Caught by the River

Behind the Binoculars

21st September 2015

Behind the Binoculars
by Mark Avery & Keith Betton
Pelagic hardback, 272 pages. Out now

Review by Ceri Levy.

Where’s the worst place you’ve been birding?

Andy Clements (Director of the BTO, the British Trust for Ornithology): I actually can’t think of a worst place! The presence of birds makes everywhere a better place.

In Behind the Binoculars, Mark Avery and Keith Betton ask questions of experienced members of the birding family and the answers they elicit are more revealing and profound about bird watching, our relationship with birds and the state of conservation than I would have imagined. The questions are simply put, but invite answers and insights, which provide a mix of thoughtful ripostes, striking anecdotes and wistful reminiscences, which display the participants’ unshakeable commitment to birds. All of the interviewees have been life-long birdwatchers and the majority work within the birding or conservation worlds. This collection of stories is a study of people and their unquenchable and unbreakable passion for birds, and all the contributors confirm through their thoughts and stories that they believe birds to be the best way to connect with the natural world around us and enrich our lives.

I have found birds take you to places one may not normally visit and can get you into situations one wouldn’t normally face: the story of Dr. Stephanie Tyler and her family being such a case in point. In the 70s she was stationed in Ethiopia with her husband and two children. He was a veterinarian and she was studying wagtails. They were captured by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front and were held for eight months as the guerrillas waited for a $1 million ransom to be paid. It never arrived and finally the family was released in the Sudan. Who says bird watching is easy. This and other stories in the book are strangely inspiring and make me want to travel, see birds and not necessarily get into scrapes, but at least engage with places we often avoid.

It is interesting to note how many of the interviewees took their apprenticeships under the guidance of an older male figure. Mark Cocker talks of the impossibility of this happening in these days of ‘stranger danger’. One would like to argue that the perils of life as a child have not altered in all the years, but the power of the media insists that this is not true. What is true is it is unlikely that good old Ron (not based on any known Ron, so apologies to the Rons of the world) who sits in the hide and is full of knowledge is no longer readily allowed to take kids to Minsmere on a day out, as often happened in the past. This is a shame as life has taught us that much can be learned from our elders, who have experience, knowledge and the time to impart it to new generations of nature lovers. We distance ourselves from nature and its inhabitants in a way that is uniquely distressing and ultimately depressing.

Ian Wallace, writer and artist, makes some very salient points, which sum up the worries for future generations of birdwatchers and conservationists. “ I think the kind of legacy that I inherited from excellent teachers – people who took us into the field, showed us the wonder of birds – and which has always kept me going may no longer exist.” He goes on to state, “people have got to understand that our connection with nature is at risk.” He is also “particularly critical of the major NGO’s for not doing joint socio-demographic and attitudinal research into this problem. I don’t even have confidence that the RSPB really understands how many million people would turn on if we could ring the right bell for them. I don’t sense anybody trying to market what nature pays you back, mostly for free, once you get out into it. I don’t think armchair TV does it. Where is the invitation to get into wellies and out into the nearest muddy field or decent wood? That’s what you have to do to get face-to-face with other beings and then get your own personal joy from them.” This is the great problem for the 21st century. How do we engage with people and reconnect them with nature and also reconnect with the elders of our tribes?

The passion of each voice in the book permeates the air. The joy of the initial discovery of birds for each subject is a wonder to read and every contributor has a point to make about the welfare of our birds or the state of conservation or the pleasure and passion derived from being in, and therefore a part of, nature. Conservation often takes the fiery enthusiasm out of its arguments and cold scientific statements about the state of the world can leave a non-conservationist audience unmoved. This passionate book does more for conservation in one reading than many dry academic papers on the dangers that surround our birds today; for passion energises a reader, passion makes us want to engage, passion makes us desire and want to bring about change. Those in positions of conservation power, some of whom are sharing their own passion within this very book, should read this book and feel the buzz that is created by the unbridled joy of connection with nature. Harness this and then offer people a cause to support and work with and we can change the grim picture that is the state of our world’s bird life.

There are so many fascinating tales told in Behind the Binoculars that I could relate many more to you but I don’t want to give it all away. This is a book that deals with people’s love affairs with birds, their trysts in local patches or foreign climes and the passionate message is loud and simple, “We care about birds, and you could too.” Birds are there for everyone to enjoy, it’s simply a matter of looking. Start doing that and it could change everything about our relationship with nature. It’s not a bad place to be…