We had a little trouble finding a place for the extended family to stay when we chose to meet in Sedona, Arizona for my mom’s 75th birthday. Most places wouldn’t book us for under a week thanks to a regional law limiting short term rentals. Several mid-size Arizona cities and have taken a stand against companies like Airbnb, which make renting a place for a family’s gathering a more lucrative choice than renting to locals. But for visitors and property owners, Airbnb has been mostly a good thing, and the state of Arizona recently agreed. Last year it overturned the local laws and made short term rentals legal.
It’s not news that Airbnb has caused limited rental options in places like San Francisco and New York City, but now residents in rugged places are feeling the pinch too. At Outside, Tom Vanderbilt looks at how home-sharing services are affecting the character of places like Bozeman, Boise, and Crested Butte.
From Barcelona to Boston, the world has been grappling with the arrival of home-sharing platforms. Amid any number of skirmishes—neighbor against neighbor, tourist against townie, lobbyist against legislator—cities have scrambled to get a handle on this “wild west” (one of the most common descriptors of the new home-rental landscape) and rushed to enact regulations. Everywhere you look, the battle is raging. In Flagler County, Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, 150 people turned out for a March meeting over a bill, backed by home-rental companies, that would limit how local governments can regulate short-term rentals, or STRs, as they are now frequently abbreviated. In Asheville, North Carolina, the issue proved so contentious that, late last year, a task force created to study STRs publicly splintered, according to the local Citizen-Times. In March, the city of San Diego—where residents of neighborhoods like Ocean Beach have decried the loss of local identity as rentals have proliferated—had to move a meeting on STRs to a bigger venue because of overflow crowds.
In the Mountain West—“God’s country, renter’s hell,” as one alt-weekly tagged it—where towns are already chronically beset by housing shortages, traffic problems, and the invariable ambivalence about sharing one’s slice of heaven with the tourists who help sustain it, the entrance of Airbnbs and VRBOs and HomeAways has heightened the tension. Some places, including Boulder and Denver, have passed tough regulations that permit only primary residents to rent out their properties for short periods. Other towns have taken the opposite tack, changing laws to allow previously illegal renting that was already on the rise, as happened late last year in Missoula, Montana.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!”
-Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Detail from the single illustration that appeared in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Via Wikimedia.
With the possible exception of Asa Gray, no American read the Origin of Species with as much care and insight as Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the first week of February, he copied extracts from the Origin. Those notes, which until recently had never been published, comprise six notebook pages in a nearly illegible scrawl. They tell the story of someone who must have read with hushed attention, someone attuned to every nuance and involution in the book. In their attention to detail, they suggest someone who assiduously followed the gradual unfolding of Darwin’s ideas, the unspooling of his argument, as though the book of science were an adventure tale or a travel narrative.
He was drawn to Darwin’s compendium of facts, which illustrated the delicate interplay of causes leading to the survival or extinction of species. Darwin wrote, “The number of humble-bees in any district depends in a great degree on the number of field-mice, which destroy their combs and nests.” Thoreau copied the sentence into his notebook, probably because he enjoyed the cause-and-effect relationship it implied. He had always been interested in the quirky, arcane detail. “Winged seeds are never found in fruits which do not open,” he read in the Origin, transcribing the sentence into his natural history book. He recorded the strange (if incorrect) statement that “cats with blue eyes are invariably deaf,” something Darwin had gleaned from a work on zoological anomalies by Isidore Geoffroy St. Hilaire, who mistakenly assumed that all blue-eyed cats were deaf rather than the majority, as is actually the case.
He also admired Darwin’s genius for experimentation. Thoreau had described his own efforts in Walden to disprove the local myth that the pond was of unusual depth. With a stone tied to the end of a cod line, he “could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me”— a procedure that enabled him to chart the pond’s topography and discover its shallows and depths. He had even provided a map for interested readers. Now he discovered a similar impulse in Darwin. The British naturalist wanted to determine how far birds might transport seeds caught in their muddy feet; this would explain how identical plant species might be found thousands of miles apart. From the silty bottom of a pond near his home he procured some “three table-spoonfuls of mud,” which “when dry weighed only 6¾ ounces.” He kept the mud in his study for six months, “pulling up and counting each plant as it grew; the plants were of many kinds, and were altogether 537 in number; and yet the viscid mud was all contained in a breakfast cup!” The charm of the experiment resided in its simple ingenuity; from common household items Darwin had made a marvelous discovery: 537 plants!
Thoreau was most urgently drawn to Darwin’s ideas. That the struggle among species was an engine of creation struck him with particular force. It undermined transcendentalist assumptions about the essential goodness of nature, but it also corroborated many of Thoreau’s own observations. While living on Walden Pond, he had tried to discover the “unbroken harmony” of the environment, the “celestial dews” and “depth and purity” of the ponds. “Lying between the earth and heavens,” he wrote, Walden “partakes of the color of both.” But sometimes a darker reality intruded upon this picture. “From a hilltop you can see a fish leap in almost any part; for not a pickerel or shiner picks an insect from this smooth lake but it manifestly disturbs the equilibrium of the whole lake.” Something portentous and uneasy lurks about this sentence. The “simple fact” that animals must consume other animals to survive upsets Thoreau; it disturbs the equilibrium of one who wishes to find harmony and beauty in his surroundings. Thoreau tries to laugh it off, calling the dimpled lake the result of “piscine murder.” Yet Darwin provided an explanation for nature’s murderous subtext. Competition and struggle influenced “the whole economy of nature.” It drove species to change and adapt. It created. It was the cost of doing nature’s business. Read more…
A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”
What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.
As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:
The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.
Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.
After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.
About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”
Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”
“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”
Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.
There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.
For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.
Ever tried to skip a flat stone across a body of water? Happy with a few skips? Elated at five or more? To be the best stone skipper in the world, you’ll need 89 skips to beat current Guinness World Record holder Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (88 skips). At Minnesota Monthly, Frank Bures tries his luck at stone skipping at The Mackinac Island Stone Skipping Competition.
But I’d been skipping stones my whole life, ever since I was around my daughters’ ages, always getting better and better. There was almost nothing I loved better than the feeling of knowing—even before it hit the water—that you had a perfect throw, one that defies nature by making a stone both fly and float.
To reach the upper echelons of the skipping world was not easy. Mackinac was divided into two heats. First there was the “Open” division, in which every fudge-eating tourist on the island was welcome. Usually there were a few hundred people who entered. Only by winning the Open can you move up into the “Professional” division, which features heavy hitters such as Russ “Rockbottom” Byars, whose Guinness World Record held for years at 51 skips; Max “Top Gun” Steiner, who took the title from Byars with 65; and Kurt “Mountain Man” Steiner (no relation to Max) who currently holds the title with 88.
What you want, according to reigning champ Kurt Steiner, is a stone that is not perfectly round but that has points, or lobes, that act as spokes. As the stone spins, these points will push the stone up off the water, keeping it airborne and preventing it from sticking.
“If you spin it fast enough, the stone will essentially walk on those spokes,” Steiner told me, when I had called him for skipping advice. “A really good skip tends to walk like that.”
At my house, we’d noticed the lack of bees this spring, but we’d chalked it up to the late arrival of warm weather and a rainier-than-usual season. Turns out our anecdotal data gathering isn’t entirely off — there are fewer bugs. Of all kinds.
Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”
Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”
Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
When President Obama walked out of the Oval Office earlier this year, he left behind more land protected under federal law than any of his predecessors. President Trump appears intent on challenging that legacy, recently ordering a sweeping review of national monuments with an aim to “balance” the protection of these lands. (The Bureau of Land Management also recently added banners to its website to evoke the wondrous vistas of coal mining and oil drilling.)
It’s not yet clear whether Trump will actually try to revoke Obama-era designations—or whether he’d succeed if he does—but the land protected under federal law has been a mix of majesty and mystery ever since Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act designating the nation’s first national park. Writers have used their craft to ask fascinating questions and expose the weird underbellies of national parks, monuments, and federal lands since long before Trump ever expressed an antipathy toward them.
In Kaktovik, Alaska, dozens of polar bears take advantage of the bone pile—the remains of this community’s yearly quota of bowhead whales, which locals butcher right on the shore—to supplement meager summertime hunting. The bone pile is also a bounty for locals like hunter and guide Robert Thompson, who’s booked solid through 2017 taking hopeful wildlife photographers on polar bear tours. Michael Englehard tells the story in Hakai magazine.
The juncture of lingering bears waiting for freeze-up, the windfall of a bone and blubber cache, and a nearby community eager for economic opportunities, has resulted in a burgeoning bear watching industry in Kaktovik. Thompson, one of seven coast guard-certified tour boat captains, makes a good living from the castaways at the bone pile between September and November. A popular captain who is already fully booked for 2017, he can get so busy that he rushes to work without breakfast, grabbing a fistful of coffee beans to chew on his way out the door. His boat Seanachaí, Irish for storyteller, is aptly named—the man who can see bears making a beeline to the bone pile from his living room chair and who once got charged by a marauding male right on his doorstep regales visitors with tidbits about life in the North. A favorite is the technique for how to prepare a polar bear skin. “You stuff it through a hole in the ice and let shrimp pick it clean,” he says, adding that he’s also seen bears steal from set fishing nets and once watched one pull a net to shore. Thompson’s porch is a still life of body parts and implements: a pot with chunks of unidentifiable meat chilling in the frigid air; a caribou leg for his dogs; snowmobile parts; a gas tank; and, like a cluster of fallen angels, a brace of unplucked, white-phase ptarmigans. On a driftwood stump near the shed grins a mossy polar bear skull; it’s not a scene for tender romantics.
The last Woolly Mammoths died on an island now called Wrangel, which broke from the mainland twelve thousand years ago. They inhabited it for at least eight millennia, slowly inbreeding themselves into extinction. Even as humans developed their civilizations, the mammoths remained, isolated but relatively safe. While the Akkadian king conquered Mesopotamia and the first settlements began at Troy, the final mammoth was still here on Earth, wandering an Arctic island alone.
The last female aurochs died of old age in the Jaktorów Forest in 1627. When the male perished the year before, its horn was hollowed, capped in gold, and used as a hunting bugle by the king of Poland.
The last pair of great auks had hidden themselves on a huge rock in the northern Atlantic. In 1844, a trio of Icelandic bounty hunters found them in a crag, incubating an egg. Two of the hunters strangled the adults to get to the egg, and the third accidentally crushed its shell under his boot.
After the September 11 attacks, Interior tried to build its own database to track law-enforcement actions across lands managed by the National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture.) The result, the Incident Management Analysis and Reporting System, is a $50 million Database to Nowhere—last year, only 14 percent of the several hundred reportable incidents were entered into it. The system is so flawed that Fish and Wildlife has said no thanks and refuses to use it.
That leaves the only estimates to civilians and conspiracy theorists. Aficionados of the vanished believe that at least 1,600 people, and perhaps many times that number, remain missing on public lands under circumstances that defy easy explanation.
People regularly disappear on America’s 640 million acres of national forests, national parks, and Bureau of Land Management property. The disappearance of an 18-year old runner in Colorado sent Outsidejournalist Jon Billman to investigate the sheriffs, trackers, amateur detectives, and mourning families who search for the people who go missing in the wild.
Eva Holland | Longreads | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2641 words)
Noah Strycker spotted the first bird before I made it from the parked car to the edge of the marsh. “It’s a rough-legged hawk,” he said when I caught up to him, gesturing for me to peer through his long, 60-power Swarovski scope. I obliged, and there it was: large, mottled white-and-brown, perched on the bare branch of a distant tree.
The sightings kept coming. Strycker picked out a Western meadowlark (“Oregon’s state bird,” he noted), a group of killdeer — lankier members of the plover family — and nearby, on an open mudflat, an American pipit, and a least sandpiper. He identified a red-shouldered hawk, pointing out the distinctive red-orange bars across its chest, and then two, three, four bald eagles. A red-tailed hawk and three northern harriers joined our growing list of raptor sightings.
“I’m just looking for something that doesn’t look like a tree branch,” he explained, scanning the horizon with binoculars. I imitated him with my borrowed binos, watching for lumps, movement, anything out of place. Around us, there was nothing — to my eye — but a sea of tall dried winter grasses and bare, dead-looking trees, lit up by the slanting winter sun.
It was January 16, 2016. Strycker had been home in Oregon for less than two weeks, after a year on the road. On December 31, 2015, he had completed his global “Big Year” — an attempt to see as many bird species as possible over 365 days. The previous world record, set in 2008 by a British couple, was 4,341 species. Strycker’s goal was to see 5,000 bird species; he finished the year with an astonishing list of 6,042. In one year, he saw more bird varieties than many elite birders will see in a lifetime. But the new record wouldn’t stand for long: a Dutch birder, Arjan Dwarshuis, cleared 6100 species sighted by early November 2016, and announced that he hoped to break 7000 by year’s end. On December 31, he spotted his 6,833rd variety. He had seen two-thirds of the world’s roughly 10,000 bird species.
Strycker and Dwarshuis are extreme practitioners of an extremely common practice. Birding is big business: in 2011, 18 million Americans traveled with the specific intent to see birds, spending an estimated $15 billion on food, lodging, transportation, and guides in the process. Birders are list-makers: they track their species sighted in a day, in a month, in a year, in a lifetime. In doing so, they act on a deeply ingrained human instinct: to classify and categorize the world around us. Animal behaviorists call that instinct our umwelt — the way we navigate the world.
Though he was attempting to complete the biggest Big Year of all time, Strycker’s goal, beyond tallying a massive list, was to build something larger: to both lean on and to nurture a growing global community, and to show the world that birding matters; that it taps into something larger — something human. He wanted, he told me, to sell the world on birds.
Across the marsh, a flock of tens of thousands of dunlins — gray-brown shorebirds from the sandpiper family — had taken flight. Unremarkable on the ground, in the air they became a shifting cloud of light and shadow, flying in tight formation. Their white bellies glinted in the sun when they turned one way, then the whole group seemed to vanish when they turned away again. Strycker kept pointing out new birds on the mudflats, but I couldn’t stop staring at the dunlins, following their zigs and zags through my binoculars. Like millions of other people, I had seen that viral video of a starling murmuration — but here was the real thing, unspooling in front of me. The dunlins flew back and forth in a rippling unison, moving like a flag in a high wind, gleaming in the January sun.
I had to admit: I was sold.
* * *
Modern birding began with Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds, published in 1934. The book was revolutionary: while naturalists had typically killed their specimens and carried them home in order to study them, the portable field guide meant that people — people in North America, at least — could now identify birds on sight, in the wild.
Once bird species were readily quantifiable by anyone who’d studied a field guide, it wasn’t long before birders began competing to see who could spot the most species. Big Days became Big Months became Big Years, and the North American Big Year was the biggest of them all. The original record, set at 497 species in 1939, was broken in 1953 (by Roger Tory Peterson himself, with 572) and again in 1956 (598).
The old style of watching birds — people of means, mostly, taking train or car trips, and eventually flights, to places with known guides, and with plenty of downtime between trips — stood until 1971, when a college student based in Arizona spotted 626 species. Young Ted Parker’s record, in turn, was broken by his close friend, Kenn Kaufman, in 1973. Kaufman was a long-haired teenager who’d dropped out of high school in Kansas to chase birds — he set his new record, 671 species, by spending the full year on the road. He hitchhiked back and forth across the continent, tapping into a network of local knowledge as he went, and sleeping out under the stars. His approach — grassroots knowledge and constant travel over targeted trips and hired guides — was an inspiration for Noah Strycker’s global big year.
* * *
One of the first things we do, from infancy, is learn to categorize the world around us: That’s a dog. That’s a cat. That’s a bird. We gain a more complex understanding as we go: that’s a blue jay. That’s a cardinal. That’s a bald eagle. But while the basic impulse behind birding — categorization and collection — is near universal, we don’t all advance to the level of knowledge or intense attention wielded by active birders. What makes someone take that leap?
To explain themselves, birders talk about “spark birds” — the single bird species, or single sighting, that cements a lifelong addiction. For Strycker, now 31, that encounter came at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge when he was just 14 years old. The refuge is best known as the site of last winter’s armed occupation by an anti-government militia, but back then, it was a quiet, wild corner of eastern Oregon, popular with birders and virtually no one else. A couple of years earlier, Strycker’s fifth-grade teacher had installed bird feeders outside her classroom windows and passed out binoculars for each student’s desk. Her young pupil went home and begged his parents to build birdhouses on their wooded property just southeast of Eugene. He had already begun memorizing the identifying markers and distinctive chirps and calls of his local birds. Eventually he started birding farther afield — and Malheur was an early, favorite destination.
That’s where he spotted them, on a visit with his father during the spring migration: a barred owl and its heavyweight cousin, a great horned owl, brawling on the ground over a snake that each was intent on eating. This wasn’t a passive songbird on its perch. This was primal violence: beaks and talons, feathers and dust. He was hooked.
Barred Owl — Mircea Costina/Rex Features via AP Images
Since then, Strycker has made a career of watching birds, counting birds, and thinking and writing about birds. At 16, he landed a summer job surveying the bird population at a reservoir outside Eugene. He started submitting articles to birding magazines — they were good enough that one of his first editors initially wondered whether a parent wrote them. At 18, he was named “Young Birder of the Year” by the American Birding Association. While at Oregon State University (where he studied fisheries and wildlife science, with a minor in fine art), he did field research in Oregon, Panama, Michigan, Maine, and Hawaii. He was also hired as a part-time, paid editor at Birding magazine, a job he still holds a decade later. On customs and immigration forms, he lists his profession as “bird man” — as good a way as any to describe his cobbled-together, bird-themed professional life.
The nearly three months he spent in Antarctica after college, at a remote three-person research camp, inspired his first book, Among Penguins, published in 2011. It’s a young man’s memoir (count the penis jokes) that nonetheless established Strycker’s voice as a writer: earnest, light-hearted, informed, and likeable. Then came more field work in Australia, Costa Rica, Ecuador; California’s Point Reyes, and the Farallon Islands, and a side gig as the resident ornithologist/naturalist for a small cruise company specializing in the Arctic and the Antarctic.
…birds have something to teach people – that intensive, intentional observation of birds can reveal truths not just about life as a bird, but about ourselves.
In 2014, Riverhead Books published Strycker’s second book, a well-reviewed collection of essays called The Thing With Feathers. It mixes the latest academic research with Strycker’s own thoughtful observations from the field. Whether he’s discussing how the nesting habits of fairy wrens can illuminate some of human society’s norms, or exploring what nutcrackers can teach us about the limits and possibilities of memory, his premise, broadly speaking, is that birds have something to teach people — that intensive, intentional observation of birds can reveal truths not just about life as a bird, but about ourselves. (“It takes time to get to know birds,” Strycker writes, “as it takes time to get to know anyone.”)
During his Big Year, Strycker spotted an average of 17 bird species per day to hit his total of 6,042. In one hot streak, in Ecuador, he spotted 625 species in 12 days. There was no time to rest, or to contemplate what he was seeing. He crashed in hostels, with friends, and on birders’ couches, and lived out of a carry-on sized backpack. He moved rapidly from place to place — traveling mostly overland, averaging one short-haul flight per week. His carefully constructed around-the-world route took him to 41 countries and all seven continents. The year cost him, all in, roughly $60,000. (Nearly half of that went to flights alone.) A publisher’s advance, for a forthcoming book about the year, footed the bill.
He recalls sleeping past 6:30 a.m. just once in 2015. Most days he was up and on the hunt by 4:30 or five in the morning, often keeping at it until 10 or 11 p.m. that night. He had worried, before he started, about burnout, but instead, he just seemed to get stronger as he went. His ears and eyes got sharper; his list grew and grew.
On January 1, 2016, in India, the day after he’d completed his record-setting Big Year, Strycker woke up at 5 a.m. and…went birding.
* * *
By late afternoon, the sun was setting and the air had turned cool. Strycker suggested that we wait for dusk, in hopes of spotting a short-eared owl as it emerged for the night. I was game.
While we waited, we watched two northern harriers making low, lazy loops above the marsh. A type of hawk, the harrier tends to hunt from flight, Strycker explained. He’s a natural teacher, slipping casually into a clear, explanatory mode without ever seeming to lecture, delving into a memory bank of knowledge about hundreds, even thousands of bird species: their shapes and sizes, their feather colors and patterns, their calls and songs, their movements. In the fading light, and with the birds in near-constant motion, he could still easily identify the harriers by their style of flight.
The owl we were waiting for shared some habits with the harriers. It, too, hunts from the air, he explained: hovering low over the marshes and fields where its prey, small mammals, try to hide.
Then — speak of the devil — the short-eared owl appeared, flying behind one of the harriers, both of them just shadows in the dusk. Through my binoculars I could see its pale face popping out of the darkness — a sign that this was a male bird. Another owl joined the first, and then a third. Soon, with Strycker’s help, I could distinguish between their flight and the harriers’: the owls’ languid, deliberate wing beats reminded me of a ray’s slow underwater flight. I said so, and Strycker complimented me on the comparison. I felt that surging glow of achievement — the feeling you get when you answer a tricky question correctly at pub trivia, or you navigate the subway successfully in a new-to-you city.
Birding fulfills its practitioners on several levels. It can be about activism, or altruism, and about competition: Arjan Dwarshuis, throughout his mission to break Strycker’s record, was also aiming to raise money for BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme. It can provide the small, specific pleasure I experienced with the short-eared owls — the little thrill of lining up the details to make a correct identification — or moments of abstract, transcendent beauty, like my long drinking-in of the dunlins. Perhaps most importantly, it can feed our bone-deep, soul-deep need to classify and organize the world around us.
The term umwelt comes from the German word meaning, roughly, “environment” or “surroundings.” But in this context it refers to a given species’ way of perceiving the world around it: dogs organize their world by smell, bees by ultraviolet light, and so on. Carol Kaesuk Yoon, a biologist, proposed in her 2009 book, Naming Nature, that we humans, in turn, navigate through and organize our world via a system of ordering and classification of other natural beings, and that this system is remarkably consistent across history, languages, cultures, ecosystems, and societies. Our umwelt is “our shared human vision of life.”
This isn’t merely a vestigial trait from the days when our daily survival hinged on correctly identifying predators and prey. It’s a vital part of our orientation in the world. When brain-injured humans lose access to their umwelt, their ability to navigate the world through a system of classifications, they lose their bearings. One such patient, who otherwise acted and interacted normally, had to be regularly prevented from trying to consume his hospital blankets and other inanimate, inedible objects. Another, a former birder, could no longer distinguish between species of birds in the images shown to him — he told the doctors that they all “look the same.” Think of a musician who’s no longer able to distinguish between notes, or a foodie without taste and smell: their world is cruelly diminished.
The umwelt, Yoon writes, “is so potent, so compelling, and so vivid that we cannot ignore it. We find we simply must and do order and name the living world…We humans can be counted on to do a number of things: breathe, eat, walk, notice organisms, and organize them into a hierarchical classification.”
In Among Penguins, Strycker’s stock response to the inevitable question, “What got you into birding?” echoes that idea: “I sit back, smile, and ask the asker: ‘What got you so interested in eating, sleeping, walking, and talking?’”
What motivated Noah Strycker to spend a year circling the world, seeking out birds for up to 18 hours every day? What drives millions of birders to venture out into the fields and forests every year, ears cocked and field guides in hand? Call it competitive desire, or the collector’s compulsive need to make and complete ever-longer lists. Call it umwelt.
Maybe it’s all those things, or maybe it’s something less complex. When I asked Ted Floyd, Noah Strycker’s longtime mentor and editor at Birding magazine, what he thought drove Strycker, his answer was simple: “He’s just really, really interested in birds.”
That night in the marsh, we watched the short-eared owls bank and hover, glide and bank again, until their silhouettes faded into the deepening darkness — until even Noah Strycker couldn’t see them anymore.