‘Bird Lovers, Backyard’E. D. Watson
Thalia Field, “Bird Lovers, Backyard”
2010, 132 pages, paperback, $17
The first of biologist Barry Commoner’s famed four laws of ecology is “Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.” It’s science that sounds like philosophy, or philosophy with a twist of science, much like Thalia Field’s “Bird Lovers, Backyard.” Far from straightforward and never didactic, Field’s unconventional essay-poems examine mankind’s relationship to built and natural environments, exploring the notion that, contrary to how most of us think and conduct ourselves most of the time (as though the planet were merely a supply cupboard or colorful backdrop for our activities), human beings are part of a vast, interrelated system of organisms and processes. Field isn’t interested in the rightness or wrongness of man’s dominion over nature; she’s more interested in investigating the basis for that dominion. Is it our ability to design and implement technology? Our ability to name things? Our capacity for abstract thought? And, furthermore, how can we prove we possess these characteristics?
Field writes, “Reading science as biography or poetry feels both rich and problematic,” which, as it turns out, is an apt description of “Bird Lovers, Backyard.” At turns profound and confounding, the book reads like an epiphanic dream—the kind you can’t really explain to anyone in the morning. Seemingly disparate subjects—lunar travel, extinction, Eastern philosophy—are linked in elegant and surprising ways so that rather than revelation, the effect is closer to an impression of truth. Chapter one, “Apparatus for the Inscription of a Falling Body,” opens with the question, “What is it exactly to perform philosophy?” What follows is the chronological record of a group brainstorming session which has convened to find a solution for a food court’s “pigeon problem.” That pigeons were once the darlings of medieval French nobility is reflected upon, as is the birds’ history of military service. Architectural solutions to the pigeon problem are considered, along with ants, Darwin, Aristotle, and the meaning of the word “feral.” “We’re not actually very good in the Socratic sense,” Field writes. “We don’t talk about thinking, don’t think up good questions, don’t think for a living, don’t even really like it.” This string of statements is presented as the self-indictment of one of the food-court brainstormers, but like so many of Field’s observations, it could easily apply to anyone. Keeping up with the way Field unexpectedly links the diverse subject matter of her chapters is like learning a new yoga position—it requires some stretching, but it feels good once you’re there.
Though Field is examining important questions about humanity’s relationship to nature, there is an undercurrent of playfulness that prevents the inquiry from being pessimistic, preachy, or too freighted with erudition, which she achieves through her inventive use of form. In other words, it’s not just what she says that’s fascinating but how she says it. Though the chapters deal with diverse subjects and are presented unusually—meeting minutes, the memoir of a bird, a transcript of an online gardening forum—they speak to each other. Later chapters return to ideas mentioned in early chapters, presenting a new application or a fresh way of thinking about things. This intertextual chatter creates a dynamic system with its own geometry, and in this way, the book itself is a metaphor for its subject matter—the interrelatedness of the world and its multiform inhabitants.
The questions in “Bird Lovers, Backyard” are not new. Who are we? What does it mean to be alive? Are we animals or not-animals, and how much authority (or foolishness) is conferred by the “not”? Field turns these questions on their sides, pokes them, scrapes them, tosses them into the air, and watches them fall. The result is not answers, exactly, but hints—a fresh way of thinking. “Observations, poetry,” Field writes, “it’s a live, live world.” Indeed.
E. D. Watson is a bird-watcher and dilettante gardener. She lives and writes outside of Austin, Texas.