- Birdgirl, by Mya-Rose Craig. Jonathan Cape, $35.
From early childhood, birdwatching has been a major part of the Mya-Rose Craig's life, around her home in England and further afield. What began with an interest in tawny owls and ravens would eventually take her to chase the Antarctic prion and the wonderfully named rufous-crested coquette, among many others.
Birdgirl recounts various epic birdwatching trips that the author and her parents have taken around the world. Blending autobiography and natural history, politics and travel, Craig has produced a fascinating and complex book.
Her father introduced the family to the activity, but it was eventually taken up by her mother, Helena. Helena is from the Bangladeshi community, and she and the author were often the only visible minority ethnic people out birdwatching. This obvious absence is something that Craig eventually went on to tackle, setting up a group called Black2Nature. The way that personal activities and political issues are linked in the book is one of its major strengths.
Helena's struggle with mental illness is another strong presence; she swings between manic energy and inertia. Suicide is sometimes a real possibility, and the author recounts the experience of living with her mother's illness, from the lack of understanding of a small child, through adolescent conflict, to greater insight. Problems with diagnosis and finding (and storing) proper medicine recur throughout the book. For example, there are times when overseas trips to areas without the ability to keeps drugs cold result in symptoms recurring. It took many frustrating years for Helena to receive the official diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Craig's father, Chris, struggles to keep his wife and family together.
But at the centre of the work are the birds. On trips to watch birds, Helena's energy is mostly focused on the day-to-day demands of early rising and spending hours in the field. The family decides to make such trips a priority, emphasising these experiences over the pursuit of possessions. We read of trips to every continent. Madagascar, sometimes referred to as the 'eighth continent', due to its unique wildlife, gets a chapter of its own.
The variety of the most wonderful creatures on earth, from the "Dinosaur Bird" in Queensland, the cassowary, to the sword-billed hummingbird, to the weird shoebill, which cools itself down by defecating on its legs, is described by Craig is clear and engaging prose. Again, she moves easily from the descriptive to the political, as she looks at how eco-tourism is necessary if wildlife is to be preserved. The greenhouse effect of flying must be balanced against the preservation of habitat in which local communities can find ongoing employment. There are several instances of this in Birdgirl, where clearing of land is not the only option for local people to make a living. She is particularly shocked by the poverty of Indigenous people in Queensland, because of the obvious wealth of much of Australia.
The family is not one to do a bit of easy birdwatching before relaxing by a pool in a luxury resort. Each trip is preceded by extensive research, and the preparation of long lists of target birds. The exhaustive process of finding often-difficult birds is recounted in detail; the heat (or freezing cold), the lack of oxygen in mountainous countries and, in one unforgettable instance, the parasitic worm that is removed from the author's head upon return to England. The unusual affliction seems to have made the local GP's day, and the reader will be both squirming and laughing as they read this passage.
By the time she writes Birdgirl, Craig has seen approximately half the world's birds, an amazing achievement. The 19-year-old author is active in finding ways to increase the diversity of those engaged - and employed - in organisations promoting outdoor activities and conservation in Britain. She also emphasises the need for Indigenous people's voices to be heard in conservation efforts worldwide. Her political activism can be traced back to her online activity, where she first adopted the name Birdgirl. At 17, she became the youngest person in Britain to be awarded an honorary doctorate, by Bristol University.
Many adolescents avoid being seen as uncool above all else. For a long time Craig had a kind of double existence; avidly birdwatching and blogging about it, and hoping that these activities were never mentioned at school. In recent years, she's started to reconcile these two parts of her life.
Reading Birdgirl is a richly rewarding experience. The author's travels, her political activism and analysis, and the moving accounts of the ways her family have lived with mental illness make for a varied book. While the effects of climate change are an ongoing presence, the book is optimistic and inspiring. With people like Mya-Rose Craig involved in pushing for equitable solutions, perhaps things will work out after all.
- Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.