Jeepers, Peepers

By Lyn Hancock
Doubleday, 256 pp.

In the long tradition of the Journey of Discovery in North American life and letters, some pilgrimages are remembered for what was sought, others for what was found. De Tocqueville came in search of the new republic and found the future; Hunter S. Thompson struck out for the heart of the American dream and found Vegas amplified by ether and acid; Lyn Hancock went looking for birds and found 518 different species.

Bear with me on this.

In 1953, two self-styled naturalists, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, set out on a trip around North America, from Newfoundland down to Mexico and then up the west coast to the Bering Sea. They were looking for the unspoiled continent, and to their delight they discovered it flourishing alongside the turnpikes and urban sprawl of post-war expansion. They recorded their travels in Wild America, a volume that inspired an entire generation of followers.

Exactly 30 years later, a group of devotees – sometimes numbering as many as 30, occasionally as few as four – spent three months retracing Peterson and Fisher’s original path, day for day, site for site, ostensibly compiling a status report on the North American wilderness.

What they were actually doing was bird watching, and Looking for the Wild is the account of their findings – a steadfastly deadpan tale that couldn’t be any more zany if the good Dr. Hunter S. Thompson himself had tagged along for the ride, cleaning his Smith and Wesson in the back seat of the minibus and wondering aloud how the Great-Tailed Grackle would taste a l’orange.

For all their love of the wild, you understand, the birders (as they call themselves) don’t exactly immerse themselves in it: They travel by van mostly, chauffeured by their guide, Gus Yaki, the Toronto travel agent who organized the trip. They camp out in motels, and in the mornings bundle into the nearest diner, not so much for breakfast as to phone the local Bird Hot Line for tips on what to watch for.

Every morning, back in the van, they re-read that day’s entry in Wild America. There’s Tess from Australia, and Kay from Toronto, and Marie from Saskatoon – in Looking for the Wild everyone is identified by Christian name, with the exception of the enigmatic “Miss Smith,” who disappears in Chapter 3 as unobtrusively as she arrived.

Gus keeps up a running commentary on 30,000 miles of scenery as it flashes past the windshield, his keen eyes picking out wildlife from the camouflage of the roadside bush. “Swallow-tailed kites, hurry!” Gus announces, and the group lunges for binoculars and field manuals. From time to time the van stops and the birders disembark to scrutinize the trees through Bausch and Lomb lenses and 35 mm viewfinders. They are, in short, tourists in the natural kingdom, full of jollity for the places they visit, but otherwise strangely unobservant.

Make no mistake: it’s not the passion for birds that stamps this particular group with its distinctive eccentricity. In Britain at the turn of the century, when the economy of the damp little island dominated the world, sheer delight in the steam engines that had made it all possible spawned the curious practice of train-spotting. To this day, schoolboys and grown men alike can be seen at King’s Cross and Waterloo, taking hours of pleasure in nothing more than noting the various locomotives that shunt into the station.

To the uninitiated, it’s a pointless avocation. But to the enthusiast it can be a reverential act, a means of participating in a beloved culture. So too with bird-watching, which in an increasingly urbanized environment has become one of the few remaining points of contact with nature.

What’s odd about Looking for the Wild isn’t the hobby it describes, but the heights to which it’s raised. The jouissance these folks can extract from just a glimpse of a particularly rare or beautiful bird is so tangible as to be enviable. But it’s also so intense as to be creepy.

Page after page documents nothing more than the birds they saw that day and how good each made them feel, until it becomes apparent that the birders are devoted not only to the love of their quarry, but more importantly to the jolts of euphoria that birds provide – jolts that provoke squeals and gasps; jolts that most people experience only with the assistance of truly jumbo intoxicants.

It’s clear, for example, that “birding” and the pleasures it affords has become Gus Yaki’s life. With his Latin taxonomy and ceaseless expertise, Gus is a case study in hard-core esoterica. He corrects a highway worker who, trying to be helpful, points out where they can find flamingos. “You mean roseate spoonbills,” says Gus. He harangues a waitress in a roadside diner in Texas about the local habit of hunting cougars to protect the cattle. He averts his binoculars from the girls in bikinis performing on water skis at Cypress Gardens so as to hunt for ospreys in the trees above.

We are assured that Gus has a heck of a sense of humor. Perhaps that’s why no one expresses reservations about being ferried around North America by a guy who steers with only one hand and keeps his eyes glued religiously to the landscape rather than to the oncoming traffic.

The author of this extraordinary document is Lyn Hancock, an Australian who now makes Mill Bay, B.C., her home, and who plays a willing Dietrich to Gus’s von Sternberg. Previously, she’s written books with twee titles like There’s a Seal in My Parka and There’s a Raccoon in My Sleeping Bag. With Looking for the Wild she has inadvertently provided a handbook to the inner workings of the devoted birding subculture, and only the unkind would suggest that there are bats in her belfry.

The photographs are by the author, the illustrations are by Robert Bateman, and, yes, there actually is a bird called the yellow-bellied

  • Montreal Gazette December 13, 1986