“The thought bludgeons me around the head, as it has done repeatedly throughout the year: what the hell was I doing for those thirty-five years? How could I have gone so long without this simple pleasure in life? What was I thinking?”
You might know that I love birds, and memoirs, and a well-written nature book. So I had high hopes when I backed this on Unbound last May. (An aside: one of the great things about backing books on Unbound or Kickstarter or wherever, or even preordering them generally, is that when they turn up, it’s like a little present from my past self.) My hopes got higher as time went on, and I read Lev’s blog, and got to know him on twitter, and so on. By the time it arrived, I was so excited I stopped reading the book I was partway through so I could crack on immediately.
A lapsed birdwatcher, Lev revisited a much-loved childhood hobby, and set himself a target of seeing 200 bird species in Britain in a year. This was ambitious, a proper challenge, the kind of thing I think about doing then go “actually, you know, what, nah” – this is why I no longer do reading challenges. My approach to birdwatching is to hope I’m looking in the right direction, and feel happy when I see something new, like the Brent geese I saw in Kent in February while walking my auntie’s dog, but the key is I’m looking, and listening, almost all the time. If I go out on an afternoon to clear my head, I’ll make a list of every bird I see, and I keep lists when I go on holiday, but that’s all, most of the time, and it suits me. Lev, however, does lists properly. He seems to have thrived on the challenge, picking his childhood hobby back up with an enthusiasm that pours from the pages. The book follows his year, the highlights of his year in birding, a chapter a month. He laments the years he lost not looking at birds, and I feel the same, but I’m glad for both of us that we came back to it, and I’m grateful to people like Lev who, by talking and writing about birds and those of us that love them, make it a more commonplace thing than it would otherwise be.
Like all good nature books of this sort – the ones that are less science, more personal experience – this isn’t just about birds. It’s about life, and family, and cricket, and grief, and music. I learnt some stuff about conducting, which, until I knew Lev, I didn’t know was a thing people could do for a job. It made me cry, twice, it made me laugh out loud, and it made me pretty envious. It’s a window into someone’s life, and it’s lovely.
But it is mostly about birds. The joy of seeing something for the first time, of spotting something, of finding exactly what you expected to see, of old favourites. Sitting here, now, in the garden while the swifts shriek overhead and tits potter about in the damson tree, and writing about this book that I have loved, makes me feel connected to a whole community in a way that I rarely have done. This thing that we have in common, that we, along with, probably, millions of others, do for fun. We go about it differently – I find twitching baffling, and I’m sure that twitchers find my habit of wandering about until something catches my eye rather pointless – and we enjoy different elements of it from one another. It’s a broad church, birdwatching. But we’re all in it because we love birds.
And what that means is that if you like birds, even if you don’t spend any time actively looking for them, if you’ve ever just looked up and seen a robin and felt your heart lift, just a little bit, then I reckon you’ll like this book, too.
This post is part of Lev’s blog tour, to promote Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, which was published last Thursday. Check out the other posts, they’re all brilliant:
Lev Parikian is a conductor, writer and hopeless birdwatcher. His first book, Waving, Not Drowning, was published in 2013. His numerous conducting credits include the re-recording of the theme tune for Hancock’s Half Hour for Radio 4. As a birdwatcher, his most prized sightings are a golden oriole in the Alpujarras and a black redstart at Dungeness Power Station. Lev’s book, Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear?, can be bought on Amazon or Hive. He is currently crowdfunding his second Unbound book, the long and the short of it, a collection of forty pieces of writing in which the readers get even more control of the process by supplying subjects for Lev to write about.