Avian Histories

Richard Smyth, An Indifference of Birds

Uniformbooks, 112pp, £12.00, ISBN 9781910010228

reviewed by Alexandra Marraccini

Just before the pandemic, nature books were a bookseller’s table lure in London. Urbanites in Foyles and Waterstones wistfully turned over copies of H Is For Hawk, various titles by Robert MacFarlane, and even Ali Smith’s seasonal novels, with their tempting Hockney-landscape jackets. There was a certain yearning for escapism there; the need for another England secreted just outside the M25 from our own. Then the lockdown hit. It turned out that with everything shut down, shut off, and a strange, stretched-out span of time only occasionally interrupted by overenthusiastic clapping, that birds had been there all along. In NW1, EC3, and probably the top of the Shard, birdsong became newly audible.

Richard Smyth knew this all along. Written well before the pandemic, An Indifference of Birds nonetheless performed a kind of augury by reading backwards. Smyth’s desire to write ‘. . . the story of human history, from a bird’s eye view’ — in this case both a short blink in time and the almost timelessly geologic — resulted in a book that was already uniquely sensitive to the birds in our spaces that we didn’t see yet. After all, as Smyth reminds us, ‘from a human point of view, birds have always been here. Humans have never lived in a world without birds.’ For each essayistic section of the volume, Smyth focuses not on a particular bird, but on a type of site or part of human time in which they flourish. In a genre that can often trip into the well-meaning treacle of an XR email brief, this is a smart literary choice. He presumes his readers already know enough about the damaging effects of human society to agree with him, and doesn’t feel the need to preach. So much the better.

In his second section, ‘Accidental Conservationists’, Smyth evokes the in-between and neglected spaces of current human society that birds seize on and flourish in. His descriptive prose is at its best with these 'derelict industrial units (WEAK ROOF, GUARD DOGS PATROL) that always have a collared dove on the roof ridges, or magpies bickering in the busted guttering.’ He manages a nuanced, if brief, examination of the re-wilding narrative around Chernobyl and Pripyat. Coupled with his later reflections on birds in city spaces, one almost wishes he would turn his eye as a nature writer explicitly to architecture, and not just in the context of birds. A natural history of the ‘unnatural’ — or ‘anti-natural’? — space in this same voice would prove equally compelling. Just as his narrative of ‘shifting baselines’ in his third section, ‘Movements’, forces us to consider the conservation and re-introduction of species, one almost wishes this book wasn’t quite so tightly bound to its avian premise. I’d have liked to see Smyth push the boat not just on the Spanish government’s attempts to conserve a native species of woodland duck at the expense of shooting all the intrusive others, but on the aesthetic and social concerns that drive these conservation narratives.

Speaking of shifting baselines, I noticed an example from the book in action when I walked to the outside of my office building in Bloomsbury last week. My colleagues and I, sipping coffee in the park, noticed the pigeons were strange, bright-eyed, pressing up against us as if without fear. They were starving. What Smyth calls the ‘propitious microclimate’ of human cities had changed suddenly, and some of the pigeons clearly had adapted. Others would die. Still others, because I am soft to them in this moment of human frailty, will now live off of black sunflower seeds I periodically haul there to feed them. Pigeons occupy cities in the first place, An Indifference explains, because ‘These birds saw a new kind of cliff rise from the earth, understood it for what it was, and disregarding the chimney smoke as they’d disregarded sea-spray, braving cats and cars and they’d braved skuas and peregrines, made their homes in it.’

But now the baseline has shifted again. As Smyth notes often throughout the book, this is a blip in bird species time, in patterns of life and migration broader than our own ability to think. We too have to adapt though, and in our post-lockdown world, still slowly awakening, An Indifference of Birds is an ideal book to think with. It makes the case for richness in a world with birds to read into, to see with, and to be seen by, that also in turn becomes an insistent cry to change. Like all good nature writing, it makes the urge to conservation and environmentalism intrinsic rather than badgered out or propagandistic. If what we were looking for before all this, on the bookseller’s table of forest books and field books, in the rage for wild swimming among a certain group of literary women, was a reason to re-think our human presence and feel embedded in a larger trajectory, An Indifference of Birds more than satisfies.

Hockney, incidentally, has escaped to the French countryside, but for those of us still trapped in a roughly one to two-mile radius of our homes in the city, the starlings, redstarts, geese, ducks, and yes, pigeons, beckon. Richard Smyth has invited us to look anew at them, not an augur but an avian critic; reading us reading the birds.
Alexandra Marraccini is a research associate at the Bilderfahzeuge Project, Warburg Institute, University of London. She is also an essayist and critic.