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globe 100 conversations

The Globe 100 books of 2020 is coming out Friday, Dec. 4. Until then we’ll be publishing conversations between authors about the different genres on the list, starting with Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny talking about mysteries, Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson exploring science fiction and fantasy and, coming up, Margaret Atwood and Ian Williams recalling the poems they first read and wrote.

The Globe Up Close podcast episode about the Globe 100 is now available. The Globe’s Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, features editor Dawn Calleja, writer and critic Emily Donaldson and books editor Judith Pereira shared details of their conversations with some of the country’s leading authors about the books that got them through 2020, how the pandemic will shape the literary world and their thoughts about genre.

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Authors Julia Zarankin and Jonathan Slaght.Salini Perera/The Globe and Mail

Despite COVID-related restrictions, 2020 – the year city-dwellers collectively discovered their backyards – was the perfect time for authors Julia Zarankin and Jonathan Slaght to spread their wings, creatively speaking. Both share an interest in birds, though their books, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder and Owls of the Eastern Ice, respectively, roam from downtown Toronto to the Pacific edge of Russia. Emily Donaldson caught up with the two birders to talk about the process of writing, their favourite bird books and why it’s great to have a chickadee in hand.

ED: What was your gateway into birds?

JZ: I was at a career crossroads and auditioning hobbies when I read Jonathan Franzen’s essay My Bird Problem, and I thought, Maybe that’s what I need: a bird problem! I found this bird group online and went out with them, and it was horrible, so boring. We were looking at ducks for 2½ hours. Then, on our way back to the cars, I saw a red-winged blackbird and my world cracked open. First of all, I could see the bird and understand why it was called a red-winged blackbird, but I’d also never seen anything that beautiful. I remember coming home and wondering, “What else have I been missing?”

JS: I was in college and a friend was visiting me. We’d always had this competition about things, and we were walking past some bird, and he’s like: It’s a blah-blah-blah ... and I thought, “Wait a minute, he knows what that is and I don’t: I need to learn birds!” So I went to a used bookstore and bought a book by Roger Tory Peterson, a seventies edition with a lot of drab plates, and went from there. It was purely envy and the spirit of “I can’t be outdone by this guy.” He’s now a professor of ecology at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, so we’ve both continued with science, but we’ve calmed down about it all.

ED: So how did you end up writing books about your experiences?

JS: The book formed from my field journals in the five years I was working on this graduate project. I’m not the type of person who regularly keeps a journal, but I’m out in the woods, living in a truck with two to four Russians, four to six weeks at a time. There’s no privacy, there’s no space, and things happen that are completely weird and notable but that are par for the course over there. I’m not as articulate in Russian as I am in English, so being able to write down how weird some of these things were, vent some of that frustration and describe some of the wonder, that became the core of the book.

JZ: I loved the encounters with the owls in your book, Jonathan, but my favourite part was getting to know these characters and this extraordinary world. I come from the former Soviet Union, I left when I was 3, and my husband’s Russian, so I would read it to him, and you get these weird Russians really well. You think some guy’s normal, then you read that he has to go home to his goshawk [laughs].

JS: Most of my life I was a foreigner, living in different countries, and I learned early on to observe and be sensitive. I can’t walk in waving my big American flag because I need people to get along with me, and I need to fit in, basically. That works well going to a weird place like Primorye.

JZ: When I started birding, this world was so bizarre – with the multipocketed vests and the scopes – so I started this humorous blog about all my misidentifications. Then, about eight years ago, we were chasing a spotted towhee – a bird totally common in California but which has no business in Southern Ontario in the dead of winter – and I remember looking at the range of where it should be, versus where it was, and I started thinking about my own displacements and migrations. When I started looking at them in that light, birds took on a different meaning for me; I started to connect to these migrants in much more personal ways. And then something miraculous happened: My blog disappeared off the face of the Earth, and that’s when I started working on my book. But unlike with you, Jonathan, it didn’t come easily. It wasn’t pleasure. It was a challenge.

ED: Can you describe the challenges you both encountered?

JS: The book is about looking for and finding this bird that hadn’t really been caught before. Here’s this thing that doesn’t like people, that flushes at 100-150 metres, and we had nothing to work with. So being out there, in the cold, not knowing if it was going to work was awful, especially at first. The first season was a disaster from a mental-health perspective. Just trying to think rationally with no sleep at -25 was really unpleasant.

JK: Being at the banding station was a challenge, learning how to physically handle birds, because I didn’t grow up with nature. Another was letting go of the expectation that I’m going to be an A+ birder or just accepting the fact that this is a lifelong pursuit. That I can just be this birder that looks at the world with wonder.

ED: I’ve never held a bird. What’s that like?

JZ: For me it was absolutely terrifying. I volunteer at a banding station where we mostly band songbirds, so they’re tiny, under 10 grams. When you hold that little warbler in your hand, you can hear its heart beating, and I write in the book about the time I broke a kinglet’s leg trying to get it out of the mist net. So it’s magical and terrifying, because I need to honour this bird and treat it with compassion.

JS: I agree. I’ve done some banding, and no matter what the bird is, big or small, there’s this reverence. Magical is a great word. It’s an extremely special moment, because these are things that are wild, and as far as they know they’re dead. Their lives are flying around until they starve to death, hit a window, or the thing gets them. And I love the behaviour of different birds. It’s been years since I held a chickadee, but they’re my favourites, they’re such little fighters ...

JZ: ... So feisty!

JS: ... they don’t care how big you are. I’ve had chickadees sitting on my thumb just tearing at my cuticle, trying to kill me, not realizing they’re free. And I love it. They’re little tiny things that survive these deep winters and are just out there taking care of business. The fish owls are on the other end of that spectrum in that they’re so big they don’t ever expect to be caught. What’s going to catch them? I know of a lynx catching one, and a bear, but that’s it. So they’re completely stunned into inaction, they don’t know what to do.

ED: Birding seems to be a lot about learning how to look. Has that looking bled into other areas of your life?

JZ: You hear about seasoned experts desperately wanting a bird to be a rarity, then seeing all the field marks and realizing it’s much more common. So much of birding is observing the bird in front of you rather than the bird you hope it is [laughs]. That kind of thinking has transferred into other areas of my life. I used to think that if you want to see something beautiful, you have get out of the city, but there’s so much nature in the city that it’s made me fall in love with where I live. I’d never thought of Toronto as home before I started birding; it taught me to find wonder in the ordinary.

JS: I took kids birdwatching in this little village when I was in the Peace Corps in Russia, and there was a boy who, after going on a trip, was like, “There are birds everywhere in the village! Have they always been here?!” Once you point birds out, people see them.

ED: Any birding books you’d recommend to the novice?

JZ: Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway is the classic. Kaufman is one of the premier birders in North America, but he thinks listing is completely meaningless, that you really need to look closely at the common birds as well as the rare birds. Helen Macdonald’s books H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights are wonderful. And I’m a huge fan of Phoebe Snetsinger, this wildly obsessive birder who’s the first person in the world to see more than 8,000 birds. Jennifer Ackerman writes amazingly about birds in The Bird Way.

JS: I read Simon Barnes’s book [How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher] when I was just starting out and was so intimidated by everything. He says birding is about looking, that it doesn’t matter what level you’re at: If you look closely, it’ll change the way you live. That was really inspiring; it showed me that there’s no right way to be a birder.

ED: Do you have a favourite bird?

JZ: The American woodcock. It’s really unattractive: It has a long bill, and its eyes are super close together so it can see 360 degrees for its prey. And it camouflages with the grass, so it’s brownish-greyish. But the woodcock is the Don Juan of the avian world: In spring they fling themselves into the air and do these wild circles and the ladies just go bananas. You’d never imagine that a bird that pouty and plain ridiculous would be able to accomplish these extraordinary feats.

JS: I almost had an affair with a pair of merlins a few years ago. They were nesting about 20 metres from my back porch and I was obsessed with documenting all their prey deliveries and stuff. It got to the point where we’d go for a drive and I’d say to my wife, “I wonder what the merlins are up to?” and she’d say, “Yeah, me too.” And I’d be, like “Really?” And she’d say, “No.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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