These two books focus on birds, always a source of particular fascination for the nature writer.
Hannah Bourne-Taylor had always loved birds. As a child she would lie down in the long grass and watch the swifts circling above her head, imagining that she was attached to them by invisible strings and willing herself to be pulled up into the sky.
Her connection to birds – and her fascination with all creatures – continued into adulthood. When her husband’s job takes her to Ghana, she feels alienated and lonely. “Lost. Isolated. Torpid…like one of those abandoned rusting bikes chained to railings.” Stuck in their apartment, she fixates on the ants marching up a windowsill. In their next more spacious Ghanaian house, she adores her swimming pool until she notices that many small creatures are falling helplessly into the water. Day and night she builds little leaf rafts to move them to safety. This same determination grips her when she finds a baby swift after its nest had been destroyed. And so begins weeks of painstaking care, trying not to taint the tiny fledgling with human touch as she persists day and night with the impossible task of persuading it to feed. Gradually a precious trust grows between her and the wildest of all birds – swifts spend up to 90% of their lives in the air – until the fledgling reaches the precise target weight which means it is ready to fly. A gram lighter and it would not be strong enough, any more and it would be too heavy to take off. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment when the tiny bird stretches its wings and reaches for the sky. And after all that there is another rewarding, and more comical experience when she rescues and bonds even more closely with a mannikin finch.
You may not share her fascination for, or passion for birds, but like Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk, Fledgling is a memoir containing minute observational detail and moments of real jeopardy. Interwoven with childhood memories and an account of a new, difficult life, you come to understand Hannah’s fierce love for these most vulnerable creatures.
In 12 Birds to Save your Life, Charlie Corbett wraps the story of his grief and the ‘shadow of the black dog’ around 12 British birds. Each bird encounter is tied to an episode in his life. Even the blackest moments are suffused with humour, and it soon becomes a frank and intimate portrait of a farming family and generational differences.
Charlie makes an early admission that he had previously paid little attention to birds. “I walked along the lanes and byways of my childhood and found I was surrounded by strangers...I could barely tell the difference between a sparrow and a starling.”
In setting out to put this right, he finds that trying to understand nature brings contentment. “This is the sound of the universe, I realised. It’s free. And it's on my doorstep.”
He selects birds that anyone can encounter – robin, skylark, bullfinch – and finds them pecking at the window, nesting in a tree just by his house, or waking him up in the morning with their distinctive call. A chapter about magpies covers the many myths and traditions surrounding the crafty bird and also neatly uncovers, with both sorrow and joy, his late mother’s family secret, never to be told.
There are some amusing observations, too, that acknowledge the difficulty of his mission. “Learning birdsong is a bit like starting a book by Hilary Mantel. The initial prospect of ploughing through 1,000 pages seems like an impossible task. ‘My kids will have grown up and put me in a retirement home by the time I finish this’, you think. But as soon as you get past that first chapter, suddenly it becomes a joy.”
Eventually, with help, Charlie addresses his profound anxiety attacks. He eventually realises that speaking about them helps. And along the way he learns lessons for all of us. That ignoring nature results in dislocation. That watching sparrows gives him solace and teaches him how to be in the moment. “And by taking this line of thought I find it so much easier just to live.”
- · Hannah Bourne-Taylor will be talking about Fledgling on Sunday 24 April 13:00 –14:00 in the Lower Town Hall. Tickets £7.00
- Charlie Corbett will be interviewed by Vybarr Cregan-Reid about 12 BIRDS TO SAVE YOUR LIFE, Town Hall, Sunday 24 April 11:00 – 12:00 Tickets £10.00
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all –