t surprise me much, then. I found a few things to quibble with, which I will lay out below. But overall, I’m going to keep reading and appreciating this man, while reserving the right to quibble.

Here are a series of quotations I marked as I read, which I’m going to let stand as my review.

Why should I love one place so much more than any other? What could be the meaning or the use of such love?

Way to jump right in and steal my heart. Why, indeed? You, faithful blog reader (thank goodness for you), know how much place matters to me as a reader and as a writer. It consumes my thoughts and dreams.

About the truism that “you can’t go home again”:

But I knew also that as the sentence was spoken to me it bore a self-dramatizing sentimentality that was absurd. Home–the place, the countryside–was still there, still pretty much as I left it, and there was not a reason in the world I could not go back to it if I wanted to.

Well lucky you, Berry, but you do realize not everyone has the luxury of this experience? The places that are left untouched from our childhoods are fewer and fewer. Mine is not still there pretty much as I left it, at all. Dog help us, they tore down Fitzgerald’s.

What… made the greatest difference was the knowledge of the few square miles in Kentucky that were mine by inheritance and by birth and by the intimacy the mind makes with the place it awakens in.

Again, lucky you. And hey, I am lucky that my parents will almost certainly leave me some piece of land, but it’s not square miles, and it’s not something I was born to; it’s something they bought later in their lives and that I admire but do not feel especially close to; it’s not where I grew up. (Not for lack of effort, on my part or theirs, to make this place feel like home.) Some of these ideals are easy to live when you’re born with the right set of circumstances, hmm? And what would you say to someone whose inheritance, birth, and intimacy lay with the heart of New York City?

I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before, it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice.

and

In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic, for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history.

These I feel, too, with regards to Texas.

And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.

Because of the quotation directly above: no place we love will ever be perfect. Kentucky and Texas have their share of sins, but if one of you lives in a place that never did harm, throw your stones now.

A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity.

By contrast, a road:

Its aspiration, as we see clearly in the example of our modern freeways, is to be a bridge.

I appreciated his medium-deep dive here into paths, trails, roads, bridges, what they mean physically and metaphorically. Trails matter to me; and they make an excellent metaphor.

The pristine America that the first white men saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea.

I worry about this, as another form of deifying the past, or in this case the Native Americans. Were they really doing this world no harm? I admit to the same prejudice Berry shows here, thinking that no, they did no harm. But now I wonder if that’s true? It reeks of romanticizing what we don’t understand.

It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.

A lovely line; I think we all know what it is to walk knee-deep in an absence of some kind; also, I’m almost certain this line was referenced by Matt Ferrence, which endears it to me again.

Near its end, this essay reminds me of Scott Russell Sanders, specifically the hawk that closes “Buckeye.” The final section of Berry’s essay offers a series of short, nearly prose-poetry segments. Third from last of these is an event that proves, for Berry, that nature knows not only peace by joy. It stars a great blue heron (parallel to Sanders’s red-tailed hawk), a bird that is important to me personally: it’s probably the first bird I learned to identify on my own, an easy one, since it’s both large and distinctive; and they have been present in many of the places I’ve traveled in this country, remote and far-flung, as well as in the urban setting of my hometown of Houston, where I used to see them fishing in the early mornings along the bayou in the Texas Medical Center as I walked from car or train station to work. This bird Berry describes as measured, deliberate, stately, “like a dignitary,” stately again – I agree on all counts – and then he sees it turn a loop-the-loop in the air, exultant, “a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me.” This transcendent moment – and Berry’s powerful prose – affected me deeply.

And then, one evening a year later, I saw it again.

Wow.

I do recommend this essay by Berry, and I will be reading more of him – though I may have to dig through that storage unit to do so.

I could not close without referring you, as Pops referred me, to “The Peace of Wild Things”. I had encountered this poem before, but Pops points out that it’s published the same year as “A Native Hill,” and condenses and distills much of the essay’s feeling. It’s worth another look, no matter how familiar you are.


Rating: 8 threads of light and sound.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (audio)

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.

My mother gave me this audiobook for my birthday. With her own print copy ready, we set out to read together. She had already very much enjoyed the audiobook. Now I’ve finished, and she hasn’t yet, so we haven’t done our final debrief together; but we have discussed as we’ve leapfrogged down the middle.

A Tale for the Time Being is unusual in a few delightful, fresh ways. The opening voice is that of Nao, a sixteen-year-old girl living in Tokyo. (In this time-obsessed novel, you can bet her name is a meaningful homonym.) Nao is Japanese but has lived most of her life in Sunnyvale, California, and the recent move to Tokyo has been very hard on her. She is the victim of criminal bullying at school, and has decided to end her life, but before she does, she wants to record the amazing life of her great-grandmother Jiko, a Buddhist nun and radical anarchist feminist. She sets out to do this in a diary. The diary is being read by Ruth, a novelist living on Canada’s west coast on a remote island with her husband Oliver and their cat, named Schrodinger but more commonly called Pest, or Pesto. (Ruth’s life matches that of author Ruth Ozeki suspiciously closely.) Ruth found the diary and a few other artifacts, well-wrapped in a barnacle-encrusted ziploc bag, on a beach near her home: the beach near Jap Ranch, as she calls it, her own Japanese heritage giving her the right and motivating her to remember the mistreatment of her people during World War II in these parts. (Oliver, who is of German heritage, cannot call it Jap Ranch.)

The story is told in alternating sections, in Ruth’s present and in Nao’s diary-recorded recent past, and then supplemented by other artifacts: documents found with the diary, and Ruth’s email correspondance as she begins searching for Nao in the present. There are several voices, then. And in several senses: there is the narrative first-person voice of Nao in her diary; Ruth’s perspective, told in third person; and then there are the voices as recorded in this audiobook. The author reads her book herself, which I love, and she does a lovely job of performing her set of characters. Oliver is stoic, a man of intellect and not emotion. Ruth is pensive; their neighbor Muriel is a bit nasal-y, and a bit annoying anyway. Nao is whimsical and impatient, sometimes immature and sometimes resignedly dour: a teenager indeed. The audio performance is absolutely perfect. It’s always comforting knowing we’re hearing the voices the author does.

The story expands and swells like a less well-packaged diary would have done in the ocean waters… We learn about Nao’s family, her depressed and defeated father, her no-nonsense mother, the deeply loveable Jiko, and more. It turns out that there is a thread of suicidal thoughts in her family: her father makes several suicide attempts, which they do not talk about; and his uncle, Nao’s great-uncle, died as a kamikaze pilot in WWII. Call that a reluctant suicide, perhaps. Three generations, then, dealing with tendencies to suicide in very different ways and originating in very different places. Meanwhile, Ruth’s family includes a now-dead mother who had Alzheimer’s but experienced a relatively sweet decline; Oliver is a decidedly quirky but, I felt, very likeable guy. He is a self-taught naturalist seeking to replant a preserve on their island so as to weather climate change. Even Pesto the cat plays an important role.

As the title indicates, this is a story about time, about moments, about whether we control the past or the future or even the present. As in the quotation that heads this review, the phrase “time being” takes on a new meaning here, in Nao’s dreamlike, imaginative ruminations. Ruth and Nao are both distant and very close together; the question of how far or near takes on a mystical quality, as Ruth worries if she is going crazy (or developing her mother’s disease – a worry I’ve seen in people I know too). Under Oliver’s wise guidance, even quantum physics comes into play late in the book, where I got quite lost but I think (hope) that I followed the ideas, the feeling of mystery and wonder.

Ruth Ozeki is a remarkable writer. This tale is multi-layered: mental health, the bendiness of time and space, linguistics (Japanese and English and also French, the bendiness of language, too), literature, and the love and personalities of animals… there is something here for everyone. For example, I thought of my father every time Oliver worries over the trees he’s planted in the preserve. Technically, the species he’s chosen violate the covenant of the trust because they are not native to the region; but he’s planted them for the climate-changing future, when species move north, and he’s put great thought into his choices, and the idea of destroying them is indeed heart-breaking. This issue is glancing within the book, but clearly opens up into something large and thought-provoking and timely – qualities that apply to every aspect of A Tale for the Time Being. Add to all of this Ozeki’s pitch-perfect performance, and I can scarcely recommend this audiobook highly enough.

And speaking of bendiness, consider the similarities between the author Ruth and the character Ruth. Of course I have 100 questions about their boundary lines. And what of Nao’s washed-up diary? What is its real-world equivalent? There are some mind-expanding puzzles here to be sure. It’s delicious.

Note: Ozeki (as herself) comments at the end that the print version includes footnotes, illustrations, annotations, and appendices. She appreciates the audio version very much for some reasons – she writes for musicality and sound, and loves its immediacy – and the print for others. Hopefully my mother, who is finishing the print version now, will have some thoughts to share with us about those differences. I suspect audio first, followed by print, is the right order.

If you love cats, trees, or people; if you’re interested in history and legacy, the power of words, or the questions posed by the passing of time – then this delightful, expansive novel is for you.


Rating: 9 crows.

The Gentle Art of Tramping by Graham Stephen Graham

From day to day you keep your log, your day-book of the soul, and you may think at first that it is a mere record of travel and of facts; but something else will be entering into it, poetry, the new poetry of your life, and it will be evident to a seeing eye that you are gradually becoming an artist in life, you are learning the gentle art of tramping, and it is giving you an artist’s joy in creation.

I wish I could remember where I heard of this book; it’s been some time, and I know I did some searching before finding my copy, from Budge Press. I’ve had it for years. I did find a hint, late in the book: a references to Richard Jefferies’s The Story of My Heart. Perhaps the recommendations for each were linked? At any rate, I finally decided it was time to read it during my own travels, though I am no tramp because I have a van and do not go on foot. (I suspect Graham would be disgusted.)

I opened this book quite blind, and not having heard of Graham Stephen Graham, although he turns out to be quite prolific (read here) with some 34 books to his name, whew! All that biographical data is not within these pages, though. All you learn from The Gentle Art of Tramping is that Graham is a passionate tramp, or walker-wanderer. (“One includes in the category ‘tramp’ all true Bohemians, pilgrims, explorers afoot, walking tourists, and the like.”) He loves sleeping outdoors, eating and living simply; he finds this lifestyle to be a high art form, and he is well-read and often eloquent, but would be unhappy within the walls of classroom or library.

This book offers an engaging mix of practical advice (how to choose a bed for the night) and poetic or passionate holding forth (the joy of, as Graham writes, sleeping √† la belle √©toile). There is no question how strongly this narrator believes what he writes; he positively exults in drying off by a fire after getting thoroughly soaked. (He is surprisingly exultant in the soaking, too.) He gives medical advice, though questionable: “a waterproof worn over wet clothes is a sure way to cultivate rheumatism. The damp cannot escape outwards – and so goes inward to your very bones.”

He waxes especially elegant about fire-building.

The fire in the rain is a triumph; the night fire in darkness under the stars is the happiest, but it disputes happiness with the dawn fire.

I love to see the blue smokes crawling upward in the dawn, while, with bare legs, one struts about doing the domestic work of morning out of doors. It is part of the very poetry of the tramping life. You give a proper affirmative then to Browning’s

Morning’s at seven
All’s right with the world.

Graham is much concerned with reading and writing while one tramps. He writes that “it is in description that the keeper of a diary becomes artist,” and he does some lovely describing, as in a chapter on what he calls the “zigzag walk,” where you take the first turn the the left and then the next first turn to the right, alternating, and exploring a city in this way. (Cities get their own special treatment, although Graham, of course, favors the countryside and the wilderness.) I love more his pith and cleverness, though. His explanations of how to make coffee and what to eat are interesting side notes, but it’s his life philosophy and turns of phrase that capture me best. Here, a series of quotations to illustrate.

The best companions are those who make you freest. They teach you the art of life by their readiness to accommodate themselves. After freedom, I enjoy in a companion a well-stocked mind, or observant eyes, or wood-lore of any kind. It is nice sometimes to tramp with a living book.

All books are worthwhile; perhaps especially the living ones?

If manners could be improved we should more easily get into sympathy with ‘foreigners’; if they could be perfected there would not be any foreigners.

Lovely. Although Graham does indulge in stereotypes, none were especially negative; I found these easily forgiven (this book originally published in 1926), especially with this line to wrap them up. He is remarkably well traveled, and has thoughts to offer on many countries on several continents; sometimes (unavoidably) this information is overly simplistic, but it’s interesting to see his perspective. He is especially well-versed in Russia, where he claims to have tramped several thousand miles.

Atlases are not so good. You have to take them down from a shelf and consult them. Wall maps spare you the trouble; they consult you.

Who doesn’t love a map that is consulting you when you’re not looking?

And, in answer to that other book that I guess I’m still irritated about, Graham on class:

Class is the most disgusting institution of civilisation, because it puts barriers between man and man.

Leaving aside the ‘man’ usage (again, dated), another fine philosophy.

I found this book a slow read, but I’m not sure why; perhaps a low point in the cycles of my own attention span. Graham certainly rambles on the page as on the land. And some of his how-to advice is either obsolete, or personally irrelevant; and I am not at all convinced of the joys to be had in getting totally soaked in a deluge, while hiking or while sleeping, thank you very much. But clearly there is much to be loved, and consulted at length, in these pages. I do recommend.

I will end as Graham ends, with his final, ecstatic paragraph.

I am still on that zigzag way, pursuing the diagonal between the reason and the heart; the chart could be made by drawing lines from star to star in the night sky, not forgetting many dim, shy, fitfully glimmering out-of-the-way stars, which one would not purpose visiting. I said we would not enter a maze, but we have made one and and are in one, a maze of Andalusia and Dalmatia, of Anahuac and Anatolia, of Seven Rivers Land and Seven Kings. The first to the left, the next to the right! No blind alleys. A long way. Beaucoup zigzag, eh!


Rating: 7 coffeepots.

The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology by Mark Boyle

This memoir about living off the grid and tech-free in County Galway will inspire, connect and slow down the most impatient of readers, and that is a very good thing.

Mark Boyle was The Moneyless Man in his memoir of that title, about the first of three years he spent living without money. The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology covers another first year: Boyle has now made the shift to a life without modern technology in County Galway, Ireland. What is modern technology? Obviously, definitions are complicated, but for Boyle his new way of living means hauling his own water; fishing, foraging and gardening for his food; making his own beer and wine; and traveling by bicycle, by hitchhiking and on foot. (He beats himself up about monofilament fishing line but, within the book’s timeline, has not yet found an alternative.)

Organized as the diary of a year in its four seasons, The Way Home is a thoughtful study, often wise but always questioning and seeking. With frequent references to Edward Abbey, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robert Macfarlane, Wendell Berry, Henry David Thoreau and others, Boyle places himself in a grand tradition of intellectual naturalists and thinkers. He also makes repeated forays (both literally and in imagination and research) to Great Blasket Island, an unusually literary place where a technology-free lifestyle only recently ended. He aims to query every decision, investigate its outcomes: while writing this book using a pencil, he stops to consider the making of that tool–its wood and graphite and paint, the extraction of these materials and the transportation of the workers who made it. Boyle, stymied by the ecological impact of such a simple technology as a pencil, is a former vegan who now eats fish and venison. He is a man willing to rethink his outlook.

Boyle has a sense of humor as well as a deep sensitivity to the needs of people as well as the planet and its ecosystems. “Rome,” he reflects, “wasn’t demolished in a day,” as he gardens with the (plastic) tools available and plans for the future. His writing style is pensive and unhurried. His lifestyle is in many ways “slow,” as in slow food and slow transportation, and he observes that writing by hand after a longtime addiction to computers has slowed his thought processes, for the better. “Just as carpenters always recommend measuring twice and cutting once, I’ve begun thinking twice and writing once.”

The result is a deeply appealing examination of nearly all aspects of modern human life, by a thorough, careful, concerned narrator. Readers already considering various forms of disconnection from modern technologies–in favor of a reconnection with local plants, animals, soil and people–will be goaded and inspired. Those less attracted to composting their own feces will nonetheless be entranced by Boyle’s unusual lifestyle, and perhaps moved a little closer to the earth.


This review originally ran in the March 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scythe blades.

Vulture: The Private Life of an Unloved Bird by Katie Fallon

Disclosure: Katie Fallon was my first semester advisor at WVWC, and is a friend.


I have been looking forward to reading Vulture for years! I read Katie’s Cerulean Blues first, because Vulture was still awaiting publication; but if I’m honest, the bigger bird is the one I’m more naturally drawn to, and I know the turkey vulture was Ed Abbey’s favorite bird and all. I was really looking forward to this one.

And it had all the pleasant notes offered by familiarity, because by now I’ve heard Katie read from it a few times, so certain passages felt like old friends; and the personal content was familiar as well, because I know Katie personally (the names of her three daughters, for example, although only the first two come along within the timeline of this book). Reading this therefore felt a little like coming home, and you know how I like to feel at home in a book.

This is a book about vultures: the world over, but in particular the turkey vulture, which is Katie’s own favorite. It is also a personal memoir, about the author’s own life and coming-to-terms. As she considers the vulture’s place in mythology and historical relationships – often including associations with women and with motherhood – and observes vulture mothers caring for their young, she experiences her own much-desired first pregnancy. The places she goes in her own life, both geographically and emotionally, mirror the places she takes her reader in relationship to her subject. Along with her husband Jesse (a veterinarian specializing in birds), she travels to real-world locations in search of vultures: Hinckley, Ohio, for their “Return of the Buzzards” celebration; Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary; the Grand Canyon; India’s Hill of the Sacred Eagles; Gettysburg; and more. She also visits with an impressive array of vulture experts worldwide. This may be a beginner’s or introductory version of the vulture’s story, but it is also an authoritative and detailed one.

The book hits what I feel is a perfect balance between personal content (Katie’s life, family, and personal reasons for vulture adoration) and scientific. I remember Katie telling the story of (gulp) reading online reviews, the user-generated kind on Amazon and Goodreads and whatnot, and being bemused to see that everyone with negative feedback either found it had too much science or too much personal: in other words, they wanted an absolute, a commitment to one side or the other of that spectrum. This was funny to me because I thought her balancing of these two elements was perhaps the book’s most graceful accomplishment. Can’t please them all, can we.

For a final element, she adds a touch of speculation about the vulture’s inner life. Each chapter opens with a brief, italicized (and illustrated) paragraph featuring an imagined vulture at the center of the book. I found these so lovely, and a beautiful contribution. (Somewhere out there another reviewer is complaining that they ruined everything, I’m sure.) Katie occasionally anthropomorphizes within her chapters, too, but always with self-awareness and some hesitation: here is what she might be feeling, Katie might muse, even while acknowledging that birds are not people and this speculation is perhaps silly – but also natural, I think. Don’t we all anthropomorphize the animals we love best?

I’d like to close this review with a snippet of the final italicized from-a-vulture’s-eyes section.

She knew the seasons in her bones. She felt the length of days, the sun’s movements, the changes in the winds. Knew the smells of mud, gasoline, fish, rot. Knew palms, aspens, oceans, deserts. All were reborn in her, all connected. She held the whole world in her eyes.

Recommended.


Rating: 7 backpacks.

Little personal crossover: I’ve been keeping notes on a few birds over at my van-travel blog.

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