Julia Zarankin on Birding, Chekhov and Lasting Love
In her recent memoir, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder (D&M, 2020)), Toronto-based writer Julia Zarankin mentions a conversation in which she explains to her sister that she’s looking for something to fill the “hobby void”:
“What are you looking for?”
“Something that will exercise my patience.”
“And bring me peace, without having to do yoga.”
Ten years ago, around the time that she left a tenure-track position teaching Russian Literature at an American university, Julia discovered birding and has never looked back. Here’s our conversation about seeking peace through ornithological obsession, and about writing.
JZ: I was between careers, at this challenging point in my life, and I was definitely looking for something—either a spiritual practice or something to fill the void. I don’t think this is unique to me, I think a lot of people start doing this in their mid 30s, early 40s. You know, like “Is this what life is all about?” I had that moment and I started auditioning hobbies. I was looking for something that would quiet my mind because I’m a pretty cerebral person, and I had been on a career track that was go-go-go for over a decade, and I was looking for a change of pace. I tried pottery, I tried bookmaking, I did the rounds. If somebody had told me 15 years ago “You’re going to become a birder,” I would have laughed in their face because I didn’t grow up with nature. This was not something even in the realm of possibility for me.
SP: What kind of reaction did you get from the people close to you?
JZ: My grandmother said, “You used to be normal, you used to go to the opera, and now you wake up at four in the morning and go to a sewage lagoon, and no one even pays you for this.” She was shocked.
SP: What happens to you when you’re birding? Is there a kind of Zen place that you get to?
JZ: Absolutely. When you’re looking at a bird, you’re in that moment 100 per cent; you’re immersed in the bird’s detail. Sometimes, I lock eyes with a cedar waxwing and in that moment of really looking closely, time stops. For me birding is really a time when I don’t think about myself. The birds certainly don’t care about me; they have their own thing going on. I think it’s really healthy to engage in an activity where you’re not the centre of attention! That’s very different from the rest of my life.
SP: Do you consider yourself a nature writer?
JZ: I’m certainly inspired by so many other nature writers, so I feel like I am, in a way, writing in dialogue with them. For example, Helen Macdonald (H Is for Hawk, Vesper Flights) is an inspiration to me. In addition to the nature element, I‘m also really interested in family stories and why we are the way we are, and also moments of human transition when people change course… So I’m interested in not just the birds but also how they make people see differently.
SP: You’re also funnier than many nature writers!
JZ: Thank you! I’ll be honest with you, sometimes bird books are boring, They’re dry. They’re chock full of information, but sometimes I can only read them a few pages at a time. That’s not the way my brain works. I’m not a scientist. That’s not how my imagination works either.
SP: Are you a full-time writer?
JZ: I do a lot of lecturing to lifelong learners here in Toronto. I lecture about Russian literature, Russian culture, I’m doing a series on Catherine the Great and the Hermitage.
SP: So you haven’t given up on Russian literature…
JZ: Not at all.
SP: I recall that there was something in your memoir about Chekhov and birds.
JZ: The big surprise for me was that, when I really got into birding and would reread these Russian literary texts that I was teaching, suddenly I noticed how many birds there were everywhere, because Chekhov and Tolstoy were both great naturalists and both lived on estates. In their novels and short stories and plays, they describe life on the estate, which includes a lot of birds. These are the passages I had ignored before, because I didn’t care! In Tolstoy there are so many moments of epiphany that happen out in nature, either when they’re on a hunt—usually they’re killing the birds— and in Chekhov the birds are often witnesses to what’s happening and the changes the characters are undergoing. There are these chickens in Uncle Vanya… The world is crumbling around the characters and things just couldn’t get any worse, and the servant Maria just keeps feeding the chickens. It’s like a symbol of continuity—life goes on.
SP: Has birding changed you?
JZ: It has. It’s changed the way I see the world. It’s taught me to look in a much more intentional way and to pay attention to detail. There’s this chapter in the book about how birding didn’t teach me to fall in love because I was already pretty good at that, but it taught me how to stay in love! Because the thing about birding is that it’s really important to focus on the actual bird instead of what you hope it might be. I think that changed my outlook on relationships—instead of trying to change somebody, really focus on what’s there, and if it’s worthwhile, stick with it, and if it’s not, move on!
SP: Any final thoughts on birding?
JZ: One of the biggest things that surprised me about birding is that I thought I would last a season. I thought OK, I’ll see spring migration, this thing that everyone’s talking about, and then I will have seen it. I never imagined that I would keep coming back year after year. Because with birds, the more you see, the more you want to see. And the more you know, the more you realize there’s still more to learn.
SP: What is it you call yourself in the book? A lifelong beginner birder?
JZ: Yes, that’s right!