Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher

Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher

by Leonard Nathan, Leonard Nathan

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Writing with “luminous clarity” (Kirkus Reviews), an award-winning poet brings to life his all-consuming quest to catch a glimpse of Plectrophenax nivalis, the elusive Snow Bunting.


Writing with “luminous clarity” (Kirkus Reviews), an award-winning poet brings to life his all-consuming quest to catch a glimpse of Plectrophenax nivalis, the elusive Snow Bunting.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Poet Nathan, who took up the hobby late in life, here ponders on the physical and philosophical aspects of birdwatching as he argues with an ornithologist friend about the meaning of epiphany. With a group of experienced birdwatchers, he spends hours in a Manitoba swamp waiting to see the small and secretive Yellow Rail; on another outing, he seeks the elusive snow bunting. Frequently, Nathan spends hours under wretched conditions only to glimpse the blur of a wing. He dreams about birds and longs to compile an anthology of poems about them. Birders at any level will enjoy his account of field trips, and more serious thinkers will appreciate his commentary on the basic nature of birdwatching. (Oct.)
Library Journal
While not geared to the average chickadee-loving bird watcher, this title will be appreciated by readers who love both birds and poetry. Nathan, a noted poet, has compiled essays on his passion: finding the elusive snow bunting. He muses in conversations with his wife, his ornithologist friend Lewis, and his Thursday Group of fellow birders on the idea of epiphany. Nathan longs for the "heart-stirring sensation that goes with a clear vivid vision of a bird" and the immediate realization that something special has manifested itself in finding a much-longed-for quarry. Liberally sprinkled with quotations on birds from well-known poets and philosophers and with his own poems, Nathan's book has added a needed dimension to the now popular pastime and even passion of birding. For natural history and literary collections.Phyllis Pope Bofferding, Hennepin Cty. Lib., Minnetonka, Minn.
Kirkus Reviews
"It's a sort of . . . well . . . meditation on birdwatching," explains Nathan (Returning Your Call, 1975, etc.) to a friend interested in his latest writing venture. Well, yes, to put it mildly.

Nathan is a poet of some repute, but let's be frank: Birds are what fire this guy's imagination. In spying them, he experiences their "rare and real presence." Had he religious inclinations, he might have let their epiphanic qualities fashion him into a true believer. But he was not willing to surrender his sacred experiences with birds to the ether; he wanted to seize these epiphanies, take their measure. To that end he has collected, in brief concentrated episodes, a swarm of birdish thing: remembrances of delightful days afield with his bird-watching group, Thursday's Children; snippets of relevant bird poetry from Robert Frost to the Indian sage Valmiki to Walt Whitman; delicious tidbits, such as a description of the magnificent Aztec aviary the Spanish discovered when they reached Mexico City; the use of three field guides at once, "enabling you to triangulate the bird, to come a little closer to its reality perhaps"; forays after tips received from the bird hotline; an ongoing disputation with his good friend Lewis, an ornithologist, about the exact meaning of his quest, an exchange that forces Nathan to get specific; and a superb telling of the apocryphal adventures of Virgilio Stampari, an imaginary 15th-century Italian explorer and collector of strange and wonderful bird lore.

It is a mighty challenge, this effort to communicate with the ineffable, but Nathan never shirks. No smoky similitudes will do—only luminous clarity. And while, like the furtive yellow rail, the big picture is elusive, the glimpses allowed Nathan are worth everything.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Harvest Book Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.00(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher

By Leonard Nathan

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1996 Leonard Nathan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-250-0

Chapter One

It's hard to get to sleep. I'm in a strange place, reliving a strange event. Gradually, as I lie there staring at the moonscape of the ceiling, a resolution forms in my mind. I see that I want to show why it is that a comfort-loving man can find himself running through a night-shrouded marsh far from home, in pursuit of a small bird. And I see also that to put this into words will require more than a few good reasons. For my experience is one of those that defy good reasons and the language of good reasons. I will have to be the complete opportunist, calling upon other voices, upon stories, dreams, inventions. I will have to call upon poetry, the ancient art so useful for expressing the power and meaning of birds in our lives.

I see a book already. It is beautifully bound in royal blue, my name and the title printed in gilt on the spine. I can't make out the title, and from that strange failure I deduce I am sleeping at last and that this is all a dream.

I tell two people of the project: my wife and Lewis-can I say this?-my ornithologist.

My wife, no birdwatcher, approves but thinks it somewhat ambitious for a man supposedly enjoying the golden leisure of retirement. "After all," she says, not looking up from her embroidery, "you're only trying to explain the mystery of epiphany." I let her irony glide by, holding only to the lovely word "epiphany," which resonates into the silence that follows. It seems like a term I sought without knowing I sought it.

Lewis also approves but is, as a scientist should be, skeptical of my going at an already elusive subject with no procedure to guide me, no systematic way of acquiring data on which to base a hypothesis and no apparent means of testing any hypothesis I might come up with. "Why don't you put it in a poem?" he asks. After all these years, I still can't tell when he's serious.

"It won't fit," I reply vaguely.

"Well, it sounds to me like you're turning a nice hobby into a religious experience."

"Some birdwatching is, I suppose, a hobby, along with collecting matchbooks and building boats in bottles." My response sounds pettish, even to my own ear. "What I mean is something deeper, more intense, than a hobby."

"Show me!" Lewis says.


Excerpted from Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher by Leonard Nathan Copyright © 1996 by Leonard Nathan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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