American Birding Podcast



Preaching Well Beyond the Choir

A review by Carrie Laben

Nextinction, by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy

Bloomsbury, 2015

224 pages, $50—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14617

The ABA is giving away 2 signed copies of this book. For more information, see the end of this review!

Ceri Levy and Ralph Steadman’s Nextinction arrived while my friend Kaylen was visiting from Indianapolis. Kaylen is not a birder, but she likes birds, in a general sort of way. She likes the brightly plumaged, the cute, the very large and the very small, the iconic. The sort of birds that lure in non-birders and on occasion turn them into birders, or at least into allies in the fight to preserve birds, their habitats, and our planet. She is, I would say, the average friendly and interested outsider to the world of bird conservation.

Kaylen settled the book on her lap—it’s a hefty volume, on high-quality paper, with generous dimensions to show the details of Steadman’s work—and flipped it open. As non-birders are wont to do in my company, she immediately found a bird with an embarrassing name. In this case, it was the Big-breasted Conspicuous Tit, a Steadman invention that displays both his typical sense of humor and his dynamism: The illustration shows a bird striding determinedly across the ink-spattered page, with a blue-beaked frown and a large mammalian breast protruding from its back. Kaylen is not, generally speaking, a prurient person, but she was immediately charmed and enthused. She started flipping faster, remarking on the Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Siberian Crane and Cuban Kite. It was clear that the book was working as intended, and we still hadn’t done anything more than look at the pictures.

After gently informing Kaylen that the Big-breasted Conspicuous Tit did not exist, and that we therefore could not go on a trip to find it, I was able to go back and review the book at more length. Following logically from Steadman’s previous ornithological efforts in Extinct Birds Boids (reviewed in Birding, March/April 2013, p. 66), Nextinction combines genuine and mythological birds in a bold, messy panorama of biodiversity under threat. The full range of Steadman’s talent is on display here, and nobody familiar with his work will be surprised to learn that the art is at once startling and beautiful. The kinetic, comical pieces like that Big-breasted Conspicuous Tit, the Ooshut Doorbang, the Spot-tailed Neck Back, and the Green-beaked Red Spotto draw the eye first, reminiscent as they are of his most famous work.

Steadman’s treatments of real critically endangered species are often moving and sensitive. Consider the Spoon-billed Sandpiper peering from the edge of a cliff, or the pensive Nicobar Scops-Owl. The smudgy flight of Balearic Shearwaters and the misty camouflage-green of the Kakapo manage to convey a sense of the birds’ habitats with only a few lines and a bit of color. Some birds are posed alone or in pairs—a California Condor, two Chatham Shags, a Sapphire-bellied Hummingbird on a blank white page where perhaps its habitat once stood; others are grouped into suites of similar, and similarly threatened, species, as on the page of penguins or the page of petrels.

The visuals are attention-grabbing, and merely scanning the pages in aesthetic glee could occupy a person for days, but the text should not be neglected. Like the illustrations, Ceri Levy’s words mix the fanciful with the factual. A certain amount of Gonzo sensibility is required to enjoy the work, though Levy is neither as profane nor as intoxicated as Steadman’s most legendary partner, Hunter S. Thompson. It’s not just that there are Big-breasted Conspicuous Tits, goofy guano-based jokes, and the alcoholic Twim Wheedle-nit. It’s that objectivity is not the name of the game here. Truth is.

BINbuttonPocket descriptions of the critically endangered birds (and a few other species) covered in the book give the basics about their current status, the threats they face, and the efforts underway to find or protect them. These accounts are as factual as one could hope. In contrast, the almost fairy-tale journey to the land of Nextinction—the country where birds on the brink go to await their fate—wanders wonderfully far afield. Levy concocts personas and vignettes for the fictional birds, like the moment when the Flightless Boid finally takes flight in an all-out attack on hunters. In sidebars, he also creates a sort of scrapbook-within-a-book. He reproduces phone calls, correspondence, and Skype sessions with Steadman, analyzes the drawings, throws in the odd photo, and includes his own diary entries, most notably those from a trip to Malta, where he found himself in the thick of one of Europe’s most notorious conservation controversies, the struggle over hunting on an archipelago parked right in the middle of a critical migration route.

As the Malta material suggests, Levy and Steadman are not shy when it comes to advocacy. The hunting, trapping, and eating of Europe’s birds are the subjects of full-page spreads, and once-common species in decline, such as the European Turtle-Dove, House Sparrow, and Common Nightingale, come in for a generous share of ink even though they are not critically endangered.

It’s always good to see a book that avoids giving the impression that all environmental disasters are happening on remote islands or in distant rainforests. But global issues get plenty of attention from Levy and Steadman as well. Among the many sources of avian distress, they take a hard look at habitat loss, invasive species, and the destructive practices of the fishing, mining, and agriculture industries. Levy perhaps pussyfoots a bit when it comes to the subject of cats—a third rail in the British and American bird conservation movements alike—but otherwise lays out the issues clearly.

For bird lovers already saturated with bad news, this may sound like a dour read, no matter how charming the illustrations or how plentiful the guano jokes. It’s hard to deny that this is a sobering book, but it is not a tome of despair. Rather, it leaves the reader with a desire to do something, and at times even displays the sort of righteous anger that can be fueled only by hope. Levy and Steadman are relentlessly proactive. There is an emphasis on practical steps toward preserving these not-yet-extinct birds, and how even small amounts of money and attention can potentially save a species that is currently being neglected right out of existence. The authors put their money where their mouths are, with part of the purchase price of each copy of Nextinction going to BirdLife International’s research and conservation work.

Most importantly, in a world where “raising awareness” often seems like a cheap excuse for playing around on the internet but doing nothing, this is a book that is positioned to genuinely raise real and much-needed awareness. Levy and Steadman have created a work that is likely to have appeal outside the group of hardcore birders already in the know about the plight of the Sociable Lapwing or the Great Indian Bustard. Artists, old hippies, fans of British humor, and lovers of the eye-catching will all be drawn to this book, giving it an opportunity to preach well beyond the choir. If my friend Kaylen is any indication, those non-birding readers will be drawn in and taken on an incredible journey to the land of Nextinction—and hopefully moved to help bring some birds back from its barren shores.

Carrie Laben

– Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA among the mountains of Montana. She now lives in Queens, where she spends her time searching for unexpected birds in out-of-the-way public parks. Her work has appeared in such venues as Montana Naturalist, Clarkesworld, and Camas. She blogs at 10,000 Birds. 

Recommended citation:

Laben, C. 2015. Preaching Well Beyond the Choir [a review of Nextinction, by Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy]. Birding 47 (6): 81-82.

To enter the contest for a signed copy of NEXTinction, sign in at this link and leave a comment below!