Red-headed woodpecker

Learning the Birds
by Susan Fox Rogers

Review by Renata Golden

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Cornell University Press / Three Hills | 2022 | 306 pages

 
Learning the Birds, by Susan Fox RogersIt’s ironic that as bird numbers decline, the number of people who spend time watching birds grows. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that millions of Americans call themselves “birders,” although that term is defined variously as someone who watches birds at a backyard feeder, those who keep a list of all the birds they have seen, and enthusiasts who travel just to see a new bird. In general terms, statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service peg the “average” American birder as a middle-aged white woman with binoculars and a field guide.

Susan Fox Rogers meets these characteristics, although she is far from an “average” birder. Learning the Birds: A Midlife Adventure is part memoir, part natural history, and part history of the art and science of birding. In these essays, Rogers takes us into the field with her; we learn alongside her as what starts as an interest blooms into a passion. Nonbirders might wonder how staring at birds for lengths of time can be fun, but Rogers’s engaging essays offer something for everyone. Active birders can relate to the rigorous study and dedication necessary to gradually master an appreciation of the natural world; nonbirders can enjoy the adventure and developing love interest that compel the introspective, thought-provoking narrative.

Writing with raw honesty and an endearing humility, Rogers describes the spark that instigated her journey to learn about birds. Upon hearing a veery sing and being unable to tell her nature writing students at Bard what had made the sound, she takes stock of her life. “What I found was that I was tired, not of the world, but of myself. I wanted to take more risks, live bigger. I didn’t want to think that who I had become was who I would always be. I value steadiness, but I crave change.”

Contradictions keep the writing grounded. Rogers’s frank admission of aloneness is complicated by her desire for connection. She is concerned about the things many people in their mid-50s worry about, and then jettisons that worry. She writes: “Life in mid-age narrows; the birds had loosened that constriction. My focus shifted from my aching hands to the song sparrow in the bush. I didn’t worry if I had enough money for retirement; I cared about what birds would still be flying when I retired. Rather than scaling back, sorting and tossing the accumulation of a lifetime, I was out accumulating new sights, more beautiful songs.” She describes her love for the wilderness as “this push and pull, fear and desire” that forces her to “become more fully me in order to move forward. This is the challenge that I usually relish.”

Contradictions fueled her previous work, as well. In her 2011 book My Reach, she writes that she “had been lulled by the business of middle age: working, paying a mortgage, and worrying over my parents.” Her antidote to this stagnation is to fall in love with kayaking. In order to learn all she can about her new infatuation, she researches boats, river currents, and the vernacular of sailors. In Learning the Birds, Rogers pursues her passion with birds in a similar way; the difference this time is that she has a teacher. After she takes a local guide up on his offer to see a woodpecker uncommon to Ulster County in upstate New York, the two form an arrangement Rogers describes using the scientific term mutualism. “It’s an awful word and a great idea. Both creatures go about their lives while both get something from the other. In my mind, mutualism was at the heart of all good relationships, avian or otherwise. I knew I was getting the fatty seeds of bird knowledge from Peter. But I wondered what I offered him besides the obvious fact that I was not his ex-wife.” The tension of this fragile relationship propels the book to its conclusion as she gains knowledge about birds as well as herself and her guide. Spoiler alert: Rogers sprinkles enough hints throughout the essays that we are not surprised when, by the end of the book, a former girlfriend returns to claim Peter’s attention.

Grief and loss play key roles in Rogers’s work. In Learning the Birds, she begins identifying birds with the ever-authoritative Peter at her side. After their breakup, she has to dig deep to find the confidence to bird without him. “Birding on my own through the winter had brought on a loneliness I had never known before. My emotions jumbled in unfamiliar ways, not the usual ache of longing or fog of sadness that shrouds a heart in grief. This felt deeper, more physical.” Her gratitude for having had experienced love for what she is losing transforms her grief into knowledge. “Maybe what the birds would teach me is you can’t hold onto anything, not a bird, not a person. It seemed, at middle age, a good lesson to learn.”

In an interview with Helen MacDonald, author of Vesper Flights and H is for Hawk, Rogers notes that “when you look at the natural world, that combination of love and grief feels amplified.” The complexity that results when two ideas collide is what Rogers finds most interesting about the essay form, especially when perceived thinking is flipped to make the reader see things differently. Like Vesper Flights, the essays in Learning the Birds present the intellectual challenge of opening to the grief of both personal loss and in nature while continually moving the lens outward to frame a larger world.

Habitat loss and destruction and their impact on bird populations resonate through the book. Rogers quotes from other naturalists: Maunsell Crosby and the rusty blackbirds he recorded in 1909; Edward William Nelson and the Nelson’s sparrow; Nathan Leopold and the Kirtland’s warbler; Alexander Wilson and the red-headed woodpecker. She is quick to point out that the world of birding, historically and currently, tends to overlook the contributions of women. She addresses this omission by naming her favorites, “especially Florence Merriam Bailey and Olive Thorne Miller.” She writes that “reading their words and about their lives gave me new ways to think about birds. New ways to think about life.”

But don’t expect a sad book filled with foreboding. Rogers’s droll humor adds levity, sometimes when least expected. “At that moment, new to birding, I was cheerfully disgusted at how uninvitingly fetid the place was. Perhaps there was a reason that others hadn’t jumped at Peter’s offer to see the red-headed woodpecker,” she writes. She is the first to make fun of herself: “The surprise of falling faded as I realized everything was intact, the pain dissipating…. I lay there for a quiet, surreal moment, half laughing that I had been worried about the old ladies in our group and there I was the one on the ground…”

Clever descriptions of birds (“Its dark round eyes revealed little expression, like the shiny buttons sewn onto a stuffed animal.”) and the places she finds them (“The wide-open space, the rocky land underfoot, the short tawny grasses that sprung from the ground all led me to imagine that this was the tundra, not the Hudson Valley.”) keep us close on her journey.

Post-Peter, Rogers relies on her friends to affirm her ability to identify birds. “It had taken… finding myself sleeping on a platform in the North Tivoli Bay with two friends to know that [it] was just where I needed and where I wanted to be.” In the last essay in the collection, Rogers writes about marsh wrens, elusive little birds more often heard than seen. “It was as if the marsh wrens were singing: be here now; live this life fully. If the birds did, so should I. And if I did, what would that mean…? What it would mean was doing exactly what I was doing.”

In My Reach, Rogers quotes a favorite family poem by Paul Valéry, which distills the key takeaway from Learning the Birds. “Il faut tenter de vivre!” You must commit to life. In this inspired meditation on embracing midlife by learning new things, Rogers makes her commitment clear.

 

  

Renata GoldenRenata Golden is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in River TeethAbout Place Journal, and Creative Nonfiction/True Story, among other journals and anthologies, including First & Wildest: The Gila Wilderness at 100 from Torrey House Press. She has also written book reviews for the Houston Chronicle and other publications. Renata holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Houston and is on the editorial board of Terrain.org. Originally from the South Side of Chicago, she lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Find links to her work at renatagolden.com.

Header photo of red-headed woodpecker by ilkah, courtesy Shutterstock.

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