Review by Peter Reason
Miriam Darlington’s first book, Otter Country, recounted her search and study of otters in Britain. I reviewed this book with enthusiasm in Resurgence & Ecologist, noting in particular how she described startlingly close encounters with otters with a vividness that took me deeply into the experience. So I opened her second book, Owl Sense, with anticipation of a similar treat.
As the title suggests, in Owl Sense Darlington has taken the same enthusiasm she has for otters to her study of owls. She sets out to encounter and describe the owls of the British Isles—the Barn, Tawny, Little, Long Eared Owls. However, she finds she can best see the Long Eared Owl by travelling to Serbia where the birds are thriving in close association with human settlements. In Serbia she is also taken by her human hosts to see the Short Eared Owl. Having travelled out abroad already, she is then tempted to Finland to see the Eurasian Eagle Owl and to France for the Pygmy Owl. When a Snowy Owl is reported in Cornwall, well out of its normal range; she rushes down with her husband to look for it, but is unsuccessful. At the end of the book, of all the European owls, she is left with the Snowy, the Hawk and the Great Grey yet to see.
Why go looking for owls, and why write a book about this quest? Darlington explores these questions in her Prologue. The joy of encounter with an owl is ‘always woven with an uncomfortable undercurrent’, she writes. Owls, like so many species, no longer exist as ‘astonishing, innocent, wild beings’, but rather as ‘emissaries from imperilled ecosystems’, as pets, or worse as cutified images. We humans are no longer surrounded by wild beings; even if unconsciously, we need their wild company. So she asks, ‘What can a writer do, faced with a world whose wildness seems to be unravelling?’ She can get to know the wild, experience it directly, face up to our scars and losses. This is what she sets out to do in this book.
But her project is interrupted. Not just by the demands of her work as an academic teaching creative writing, but by illness in the family. Her son develops an alarming illness that evades identification and doesn’t get better. She chooses to include an account of these family challenges in her book, writing that ‘Women often remain silent about their personal lives’. And so in the book she attempts to weave together the ornithological and the personal ecologies.
Miriam Darlington delivers much of what she promises. She researches thoroughly, both in libraries and by making connections with some extraordinary people who are devoting their lives to study and conservation of owls. She takes us on her journeys and gives detailed accounts of her adventures. She tags baby Barn Owls in rickety old farm building in deepest Devon; in a lovely section she writes of finding the body of a dead Tawny Owl, storing it at home in the freezer for a while, then taking it out to study and sketch in intimate detail; and she searches out and learns from experts on the different species and travels into wild places at home and abroad.
The book has received enthusiastic reviews in the national press, from other nature writers, and on social media; it has been chosen as a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. Many people find it an informative and entertaining book. So why, as I read the final pages, do I find myself less than fully satisfied?
As I started reading, I enjoyed Darlington’s descriptions of encounters with owls. When she and her companion disturb a bird in Devon I am almost there with her: ‘… the Barn Owl took flight. Its silence was absolute. It flew up and down in the still, cool air of the barn, white against black, uncanny as a negative photograph, elegant, yet vulnerable’. However, as I progressed through the book I found her writing style increasingly ornate, which distracted me. I was recently reminded, reading a Philip Pullman essay on writing, that good prose is like a clear windowpane: something you look through, not at. In later chapters I found it was the windowpane that often caught my attention: the Eagle Owl ‘dashes any thoughts of cuteness into the flames of Hades…[with] boxing-glove feet, this big guy is armed with truly intimidating weaponry’.
Second, I have questions about the story of her son’s illness and its impact on her family. I don’t doubt its heartbreaking significance for Darlington. When she writes, ‘I was living with a ball of barbed wire in my stomach’, any reader’s heart will go out to her. But whatever the ‘new nature writing’ says about integrating personal stories within the writing about the natural world, one must ask, does it really help a book about owls? As I understand Darlington’s intent, she wants to show that we are all, owls and humans alike, faced with vulnerabilities in our lives. But there is a world of difference between the illness of one individual, be it human or bird, and the threat to a species and its ecology. With the loss of species and habitat the Earth is threatened not just with loss of individuals, but the end of the life process itself. To draw the parallel is misleading.
This leads to a wider question, What is the purpose of nature writing (although that term is disliked by most ‘nature writers’)? I think Darlington would agree that we need to shift our attitude toward the Earth and her creatures—to value them for themselves, rather than for any human purpose—if we are to have any chance of addressing the ecological calamity that addresses us… and owls. So how well does she live up to her espoused intent to ‘get to know the wild, experience it, and pay attention to it’; and presumably entice her readers to do the same? I found that as the book progresses, Darlington’s quest appears more and more human-centred. She too often leads with her own obsessions to see the owls, to satisfy her own desires: ‘How I longed to see one’, she writes of Snowy Owls. While in Otter Country the animals stay at centre stage and the writing took me close into encounters, in Owl Sense I find Darlington’s constant presence and enthusiasm standing between me and the birds.
Maybe I am too much of a purist. For, despite my qualms, this is a thoroughly entertaining book that I know many will enjoy. It is a book that will draw the general reader into the world of owls. Hopefully, as Darlington writes toward the end, it will also help us take that urgent step ‘away from our rampant materialism and think of the future’. For as she asks in her Epilogue,
‘If climate warming continues… what will become of us all, humans and animals?’
Peter Reason is a writer who links the tradition of travel and nature writing with the ecological predicament of our time. His book In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage was published in 2017 by Earth Books. His previous book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea is published by Jessica Kingsley. Find Peter at www.peterreason.eu, and on Twitter @peterreason
Miriam Darlington, Owl Sense (Guardian Faber, 2018), 978-1783350742, hardback, 352pp.
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