Monday, August 1, 2011

Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds by Olivia Gentile

Why I read it: A passion for obsession.

Summary: The life of competitive birder Phoebe Snetsinger is retold through the voices of the people that knew her best, and also her own.

My thoughts: That was meant to be ambiguous, the words you just read above, for I don't think Phoebe Snetsinger really knew herself that well.

That's one of the messages the author tries to push across. A brilliant thinker as a young woman, prepared to take on the world, Phoebe was forced into the pre-determined role of wife and mother most women were assigned to in pre-1960s America. She wailed, through secretive poetry, to be set free, and finally found her escape route through birdwatching, then birding.

But Phoebe's sprint from what she felt were unfair constraints turned into a lifelong marathon. It took her all over the world, numerous times, often for six months out of a given year. She missed her mother's funeral, her daughters' weddings and almost lost her marriage in her pursuit of the world's birds.

I'm a birder, professionally, but have never understood the competitive side to the pastime. I guess it's there in every field; stamp collectors probably treat each other like birders do their brethren. There's probably a lot of jealousy over collection sizes and ownership of rarities. And, like stamp collecting, or sports memorabilia collecting or movie poster collecting, in birding money can buy your way to the top.

But the obsession that birders develop when they get to the top levels of competitive birding, attempting to see the 8,000th species, the 9,000th species, leads to harsh choices. Stamp collectors can order stamps online; birders must travel. (The trade-off is that birding doesn't fill up your garage with boxes of stuff.) Greatness must come with sacrifice

Reading this book made me wonder, what is my limit? Could I become obsessed like Phoebe? Do I have that in me? Quick answer: absolutely not. Perhaps it's the sudden surge of fatherhood that hits my soul, but I just know that there is no way I will put myself in harm's way the way Phoebe did, in unsafe places geographically, politically or physically. I'm having a blast visiting America's National Parks and know that my list in the States will eventually run out, but even if that day comes, I have so much more to live for than a list of birds I've seen. I enjoy nature; I love my family.

Sadly, in my opinion, Phoebe allowed her priorities to be flip-flopped. It was her choice, of course, and she was entitled to it. There's much about Phoebe's life that should be commended, even applauded. But, as portrayed by talented author Olivia Gentile, Phoebe's also taught me some important lessons about what not to do in life.

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