Review by Liz Dexter, 8 Aug 2019
This charming and perceptive book opens with a gut-wrenching account of taking off in a very small plane from Kirkwall in Orkney, travelling to North Ronaldsay. But how has the author got to this point? Well, he got into birdwatching through his father seeing his first Cetti’s warbler:
“Dad, phlegmatic almost all of the time, dissolved in excitement. It was the first he’d seen in a lifetime of birding” (p. 2)
and having grown up in the countryside, he’s almost driven down to nothing by the privations of his London post-university life, eventually unable to get out to even see the small amounts of nature that the urban landscape affords him. But this isn’t a book about his dad or, really, about his mental health, but about his restorative journey to look at seabirds (I won’t try to define these but it’s not quite as you expect) around the coast of the British Isles. I prefer a book to be about the thing rather than the person (much like the older writers and books he discusses throughout the text, sharing a deep rather than superficial knowledge of nature and its writing) and there’s just the right amount of personal backstory for me. His descriptions of his emotional reactions to the birds and environments he finds himself among are well-judged, too, as are his occasional but not overbearing sections on species decline and plastic waste.
It’s not all decline, waste and negativity, although these points do have to come in at times. I loved his description of what birding can do for you, as opposed to other nature hobbies:
Fishing taught me futility – that things will probably not go your way. Birding taught me to look at and think about the outside world, to engage with the landscape and all it holds.
Rutt is optimistic about the changes being made in plastic use as he’s been writing the book. He also describes unexpected burgeoning bird populations, such as the kittiwakes in Newcastle, living on the bridges and buildings, and can be funny, too: puffins, that endearing and beloved bird, are described as:
the holy grail for British wildlife, for being not secretive, not brown.
Rutt is honest about his travels and his engagement with the self who escaped to the Orkneys originally – in his diary then he used paradisiacal words he wouldn’t use now, and he has to travel to the northern coasts of England and Wales over weekends to avoid using all his leave. He even slightly pokes fun at himself and his need to escape at the end of the book:
But then I was always a dramatic young man. You might not need to go so far or be so extreme.
There is a very serious side, looking at the amounts of plastic found in birds’ nests and the birds themselves, with some necessarily unpleasant images placed in our minds. But you couldn’t write this book without this aspect and it’s not laboured or overly didactic. He also has something to say about the divisive nature of the birding hobby itself, with islands expensive to visit; his sojourn in Newcastle seeks to redress that a little and it’s a good point to raise. When it comes down to it, Rutt wants us all to think about and enjoy these birds, too.
The engagement with previous bird writers and island lovers is interesting and gives a depth and hinterland to the book. Ronald Lockley in particular almost haunts his travels and gives him the in-depth reading and knowledge he craves. It’s interesting that both are young men when they start their travels – for Rutt is only 23 when he makes this journey and I’m excited to see what else he writes in what is hopefully a long future as a nature author. He even manages to weave in Anglo-Saxon poem “The Seafarer”, explaining how these long-ago authors described the activities of seabirds accurately – a lovely touch, I felt, with the knowledge here lightly worn, too.
Rutt’s language is lyrical and playful and he does twist the conventions of English a little. But he obviously knows what he’s doing, and I felt like the switches between tenses echoed the timeless yet moment-driven nature of birdwatching and reminded me of the Icelandic sagas. It’s worth sliding over these even if you’re usually a stickler, and letting the lyricism and great descriptions carry you along. You can’t go wrong with this:
A gull flies over, looking for loose eggs, rippling the flock – like fur being stroked or a reptile’s scales raising and lowering in one sinuous movement.
The only thing I’d want to improve about this book is some illustrations – even a map and a few line-drawings. Obviously you can look the birds up on the phone you’ll inevitably have next to you, but they would have added extra charm and practicality, however much this book isn’t a how-to.
There are great notes and a bibliography as well as a well-done index.
Liz Dexter likes a puffin as much as she likes an Arctic tern and has been dive-bombed by only one of them. She’s not the real birdwatcher in the family but clings to the fact she’s seen two birds her husband hasn’t. She blogs about reading and running at www.librofulltime.wordpress.com
Stephen Rutt, The Seafarers: A Journey Among Birds (Elliott and Thompson, 2019). 9781783964277, 280 pp. Hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link – free P&P in the UK.