Life List

A couple weeks ago, Kevin and I went out to Quail Ridge Books to sign some Dragonbreath, and I picked up a copy of a book called Life List.

I warned him, at the outset, that this book was going to make me cry.

It’s the story of Phoebe Snetsinger, the greatest birder in history, who saw over 8400 bird species in her lifetime. (At the time of her death, the number of species in the entire world was placed at around 9700. By way of comparison, I have just over 200 birds, of the 914 that occur in North America.)  It’s the sort of inspiring story that would make a great movie, if it wasn’t about something as incomprehensible to the average viewer as birding–she was told that she had terminal cancer and perhaps six months to live.  Given few treatment options and a near-certain death sentence, she decided to forgo treatment and to go birding around the world as long as her health would permit.

She lived for eighteen more years and was the first person to ever see more than 8000 birds.

That sort of thing would merit a little choking up anyway, but the story of her life made me cringe, in that there-but-for-the-grace-of-Betty-Friedan-go-I way.  She went to college in an era when women expected to go to college and still have all the jobs in their field go to men, whereupon they would marry one of said men and settle down to raise kids and be good housewives.

Undoubtedly a number of women found satisfaction and fulfillment raising said kids, and I don’t mean to claim that it’s not a perfect valid and potentially fulfilling choice for those who want it, but being one who desperate does NOT want it, the mere notion makes my tongue go dry and a kind of cloying terror grabs me by the throat, because oh god, I’d go quietly and desperately mad and they’d find me trying to chew my leg off like a rat in a trap and dear god if I’d been born just a few decades earlier, that would have been me.

Barring the bit with the leg chewing, that’s what happened to her. She had four kids and a degree and started quietly losing her mind. Either the writer was really good or something about the story really hit me, because…dude.

Honestly, I mostly take my absurd freedom for granted. Probably that’s the great triumph of feminism*–I just assume that of course I can be unmarried and childless and an artist and a writer and everybody takes me seriously (at least when I need them to, not, y’know, when I’m painting hamsters and making fart jokes) and had I wanted a job in the field of my degree, I could’ve gotten it, and other than some moderate griping about body issues in advertising and the endless abortion wars, it does not ever occur to me that I might get trapped in a life I hate and have so few options easily available to me.  So reading this description of this intelligent, energetic, restless woman going crazy at home with three kids in diapers and no outlets at all–and finding her salvation in the sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler (admittedly an awesome bird)–made me want to go crawl in the tub with a whole bottle of wine and shudder myself into semi-consciousness for how lucky I am, and–god!–by such a narrow chronological margin.

*cough* Clearly, this one really hit home for me. It had to be the birds, I guess. The birds made her real.

Anyway. Enough about my issues, Phoebe Snetsinger. She kept birding when she could, she became obsessed with it because it was the one time, she said, that she was herself and not so-and-so’s mother or so-and-so’s wife. She got good. She was depressed as hell, but the birds were saving her. And then, just as the kids were out of the house and she was thinking that she might be able to take more birding trips, she got cancer.

Determined not to die a horrible lingering death, she bought a gun, wrote a suicide note to be used in the event that the pain got bad, (this woman astounds me) and started taking birding trips to every corner of the globe with what time she thought she had left.

She saw everything. She hiked the Himalayas and Paupa New Guinea on treks that would kill lesser mortals (Me, say.) She camped on the floor of the Amazon and got malaria and got attacked by cassowaries and held at gunpoint in Ethiopia. She had some really really bad interludes while birding, including an assault in New Guinea (and went back three times, looking for more birds, because the birds were more important.) The cancer went into remission, flared up again, went into remission again, and she never stopped looking for birds. She became the top female birder, and then the top birder, period. She finally died as she had said she wanted to–instantly, in a remote corner of the globe (Madagascar, car accident) with her binoculars on, having seen more birds than anyone in history. Her last lifer was the Red-Shouldered Vanga, only described to science two years before her death.

Holy crap monkeys.

So yeah, I cried.

It’s a good book, but it’s a hard read. I don’t know if I recommend it or not. Unless you’re a birder, probably not. There’s a lot of bits that are just “And then she went here, and it was exhausting and saw the Orange-Wattled Bird of Paradise.” If you are, though–yeah.

And now I think I need that wine and the bathtub and maybe the phone numbers of all those people who told me when I was growing up that I could be anything I wanted to be and said it with sufficient conviction that I rolled my eyes because duh, of course I could. (That’s gonna be a lot of phone numbers….)

*And also the bit that makes some women casually dismiss it these days, ironically enough, and undoubtedly the reason I am not nearly grateful enough to all the women who kicked through those glass walls and ceilings and floorboards before me.

3 thoughts on “Life List

  1. Graydon says:

    Praise ale when it is drunk, ice when it is crossed, ships returned to harbour, a friend on the pyre.

    That, he says, having set out to try to comprehend gulls, sounds like a very fine book indeed.

    Not a little thing, to have wrung that out of her life.

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