Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Year


Reviewed by Jeanne 
On January 1st, a number of bird-watching enthusiasts will decide to embark on a “Big Year.”  That’s when a birder spends an entire year trying to see as many bird species as he can throughout North America.  People have spent thousands of dollars and traveled thousands of miles in an effort to become the top birder for the year, an award that carries no prizes nor trophies, and which is done strictly on the honor system.  Sound crazy?  It did to Mark Obmascik, too, but he was intrigued enough to do a little research.  He concentrated on one almost mythic year in which three men set out to try to break the record.  The result was the book The Big Year:  A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, a book not just for the birds—er, birders.
First Obmascik sets the stage by explaining that he wasn’t interested in birds when he started beyond knowing a few common species like robins or cardinals.  He thought bird-watchers were just a bit kooky, dashing off to inhospitable climes on short notice, enduring heat, cold, rain, and snow, just to see a bird. This impression soon gave way to a real appreciation of birders, especially the three men who set out in 1998 on their “Big Years.”
Sandy Komito was the record holder, a man who had seen over 721 species in a year.  He had shattered the previous record of 711, but he knew he could do better.  What was worse, he knew others could do better and he wanted to hold onto his record or even add to it. Sandy is one of those driven guys who has the focus and the money to do follow up on his ideas, though at times his personality made his quest a bit more difficult than it should be.
Al Levantin was an avid birder, but his job as an executive had kept him tied down.  Now he was retired.  He had time and he had money.  He’d waited forty years. Now he was going to spend a year chasing birds with his family’s blessing.  It was what he’d always wanted to do. . . wasn’t it?
Greg Miller was at a low point in his life.  He was employed, but his job was debugging code ahead of Y2K: tedious work. His marriage had fallen apart. He felt he had disappointed his family. He felt his life was drab.  The only time he relaxed and enjoyed life was when he was birdwatching, a pastime his father enjoyed.  No one had ever done a Big Year and held down a full time job.  Greg decided to be the first.  His gift of being able to recognize birds simply by hearing their song was a definite advantage and Greg needed all the help he could get. He was definitely going the no-frills route, living off jars of peanut butter and maxing out not only his credit card but his parents’ card as well.  He already felt like a loser in his father’s eyes because of his failed marriage; now he was driving them all into debt. 
The reader follows these three through triumphs, near-misses, disasters, and disappointments; through swamps where the mosquitoes are nearly the size of birds themselves, bouts of seasickness on choppy waters, trudging the tundra in Alaska, and a birdwatching hot spot near a garbage dump where a sense of smell is not an asset. There is a lot of humor in the book, but it’s not poking fun at these guys nor birders in general.  It’s more the slice of life humor, when Murphy’s Laws seem in full force as well as unbelievable good fortune. Not only is The Big Year a fun and fascinating look at a hobby loved by millions the world over, it’s a sort of rumination on following one’s dreams and the lengths to which one should go to achieve them.  Obmascik also manages to convey the thrill of the chase along with some fascinating information about birds and birders. Funny, thoughtful and informative, this is a book that even non-birders will enjoy.  I certainly did.  I even pause and look at my bird feeder a bit more often, and when I hear a news report about an unusual bird showing up somewhere I mentally picture excited birders flocking to the site to add to their life lists.

Note:  the book was made into a movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.  While reviews were generally good, the actors’ reputations made the audience expect a slapstick comedy. There is a good bit of humor in the film, but it’s a gentler sort with far less pratfalls and jokes about bodily functions than some would expect. It’s more about defining one’s goals and finding out what is truly important. The movie took some liberties with the story—the characters were all renamed and some background altered—but the spirit remained true. 

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