Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Book Review: Life List

Posted by Kirk
Last month my blog post, South Dakota Road Trip won a contest co-hosted by the Nature Blog Network and 10,000 birds.

The prize was a copy of Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds. The book came straight from the publisher and I immediately dove into it. I love books as much as birds.

The story chronicles the incredible birding career of Phoebe Snetsinger, the first person to have a life list with over 8,000 birds. It is so much more than that however. Phoebe was not just a lister, she was a world-class birder with a fascinating life story. Author Olivia Gentile pulls together the narrative of her life in a compelling story in which every birder is likely to see some aspect of themselves. We grow with Phoebe as she discovers birding as an escape from the drudgery and tedium of being a housewife. We see her blossom into a respected birder and we watch too as her obsession with birds takes a toll on her health, family life and some would even say her ability to make rational choices.

Since Phoebe went through so many stages as a birder, we can examine different styles of birding or listing as she goes on her journey. I am certainly not anywhere near the same class of birder as Phoebe was. In the grand scheme of the roughly 10,000 birds out there, my life list is a mere pittance. Reading about her quest though makes me happy to not be so fanatically caught up in listing. I enjoy listing and I love the thrill of a new lifer. However, I don't plan of letting my birding destroy my marriage or put me in the middle of war zones. Phoebe's incredible life journey at the extreme edge of birding gives the rest of us perspective. If she could go though all she went through to become what some would call the greatest birder of all time then maybe the rest of us mere mortals can survive a few more mosquitoes, a little more mud and a little longer hike.

One aspect of the book I found interesting was the repeated references to the Golden Age of birding. I have to admit that I haven't been engaged in the birding world all that long. I really started birding back in the winter of 2006. As I read the book, I found myself thinking that the Golden Age of birding didn't sound all that great. People died on poorly organized trips, there were few to no field guides for much of the world, optics weren't as good or as light as they are now, the internet didn't exist making it harder to get information on locations of birds, guides, etc. It seems the one thing the "Golden Age" had going for it was less habitat degradation but that can't be the only criteria. I was pleased to see similar thoughts from fellow blogger, The Drinking Bird. I was also pleased that author Olivia Gentile covered some of the same observations in the epilogue. It is far too easy to gloss over the past as some hallowed ground.

It would be easy as well to look at only the positive side of Phoebe Snetsinger's story. She blossomed as an individual as a birder, was diagnosed with a fatal melanoma, fought it off multiple times and devoted herself to living her life to the fullest though birding. There is a darker side to this story however and Olivia Gentile examines the cost Phoebe's quest took on her family, friends and her own happiness. I found the book fascinating and even my non-birder wife has asked to read it after I shared some passages with her.
Phoebe Snetsinger's life is an example to us all of how to be a top notch birder, a thoughtful friend, an adventurous and fearless traveler, an optimist but also her life has lessons for us all when it comes to moderation.

There are also some interesting social class issues raised by her story. She was the daughter of a wealthy ad man and had she not come from such a financially privileged place her story would likely have been much different. It is one thing to say you are going to live life to the fullest and see as many birds as possible. It is another thing completely to set such a goal when you have essentially unlimited financial resources.

Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds, is an incredible personal story of struggle and journey as well as a history lesson on women's changing role in modern society. There is something in this book for every reader and I hope everyone has a chance to pick up a copy.



Nate said...

Great post, I've yet to pick up the book but I read the first chapter in a book store and really enjoyed it.

I'm glad someone else finds fault with the idea of birding having a golden age. I tend to buckle when anyone questions the authenticity of our own entrance into the culture of birding. It's so personal, I think that we all consider our own growth as a golden age for us, and that's what's ultimately the most important.