Reviewed Harry Saddler, The Eastern Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird, Affirm Press, 2018
Living in the twenty-first century often seems like a state of dissociated anxiety, as if existence is reduced to a live feed of the apocalypse, as if we’re in one of those nineties disaster movies in which TV screens in the background scream out headlines: ‘Asteroid nears Earth’. Except that the headlines are real.
In the age of the Anthropocene, climate change is only one of many interlinked catastrophes overtaking the planet. We face a cascade of environmental and social crises: mass species extinction, plastic pollution in our overheating oceans, accelerating deforestation, a crashing insect population. How do any of us begin to process this?
A factor that feeds into both the root of the problems and our processing of them is that most of us are increasingly alienated from wild places and creatures. According to the UN, 55 per cent of the human population now lives in urban areas, a figure that’s projected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050. It’s hard to comprehend the full scale of what is happening to life on this planet, or how to combat that destruction, if we have no understanding of what is being destroyed.
This is why Harry Saddler’s book about a shy shorebird, The Eastern Curlew, feels like such a significant addition to the genre of nature writing. It’s a book of almost startling modesty: it takes as its subject one man’s fascination with a little-known bird. But by focusing with care and attention on this single thing, it ends up encompassing, like the bird itself, the entire globe.
Saddler’s passion for the eastern curlew is infectious: it’s impossible to read this book and not to feel the same kind of awe as he does at the drama and extremity of its life story.
Like all migratory shorebirds, the eastern curlew flies immense distances over the ocean. Unlike seabirds, it can’t stop to rest and eat: it has to fly non-stop. And so, every year the eastern curlews fatten themselves up on the mudflats and wetlands around Australia, increasing their body mass by 80 per cent to fuel an epic journey to breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle.
Saddler begins with his first sighting of it in real life, on the Mud Islands near Queenscliff.
Most of the shorebirds we saw on the Mud Islands were small, scurrying close to the ground and frantically pecking at the mud. The curlews, at rest on the beach, seem imperious by comparison: many times larger than the smallest shorebirds, each curlew has a down-curved bill, like that of an ibis, which seems almost as long as its body … As the boat approaches they stand upright and tall, watching us carefully, before making their decision; opening long, pointed wings, each bird, the largest migratory shorebirds in the world, takes flight away from us, calling as they go in voices that occupy an uncertain zone between honk and wail.
This ‘uncertain zone’ between one thing and another is Saddler’s speciality. Shorebirds exist in a place that we’re used to seeing as being neither sea nor land: a liminal space. As he shows us, the shores and mudflats that nourish these birds are rich and distinct environments in their own right, and essential to the health of ecosystems worldwide. This sense of revealing a world hidden by binary perceptions is a driving factor in the book: Saddler has a beautifully exact attentiveness to the unnoticed, to that which is present but unseen.
The eastern curlew isn’t one of the glamorously endangered species, like the panda or the polar bear: it’s a brown bird with an absurdly long beak that lives on mudflats. ‘We don’t tend to value mud, and we don’t value mudflats,’ says Saddler. ‘We view them as wastelands to be filled in.’ As migratory birds that navigate a world without state borders, they illuminate a different way of thinking about the planet.
Saddler unlocks the mutual relationships between the bird and its environments, how each shapes the other, pointing out that the principle of natural selection is not merely about the destructiveness of competition but also the creativity in how each species finds its particular niche, its particular variousness in its various places.
Devastatingly, as he follows its flight path to Korea and then, imaginatively, to the Arctic Circle, he tells us how the eastern curlew is threatened: by the development of the birds’ fragile coastal habitats, by how climate change has shifted the breeding cycle of the insects that fuel their migrations. He asks bleakly: ‘Can an animal sense the impending extinction of its species?’
But despite its clear-eyed view of the destruction it documents, The Eastern Curlew is also a hopeful, joyous book. ‘If there’s one fundamental truth about life, it’s that it wants to persist,’ says Saddler. ‘If we can give it enough of a chance to do so, it’ll take that chance.’ •