Friday, January 13, 2006

After the harvest

The last three months of the year are a great time to be a book lover. I said to Stacey that going into my regular bookstore (57th Street Books) in late October is, I imagine, like seeing the harvest all brought in safely, the granaries filled to bursting. Only my position is the inverse of the farmer’s in that situation. He hopes to make the harvest last the amount of time he needs until the next harvest; I hope to make the time last until I can eat up all the books.

I’ve thought about putting together a list of my favorite books of the year, but I think I’m going to take a pass, partly because so many books came out in the last few months of the year that I bought and put on my shelf, but haven’t gotten to yet.

How about instead a single book that I’ve been enjoying for months now? It’s a book I happened across at Shaman Drum Bookshop while visiting my friends Jeremy and Catherine in Ann Arbor, Graeme Gibson’s The Bedside Book of Birds. Gibson, who is Margaret Atwood’s husband, has compiled what the subtitle calls an avian miscellany, an anthology of images of and writings about birds, ranging from cave paintings (“When an anonymous artist incised an owl in the cave at Chauvet, there were probably fewer people on earth than in the Greater Toronto area today.”) to Saki writing about birds on the Western Front in World War I:
At the corner of a stricken wood (which has had a name made for it in history, but shall remain nameless here), at a moment when lyddite and shrapnel and machine-gun fire swept and raked and bespattered that devoted spot as though the artillery of an entire Division had suddenly concentrated upon it, a wee hen-chaffinch flitted wistfully to and fro, amid splintered and falling branches that had never a green bough left on them. The wounded lying there, if any of them noticed the small bird, may well have wondered why anything having wings and no pressing reason for remaining should have chosen to stay in such a place. There was a battered orchard alongside the stricken wood, and the probable explanation of the bird’s presence was that it had a nest of young ones that it was too scared to feed, too loyal to desert. Later on, a small flock of chaffinches blundered into the n the solitary hen-bird, they made no secret of their desire to get away as fast as their dazed wits would let them. The only other bird I ever saw there was a magpie, flying low over the wreckage of fallen tree limbs; “one for sorrow,” says the old superstition. There was sorrow enough in that wood.

to naturalist Peter Matthiessen:
The restlessness of shorebirds, their kinship with the distances and swift seasons, the wistful signal of their voices down the long coastlines of the world make them, for me, the most affecting of wild creatures. I think of them as birds of wind, as “wind birds.” To the traveler confounded by exotic birds, not to speak of exotic specimens of his own kind, the voice of the wind birds may be the lone familiar note in a strange land, and I have many times been glad to find them; meeting a whimbrel one fine summer day of February in Tierra del Fuego, I wondered if I had not seen this very bird, a half-year earlier, at home.

I’ve been using the book as its title asks, reading a bit here and a bit there before bed, so after several months, I’m only about fifteen percent through it. As in birdwatching—even of the lazy sort that Stacey and I do from our front window, of sparrows and finches and juncos and doves—patience is important, and hurry can be counterproductive. Perfect for bedtime, too, in other words.

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