Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Birds of Washington

When I was a graduate student, I volunteered to be a contributing author to a book. The book I was contributing to was a new version of, and was modeled after the 1953 book, The Birds of Washington State by Stanley Jewett, Walter Taylor, William Shaw and John Aldrich. To this end, I wrote "accounts" for 20 species of birds that reside in or migrate through the beautiful state of Washington, where I lived for much of my life. These articles adhered to a strict format and word count (250 words each) by detailing population movements and trends, habitat preferences, listing all described (and suspected) subspecies, and conservation issues for each species, among other things. As a volunteer contributing author, I of course, do not receive any money or royalties, although I do receive a free copy of the book. At the time anyway, that seemed adequate.

Few of the contributing authors wanted to write about common birds, so as a lowly graduate student, I was stuck writing about them. "My" species included all of the wrens (genus Troglodytes), tits (Genera Parus/Poecile and Psaltriparus) and the waxwings (genus Bombycilla) along with a few others. All common species but nonetheless, all were special to me. Quite by accident, I developed an unspoken goal; to write one sentence about each species that summed up its "specialness". For example, for black-capped chickadees, Poecile atricapillus, I wrote something like "these birds have probably introduced more people to the art of bird watching than any other North American species due to its cheerful presence at backyard bird feeders." (I wish my copies of the original text survived my many moves so I could quote it exactly for you here).

I spent almost as much time trying to condense everything special about each of "my species" into one sentence as I invested into all the researching, compiling, analyzing and writing of the entire species account. All that extra effort and thought .. invested into just one sentence .. a single sentence that was probably sacrificed for brevity's sake by one or another of the book editors at some point during the ensuing years. Just the facts, that's all we want. But like people, birds are more than facts, more than their demographics, often more than their names. So it seemed somehow fitting that my personal mission on my part of this project would be to capture with mere words the unique essence of these avian species.

When I wrote those species accounts, I was living on the opposite side of the country from where I live now. I was a graduate student studying the molecular underpinnings of hormone-mediated breeding behavior in birds in the zoology department of my university. In addition to my research, I was a teaching assistant, a respected parrot breeder, and I managed to cobble together enough sporadic employment as a bird watching field guide, website designer, public speaker, freelance writer and book reviewer for several of the major science textbook publishers to fund a modest social life.

When I wrote those species accounts, I had a different name. In fact, as my dissertation defense and graduation became more and more certain, I found I was increasingly bothered by my name: I didn't want it on my diploma. That name was bestowed on me by parents who made it obvious through word and deed that they had never wanted me, it was a name given to me by people who refused to speak to me after they threw me out of their house when I was 15 years old, a name imparted by strangers who swore that they would do whatever they could to prevent me from pursuing my dreams. As such, my name was a relict of a childhood that I wished to forget, a reminder of abuse suffered at the hands of blood relatives whose behavior transformed them into aliens, into enemies. I legally changed my name seven months before I defended my dissertation (in fact, my name change was finalized almost exactly three years ago to this very day) so my diploma would carry my chosen name, a name that captured me and who I am and who I wanted to become: a name that looks toward a bright and shining future.

BirdsWAI wrote these species accounts four (or was it five? or .. six?) years ago, before and during the Christmas holiday season. In the ensuing years, it was discouraging to watch this book gasp and fight for life, much as I was doing. At last, I managed to earn my PhD in spite of a situation that was weighted heavily against me, although my struggles continue to this very day. After my contribution was completed, I didn't think about this book very often. But last night, I received word from the book's chief editor that, as of the end of this month, our work -- the editors', mine and approximately 40 other contributors' -- will finally be completed, that it will be a permanent contribution to humanity's collective store of knowledge. Now this book stands on its own merits, fully fledged and independent; Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution, edited by Terry Wahl, Bill Tweit and Steve Mlodinow, published April 2005 by the Oregon State University Press.

The publication of this book gives me a quick, fleeting glimpse of something that I thought had become extinct since my unemployment; hope. I find myself hoping that this book can revive my moribund capacity for optimism, that it can carry my disintegrating dreams a little closer towards that bright shining horizon on its brilliant wings. I am curious to know if each of my species has managed to keep their "special sentence" in the final published account, my tiny gift to those uncommon common birds who visited me when I was a child, thereby giving me the precious gift of hope when all seemed forever lost. I also hope that my name -- my chosen name -- appears somewhere in that book. That person, whoever and where ever she is now, would really enjoy that.


Thanks to Ian Paulsen for making sure I gave credit to all authors of the original Birds of Washington State.


© 2004, 2005, 2006 by GrrlScientist

6 Peer Reviews:

Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

I find it hard to write anything meaningful after reading this piece. It is so compelling-- tragic and triumphant. That you have accomplished so much with such a beginning is testimony to your strength, vision, wisdom, and perseverance.
We'll be looking for this book up here in Washington and will add it to our collection of books about our new home.
Reading your blog has helped us become more informed about birds in every way-- and your passion is contagious!

11:59 AM  
Blogger roger said...

you go grrl!

sorry. i couldn't resist.

congratulations on the book. and on your life. and on your writing skills. a bit ironic that a book about washington birds is published by oregon state u (my own alma mater). we look forward to those unique sentences about each species.

12:15 PM  
Blogger Rexroth's Daughter said...

Oh, I hate to do this to you, but you've been hit by the book meme--

You are stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book would you be?
[Note: In the novel - because books were burned -
to save the content of books, people memorized one in order to pass the content on to others.]

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

What is the last book you bought?

What are you currently reading?

Five books for your desert island cruise package.

Who are you going to pass this book meme baton to and why? (only three people)

There's normally a curse if you break a chain - so - If you break the chain, you'll know.

12:46 PM  
Blogger P.M.Bryant said...

Congratulations on the book! And thanks for the moving account you've provided. Best of luck to you.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous psilo said...

Great post. Very personal and a good slice of the life of a "scientist on the fringe" (not in an accepted/high profile/well funded field). I currently live in that dreadful languishing state of "all-but-dissertation", so I can grok your situation. Hang in there. Prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.


4:04 PM  
Blogger GrrlScientist said...

Thanks everyone for reading that little essay. I was busy grading papers and (later) talking with my advisor about my own paper, but that essay would not leave me alone until it was written and edited to my satisfaction. Even though that essay appeared at an inconvenient time, I was happy to realize that I am sometimes still mesmerized by a story that won't let go until it has been given a life of its own.

dread pirate roberts: I thought the publisher's identity was ironic, too, and wondered why the UW press didn't publish it. These presses, I've learned, can only turn out a small number of books each year and so they tend to have very restricted topics that they publish. Did you also notice that ASU Press is the distributor?

Rexroth's Daughter: ah, the dreaded book meme .. I am surprised it took so long for it to come my way since it is common knowledge that I have a strong relationship with books. That sounds like a good topic for my next blog entry. Thanks!

P.M.Bryant: hey, it's good to see you commenting here. Thanks for noticing my blog and for your kind wishes!

Psilo: ABD, that is a difficult place to be. I know several people who are in that special place (is it synonymous with purgatory? or is it the waiting room for hell?) while they decide whether they should finish writing their dissertation. Those who have jobs with good wages generally don't finish, I've noticed.

8:06 AM  

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