Amy Tan goes from novelist to naturalist in her California yard

by Admin
Amy Tan goes from novelist to naturalist in her California yard

Book Review

The Backyard Bird Chronicles

By Amy Tan
Knopf: 320 pages, $35
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Most birders have origin stories, the tales they tell of how birds, for whatever reason, moved from background to foreground in their lives. Novelist Amy Tan’s journey, cataloged in her delightful new nonfiction book “The Backyard Bird Chronicles,” began with a sketchbook and a pencil.

At the age of 64, she enrolled in a drawing class with naturalist John Muir Laws. She soon moved on to a class in nature journaling, which prompted her to begin closely observing the birds in the backyard of her Marin County home. She put out feeders and then documented — in words and sketches — the avian life that came to the buffet.

And quite a buffet it became. As her interest — some might say obsession — grew, Tan found herself catering to the tastes of dozens of species. She provided sunflower and nyjer seeds for the seed eaters, suet for the protein cravers, sugar water for the hummingbirds and sunflower chips for the ground feeders.

There were also mealworms, lots of mealworms, purchased thousands at a time and kept in the refrigerator until needed. “I pride myself a bit too much on having the best food for wild bird guests,” she writes. “I would never serve dried mealworms instead of live! That’s like giving your kid frozen broccoli instead of fresh organic.”

Tan’s observations of her avian guests, recorded in journal form, are both entertaining and informative. And the drawings that illustrate her musings are remarkable. In both her quick sketches and her more finished work, she captures not just the appearance but the demeanor of the birds she draws: the aggressive stance of a golden-crowned sparrow defending the birdbath; the hunched puffiness of a sick fox sparrow; the “yellow boots” and white eye-ring of a ruby-crowned kinglet; the unexpected tongue extension of a Bewick’s wren eating suet.

Often, she records some bit of avian yard drama graphic-novel style, with a headlined page of sketches and text documenting, say, how a “Hermit Thrush Goes Rogue,” or “Food Fights Among Juvenile Scrub Jays.” The drawings are charming, the text amusing.

That said, if you already know quite a lot about birds, you may find yourself annoyed that, initially at least, Tan is no expert. In one early journal entry, for example, she writes about her “palpitations from the excitement of spotting a species that I have never before seen in my yard.” After making a quick sketch, she tries to identify the bird with the help of an app, and decides (correctly) that it is a Townsend’s warbler.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting excited about a Townsend’s. They’re beautiful small warblers with vibrant yellow and black heads. But they regularly winter in coastal California, and you might find yourself wondering why someone who couldn’t identify a species this common at a quick glance had decided to write a book about birds.

Stay with the book, though, and you’ll come to appreciate Tan’s approach. Like the early naturalists, Tan learns by watching, bringing no preconceptions, and it’s a pleasure to sit with her as she observes and accumulates knowledge. She takes careful notes, she sketches what she sees and she tries to draw conclusions.

Amy Tan and friend.

Amy Tan and friend.

(Enmei Tan)

As David Allen Sibley puts it in his excellent introduction (which even on its own would make this a book worth reading), “The drawings and essays in this book do a lot more than just describe the birds. They carry a sense of discovery…, suggest the layers of patterns in the natural world, and emphasize a deep personal connection between the watcher and the watched.”

And Tan is well-suited to being one of the watchers. “My impulse to observe birds comes from the same one that led me to become a fiction writer,” she writes. “By disposition I am an observer. I want to know why things happen.”

Often, her conclusions are spot-on. She observes that when her yard goes quiet, the reason is often that a Cooper’s hawk or another predatory raptor has landed in one of her trees, and the smaller birds are hoping to escape notice. She notes how fledglings follow their parents around the yard begging to be fed as if they were in the nest. She watches as California towhees drop worms from her feeders into a flower pot below so they can scratch for them in the soil the way they usually find food.

As she becomes better acquainted with the avian life in her backyard, Tan also begins to notice anomalies, including illness among the birds. Three times, after spotting birds in the yard that suffered from salmonellosis, conjunctivitis or avian pox, she had to shut down her feeders until the risk passed to prevent the diseases from spreading. And she documents her birds’ “heartbreak at my window,” on finding the feeders empty.

Does that border on anthropomorphizing? Of course. And Tan is unapologetic. “I am aware I have committed the naturalist’s sin of stereotyping the towhee as jolly and Scrub Jay as conniving. Science would require me to be objective and to not let personal bias obstruct more accurate observations. Thank God I am not a scientist. I love the jolly towhee and the smart and conniving Scrub Jay.”

And if some of Tan’s conclusions don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, she provides fair warning. “Certainly no one should depend on me,” she warns. “I am all about free-form guesswork. That’s the fiction side of me.”

Don’t expect, however, the kind of elegant, carefully composed prose and structure that you find in an Amy Tan novel. That’s not what she set out to do. “A novel is a torment,” she explains. “It needs structure, tending of language, constant shaping, refinement, excision and cumulative insights.” By contrast, she says, this book “was pure fun, spontaneous, a bit of a mess come what may.”

Fun, messy spontaneity, it turns out, can make for an awfully good book.

Sue Horton is an avid birder and former op-ed editor of The Times. She is working on her first novel.

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