Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Flights Against the Sunset

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When Kenn Kaufman was sixteen, he left home in pursuit of a dream; to see more species of birds in the United States in one calendar year than had ever been seen before. Instead of preventing him from trying to achieve this dream as most people would have done, his parents allowed him to go with their blessing. Now, as an adult, a famous birder and field guide who travels the world, we find Kaufman in a nursing facility in Wichita, Kansas, visiting his seriously ill mother after having just returned from leading a nature tour in Venezuela. Yet despite her declining health, pain and impending death, she wants to hear all about his journey. So in this touching and often amusing memoir, Flights Against the Sunset (NYC: Houghton Mifflin; 2008), we all get to peek in to this day-long visit, a visit that might be the author’s last chance to speak with his mother.

But what can a son tell his mother so she understands his passion for the natural world, particularly for birds? Realizing that superficial stories about accomodations and detailed recitations of bird lists or ornithological facts could not possibly convey his all-consuming fascination, the author decides that his tales would have to originate “from that frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them.”

Kaufman is a fabulous storyteller, as most people know after reading about his “Big Year”, his birding journey across America when he was a teen-ager, and this book is no different. It is a delightful collection of mostly true tales that celebrate the improbable and the unexpected, such as the author discovering hundreds of thousands of flamingos in an unexpected place; a chance run-in with a bird-watching motorcycle gang named the Thrashers; and an improbable meeting with the real James Bond. The author also mentions several of his mother’s amusing but improbable beliefs, such as her steadfast belief that Galapagos penguins can fly.

Perhaps my favorite essay was the evocative “Eagle Dreams” where the author describes his quest find an elusive harpy eagle in Guyana for his tour group. In this ‘one that got away’ story, he ends up speculating as to whether wanting is more satisfying than having;

But we would never forget the eagle we had not seen. In the jungles of our dreams the great bird would come in again, gliding through the maze of the highest branches, its head hunched back onto broad shoulders, huge wings starting to tilt and push back against the air, long tail spread wide to brake the glide, massive talons reaching and grasping, settling onto a limb, the big head turning with crest raised high as the eagle peered down through the shadows at the puny earthbound humans standing so far below … again, over and over, forever in the imagination. [p. 48-49]

Kaufman’s prose is playful and articulate, thoughtful, imaginative and always engaging. His stories take us to habitats all around the world; from the rainforests of New Zealand and Peru to the tundras of Alaska and even to paved-over parking lots throughout the United States. His poignant essays address life, love and death, and even reveal a few insights about himself when he learns of some of his mother’s sacrifices so he could pursue his dreams.

This hardcovered book is roughly the size of a diary or field guide, so it is easy to carry on a subway or elsewhere. Its 225 pages contain 19 essays, most of which were rewritten and adapted from Kaufman’s long-running column in Bird Watcher’s Digest. These essays are connected by smaller vignettes describing his day-long visit with his mother, and the book ends in a most satisfying way — in fact, I’ll bet the author will never look at a black-capped chickadee in the same way again! I have only one complaint about this book; at $24, it’s expensive for the size. But other than that, this sweet little book will make a pleasant read for a long afternoon spent at the beach or on a flight to somewhere, and it would make a really wonderful mother’s day gift.

Kenn Kaufman has published eight books about nature, is a field editor for Audubon magazine and a regular contributor to every major birding magazine known to humanity. He is the youngest person ever to receive the Ludlow Griscom Award, the highest honor of the American Birding Association. His natural history pursuits have taken him to all seven continents, but he has made a special study of North American birds. He resides with his wife, Kim, in Rocky Ridge, Ohio.