March 13, 2014


The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human. By Noah Strycker. Riverhead. $27.95.

The Sugar Season: A Year in the Life of Maple Syrup, and One Family’s Quest for the Sweetest Harvest. By Douglas Whynott. Da Capo. $24.99.

     A fascinating ramble through many things avian and birdlike, but so discursive that it frequently reads like a stream of consciousness rather than a closely observed and argued book, The Thing with Feathers is fascinating to follow if you can follow it – that is, if you find the meandering mind of Noah Strycker attractive. Strycker, associate editor of Birding magazine, is in fact a highly observant researcher, and much of what is in the book is based on his personal treks, trips and notes. But his presentation method, in which he writes about one thing for a while, then thinks of something else and writes about that, then recollects what he was writing about the first time and comes back to it, will be maddening to those who do not find it attractive. It is hard to be neutral about this book’s style – some will love it while others will hate it. One section, for example, notes that “if you Google ‘America’s most hated bird,’ all of the top results refer to starlings. Such universal agreement is rare in matters of opinion, but on this everyone seems to concur: Starlings are rats with wings. …[But] the starling’s only real fault is success.” He then explains how and to what extent starlings have multiplied in the United States, along the way taking “time to appreciate the starling’s merits,” noting that “Mozart kept a starling for three years and taught it to sing bars of his music,” then after its death “buried it in his backyard and wrote a commemorative poem.” He also mentions a Shakespearean reference to starlings, discusses the fact that large flocks of the birds may contain 1.5 million of them, and then points out that that number isn’t very large compared with the crowd at a 1994 Rod Stewart performance in Brazil, the billion-plus flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, or “a single locust swarm [that] was once estimated to weigh 27 million tons, including 12 trillion insects.” Oh – and starlings are disappearing in their native European habitats. Following all this is dizzying.

     Elsewhere, Strycker discusses the longstanding debate about whether birds have a sense of smell or hunt purely by sight, getting into John James Audubon’s opinion on vultures, an experiment on the subject done by Charles Darwin, and a more-elaborate set of investigations done by American naturalist John Bachman, “for whom a sparrow and warbler are now named.” He details the seven vultures that live in the New World, discusses the convergent evolution of Old and New World vultures, and then zips onward to the use of mercaptans to cause natural gas, which is naturally odorless, to smell – alerting people to its presence. He connects this back to vultures by discussing a group of them that was attracted by the odor when its usage began, leading to the still-used practice of “looking for circling vultures when tracking down a leak.” As the book zips or strolls hither and thither, Strycker tosses out comments such as, “It’s the animals in the middle – the ones with some experience of humans, but not too much – that are most afraid of us.” And, regarding memory in both birds and humans, “Use your head, in other words, or you’ll literally lose your head.” (Well, not literally, but you know what Strycker means.) Whether discussing the brain-computer metaphor, the opinions of ancient Athenian politician Themistocles, the vocal mimicry of bowerbirds, the enacting of copyright laws in the 1700s, or the way in which the pecking order of chickens (for whom the phrase “pecking order” was created) parallels tennis ranking, Strycker tosses information bits all about as if he just has to get his comments out there to see which ones will, err, take wing. And then he surprises readers by lapsing into the poetic: “The romantic life of an albatross is a sweeping kind of romance, the dreamy feeling that all horizons open to an unlimited universe where anything is possible, given sufficient time and space. Albatrosses exist so close to infinity that on a windy day and in the right state of mind, far from the sight of land, the casual observer may be forgiven for forgetting that these are earthly creatures.” It is never entirely clear in The Thing with Feathers exactly what birds “reveal about being human,” per the book’s subtitle, except that just as birds range all over the world and their interests are all over the metaphorical map, so are those of Strycker and, by extension, of humans as a species. Readers need not be deeply interested in birds to enjoy this book, but they must be deeply interested in Strycker himself, as he presents himself and his views in these pages. Those who find Strycker’s approach congenial will find the book delightful; those who do not will feel as if they are being pecked to bits, wafted first here, then there, then back again as the author’s thoughts insistently take flight and, not infrequently, soar.

     A far more down-to-earth book that is focused on an even narrower slice of life than birds – albeit one that is wholly human – Douglas Whynott’s The Sugar Season is an enthralling exploration of the maple-syrup industry and the people who keep this very old occupation (by American standards) going in the 21st century. This is a book for people who want to dwell intimately with a condiment that many people do not even buy, since maple syrup is so much costlier and so much more delicate in flavor than packaged and artificially flavored sugar syrups. You must be a maple-syrup aficionado, a history buff and a person fascinated by rural living and how industry is encroaching on it to get the full flavor (so to speak) of The Sugar Season, and although that radically limits the book’s potential audience, it also means that people who are interested in the subject will really, well, lap it up. The narration is of the Prairie Home Companion variety: “Not to mean that the spirit wasn’t festive at the Clark sugarhouse that weekend; it was festive and magnanimous. They brought miniature donkeys down from the farm for kids to pet. The inside of the sugarhouse was warm and inviting. Jugs of new syrup were lined up by the counter, bison burgers were on the grill, and bags of maple cotton candy hung from clips like a row of balloons. …And there was Alvin, wearing another funny hat – this was shaped like a buffalo head, with glass eyes and cute yellow horns.” But beneath the down-home scenes lies the story of an industry affected by everything from the black market to thievery to global climate change, an industry with highly specific grading standards for its product and even a Global Strategic Reserve of syrup (which, Whynott points out, is worth more per barrel than crude oil).

     Vacuum pumps and tubing are used to harvest the sap that becomes syrup today – the days of buckets and wooden spouts are long gone – but there is a core of rural hardiness and engagement with the natural world that remains in the syrup industry, and it is this that Whynott focuses on by detailing a single year, 2012, of sugar production by Bruce Bascom, whose successes and setbacks are intended to mirror those of other sugar producers and of the industry as a whole. The Sugar Season is a sometimes uneasy mixture of moving scenes (such as the excerpts from a poem that Ken Bascom, Bruce’s father, wrote after Bruce’s mother died) and mundane ones (such as the biology of the maple tree and the method of grading syrup). The book is written as a memoir and travelogue, describing Whynott’s comings and goings while also including facts such as this: “Franklin County, in the uppermost northwestern part of the state, produced a third of the Vermont maple syrup crop and ten percent of the maple syrup crop in the entire United States.” The highly personal elements of the book, such as Bruce Bascom’s longtime struggle with his stuttering, humanize the maple-syrup business, while discussions of changing technology, climate issues and bank lending policies dehumanize it. The mixture does not always work, and Whynott’s attempt to turn the maple-sugar story into yet another plea for climatic improvement undercuts the originality of the book and is itself undercut when, in a postscript, he notes that the winter of 2013, like that of 2011, was quite cold, with Bruce Bascom estimating that the U.S. maple-syrup crop in 2013 was “the greatest in over seventy-five years” – suggesting that perhaps the less-successful year that Whynott spent studying the industry and its people was an aberration. The Sugar Season is far more intriguing and engaging, at least for lovers of maple syrup, when it gets into the nitty-gritty of syrup manufacture and the people who do it, than when it becomes something closer to a climate-change polemic. Fascinating tidbits abound here, but they do not always blend well with the everyday elements of the narrative or with Whynott’s heartfelt but not particularly original concerns about where maple-syrup production fits within the continuing controversies about the Earth’s climate.

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