Left: A burrowing owl [source]
In the back of my notebook is the beginning of a drawing of an escalator. I was hiding between things, being alone; couldn’t sit still, started tweeting. Should have gone outside and found some birds.
I attended the session Birds of a Feather mainly because I love to hear people talking about their passions. But I’m also bird-curious. In England G and I visited The International Centre for Birds of Prey, where they breed and fly all kinds of raptors (as well as rescuing sick or injured birds). We nibbled from the picnic Aunt M and Uncle D packed, sipped cider from a relative’s orchard, and watched owls burrow, kites dip, falcons dive, eagles soar (naturally) and vultures look magnificently intimidating. It was one of the best days of our trip, spent entirely in curiosity, awe and fascination.
One brave woman at the beginning of the festival session raised her hand when Michael Veitch asked: ‘have any of you never heard of either of these writers?’ (being Jonathan Franzen and Sean Dooley). She was there for the birds. Many were there for both. Unfortunately some audience members were there for Franzen only, and asked non-birdy questions about how exactly he does the planning for his novels, as though there exists some magic formula. Veitch also swung a lot of questions Franzen’s way, but he graciously reflected them back to Dooley as well. I wished there had been more of Dooley, though. He’s a highly knowledgeable ‘twitcher’ – the editor of Wingspan magazine, in fact – and a funny guy to boot. I once met him in another life at a Dymocks conference when his first book The Big Twitch was coming out, but was too shy to go up and chat to him at the MWF party the other night. Oh well. Bird on, Dooley. Bird on.
Anyway, about the session. Since Franzen became a twitcher (about 10 years ago) he said he gets to see all the places he travels to in a second, and better, way. There’s something ‘truer’ about the birds – a deeper and more lasting part of the place. Dooley took him to the Werribee treatment plant, an environment which accidentally became a kind of wetland habitat. About 370 species of birds have been sighted there over the past 50 years or so.
Birdwatching for both of them is a kind of ‘sublime’ activity. Franzen had been so angry about what was happening to the environment, since college, and for years it kept him inside. When his eyes became open to bird life he said he had no choice but to go back outside. Even though its so much more upsetting now. Writing about nature is difficult, said Franzen, because you have to avoid ‘too much’ appreciation of nature. People know that it’s beautiful. But they also know terrible things are happening to it. It’s easy to bore a reader (and Franzen himself has been bored by much nature writing).
Dooley said writers since antiquity have imbued birds with certain qualities, even moral qualities. He revealed that though magpies do stay with one partner for life, it’s often found that their offspring are not all from that partner! They also mentioned cliches of nature. Of course nature can be very cruel. A lot of the birds I saw at the falconry in England, for example, might make a lovely meal out of the cerulean warbler.
Dooley attested that birdwatching is actually one area where ‘citizen science does make a difference’. Data is collated through backyard sightings, for example. For Dooley it turns something that is for him a passion and indulgence into concrete facts – facts that ‘you can throw up in the face of industrialisation and people who want to destroy habitats’. For Franzen, it’s also good just to do something for its own sake. He has a ‘protestant work ethic’ and has to analyse and justify the worth of everything he does (I know that feeling). With birds, he found a new form of pleasure, or felt he’d never really ‘enjoyed’ pleasure, or happiness, until then. He admitted though that he will still often try to justify those blank, happy hours later, perhaps by writing about it.
Is writing in any way like birding? It can be, said Franzen, when its really happening – when the work is finally happening after the years of planning. ‘There is that timelessness’. In writing, as in birding, he can disappear from himself for several hours a day.
An audience member asked about birds disappearing and arguments used against prioritising the issue (ie. what about all the starving people in the world). Franzen’s answer was elegant. He said there will always be multiple priorities, and that ‘everyone finds what they are passionate about, and there should be a conversation there.’ He said ‘there is no moral trump card’. But Dooley pointed out, powerfully, that ‘any monoculture is a dangerous thing, is an unnatural thing’. The planet needs as much biodiversity as possible, for many different reasons, he said. A focus on birds ultimately helps the entire ecosystem.
At the end of the session a lady at the front commended Franzen for mentioning the ‘cat bib’ in Freedom, a kind of collar that inhibits a cat’s ability to catch a bird. Franzen proceeded to demonstrate how it works, putting the bib around his neck. I wish I’d gotten a picture.