Something a bit different today. I felt flattered when Pushkin Press in the UK asked me to review a book. It turned out to be a good one, and the best of both worlds for me–reading a free book about a fellow lover of nature–heaven! This is a fiction read, but its protagonist was a very real person, as you will learn. Len Howard sort of reminds me of our American Cordelia Stanwood, who I “met” on a trip to Maine a few summers ago. I wrote about her here.
In Bird Cottage (Pushkin Press’ 2018 translation), Eva Meijer does a good job of bringing the reader into the life and locale of Len Howard, a British woman who at middle age left London to live in Sussex with the birds in and around her Bird Cottage. Meijer did thorough research and is careful to acknowledge several sources, but the novel is framed as an imagination of what life might have been like for Len, both before and after her break away from conventional expectations. Meijer explains that her writing process mixed biographical facts, stories from Len’s writings, and fiction.
Early in Bird Cottage we meet the privileged child Len (aka Gwendolen) as she makes her appearance in an enthused Blue Tit rescue with her father, complete with a trip to town to buy minced beef and birdseed for the avian patient. We are glimpsing the early life of the once-famous Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds author. Before long we are seeing her as a young woman, considering the possibilities offered by young men around her. Like many young women, she gets her heart broken, and, also like many young women, she feels stir crazy at home. Len takes off for the College of Music in London, where for a while she is consumed with her violin, new friendships, and a lover. Even in this crowded life, though, the birds seem to be calling her—Pigeons on the sidewalk, a nest of Great Tits above her lover’s doorway, Blackbirds and Sparrows in the park.
The book is full of simple, thoughtful moments that show how Len is comfortable with solitude and time alone in nature, moving more and more in that direction as her life unfolds. Even at her lover’s house, she prioritizes these moments: “There are tall trees on the quayside, with shrubs between, and if I wake up early in the morning I often go and sit on the deck to listen and look. It’s not as loud here as in the city. I can hear myself think.”
The decision to imagine Len in her young life was a wise one, helping the reader see the many potential paths before her and not simply a one-dimensional “bird lady” who eschewed society in favor of an eccentric life. We watch her evolve into a sure, selective woman who gradually realizes what she wants and needs. A poetic phrase early in the book, placed alongside thoughts on a young man but also some musings on birds and their songs, seems to hint at her unorthodox future: “Longing is—/Understanding that you are fathomless/Understanding that you are flux/Understanding that you are water and that water cannot be grasped.”
In the second half of the book, we get to see Len in the life for which she is best known. A trip to the country sparks a shift—life in a rural cottage calls her. Len relishes the opportunity to welcome a wide throng of birds into her life and her home. She takes notes and she sketches the birds, but primarily she is watching closely, noticing their habits, how their families form, what happens when a mate dies, etc. Music takes a back seat to committed habits of noticing and attending to the birds she has named, of putting food out daily on the bird table, of letting them roost in the house and treasuring the nuances in countless interactions. Len becomes increasingly studious, recognizing intelligence and personality traits in her charges. At one point she witnesses Blue Tits pointedly signaling the need for help when a nest has fallen. She remarks to herself about how “In London I perceived them as a group…I had no idea that they differed so much from each other. Seeing requires time. In London there were too many distractions.”
Len begins to publish articles based on her bird observations, most well received but sometimes also met with criticism, with the assumption that she is unscientific and anthropomorphizing. She is quick to note that observing birds in a controlled laboratory is not even close to observing birds in a natural setting—so much important information is lost. Eventually there are her well-loved books, and with them come meetings with publishers, requests for translation, and public attention, which she tolerates as unavoidable tasks that may ultimately benefit the birds. She wades into community matters when the birds’ immediate environs are threatened. Still, her bird-centric existence has her bristling easily at many human interactions—postmen and reporters and friendly visitors are often ill-behaved from a bird’s perspective (and thus from Len’s as well)—noisy, making sudden motions, and the like.
Small, tender moments of reflection and humanity nestle between the facts of the story —Len smelling the damp wool jacket of a friend—“the coat of another creature” and observing their footsteps together in the soil; Len playing a challenging Bartok piece on her violin as she wrestles with feelings of loss. Always, though, the birds claim the biggest part of her. As if to remind us, Meijer inserts vignettes conveyed in Len’s voice, focusing on a treasured bird, Star, and her comings and goings, her family, and her unmistakable patterns and preferences—including an avid interest in playing a counting game.
Len’s sign on the Bird Cottage door warns would-be visitors away, but Meijer’s writing makes it easy to enter the singular life of a promising young woman who gradually chooses the path that never stopped calling her, delighting in her bird friends and spending many hours recording her observations. For a while, we readers can share Len’s delight, and contemplate the rewards of a quiet, devoted life among beloved creatures.