The combination of the pandemic and a social life that takes place entirely via screens and social media has fractured and fragmented my attention span, as it has for many of us. I have trouble concentrating on almost anything: sustained reading takes effort. I’m reading more non-fiction; some for research, some for pleasure. One book I’m dipping into right now is Helen MacDonald’s collection of natural history essays, Vesper Flights.
In the essay ‘Field Guides’, she writes about the importance of bird identification books, and their role in creating the skills of birding, the almost-instant identification from shape and pattern and behaviour of a bird seen briefly:
‘…those things we unconsciously absorb from field guides: family resemblances among species, or their places in the taxonomic order… When I was growing up…I spent hours staring at their coloured plates…fixing the painted images in my mind. Field guides made possible the joy of encountering a thing I already knew but hadn’t seen before.’Vesper Flights, p. 21
I read this passage with instant and immediate recognition. I was perhaps fourteen when I saw my first wood duck, not a common bird in the nearly treeless flat farmland where I grew up. I was with my dog, at the edge of a small woodland bordered by a pond dug for irrigation. The drake flew, in my vision for a second, maybe two. I remember to this day marvelling at its beauty, the colour and patterns of the bird…and then, clicking into place, the realization that I knew what the bird was. In that brief sighting, my brain had taken all its stored knowledge from those hours of casual learning on wet days and winter ones, the bird book entertainment, not enforced study, and given me a name. Something I knew, but hadn’t seen before.
I don’t usually carry a bird book in the field, for two reasons. One is they’re heavy. The other is I don’t need one, in either place I bird regularly. I do have identification apps for both places on my phone, to check details and calls. But over my life I’ve moved from learning the birds of new places from books to apps and in doing so I’ve fragmented and fractured my learning, too. Perhaps it’s just age, but I don’t think so. My brain needs books.
This flash of recognition, ‘the joy of encountering a thing I already knew but hadn’t seen before’ isn’t limited to birding, of course. Just as I am an amateur birder, I’m also an amateur landscape historian. A few years ago, I was sitting in a bird hide in Norfolk with my husband, looking out at a winter marsh filled with geese and ducks and a few waders. A rise of land with a circular shape caught my attention, an island surrounded by water and wet meadow. I looked, and looked, and thought – and finally said, ‘That’s an iron age enclosure.’ Back at the car, a quick look at the Ordnance Survey map told me I was right – and those moments, of identification and confirmation – were as pleasurable as the wood duck, forty five years before.
I love this electronic age. I love instant communication with friends and family around the world. I love how much easier it makes some of my research for my novels, and I love the connections with scholars and the lectures and courses I would never have had an opportunity to attend. (And I love Google Earth, for making the birds’ eye view of the landscape possible to everyone.) But sometimes I leaf through my Sibley….just because.