Monday, July 18, 2016

Book Review: Lost Among the Birds: Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year by Neil Hayward

As I've mentioned, things have been rough the last few months. Moving across the country, settling in to a new town, starting a new job, these things are all highly stressful. As usual, books have been a solace for me. But it has highly affected what books I gravitate towards right now. I think one thing I'm currently finding comforting is similar to schadenfreude: I appreciate seeing other people who are going through bad things (often worse things) and eventually coming out on the other side. It's not really schadenfreude because I am not reveling in their misfortune--instead I am empathizing.

Neil is depressed. He worked at one job for his entire adult life which he mostly disliked as it got further and further away from his natural strengths and instead became more and more the parts he didn't like, mostly dealing with people. Luckily, it was a tech start-up which went big and he was able to quit his job at 39 with a substantial savings and just be able to basically do nothing for a year or so (he does some consulting work but who knows how little of that he might do. It must be fairly little given what he's about to set out on.) He's in a new relationship, but he hates relationships because from day one, he's always worried about how and when they're going to end and how much he will hurt. His one consolation through all this is birding. He's been a serious birder since he was a teenager, first in England, his home country, and then in Boston, where he's lived his entire adult life. As he struggles with restlessness, lack of direction, and ennui, he keeps denying that he'd even consider doing A Big Year. That's when a birder decides to try to see all the birds he/she can in a designated area in a single year. You can do a Big Year in your county or state, but most people do their country. Most people (including me) know about this from the book and the movie of the same name: The Big Year. But in the spring, round about March, Neil finally gives in and admits what he'd been noodling all along: he would like to do a Big Year and this is the perfect time to do it. But yikes, he's already behind!

Except he's not really. He'd been birding heavily, being unemployed with plenty of money and all. The only thing he's behind on are trips around the country to catch various bizarre out-of-place birds. That's the only way to get a good number for your Big Year. North America has (I hope I'm remembering this right) around 400 native birds, but the records for Big Year are int he very low 700s. So that's an extra 300 birds he needs to see in North America that don't normally come year. So it's birds who have blown off course from a storm, who have gotten tired and pooped out before making it home, or whose internal compass is backwards. When he hears about a weird bird in New Mexico or Alaska, if he wants to have any chance at the record, he's got to hop on a plane and get there.

Midway through the year, he also begins taking an antidepressant. When his depression starts to lift, he's actually annoyed, and hopes it isn't the pills, because if so, it's something super simple that takes a second or two and he could he resolves it easily ages ago and he's an idiot. He's resolved it's the birding. Although he doesn't stop taking the antidepressants.

Anyway, he's resolved that due to starting so late, he's just going for a personal best, as he has no shot at the record. Or does he?

Yes, you hear a lot about birds in this book. He does make it fascinating (and I could have finished the book faster if I didn't keep looking up to see what birds were on the tree across the yard.) but if that idea gives you the shakes, this book isn't for you. However, if you like nature, but in a contained way, this book is right up your alley. I wish birding appealed to me more as it seems like a lovely hobby, and pretty cheap so long as you don't do a Big Year (or if you do, stick to your county.) But I'd never be able to tell the difference between the subspecies. I can tell a robin from a cardinal, but that's about it.

Anyway, he's moderately amusing, honestly talks about his foibles, and I found the book a pleasant distraction with an ounce of hope for better times to come. It may not have inspired me to buy binoculars, but weeks later, I am still looking at birds much more closely and with more interest. Who knows, maybe I will pick it up one day.

A friend who works at an independent bookstore sent me a free ARC of this book.

No comments: