For decades, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America was a masterpiece sui generis, the only literary commemoration worth mentioning of a style of birding that had been practiced quietly since the early twentieth century.
Like so many birders of my generation, I first read and fell in love with Wild America as a young teenager. I’ve re-read it a dozen times since, each time more impressed by what may just be the best work ever done by either of the authors. Impressed—and inspired. There are a hundred reasons I’ll never take a trip like theirs, but I still get an itch for Xilitla, and Peterson’s black and white saguaros remain an image as vividly impressed on my mind as my own first views of Arizona.
Over the past fifteen years or so, Wild America has come to share the shelf with a growing number of big year narratives. The best of them—Sean Dooley’s Big Twitch, Ruth Miller and Alan Davies’s Biggest Twitch, and above all Kenn Kaufman’s great birderly Bildungsroman, Kingbird Highway—are full of passion and romance and adventure and novelty.
The narratives are full of all those things and more. The years themselves, though, weren’t. Like any stretch of human existence, even a big year has its quota of boredom and anxiety. In the best big year accounts, that boredom, that anxiety, and all the nagging doubt attendant on what is ultimately—let’s just say it—a meaningless undertaking provide productive occasion for wider musings on broader contexts; in the worst, they are ignored. In Lynn Barber’s Extreme Birder, they are thematized almost to the exclusion of the year’s positive aspects.
Extreme Birder is a series of essentially unedited day-by-day extracts from Barber’s big year diary, each entry listing the notable (and especially the new) species tallied on a given day at each of the localities, famous or otherwise, she visited in the course of her 723-species big year. Barber is scrupulous in recording the names of those many birders who helped her over those extreme twelve months.
What is lacking here—intentionally, I think—is any sort of deeper reflection, any effort at contextualization, any real glance at the social and natural worlds outside the list. The names and facts are accompanied instead by sometimes agonized fretting about the expense, the trouble, and the seasickness that are necessary parts of a North American big year. We learn nothing, really, about any of the birds, nothing about any of the people, nothing about any of the habitats that made Barber’s big year such a success; the effect, even for the die-hardest of birding readers, could have been deadening.
But it isn’t. For the first time in the history of big day literature, we are given full insight into the grinding drag of it all; the reader’s experience mimics the author’s as bird names and highway miles and turbulent plane flights pile up. There’s no suspense, very little adventure, and only occasional and welcome bits of true excitement. Paradoxically, and daringly, Extreme Birder becomes a fascinating piece of birding vérité, meant not to inspire thoughtless emulation but to demand consideration. No one who has read this book will ever run a big year in the same way.