What a fantastic choice for my reading challenge! The Wild Birds by Emily Strelow really hit the spot for California… or Oregon… or maybe Jefferson…
Although the book info and many reviews say it follows three storylines/timelines, I’d actually say it’s more like 2… or 4. There are two main stories, plus two which are closely linked to the main ones and serve as a bridge.
We start with the main storyline of Alice in 1994, living in Burning Woods, Oregon (near Corvallis in the upper Willamette Valley) with her daughter Lily, and we alternate with Alice’s backstory through flashbacks to the late 1970s and 1980s, sometimes from Alice’s perspective and sometimes from that of her best friend Sal, who travels as an environmental scientist through the Mojave Desert where California meets Arizona.
Through these flashbacks we learn some of the reasons why Alice is who she is, which helps us, as readers, develop some empathy for her as counterpoint to the complaints of her teenaged daughter Lily. (Spoiler Alert – there is a sexual assault; if this is a trigger for you, be alert and skip.)
The story of Alice, Sal and Lily alternates with the other main storyline–that of Olive. Olive’s story begins in the late 1800s in the Farallone Islands, about 30 miles off the coast from San Francisco, at a lighthouse where she is posing as a boy, and flashes forward to scenes in Yreka (on I5 near the Oregon border, not to be confused with Eureka on the coast) in the early 1930s, where Olive eventually settled with her husband.
In the Yreka chapters we learn about the Jefferson state movement, which proposes to unite northern California and southern Oregon in a new state called Jefferson. This idea has been suggested since the 1930s, including a period in 1941 when armed men blockaded the roads, handing out pamphlets announcing:
You are now entering Jefferson, the 49th State of the Union. Jefferson is now in patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon. This State has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, November 27, 1941. Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice.
Connecting the two stories (loosely) is Victor, who wandered through Yreka at the right time to have been given the birds’ egg collection box which is the real connection. Olive begins filling it with sea bird eggs and adds a few in the Sierras. After her death, it is passed by her husband to Victor, who gives it to Sal when she sees it in his antiques shop in Needles, Arizona. Sal adds some eggs and sends it to Alice.
I do want to make a note here that collecting wild bird eggs (or nests) is illegal nowadays (check out this article, but there are many others); even collecting dropped feathers can be dicey–feathers from endangered birds are illegal to possess, regardless of how they were obtained. At the time The Wild Birds is set (at least the older portions), this was a common hobby, and, unfortunately, it contributed to population drops. Obviously, many of these collectors made a great contribution to science and our understanding and knowledge of birds, but many others were just in it for bragging rights and caused much destruction and harm, some unintentionally and others on purpose to foil their competitors. While it’s tempting to bring an item home to share with others–especially school classrooms or children–remember to “Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints.” Now, back to our book.
As you might expect, given that the connecting thread here is a box for collecting wild bird eggs, there are some wonderful bird sightings in this book. But since the author is, herself, an environmental scientist who did field research, there are many other bird sightings than simply the observations about the eggs, and the sightings are often very detailed, which lends a wonderful depth to the book.
Take, for example, the blind northern harrier from the first chapter. Not only do we get some wonderful information about harriers and other raptors and their hunting habits, but we also get some insight into Alice and her daughter Lily in how they react to the bird.
Alice was alive with speculation. She thought that maybe the harrier was able to hunt blind because she had facial disks like owls that allowed her to hear her prey more easily than other raptors. She thought that maybe Fickle Cat, never a particularly adept huntress, had been inadvertently helping the harrier survive by providing prewounded prey. She thought that maybe–and for this she raised her eyebrows and turned to look into her daughter’s eyes–they had on their hands some sort of divine creature.
Lily, on the other hand, is much more practical.
As Lily crossed the field toward the small housing development, she saw the blind harrier skimming low over the grass. The raptor kited for a moment, then landed hard into the grass, rising with empty talons before flying off into the distance. To Lily, the bird looked fatigued. She wondered how long a blind bird that size could possibly live.
There is often a touch of bittersweet to the sightings, as with Lily’s observation or with Sal’s description of a cactus wren nest.
A cactus wren nest she had been monitoring had been depredated just two days before. The nest was settled deep into a jumping cholla in what seemed like an impenetrable fortress of spines but had still been torn apart by some larger bird, most of the eggs cracked, whitewash sprayed over the wreckage, and minute droplets of blood cast as though some final act of birdy Santería over the whole thing. Previously, the nest had been incredible–lined with downy feathers, soft green arrowweed leaves, and grasses, with a leaf hanging, inexplicably, by a spider web at the entrance in what seemed like an unusually welcoming way.
Throughout the book, the descriptions of setting are amazingly detailed–the places really jump off the page, and we really feel the difference between the areas where the book takes place. Of course it helps that they are all so very different–Farallone Island in the Pacific, the Mojave Desert, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Yreka area of California (or Jefferson)–but Strelow doesn’t just tell us they are different, or mention trees or sand or waves. Strelow’s characters have sweat dripping off them in the Mojave sun; you can feel the constant cold wet of the salty sea air.
The people are spot on as well, particularly in the Burning Woods chapters (both in Alice’s younger days and in Lily’s time). Strelow really captures the odd mix of hippy commune and evangelical compound that coexists–albeit sometimes uneasily–in Oregon. She also adds in the Native American component in Oregon. And, while crusty old sailors might be a bit of a stereotype for the Farallone Islands sections, she throws some variety into the mix and gets that right too.
As you can see from my gushing above, I loved this book, but it definitely hits on California AND Oregon… and we’ve mostly tried to avoid books that combine multiple states. But I feel that Strelow really, really does an amazing job with all the different settings–they really pop and are distinct, detailed, and authentic. I’m actually going to link to this book for my Oregon page (when I get there!), and call it a great book for both states. (And, for the first time in a while, I really feel like I’ll have to do a separate bird post for this book! Stay tuned!)