Sam Keen’s lovely book of autobiographical essays on birding was released in September last year. The full title is Sightings: Extraordinary Encounters with Ordinary Birds. Accompanied by delicate watercolor-like illustrations by Mary Woodin, Keen talks of birding as a religious experience. According to him, modern birders, though they do not worship birds, resemble a “neo-pagan cult, practitioners of a theology of nature.” He begins by writing about his childhood experiences when, dissatisfied and puzzled by the church that he attended as a child, he began to look to birding as his spiritual refuge.
Keen’s musings on birding and spirituality are very charming and it is clear that he has visited the matter frequently, having been a professor of philosophy and religion. I think that they will resonate with readers who do not have a scientific background, but to someone with more than a passing interest in biology, they might leave a tiny bit to be desired. I do not mean to say this as a knock on the book, because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and believe that a writer must not be asked to tailor his output for anyone. I am concerned however, that with all the essays extolling the spiritual relevance of the birding experience, it might seem that this is the definitive purpose, if not the only purpose of birding and that the more technical aspects of ornithology are not sufficiently charming except to the specialist.
That minor quibble apart, the essays and their well-placed illustrations make for quiet, pleasurable reading and are excellent companions over a cup of hot afternoon tea (to those who have the luxury of enjoying a cup of hot afternoon tea away from work. I happen to have devoured it in three readings, mostly in the dead of night. Now, I read some of the essays again at my leisure.). One of my favorite essays is the piece about the northern cardinal. Keen writes about Miss Beach, a young art teacher in his school who accompanied the teenage author on his birding jaunts and shared a beautiful secret relationship with him. He says he was never very good at art, and a misshapen cardinal that he had drawn in her class became a token of their shared love of birdwatching. For many years after the boy left his small town, Miss Beach would write lavishly illustrated letters about her bird sightings, sometimes drawing a cardinal in the place of a return address on the envelope. It is impossible to remain unmoved while reading The Everlasting Cardinal.
Most of the essays concern experiences with fairly common birds of the backyard, the shore and the city such as turkeys, sparrows, thrushes, hawks and Keen revels in the enjoyment and amusement of observing and being observed. He writes that his love affair with birds was ignited by a sighting of the indigo bunting:
The bunting was the first of many slant revelations and incarnate metaphors that spoke to me of the primal sacredness of life. They form the basis of my creed as expressed by D.H. Lawrence: “There is a sixth sense, the natural religious sense, the sense of wonder”.
Many of us have this recollection of the one bird we have seen that first piqued our interest in birding as an activity. I would love to think that my subconscious mind was entranced by the peacocks who roamed the parks where the young parents took a stroll with a two-year-old inside a pram, but this is too good to be true. I remember nothing of the peacocks though I recall the blue-white pram quite vividly. What I do remember is that, as an eleven-year-old member of the school’s World Wide Fund for Nature, I went to a lake out of town. There by the lakeshore, shortly before we camped, we saw a solitary pink flamingo in the failing light.