Tag Archives: naturalist

“The Voyage of the Narwhal – A Novel” by Andrea Barrett

Published in 1998, 394 pages, Norton paperback edition.

I can’t believe how much I liked this book! It’s one of the best novels I read since Cold Mountain.

(Digression… Why was I predisposed to read this book? My Father’s World War II military service included spending two winters in Point Barrow. Alaska, prospecting for north slope oil. Barrow was a tiny, isolated community and the Navy (Construction Battalion) unit was left more or less on its own for the cold, dark months. Dad came home with an interest in the arctic exploration, and read everything our public library provided about the polar explorers and their journeys. If Dad was alive, I would send him a copy of this wonderful story!

The other thing that hooked me was theword  “narwhal” in the title. The narwahl is a beautiful creature, much less studied than the whale or dolphin. It’s single tusk may be the source of the unicorn legends…)

The plot exceeded my expectations, which were of a standard adventure/survival tale. The 1850s was a period of exploration and public excitement about distant places. An expedition leaves from Philadelphia, hoping to find a missing explorer and fill in some blank places on the emerging map of the far North.

What makes this book work so well? The characters are well conceived and idiosyncratic. The author does not give too much away. I suppose I knew there had to be a “bad guy”, but who it was and what acts he would commit were not signaled in advance. The plot surprised me (more than once), and there was a subtle arc of retribution that I barely caught on my first reading.

Yesterday I glanced at the New York Times (April 1, 2016) and found a review of another novel about the far North, with emphasis on whaling rather than exploration. The North Water by Ian McGuire sounds too gory for me, and possibly too laden with literary references. But I realize this is only one reviewer’s opinion, so I may grab this if I find it on the “new arrivals” shelf at the library.

Meanwhile, I plan to read more by Andrea Barrett.

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“Bird of Jove” by David Bruce

I found this book in an unlikely place, the gift shop of the Cape May Bird Observatory, which was about to close for the summer. There were the “real” books, the sale books, the donated books, and finally a shelf of books marked “no further reduction”. I can’t resist a bargain. I purchased “Bird of Jove” for one dollar.

“Bird of Jove” was published in 1971. It tells of the purchase of a rare Burkut eagle by an Englishman, Sam Barnes, who was traveling in a remote part of Kirgistan. Barnes was a naturalist and falconer. He was able to buy the rare eagle only because she suffered from a disease not curable in that isolated part of Asia. The eagle was cured quite simply with a common antibiotic, but getting Atalanta (as he eventually named her) to England was a monumental task in itself.

Living with (and training) a wild eagle in a small Welsh seaside resort town was challenging. Barnes and Atalanta had to cope with tourists (mostly harmless), aggressive motorcycles gangs and, to top it off, a fire bombing by Welsh ultranationalists. Time and again, Barnes had to nurse his terrified and sometimes injured eagle back to health and calmness.

Barnes says of falconry that a falconer must be “a practicing field naturalist first” and must also study folklore, history, botany and medicine.

This book raises SO many interesting questions! Is falconry an art and science that brings out good qualities in both human and animal, or is it a cynical exploitation of a wild creature? What is “intelligence” and what is “instinct”? When a trainer “dominates” a bird, does that behavior parallel anything seen in nature?

Barnes (and Bruce) anthropomorphize (make human) Atalanta a great deal. When they speak of her having a “temper”, what do they really mean? Might they be seeing something quite different, like fear or some other survival instinct? A bird may, to us, look “proud”, but I don’t believe it can feel “proud”. So what are we really seeing?

A part of the book I found especially endearing was Barnes’s efforts to deal with Atalanta’s natural cycle of mating, brooding and nurture of offspring. There was no eagle in England as a potential mate. Atalanta’s instincts led her to try to make a nest. She did it very badly – in the wild, the male would do most of the work. She laid two sterile eggs, and brooded them lovingly. Barnes was distressed for her. By chance, he found a nestling owl and decided to put it under Atalanta, taking away one of her eggs at the same time. Atalanta “adopted” the owlet, so Barnes got a second one, setting up a foster family. This seemingly logical step was complicated by the fact that owls and eagles don’t work the same shift! The owlets were active at night, when Atalanta’s daily rhythm led her to sleep. One owlet, which was driving Atalanta crazy, was soon returned to its original nest. The other was happy as an adopted eagle, until the age when baby eagles are normally driven away by their parents. Interestingly, the owl parents had never lost track of it and had continued to show up regularly with mice and other tidbits. So both baby owls returned to the wild, apparently unharmed by their temporary lives as eagle chicks.

This book is a wonderful read for anyone who loves animals and nature. David Bruce tells a great story. The book ends when Barnes leaves on an expedition seeking a mate for Atalanta.

“Bird of Jove” is dated, and I plan to go looking for “the rest of the story”, but I wanted to examine it first without “outside” input. Stay tuned!