Birder's memoir skips forest for the trees.Byline: REVIEW By Bob Keefer The Register-Guard
Birding on Borrowed Time
By Phoebe Snetsinger Phoebe Snetsinger, nee Burnett (9 June 1931, Lake Zurich, Illinois, USA - November 23, 1999, Madagascar), a resident of Webster Groves, Missouri, was a birder famous for having seen over 8,500 species by the time of her death.
(American Birding Association The American Birding Association (ABA) is a non-profit organization of people interested in birding. Membership is open to all, but many of its publications and programs have historically been aimed at birders who like making difficult field identifications and finding rare species. , 307 pages, $19.95)
Four years after she died in a bus crash in Madagascar, Phoebe Snetsinger remains - numerically speaking, anyway - the top birder in the world.
This obsessed ob·sess
v. ob·sessed, ob·sess·ing, ob·sess·es
To preoccupy the mind of excessively.
v.intr. woman's lifetime record of seeing and identifying more than 8,400 bird species was even more remarkable when you consider that she was suffering from malignant melanoma Malignant Melanoma Definition
Malignant melanoma is a type of cancer arising from the melanocyte cells of the skin. Melanocytes are cells in the skin that produce a pigment called melanin. during the last 17 years of her life.
Facing a medical death sentence - she was told on diagnosis she had one year to live - she traveled from continent to continent in search of diademed sandpiper-plovers, horned guans and feline owlet-nightjars.
Now her memoirs have been published by the American Birding Association.
"Birding on Borrowed Time" takes the reader through Snetsinger's world travels from her discovery of the joys of birding at age 34, to her 8,000th world bird, a rufous-necked wood-rail The Rufous-necked Wood-rail (Aramides axillaris) is a species of bird in the Rallidae family. It is found in Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and seen in San Blas San Blas , Gulf of
An inlet of the Caribbean Sea on the northern coast of Panama east of the Panama Canal. The San Blas Islands lie along the coast a short distance offshore. , Mexico, 30 years later in 1995.
That was a watershed event, both for Snetsinger and for the birding community. As recently as 1980 the top world list seen by a single birder stood at 5,420. Snetsinger's ability to expand that number by 50 percent is a testament not only to her determination but to advances in technology, communications and travel.
In fact, at that point she officially hung up her binoculars, so to speak. Although she continued to travel and add species to her list she declined to submit it to the ABA Aba (ä`bä), city (1991 est. pop. 264,000), SE Nigeria. It is an important regional market, a road and rail hub, and a manufacturing center for cement, textiles, pharmaceuticals, processed palm oil, shoes, plastics, soap, and beer. any longer - in part to give others an opportunity to best her record.
"Birding on Borrowed Time" will be of interest primarily to other birders, especially those who can afford, as she could, to travel the world and book guided tours to help them locate and identify bird species. That is what Snetsinger writes about, practically to the exclusion of all else.
What's missing in her book is much personal context, either about Snetsinger herself or about her driving fascination with finding birds.
There are dark sides to this story, both obvious and more subtle, and they are left unexplored. Snetsinger, who occasionally comes across as a fairly clueless clue·less
Lacking understanding or knowledge.
Slang helpless or stupid
Adj. 1. tourist, is brutally gang-raped and nearly murdered in Papua New Guinea Papua New Guinea (păp`ə, –y .
"The five thugs managed to disappear forever, taking with them two good pairs of binoculars and my bird book," she writes.
This disconnect runs throughout the book.
Her husband appears but rarely in the story and then primarily to threaten divorce. It's hard not to sympathize with Verb 1. sympathize with - share the suffering of
compassionate, condole with, feel for, pity
grieve, sorrow - feel grief
commiserate, sympathise, sympathize - to feel or express sympathy or compassion him, given her single-mindedness. We find out next to nothing about the exotic places she travels in, except for the birds she saw there.
And she bobbles the larger issues entirely. Why did terminal cancer drive her to search the world for bird species? What does counting birds mean in the greater scheme?
In her defense, Snetsinger was not a professional writer, and this was not even a finished book when she died. It was pulled together by a son, Thomas, who lives in Oregon.
It works best if read for what it is: a not terribly reflective travelogue by someone who did a rare and curious thing.
The book is illustrated by bird artist H. Douglas Platt, including 16 full-page color plates, and contains a handful of photographs of the author on her travels and at home.
Bob Keefer can be reached at 338-2325 or email@example.com.