There are some nonfiction books that encompass themes far beyond their particular subject matter. Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth is one of those books.
On the surface, this little book is deceptively simple in its straightforward and observational narrative. It describes the everyday life of an Eskimo curlew as he arrives in the Arctic to stake out his nesting territory and look for a mate. The prose is precise, detailed, and often poetic, as in this passage from the first chapter:
The curlew set his wings and dropped stonelike in a series of zigzag sideslips. The rosy pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up toward him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the riverbank.
We soon learn that the curlew has come to this spot for three years without ever seeing another of his kind. Even as hundreds of other shore birds arrive and feed and nest, the curlew remains alone. As time passes and the short mating season comes to an end, the curlew instinctively knows it’s time to migrate south, and so begins his journey. Typically he would join a flock of other Eskimo curlews, but there are none to be found, so he takes off on his own.
In flight, he encounters a flock of golden plovers, powerful birds who follow a similar flight path as the curlew, and so he joins them and they accept him without question. Flying as part of a flock is hugely beneficial, especially during the most treacherous part of the flight, the 2,500 miles non-stop across the Atlantic ocean to South America. In the following passage, they face freezing temperatures and zero visibility.
The snow clung to their wings, packed into the air slots between the flight feathers. Wings that a few minutes before had responded deftly to the gentle, rhythmic flexing of the breast muscles were now heavy and stiff, and they beat the air futilely like lifeless paddles, driving air downward in a waste of energy instead of deflecting it rearward for the horizontal airflow essential to flight. Their flight speed dropped until they were hovering almost motionless in a disorganized, bewildered cluster, now almost a mile above the sea.
As the book continues, we witness the harrowing flight across the ocean, the arrival along the coast of Venezuela, and the continued journey south to Argentina. After this arduous trip of over 9,000 miles, it is soon time to head back northward again, back to the Arctic tundra in another attempt to find a mate. The descriptions of the journey are so immediate and harrowing, the narrative becomes an emotional page-turner, as you wonder if the lone curlew will survive.
Along the way, we learn many facts about curlews, migration, weather, and natural history. We encounter other birds on the journey, and a larger picture emerges of how millions of creatures cross the continents each year in a massive interconnected system that has continued for eons. Interspersed with the story are short excerpts from historical reports from the 1700s to the 1900s, and we hear firsthand how the great flocks of curlews steadily declined through unsustainable mass hunting. The Counterpoint Press edition of the book also includes exquisite drawings by Abigail Rorer, based on the original drawings by T.M. Shortt, that help bring the curlew’s journey to life. (See above.)
Although written in 1954, this book feels even more relevant today, and inspires larger questions about the meaning of existence. Why does the curlew continue to make this treacherous journey every year, with little or no hope of finding a mate? With the fate of his species on the line, wouldn’t it be wiser to play it safe, to adopt the habits of a less ambitious seabird? Or would that be giving up his true nature, his sole purpose in life?
There are so many moments along the journey where the curlew might easily perish, and yet he perseveres. Like so many other creatures facing extinction, he doesn’t give up. Would I be as steadfast in such a situation? Would any of us?
The beauty of this book is that it does not offer analysis or proselytizing, it simply tells a story with great detail and power, and the themes emerge naturally. It’s the story of one bird, but it’s also the story of all of us.