Effusive, wandering attempt to codify the good fight.

FOR THE BEAUTY OF THE EARTH

BIRDING, OPERA AND OTHER JOURNEYS

Memoirs of a privileged life given largely to contemplation of nature’s gifts, their abuse by humankind, and hopes for future redress.

A UN diplomat’s son raised in Britain and the US, the former symphonic orchestra administrator and the Maine Audubon Society’s executive director tells where and why he cultivated the lifestyle of avid birder and amateur naturalist, and how inspiration from poetry and classical music blends readily, for him, into those lifelong endeavors. Offering more of a celebration than a polemic, Urquhart revisits encounters in the natural world of his childhood England and the America, principally New England, to which he was transplanted and remains. While abundant in detail—especially when it comes to birding strategies and their emotional rewards—these passages often lapse into a flow in which the author is compelled by his own considerable wit and charm to meander off topic and on again. (One bizarre but somewhat entertaining example: citing a not-directly-related 17th-century Urquhart who translated Rabelais but dared to add a number of his own off-the-wall modifiers, all footnoted, to describe Gargantua’s penis.) Later in reconstructing trips to Africa and especially Provence the author waxes more to the point in confronting the dire consequences of man’s failure to comprehend spiritually, as well as intellectually, the ancestral bond with nature; this, he warns, is the real root of potential neglect, abuse, and irrevocable devastation of the environment. While this gains its force in being personal, even intimate, its inspirational qualities are broadly generalized and scattered with poetry fragments or, for example, Jungian references that don’t always carve out relevance. At one point, however, Urquhart does identify man as his own worst enemy in the form of the farmer at an environmental hearing who declares: “God made the earth for us, not us for it.”

Effusive, wandering attempt to codify the good fight.

Pub Date: June 1, 2004

ISBN: 1-59376-017-5

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Shoemaker & Hoard

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2004

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Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a...

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H IS FOR HAWK

An inspired, beautiful and absorbing account of a woman battling grief—with a goshawk.

Following the sudden death of her father, Macdonald (History and Philosophy/Cambridge Univ.; Falcon, 2006, etc.) tried staving off deep depression with a unique form of personal therapy: the purchase and training of an English goshawk, which she named Mabel. Although a trained falconer, the author chose a raptor both unfamiliar and unpredictable, a creature of mad confidence that became a means of working against madness. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life,” she writes. As a devotee of birds of prey since girlhood, Macdonald knew the legends and the literature, particularly the cautionary example of The Once and Future King author T.H. White, whose 1951 book The Goshawk details his own painful battle to master his title subject. Macdonald dramatically parallels her own story with White’s, achieving a remarkable imaginative sympathy with the writer, a lonely, tormented homosexual fighting his own sadomasochistic demons. Even as she was learning from White’s mistakes, she found herself very much in his shoes, watching her life fall apart as the painfully slow bonding process with Mabel took over. Just how much do animals and humans have in common? The more Macdonald got to know her, the more Mabel confounded her notions about what the species was supposed to represent. Is a hawk a symbol of might or independence, or is that just our attempt to remake the animal world in our own image? Writing with breathless urgency that only rarely skirts the melodramatic, Macdonald broadens her scope well beyond herself to focus on the antagonism between people and the environment.

Whether you call this a personal story or nature writing, it’s poignant, thoughtful and moving—and likely to become a classic in either genre.

Pub Date: March 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0802123411

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2014

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Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

HORIZON

Distinguished natural history writer and explorer Lopez (Outside, 2014, etc.) builds a winning memoir around books, voyages, and biological and anthropological observations.

“Traveling, despite the technological innovations that have brought cultural homogenization to much of the world, helps the curious and attentive itinerant understand how deep the notion goes that one place is never actually like another.” So writes the author, who has made a long career of visiting remote venues such as Antarctica, Greenland, and the lesser known of the Galápagos Islands. From these travels he has extracted truths about the world, such as the fact that places differ as widely as the people who live in them. Even when traveling with scientists from his own culture, Lopez finds differences of perception. On an Arctic island called Skraeling, for instance, he observes that if he and the biologists he is walking with were to encounter a grizzly feeding on a caribou, he would focus on the bear, the scientists on the whole gestalt of bear, caribou, environment; if a native of the place were along, the story would deepen beyond the immediate event, for those who possess Indigenous ways of knowledge, “unlike me…felt no immediate need to resolve it into meaning.” The author’s chapter on talismans—objects taken from his travels, such as “a fist-size piece of raven-black dolerite”—is among the best things he has written. But there are plentiful gems throughout the looping narrative, its episodes constructed from adventures over eight decades: trying to work out a bit of science as a teenager while huddled under the Ponte Vecchio after just having seen Botticelli’s Venus; admiring a swimmer as a septuagenarian while remembering the John Steinbeck whom he’d met as a schoolboy; gazing into the surf over many years’ worth of trips to Cape Foulweather, an Oregon headland named by Capt. James Cook, of whom he writes, achingly, “we no longer seem to be sailing in a time of fixed stars, of accurate chronometers, and of reliable routes.”

Exemplary writing about the world and a welcome gift to readers.

Pub Date: March 20, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-394-58582-6

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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