Exploring the way our choices and relationships are shaped by the menace and beauty of the natural world, Megan Mayhew Bergman’s powerful and heartwarming collection captures the surprising moments when the pull of our biology becomes evident, when love or fear collides with good sense, or when our attachment to an animal or wild place can’t be denied.
In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son drive hours to track down an African gray parrot that can mimic her deceased mother’s voice. A population-control activist faces the conflict between her loyalty to the environment and her maternal desire in “Yesterday’s Whales.” And in the title story, a lonely naturalist allows an attractive stranger to lead her and her aging father on a hunt for an elusive woodpecker.
As intelligent as they are moving, the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are alive with emotion, wit, and insight into the impressive power that nature has over all of us. This extraordinary collection introduces a young writer of remarkable talent.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Birds of a Lesser Paradise
I fell for Smith the day my father hit his first hole-in-one on his homemade golf course. Dad had spent years shaping the earth in our backyard until he had two holes that landed somewhere
between an extravagant minigolf spread and a Jack Nicklaus par-72.
Mae! my father yelled, hoisting his nine-iron into the air. I did it!
He was a couple hundred yards away, and because I didn’t think my voice would carry, I jumped up and down a few times and clapped my hands, trying to appear visibly thrilled. But I was self-conscious with Smith standing behind me, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his army-green cargo pants, an anxious scowl on his almost beautiful face.
Dad sauntered off to pluck the winning ball from the hole, long, white beard trailing in the wind, his spaniel, Betsy, two steps behind. It was hardly fifty degrees out, but Dad was wearing shorts and hiking boots. He was nearing seventy, but he had the bulging calf muscles of a man half his age.
I want to see birds no one else has seen, Smith was saying. I printed out the checklist for North Carolina. How soon can we mark these off?
Slow down, I said, smiling.
I don’t know if I can tell a common goldeneye from a loon, he said. Is that important?
He followed me to our picnic table, which was soft from rot and green with moss.
Smith stuck his fingers into his bramble-thick hair, hair the color of sea grass. It seemed inclined to one side, like a plant reaching for the sun. He wore a paint-flecked T-shirt covered in a school of dolphin fish.
First, I said, let me tell you what we can see here in the Great Dismal Swamp.
I opened our brochure, pushed it toward him like a menu. We had a chunk of land outside of town that had been in my father’s family for two generations. We lived in his ancestral home and ran Pocosin Birds, our bird-watching business, from the property.
In April, I began, birders can expect to sight fifty to one hundred bird species in the swamp.
Are you reading backward? Smith asked.
I have it memorized, I said.
I studied his face. His left eye was deep brown, his right hazel. For a moment, I wondered if he had a glass eye.
Eyes like David Bowie, I said, nodding my head in approval.
Are you going to take me into the swamp? he asked. He smiled. He was lean and dark from the sun. I couldn’t tell if he was twenty-five or just short of forty, impoverished or on the receiving end of a trust fund. When he smiled, he looked like too much fun to be thirty, as if he wasn’t tired of the world yet.
Typically, I said, we help our clients assemble the correct gear and map a course. We drop you off at daybreak.
I took a red pen from my pocket and circled an area near Lake Drummond.
The best nesting sites for warblers are here, I said. What do you know about songbirds?
I want to go in with you, he said.
Dad was born on the outskirts of the swamp at a time when it was desolate, hard, and flecked with ramshackle hunting cabins. His father had been into timber, and Dad was raised wild—the kind of man who could pick up a snake by its neck with the confidence I’d exhibit picking up a rubber version in a toy store. He was sentimental about his family home and the town. Anything he was used to having around he wanted to keep around. So when the town got too small to sustain a post office, he converted the blue mail drops into composting hubs in the back corner of our lot. He bought the abandoned elementary school at auction for almost nothing—no one wanted to pay the taxes on it, and looters had already taken the copper pipes and pedestal sinks. He rented it out for birthday parties, weddings, and to local artists for studio space. When a developer leveled the city park, Dad reassembled the jungle gym in our side yard near the garden and let the scuppernong vines go wild.
We lived in a dying town with a dwindling tax base. I never thought I’d come back, but the swamp was in me; if Dad was half feral, I was one-quarter. I liked the way the water tasted, the sound of birds outside my window in the morning. A few years in Raleigh studying conservation biology at the state university and I needed to find a place where I could look out my window and see nothing man-made. I missed the smell of things rotting, the sun bearing down on a wet log.
Nothing in the city seemed real to me—it was fabricated, plastic, artificial, fast. After years of biology classes, every come-on was a mating call, every bar conversation a display—a complicated modern spin on ancient rules. I didn’t believe in altruistic acts—I could find a selfish root to anything. Eventually I felt as if I was looking out at the busy world and I could see nothing but its ugly bones.
I was taught that at the heart of all people, all things, lay raw self-interest. Sure, you could dress a person up nice, put pretty words in his mouth, but underneath the silk tie and pressed shirt was an animal. A territorial, hungry animal anxious to satisfy his own needs.
At least in the swamp, there was no make-believe chivalry, no playing nice. It was eat or be eaten out there, life at its purest, and it’s where I wanted to be.
Another thing—I loved my dad. I’d never known my mother—she’d died just after giving birth to me—so he was all I’d ever had. He was honest, fun, and unapologetically himself.
I’m not asking you to come home, my dad said, when I approached him with the idea. You won’t find a husband here, he added.
I don’t want one, I’d said—and for a while, that had been the truth. Perhaps it was all the years I’d watched my father carve out a happy life alone.
Your old room is packed solid, he’d said. I disassembled a tobacco barn. Numbered the slats. You can’t move in ’til I sell it.
I’ll take the room over the garage, I said. I have some money to fix it up—I’ll put in a shower.
Aside from serving in Korea and a short stint living on a houseboat in his twenties, Dad had remained hidden from the world in the swamp, inhabiting the same house, trapping the same illegal lines, fishing the same shallow waters.
We didn’t watch the market or follow politics. That was part of the appeal, for me anyway. For centuries people had used the swamp to hide from their problems. Runaway slaves, ruthless fugitives, shell-shocked soldiers, and cheating wives—all had hidden in the swamp at one time.
When I moved from the city to the swamp, the things I could not have became special again. Cappuccino was special. Driving forty minutes to eat second-rate Indian food was special. Planning a day around the “good” grocery store—special.
You got about half fancy living out of town, Dad told me.
I was a thirty-six-year-old single woman living in a poor man’s theme park, running birding trips into the swamp. Most of my binocular-laden clients were pushing sixty and just as concerned with sunscreen and hydration as they were with spotting a pileated woodpecker. I drove them into the swamp in Dad’s pickup, left them with a map, a bagged lunch, water, a GPS device, and a phone, and picked them up at twilight in a place that seemed less wild every day.
For the most part, I was happy.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Birds of a Lesser Paradise includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Megan Mayhew Bergman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Birds of a Lesser Paradise captures the surprising moments when the pull of our biology becomes evident, when love collides with good sense, and when our attachments to an animal or wild place can’t be denied. In “Housewifely Arts,” a single mother and her son drive hours to track down an African Gray Parrot that can mimic her dead mother’s voice. A population control activist faces the ultimate conflict between loyalty to the environment and maternal desire in “Yesterday’s Whales.” And in the title story, a lonely naturalist allows an attractive stranger to lead her and her aging father on a hunt for an elusive woodpecker. As intelligent as they are moving, the stories in Birds of a Lesser Paradise are alive with emotion, wit, and insight into the impressive power that nature has over all of us.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. How much of a role does nature play in the lives of the heroines of Mayhew Bergman’s stories? How do their relationships with the natural world affect their decisions?
2. Whether it is an African Gray parrot or a lemur, animals are central to each of these stories. How do the characters identify with or distinguish themselves from animals? Do any of the characters share certain qualities with the animals described?
3. In “Housewifely Arts,” what did her mother’s parrot represent to the narrator while her mother was still alive? How did the parrot’s importance change after her mother passed away?
4. How did you react to the veterinarian husband in “The Cow That Milked Herself” examining his pregnant wife in the same way he examines animals? Do you think his clinical take on his wife’s pregnancy reveals any universal truths about motherhood?
5. “For centuries people had used the swamp to hide from their problems” (41), says the narrator of the title story. Does Mae use the swamp to hide from her own problems? If so, how? How does her father’s scare in the swamp change her priorities?
6. Lila feels ugly and damaged after her face is disfigured in “Saving Face,” and goes to great lengths to isolate herself. How do you think her experience with Romulus and the sickly calf will change her? Can she reclaim the person who she was, despite her new challenges?
7. Lauren, the population control activist in “Yesterday’s Whales,” has a crisis of faith when she becomes pregnant. Have you ever experienced an event that’s challenged your long-held convictions? Is there any way to reconcile two wildly different points of view?
8. Do you think the narrator of “Another Story She Won’t Believe” realizes the mess she’s made? What do you think propelled her to self-destruct? Do you think her treatment of the lemurs represents an insurmountable character flaw?
9. What does it take to forgive yourself after an act of negligence? What kind of mother do you think the narrator of “The Urban Coop” will turn out to be, if she can become pregnant?
10. “My mother once told me: Never underestimate avoidance as an effective coping mechanism,” says the narrator of “The Right Company” (146). Is her retreat to the small Southern town of Abbet’s Cove an effective way to deal with the collapse of her marriage? When she tries to free Mussolini’s dog, the animal refuses to make an escape. What does this juxtaposition say about the narrator’s circumstances?
11. In “Night Hunting,” a young girl must come to terms with her mother’s declining health. How does her walk through the cold Vermont night force her to confront her fears? Do the ever-threatening coyotes represent a more primal danger than her mother’s cancer?
12. Could a hunter and an animal lover ever have a functional relationship? Do you think the woman in “Every Vein a Tooth” uses her relationship with animals to avoid the messiness of human intimacy? Or does her extreme devotion to the animals she rescues come from a purer, more optimistic place?
13. “The Artificial Heart” is the only story in Birds of a Lesser Paradise that’s set in the future. How do you think it fits in with the rest of the stories in the collection? Do you think it’s a natural impulse to want to prolong life, even if the quality of that life becomes less than ideal? Or do we become lesser versions of ourselves if we try to cheat death?
14. The narrator of “The Two-Thousand Dollar Sock” is a fighter, as is her husband, and ultimately her dog, Vito, who attacks a bear to protect the family. Do you think humans have a similar compulsion to fight and defend?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Find a local animal shelter where all members of your book club can volunteer and have some fun in the process.
2. The swampland setting of the story “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” is exotic, but bird-watching is a fun pastime that can be done just about anywhere. Get a few pairs of binoculars and head into the great outdoors—record what you see and cross reference with a bird-watching guidebook.
3. “The Right Company” takes place mostly in a mom-and-pop restaurant in Eastern North Carolina, where the narrator’s food writer friend explores Southern comfort food with glee. Prepare your own Southern-inspired comfort food and invite your book club over for a meal!
A Conversation with Megan Mayhew Bergman
You live with a variety of animals on a small farm in Vermont, and your husband is a veterinarian. How have your interactions with animals informed your writing of these stories?
Interacting with animals draws me into a physical world, which is where I want to be. I’ve always been an animal person, and my husband is basically an enabler—now I can get access to all the one-eyed cats and neurotic beagles I want. In fact, we kind of maintain a secular, downtrodden version of Noah’s ark in our farmhouse. But instead of beautiful beasts, we have decrepit, incontinent dogs, rescue goats, and vicious cats marauding around.
My husband can break my heart any day with shop talk. I spend time in the clinic with him after hours, and when I leave, each patient weighs on me. How did the cat with liver failure end up? What choice did the owner make about the old lab with the lung tumor? There is constant tension in his work, an ethical dilemma around every corner. That, in addition to our emotional investment in companion animals, is the stuff narrative is made of. Love, choice, grief, change.
You’re clearly an animal lover, but you also write extensively about the menace of animals—often it can’t be helped, it’s their nature. Do you think humans also have a wild, brutal side?
I’m attracted to, and interested in, primal innocence. I think it’s a quality animals and children share.
When I was writing this collection, I was grieving the death of my mother-in-law and acclimating to life with my first child. The following questions often occurred to me: What will we do for survival? The protection of our offspring? I’m fascinated by the primal self—though we operate in an industrialized society, I figure our bodies and minds haven’t evolved at the same breakneck pace. I think vestiges of our animal selves bubble up more than we realize. Are our drives and needs really that different from those of our ancestors
I have a background in anthropology which I can never manage to shake. When someone brings me a casserole, I can hear my professor’s voice: there is no such thing as altruism. Or if I get lost driving, I think: that’s okay Megan, your female predecessors stayed near the yurt and gathered berries. Your brain wasn’t designed for complex navigation. (The feminist in me quickly raises an objection.)
And there you have my interior dialogue… a messy business.
Has motherhood impacted your understanding of the natural world, and if so how has that influenced your writing?
The act of having children did not completely agree with my environmental and feminist beliefs, yet I determined it would be biologically and emotionally satisfying. And it was, which wreaked havoc with my belief system. Suddenly 95 percent of my being was directed to promoting my child’s welfare. The other 5 percent mourned my loss of freedom, and in between feedings I was growling at my husband, mumbling lines from de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Motherhood is a whopping dose of humility. It takes you out of your head and puts you back into the world; you must invest in others. There is less time, in the early years, to dwell on bleaching your teeth or promoting your work.
Nothing, I think, returns you to your body more than childbirth. It’s a violent, primal act, and sublime. My heightened awareness about potentially dangerous people and objects in my peripheral vision made me feel downright animal. The urge to protect my children at all costs permeates every moment of my life. Motherhood does something strange to the self; it makes you a little wild. The urge to exist and persist is a struggle all living things share—this idea is at the heart of all my stories.
How biographical are these stories? Are there pieces of your personality in each of your female characters?
No one of these stories is completely biographical, but there is a piece of me in every protagonist: the woman who worries if she should become a mother at all, the woman who struggles to conceive, the mother who finds purpose in her children and fears failure. There are women who want a wilder life, women who struggle to be dutiful daughters, women who are suspicious of human exceptionalism. Women with good intentions and a history of mistakes. Women who are homesick, nostalgic. Women eager to make sense of the world who are occasionally struck with human guilt, a sense of culpability in the earth’s deterioration. Women who, in the face of grief, become reliant on a sense of humor or a companion animal for comfort.
Many of your characters seek solace in certain places, whether it’s the North Carolina swamplands in “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” or the small seaside town in “The Right Company.” Have you ever felt such a pull to a particular location? How does where you live define who you are?
I’m pulled toward places that have an air of mystery: wilderness, abandoned or historic houses, rural towns. These places have different rules. You lose a sense of control, and that’s exciting to me.
I think a lot about places I passed driving the rural roads of North Carolina in my youth, the way an empty, paint-stripped farmhouse could jumpstart my imagination for hours. Who lived there? What happened? What still happens there?
A lot of times we self-select where we live, which says something about a character. But sometimes we’re pulled to a place for a job or a person, which is also revealing. I think it’s possible to find yourself partially defined by a place; location can impact your internal rhythm, food intake, friendships, proximity to family. When people are away from family, they are away from habits and watchful eyes, and able to make a life of their own. I’m always fascinated by the pull of home, even on people who opt to leave.
We come to place by a series of choices, and ultimately choices make characters interesting.
Many of your stories take place in the South, where you grew up, and you maintain a blog titled “Amateur Yankee” (www.mayhewbergman.com). Do you think Southerners have a different relationship with nature than Northerners do?
I can’t speak for others, but I have a different relationship with the outdoors up north. In the south, I took the outdoors for granted; it was almost always accessible. But part of the reason we moved to Vermont is that we wanted to be outside more; we wanted acreage, gardens, ruminants.
In North Carolina, our historic house backed up to a donut shop, and vagrants drank beer behind our fence. We were close to the small town I grew up in, the tea-colored ocean I love. I knew the sandy soil, the tall pines, the crops growing in the fields, the soundscape: people talking slow, cicadas buzzing. During the building boom, I watched high-density housing developments consume my childhood landscape. I knew how to get into a hot car without burning myself. We hiked well-groomed trails and picked up after our leashed dogs.
In Vermont, the animals must be fed regardless of the two feet of snow outside. The garden must be weeded in spring and summer. I’ve gotten into bird watching, primarily because Vermont is a quiet place and I notice the birdsongs, the swooping flight of a Pileated woodpecker. I run lonesome roads, and often encounter stray cows, deer, porcupines, groundhogs, rabbits, and unleashed dogs. My neighbors in Vermont boast as much about their gardens as they do their children.
I’ve been fascinated by my adaptation process. I finally figured out how to dress for the winter (down everything). I learned to run in the snow. I can drive in conditions I once considered apocalyptic. In Vermont, we are religious about the weather. You have to know whether or not there is going to be snowstorm—especially if childcare and airport logistics are involved. But I always feel a twinge of homesickness as the winter settles in, or when I step off a plane in North Carolina and feel the humidity on my skin. I miss the violence of southern storms. I wonder if this will change as years pass, and the idea of “home” shifts.
The story “The Artificial Heart” is a bit of a departure—it takes place in the year 2050, after all forms of life in the world’s oceans have died off, and an elderly man’s fake heart keeps ticking even as the rest of his body is shutting down. How did you extrapolate these plot points from the present moment?
Hospitals often suggest you write a living will before you give birth—cheery, right? When told to do so, I started asking myself questions about quality of life, and what I would want for myself and my family. Recently, an elderly person whom I love made a request that the nursing home not take any dramatic measures to revive her if she should fall seriously ill. I thought it was a brave and definitive statement. This person, well into her nineties, was frank, saying: I’m tired and I’m ready.
With our increasing ability to prolong life with technology, it is possible that, in many cases, minds will increasingly outlive bodies, and bodies, minds. Taking care of aging parents results in emotional and financial pressure, joy and heartbreak. What do we owe each other? Ourselves?
My husband and I talk constantly over the dinner table about his thought process when it comes to euthanizing animals. Judging quality of life—especially when a patient can’t talk to you about it—is a subjective business. So is mercy, and all that big-idea stuff.
I want to be clear—I have no prescriptive opinions to add, only questions to ask, scenarios to imagine. The Artificial Heart probes issues of guilt and accountability. How will we feel when we discover we’ve pushed people, and our natural resources, too far? I’m fascinated, also, by our capacity to forgive, and to love broken things.
A Conversation with Megan Mayhew Bergman
Which authors do you most like to read?
This is a hard question to answer, because the answer is long and it changes. I enjoy reading Jennifer Egan, Mary Gaitskill, Lauren Groff, Mary Robison, Nick Flynn, and Leonard Michaels. I admire writers at home in the natural world, like David Quammen and Rick Bass. As a southerner, I return to Padgett Powell, Breece D'J Pancake, and Flannery O'Connor.
Who were your biggest literary influences in writing this story collection?
My biggest literary influences are my teachers and mentors: Amy Hempel, Bret Anthony Johnston, Nick Montemarano, David Gates, Doug Bauer, George Singleton, Jill McCorkle, and Jim Shepard. Their edits and suggestions were instructive, and their own work inspiring. Through them I learned how to shape the line, structure narrative, find an ending.
If you had one piece of advice to give to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
I would suggest that aspiring writers read and read some more. Then I would recommend they learn how to self-edit with radical honesty. The minute I got braver about editing - I mean really ripping out pages and paragraphs - my work improved dramatically. If writing is your work, take it seriously. It should hurt a little. A lot sometimes.
What's next for you? Are you writing more stories?
I am always writing stories - I can't help myself. It's a compulsive act. I'm also working on a novel. My work, both short and long, tends to explore our interaction with place and the natural world, as well as the choices women make in the construction of their adult lives.
Who have you discovered lately?
A friend recently gave me a copy of John Jeremiah Sullivan's book Pulphead, and I can't quite get over the perfection of his essay "Mr. Lytle."