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'Lost Among the Birds' tells a story of salvation through birdwatching

Author and bird watcher Neil Hayward loses himself in a year-long birding journey – and in the process he finds his life.

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    Lost Among the Birds:
    Accidentally Finding Myself in One Very Big Year
    By Neil Hayward
    Bloomsbury
    416 pp.
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Not all birders are odd. I know many birders, and I know one or two who are not odd. At least one.

But big-year birders? Big-year birders (B-YB) are – how to put this in the spirit of fellow feeling? – yes: atypic. Like Torquemada – again, how to put this kindly? – B-YB are lit by a fire from within; they are possessed of a mission, though, thankfully, not homicidally so.

There appear to be two types of B-YB. There are those who plan the campaign from every possible angle, like the 1983 invasion of Grenada. Then there are the enthusiasts – short on logistics and tactics, but long on passion, like those who took part in the Bay of Pigs. The enthusiasts will notice, sometime in April, that they have seen quite a few birds for so early in the year. Hey, why not a BY? This spontaneity is mostly ill advised. B-YB requires Energizer-Bunny® endurance; a serious bankroll; unemployment, self-employment, or a really understanding boss; an unhinged willingness to drop everything and fly to the Aleutians, only to hop the next flight to the Dry Tortugas; and an equally unhinged willingness to torch the most important relationships in your life. Meet Neil Hayward, Mr. Enthusiast.

Frankly, it is Hayward’s opinion in Lost Among the Birds, which chronicles his unforeseen BY in 2013, that birders – and doubly so for B-YB – are obsessive, superstitious, and insane. They crawl around in stinking swamps – Mosquitoes? What mosquitoes? – come to know rain in all its multiple personalities, relish pitch darkness the better to weasel their way into position before morning’s twilight gives away their presence. Hayward is all this. Plus, he’s a mess.

He has recently ended a relationship; he has quit his job (we read, more times than necessary, that he is a graduate of Oxford, holds a PhD from Cambridge, and was a muck-a-muck at a very successful biotech start-up; B-YB are either church mice or rolling in it); and in a state of general cluelessness (grammar and parentheses ?!). He is newly embarking on a relationship with a woman who can only be described as providential, but Hayward is doing his best to ruin that, too. He can’t commit, he is afraid that things will inevitably fall apart, he feels claustrophobic (like, her leaving behind a few toiletries makes him feel claustrophobic), he feels that he would rather not meet her friends and family. As you are about to tell him to stick a cork in his tedious, entitled grousing, he pulls the rug out from under you.

It is one thing to joke that birders are kooky – c’mon, birds are actually pretty cool; you’d snicker at a tree full of Bohemians? – and it’s another to read, “While I was busy not doing a Big Year [this is delusional] and trying not to get into another serious relationship [this is spot on], I was also kidding myself that I wasn’t ill. I knew that people didn’t admit to being mentally ill. Depression is a cruel disease.” Hayward’s depression is textbook terrible: his world had no color, only quicksand. “Mostly, depression stole the future from me, which quickly became the lost present and then the lost past.” And, in quite beautiful, episodic flashes of writing, he channels textbook Emily Dickinson: what buoys him, keeps him tethered to what remains of his wits, is the next thing with feathers.

 “I had a sense that there was something therapeutic and necessary about birding,” he writes. “I didn’t worry about the past and lament all those best years being over, or fear the future, empty and rapidly disappearing.” Birding helped him float, but too long in the water will kill. You begin to cheer for Hayward, not to break the BY record, but because he decides to do something about his state. “I made an appointment to see a psychiatrist.” Coming to this realization is a rare bird indeed, about as likely as seeing a Ross’s Gull in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

As he engages his anxieties, birds will give him steadiness. For everyone else, April is the month of the Pink Moon; for Hayward, “April is the month of the dancing chickens” – sage grouse. He will wring every last drop from birding to calm the burning rubber between his ears. Sandy Komito, the man who held the BY record of 748 species, gives him shamanic advice: “Chase the rarities.” This was colossal. Birds, sure; and landscapes, too – “birders are really birding habitats”: blood-red paintbrush, yellow mule’s-ear daisies, violet-blue fleabane; cirque, salt flat, hilltop; most importantly, your girlfriend, stupid. Chase the rarities.

There is noontime darkness here, but there are also birds that make Hayward’s circuitry explode, and a hard-won, saintly patient woman. What’s more, this being the BY, there is the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail. Number 749. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Not the bird, but the peace.

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