Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder by Julia Zarankin
Review by Jennifer Case
Douglas & McIntyre | 2020 | 256 pages
I am not a birder. Birders in fact tend to intimidate me, both for their extensive knowledge and their ability to stand still for hours at a time. Although I enjoy hiking and exploring the outdoors, I rarely stay put long enough to identify a bird 50 feet away. The few times I attempted it, I quickly developed a headache from squinting into the binoculars and an inordinate frustration with the images in the bird identification book, which never seemed to match what flit about the trees.
Nonetheless, Julia Zarankin’s debut memoir captivated me. Honest, light-hearted, and compassionately self-deprecating, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birdernarrates Zarankin’s journey from a novice birder to a slightly-less-novice “late blooming birder,” at a time “when many things in [her] life seemed disappointing.” In the process, Zarankin creates engaging depictions of the Toronto birding community and reveals nuggets of life truths that will resonate even with those who are not birders themselves. Indeed, the book is as much about birds as it is about career changes, marriages, a Russian Jewish family’s immigrant experience, and relationships to place.
Vancouver would resurface in my peregrinations when I returned to attempt to make a home for myself after my undergrad degree, with a boyfriend I’d known since childhood. I had migrated back to my familiar surroundings, and everywhere I went, I searched for remnants of my life there as a child. Nothing was as my nostalgia remembered it; our old house had been painted, the fence my parents worked hard to afford had been removed. I was more invested in my past life in Vancouver than my present one, but my boyfriend couldn’t understand where I was coming from; he had no idea about migratory restlessness. Our apartment with a stunning view of False Creek should have felt like home but didn’t, and I morphed into an evening-class enthusiast: I tried my hand at pottery, Italian conversation classes and aerobics, all the while dreaming of elsewhere.
I read Zarankin’s memoir over the course of a few days as the U.S. geared up for the 2020 election and the world began to hunker down and prepare for a pandemic winter. Zarankin’s words—whether describing a “birding anxiety crisis” or her husband “talking to powerlifting buddies about a harlequin duck”—grounded me in ways I needed. Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder looks outside our enclosed lives not with despair or trepidation, but with curiosity and openness, even when facing the disappointment of an elusive species or the grief following a friend’s death:
I believe in birds. I believe in their beauty, in their wisdom. I love the way they take me out of myself and enable me to live anew. I marvel at their capacity for flight, their sense of direction, their straightforward life, stripped down to the basics: eat, choose a mate, breed, protect. I gather that they don’t think too much. They don’t have writer’s block. They don’t sit around wondering what project to take on next; they don’t worry about authenticity or presenting their best selves on social media. I love birds because their lives are nothing like mine, because my anxieties would not only seem inane to them but would register as a foreign language.
For readers who already are birders, Zarankin’s memoir will offer a joyful, humorous journey back into their own earlier days of birding. For those like me who aren’t (or aren’t yet!) birders, it offers a window into someone‘s obsession and the chance to see how paying attention can change the way one looks at the world.
A few days after finishing Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, I noticed several small visitors at the backyard bird feeder, and for the first time in my life, I felt an irresistible urge to run for the binoculars and the bird identification book. When I finally matched the small chestnut crown and striped wings with not just a sparrow, but a chipping sparrow, the pride I felt mirrored the pride Zarankin describes when recounting her own spark bird. I have since identified four species of backyard visitors, and though I may never become a birder, I now hear the call.
Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her essays have appeared in journals such as The Rumpus, Orion, Michigan Quarterly Review, and About Place Journal. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the assistant nonfiction editor at Terrain.org.