Mark Obmascik, The Big Year

I bought this book for the subtitle (A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession) , not the cover (pale-legged faux-outdoorsy dude in Eddie Bauer gear, looking through binoculars with birds sitting on him). I should have paid a little more attention to the cover, because the cheap n' easy humour of it has a kind of parallel with the relatively lightweight journalistic approach to the topic. I mean no disrespect to Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year, but because I'm used to reading more directive comments about human engagement with the nonhuman, for me this doesn't count as a nature book.

Not that Krakauer's Into Thin Air counts either, but it doesn't pretend to. But maybe I just misread the book's intentions, and certainly the blurb from the Boston Globe noted that "the true subject here is the human spirit," so maybe nobody but me expected something about nature.

Besides, the Globe got it wrong. "Human spirit," my ass. This is a story about the avariciousness and arrogance of humanity, and about our individual disrespect for our fellow humans, our fellow species, and the planet we share with them. The characters are engaging, and their portrait is realistic and skillfully drawn, and the action is gripping. Big deal. We're bastards, all of us, not just the people who engage in a Big Year and try to see as many species as possible in a calendar year (like the three men depicted here), including me for enjoying this book.

Competitive birders win or lose depending on how many non-native species they see in a year. You can find the 675 North American regulars, but anyone can do that. You only win if you see as many aliens and strays as possible, and that means - critically - finding a way to see individuals, possibly of endangered species, who have been blown off course to unfamiliar terrain and who are unlikely to make it home.

Seeing them. Not helping them. Seeing them - and doing anything it takes to do only that. Greg Miller flew 87,000 miles and drove 36,000 more; he spent $31,000 dollars, mostly debt on credit cards and to his parents. Al Levantin flew 135,000 miles on United alone, more on other airlines, and spent more than $60,000. The details on Sandy Komito, the winner, aren't clearly specified, but it seems that he flew 270,000 miles in calendar 1998.

Or maybe each of them could have bought sandwiches for a school full of kids. Bought a few acres of parkland as bird sanctuaries. Supported lawsuits against chronic polluters. That sort of thing?

It's so annoying me that I had fun reading this book. Damn you, Obmascik!


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