Friday, May 06, 2011

Coastal poetic diary

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, animals, wetlands

I must first praise Mark Seth Lender for eloquently saying something I have been seeking the right words to express:
"To argue for your life with a lion like a Maasai, nothing in your fists but a lion spike (the sharp flame-hardened scapula of a giraffe) which you thrust, bare-handed, into the lion's maw impaling him as he bites down and mauls you with his outstretched paws—now that is hunting."
I would only reword the very end to "now that is sporting." I have long thought that "hunting" as practiced by most "sportsmen" is simply killing for fun with no "sport" involved, and I deplore it. I am full of sympathy with those who hunt to eat and eat everything they kill, but I find trophy hunting (and trophy fishing) quite disgusting.

Now to the book, which is not about hunting at all but about the lives of the birds and a few other denizens of a salt marsh, Salt Marsh Diary: A Year on the Connecticut Coast by Mark Seth Lender. The author has a poet's way with words, compressing more feeling into his prose than most mortals. As he introduces one chapter, "Turk-turk-turkey comes jerk-jerk lurking on, tip to toe. Cautious, like ice just itching to melt."

The book is composed of about sixty two-to-four-page pieces, not quite essays, a bit bigger than ordinary diary entries. I guess I'll call them vignettes. They are culled from his syndicated column, also titled "Salt Marsh Diary," and arranged with the seasons, through the year. A patient observer will find much to observe no matter what the season.

Much of his focus is birds, the most visible of the marsh's residents and visitors, from herons and egrets to hawks—red-tail and merlin and falcon—and warblers to terns to ducks and geese; when he is not photographing them he is writing about them. He spares a few words for marsh mice and other small mammals, for flies and bees as pollinators, and for monarch butterflies as they migrate through.

Each vignette wafts one away to stand beside him, to see and hear and smell the unfolding scene on the marsh. We can't all of us do everything, and writing like this turns hours, days, months of observing into a few minutes or an hour or two of reading and savoring the experience. Having freighted memory with these, should I have the chance to stand along or within a salt marsh, the experience will be enriched, perhaps enabling me to see things I might otherwise miss. While many natural histories have photos and plates, this book doesn't need them. I might hope for another book from him, of photographs accompanied by relevant vignettes. This one is evocative rather than informative, though much of both is here. A fine read.

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