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September 9, 2020

Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder, by Julia Zarankin

There are book reviews, and then there are those reviews of books a reader has been waiting a decade for, ever since the first time the reviewer met the book’s author and was presented with an essay collection by Anne Fadiman as a hostess gift. My friendship with Julia Zarankin was forged over the essay form—though she also introduced me to Wallace Stegner. We contain multitudes. And I’ve been wanted to read a book by her since our very first conversation—she was so smart, kind and hilarious. She was working on a collection of essays at the time about being multilingual. Had not long ago abandoned academia for a different kind of life, and she’d recently taken up…birding? It still seemed unlikely then, not yet a fundamental part of her identity. And a couple of years after we became friends, I had the privilege of her contributing a beautiful piece to my anthology The M Word, the final essay in the book.

As Julia’s passion for birding grew and grew, and she began to disappear every spring for migration season.

But now her book is here, Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder, which I loved as much as I loved any of Anne Fadiman’s essay collections, which is saying everything. And I began to think, as I was reading this book, that in her field notes on birding, Zarankin had also written field notes on blogging—all about paying attention, being patient and persistent, not fearing making mistakes, feeling the exhilaration of unbridled passion—and then I realized that what the book was was a field guide to life.

What a terrifically woven collection this so, so much more than the sum of its parts, each of which is wholly impressive. Through the lens of birding, Zarankin writes gorgeously about finding herself in her mid-thirties, divorced and having left her career. So what now? And it’s through birding that she finds the answers, to this, and to other questions, including how to stay in love, how to be brave, how to be comfortable in her own skin, to understand her own history as a migratory creature, how to live in the moment, and how to have purpose. How to be.

Those answers, of course, are not straightforward. Seeing birds does not lead to satisfaction, but instead a yearning for more of them. It means reconciling herself to the birds she’s missed, or those she might never see. But she learns too the pleasures of living in the moment, of being instead of always striving (though an urge to birdsplain is one that’s hard to shake).

The book has general appeal because birding, like blogging, is life—but I also love the details for birding life that Zarankin shares with such exuberance. She shows the peculiarities of the avian world, and the people who are part of it, in perfect, vivid detail.

One thought on “Field Notes From An Unintentional Birder, by Julia Zarankin”

  1. Beth Kaplan says:

    Can’t wait to read it. Julia was a student of mine and is now a friend. Love “birdsplaining, Kerry.” It’s a particular world, those who adore birds and spend their lives tracking them down. I’m happy to learn from them even if I don’t want to stand for hours in the sun and rain with binoculars.

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