The Black Swan

The Black Swan

by Anne Batterson

Set against a spontaneous cross-country road trip following the migrating birds, this passionate, lyrical memoir is one woman's reflections on midlife, her important personal relationships, her kaleidoscopic past, and her uncertain future.

To fifty-six-year-old Anne Batterson, a woman whose life has been filled with adventure — as a commercial pilot, an


Set against a spontaneous cross-country road trip following the migrating birds, this passionate, lyrical memoir is one woman's reflections on midlife, her important personal relationships, her kaleidoscopic past, and her uncertain future.

To fifty-six-year-old Anne Batterson, a woman whose life has been filled with adventure — as a commercial pilot, an international skydiving champion, a trekking guide in Nepal — her husband's decision to retire felt like a death sentence. Yearning for some way to reconcile herself to the future that was rapidly unfolding before her, she packed up her VW camper and hit the road with maps, bird guides, and little else except the desire to follow the fall migration and the bone-deep hunch that birds had something important to teach her.

In this beautifully written narrative of that extraordinary trip, Batterson writes movingly not only about her experiences with the birds but also about the people she loves, has lost, and connects with along the way. Events from the present trigger vivid stories from the past. In the chapter "The Journey Within the Journey," a long, lonely night in a deserted campground in Virginia conjures up the ghosts of a desperate solo road trip she made when she was twenty-one. A towering cumulus cloud in Illinois brings back a breathtaking free fall into a similar cloud in "My Time as a Bird." An encounter with a great blue heron summons a compelling account of her mother's last afternoon in the world. "Bears in the Woods" describes a run-in with two Deliverance-type men in West Virginia, which brings back the murder of a dear friend in the woods of Connecticut.

By the end of the journey, the ghosts ofthe past, like the author herself, have become part of a more fluid, more spiritual reality — wild and spare and elegant and timeless — one that is always out there, "quickening on the far side of reality."

A unique mix of memoir and nature writing, The Black Swan is a charming story of a woman's odyssey.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Much is expected from a book sharing both title and theme with Thomas Mann's unforgettable pre-feminist novel about woman's fear of aging (The Black Swan, 1952). Unfortunately, Batterson's double foray into memory and nature watching misses the mark on both counts. The author came of age in the 1960s, and her earlier life adventures (skydiving, rock climbing, Nepalese treks) make a bird-watching trip in a battered VW camper seem tame. The enforced solitude provides a platform for reviving memories of her alcoholic father, childhood rebellions, failed marriage, and unmet cries for attention, all of which are treated superficially, making sympathy from readers difficult. As she travels from Canton, CT, across the United States, Batterson relates few human encounters or humorous incidents, but she does report on inadequate hotels and scary campsites. Map-checking armchair travelers will be disappointed in route lapses, nature lovers will find little substance in the observations, and the more poetically inclined should read both historic and contemporary Native American authors for good and believable tales about uncanny communication with birds and beasts. Not recommended. Margaret W. Norton, Oak Park, IL Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A skydiver, hiker, pilot, teacher, and freelance writer watches migrating birds and remembers important moments and people in her life. "I have always known a wild bird lives inside of me," writes Batterson, explaining the wanderlust that periodically compels her to visit the far reaches of the globe, to jump from airplanes in thunderstorms, to leave her husband and other quotidian commitments to be alone with her thoughts, her battered VW bus, and her humming laptop. Batterson can dazzle with her adventurous and usually intrepid spirit. Although her memoir floats on the surface of a recent road trip she took to see large bird migrations (especially in Pennsylvania and Kansas), she is more interested in what lies beneath. Like nesting dolls, her narratives sometimes contain flashbacks within flashbacks. And so we learn about her first solo flight, about a youthful cross-country drive, about "punching a cloud" with a fellow skydiver, about trekking in Nepal. On her journey she visits old friends and family—and takes a few potshots at her first husband ("Some holiday he was," she declares with heavy irony). We learn about her friends Ben, who left his family for five years; Lee, murdered in the woods; Rachel, whose lover died of cancer and who has now taken into her life a homeless Vietnam vet whose behavior is ominous, to say the least; and daughter Anee, a struggling artist in New Mexico. At times, Batterson works both too hard and not hard enough. Some sentences groan with the weight of too much metaphor and self-conscious lyricism. And she frequently fails to moderate what can be an unpleasant tone of self-congratulation. (We are treated to two poems that celebrate her.) Yet thefinal segment (about the rescue of a black swan) is truly powerful: here, she does not overburden her narrative with platitude and attitude. When the intent is not to elicit our admiration, the effect can be striking.

Product Details

Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.76(w) x 8.72(h) x 0.74(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Two: Just Going

As I soar over the Hudson River in my vintage VW bus camper, the September morning sun at my back, a gravelly mix of adrenaline and guilt creeps into my system. It feels familiar. Well, I've done this before, I admit to myself, as I snap a cassette into the VW's tape deck and turn up the rear speakers. And I have always figured out a way to justify my actions to others. "I'm looking into the adventure travel business," I'd say to my children's teachers. "I need to keep up my guiding skills," I'd say to David's parishioners. "I'm studying Buddhism," I'd tell my department head. But I knew that those were just partial truths, and the unspoken responses to them rang loud and clear. What kind of mother...? What kind of wife...? The truth is, I don't know why I have to take off the way I do. I have always done it. The trade-offs are always the same: infinite guilt in exchange for unmediated freedom, one jagged tear down the center of my being in exchange for clean cold air in my face, for fire.

But then, what can we ever do to reconcile the demands of love with the demands of the spirit? Some families, such as the one I grew up in, have more trouble with this than others. Jimmy, Nicki, Jon, and I adored our parents, but this was no simple matter. Our father was the funniest man alive and also the sloppiest drunk. He was crazy about us. He read us thrilling books like The Three Musketeers and The Swiss Family Robinson. And when he had not had too many cocktails, he told outrageous true stories at the dinner table, making us reel hysterically back and forth in our mahogany chairs until our mother would tell us to settle down or we would break the chairs.

Our mother kept her head up and her mouth shut, no matter how bad things got. Even though she was not one to pick us up and crush us to her bosom, we could tell she loved us by the things she did, like the time she actually went off to a fancy party wearing the sticky blue spangle earrings my six-year-old brother made for her. We also knew she loved our father as much as we did, which may explain why she joined him for a few awful years in his alcoholic cocoon.

Maybe it was the unruliness of love that made me take off by myself whenever I could during childhood. Who knows, maybe it is the reason I still do it. Of this I'm sure: I work hard to keep this part of me hidden because I know it scares the people who love me. It frightens me too, but in a different way. Like the way it feels to sit in the open door of an airplane, head stretched out, goggles chattering against my cheekbones, the mute earth sliding by underneath. When the pilot cuts the engine for the exit, there is abject silence, a pause so powerful, all choices are neutralized. Then you just go, that's all. Just go.

I feel "just gone" right now. Pablo Casals is playing the Bach suites, his cello modulating the flow of my blood. I trace the course of the music through my body, a squeeze at my wrists, a bounce at the nape of my neck, a cresting behind my eyes. He is playing the landscape too. Green hills heave and fold, billow up again.

Sitting high above the road in my captain's chair, armrests down, cruise control switched on, I celebrate having the bus all to myself. When David and I go on vacation in it, we painstakingly divvy up every inch of storage space. Now my laptop and bird books fill the chest reserved for his cameras; my tape recorder, cassette case, Books on Tape, and binoculars sit beside me on the passenger seat. My clothes have cavorted into all three bins under the couch/pull-out bed that runs along the driver's side.

The bus's decor is southwestern. Zigzagging soft yellows, multiple blues, and salmon pinks for the curtains, the couch, and its pillows. The backseat, covered in slate blue tweed, serves as a second couch and as a headboard at nighttime. A wooden storage chest quadruples as coffee table, footrest, and dinner table when the weather is bad. In the far back over the engine, the kitchen gear is stowed for easy access through a large hatchback door. All in all, it is a fine traveling machine for two, and for one, a Waldorf on wheels.

I've brought a map of the United States, campground guides, and the names of birding hot spots on migration flyways from one coast to the other, along with the telephone numbers of friends I may or may not call along the way. The shape I have imposed on the next five weeks has been penciled in very lightly, because what I need right now is not to know where I am going. That is, if I am going to learn what this trip is really about.

And this is the way I learn, by experiencing. Words, those of others as well as my own, have never been enough for me. It was hard on my parents having a child who had to jump off things, go swimming when the waves were too big, sneak out at night just to roam, test the thin ice, touch the fire, disappear for hours so that she could dream her stories without interruption and often act them out. It has been hard on my children having such a mother.

I head south through the Poconos, now on a straight course toward Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, my first stop on the eastern flyway. I'm thinking about the different ways I have managed to jump-start my life in the past. Some were theatrical, like throwing myself out of airplanes, and some more subtle, like committing myself to teach a course on something I knew nothing about.

Or popping a quarter for a phone call into the pocket of my running shorts and heading out of Canton on foot to run outbound until I dropped. One time I ran all the way through the town of West Simsbury and after that Simsbury, and then I ran up the long slope of Talcott Mountain in the steaming noonday heat. When I reached my mother's house on top of the mountain, I hooked a left, peeling off my putrid shirt as I tore down the long driveway through the woods. I toed off my Nikes as I passed through the garden, hopped out of my shorts on the wide lawn, and dove into her pool without breaking my stride. Moments later, as I lay on my back, cooling my burning scalp, my mother appeared at the side of the pool bearing a white terry cloth robe. "You may need this," she said tactfully, her kinetic blue eyes sparking with amusement as she laid the garment carefully over the arm of a metal chair.

And there were those chiseled autumn nights when I felt compelled to sleep out on the front deck of our house so I could feel the earth spinning through the universe. This one always worked, even though it horrified my kids when they were in elementary school. Anee (pronounced Ah'-nee) and Mandy lived in terror that I would oversleep and their car pool would arrive to find me lying in my sleeping bag for all the world to see, like a huge green slug. In those days it was hard enough to have a single mother, not to mention one who slept outside.

But sometimes I get so blunt nothing can sharpen me, except to go. So I construct the most plausible story I can and then disappear. Fast. Before I change my mind.

When I first told David that I wanted to take the camper and drive around the country for a few weeks to think and write about migrating birds, his handsome blue eyes grew quite merry. "Well then," he had said, without missing a beat in the conversation, "I'd better get you a new set of tires!" I think he was glad to see me brighten up after so long. And I suspect he knows me better than I think he does.

But I know that was not how he was feeling this morning when I left. Last night was very long for both of us. I could tell by the angle of his head that he too was watching the stippled moon sail through the high Palladian windows of our bedroom, but my coming departure had sealed our lips like a contract. At dawn, we made love very carefully, watching each other's faces, distilling our apprehensions down and down until they became one singular shared blind spot. Afterward, we lay side by side, looking up at the ceiling. There wasn't anything to say, really. I was already rolling west in my head, and he knew it. When we finally got out of bed, his eyes were blunt, fixed into an expression of resignation that was difficult for me to own.

"Enough of that," I say out loud, trying to shake David out of my mind. I crank the volume on the tape deck louder and louder until it fills me all the way up. This is the way I want to feel, I think as the strands of notes become green and deep, splashed with sunshine. Every moment a first time, a unique triangulation of time and place...and me. Although I have driven this road several times before, I have never been precisely here before. This landscape consists of Pablo Casals' cello and four turkey vultures riding the ribbon of warm air rising from the highway. Concrete forms for abstractions my mind can only grope at: the wings and blood, the blue and black and float and soar, the aching beauty.

Copyright © 2001 by Anne Batterson

Meet the Author

Formerly a national and international skydiving champion, Anne Batterson is a writer, wife, and mother. A dedicated rock climber, she has also been a flight instructor and charter pilot, has guided treks in Nepal, and has taught literature, writing, and humanities courses at the University of Hartford.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >