Sunday, December 31, 2017

Year end book review: Birding Without Borders

Even though I should have got this review out well before Christmas, I managed to get it written just in time for the New Year.

In 2015 Noah Strycker took his, by now, well-known trip around the world with the goal of seeing 5,000 birds and thereby breaking the previous record.  By the end of 2015, he had been more than successful in achieving his goal.  Birding Without Borders is the documentation of his year

Throughout 2015 I following Noah's travels via his daily blog entries sponsored by the National Audubon Society so I already knew the story and the outcome.  I did wonder how he would consolidate a whole year of constant movement through 42 countries with over 6,000 bird sightings into a book.  The answer is that he doesn't.  He selected and wrote about his highlights.

What was most interesting to me was the planning he put into his trip and the rationale he makes for the decisions he made.  For example, he connected with local birders in each country - some relatively well-known like Gunnar Engblom in Peru and others completely unknown. Noah called it his grass roots strategy.  The success of this strategy seems to have surprised even him.  

Despite what one imagines could have happened when traveling alone to unknown countries, remarkably Noah seems to have run into relatively little trouble.  He writes about one such negative experience, in Cameroon, where the only birder he could find in the country was Benji who had spent all of the money Noah had wired ahead to him (for transportation, making reservations, etc) on his personal debts.  He still needed to get through his time in Cameroon so Noah had to give Benji yet more money which he never did pay back.  If this was not bad enough, he arrived in Cameroon during the rainy season and birded the whole time in rain and mud.  Starting on page 187 in one long paragraph, he describes his Cameroon birding experience with ample detail to get the gist of his time in that country. Just brief mention of days without a shower and, in the morning, putting on the same wet and muddy clothes offers the less glamorous side of his experience.  I think he actually boarded planes wearing wet and muddy clothes.  Not all birding is fun.

Something significant and, for me, most enjoyable about Noah Strycker's writing, is his connected, yet unconnected, commentary writing.  If someone is curious about birding, what it is and why people do it, Birding Without Borders goes a long way to address that curiosity.  He also writes about characteristics of the culture of some countries he visited - like the dangers of driving in Peru or India's obsession with breaking records.

While Noah's fine writing is evident throughout his book, surprisingly writing about his bird sightings was where finding his words seemed most difficult.  There seemed to be a lot of "wows" and "amazings" that left me thinking there might be better ways to describe the experiences. But, such banal descriptions were insignificant.  As Noah approaches the end of the year, he writes about time in a way that is very insightful. He pulls things together beautifully in his final chapter, From End to End.  You can read a part of this by enlarging the photo above.

It seems that Noah selected to do this trip at the perfect time for him. He was just under 30 years old (I think), a knowledgable and compulsive birder, already an experienced traveller, a published author and not yet truly committed to anything else in life. His book is published and we now know that Noah's record was smashed the following year by a young Dutch birder. Noah alludes to this in Birding Without Borders. Yet, for me, it remains clear that Noah's record, even broken, was the more significant of the two.  I tried to follow the young Dutch birder's 2016 progress but found his communication sites inaccessible and unclear and eventually gave up.

I recommend Birding without Borders for both deep and shallow reading.  While following Noah's trip on his blog and again while reading his book, I found myself returning over and over to a single question.  Could a woman do this kind of trip with the goal of breaking the record?  While a part of me would like to see a woman take up this challenge, it comes with grave concern for the risks to her safety that such an endeavor would surely be fraught with.  I imagine there will be other men who try to break the record - to many, this is what birding is all about - but this now seems entirely unnecessary.  For both humans and birds alike the world has changed so much between 2015 to 2018.

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