A Memoir of Injustice and the Beauty of Birds

June 16, 2024

A review by April Campbell

Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, by Christian Cooper

Random House, 2023

304 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15350

For two Black men, one residing in New York City and the other in Minneapolis, May 25, 2020, was a fateful day. For Christian Cooper, an expert birder, the day's events would lead to celebrity and exciting career opportunities. For George Floyd, an unemployed truck driver, the day would end in death. Both incidents exposed America's seemingly intractable racist underbelly and would ignite a firestorm of publicity and outrage across the country. Cooper's first memoir, Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, is about navigating the world as a nerdy, queer Black man in love with birds and how birds helped him cope with both racist occurrences and other hardships in life.Cooper, the son of an English teacher mother and biology teacher father, both civil rights activists, grew up in conservative Long Island during the 1960s and 70s. He was introduced to the natural world by his first mentor, his father, Francis. Francis drove the family cross county in their VW camper to western Canada. Armed with Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, Cooper was instantly enthralled by birds like the Clark's Nutcracker (soon to bear another name) and the Black-billed Magpie. Back at home in Long Island, Francis took Cooper to a bird walk sponsored by the South Shore Audubon Society where he met his second mentor, Elliot Kutner. Many other mentors followed. But life as a closeted Black male was lonely and stultifying. Cooper described this period in his life “as if I were locked in a coffin under six feet of earth . . .” Birding and science fiction became his twin refuges, likely sparing his life.

Cooper and I share many commonalties. We’re queer, Black, grew up in conservative white communities, found refuge from chaotic family lives in nature and books, and attended Ivy league schools. This part of the book resonated very strongly with me. What I sorely lacked that Cooper enjoyed in abundance were mentors. The importance of mentoring for young birders, especially for young birders of color, cannot be overstressed. Without mentors, many fewer birders of color will step in the world of birdsong and wonder.

Cooper was catapulted into the public consciousness when, while birding in the Ramble in Central Park, an area that is always off limits to unleashed dogs, Cooper asked a white woman to leash her dog. The woman, later referred to as “Central Park Karen” in the news media, reacted by invoking one of America's oldest and most dangerous racist tropes: Black men are brutes out to harm white women. She called the police, breathlessly saying an African-American man was threatening her. Cooper recorded the exchange on his phone, and his video went viral after his sister posted it to Twitter. Cooper refers to the racist altercation in the Ramble as “The Incident,” preferring to diminish this chapter of his life rather than allow it to enjoy outsized importance in a well-lived six decades. Readers will be grateful he did as his book spills over with colorful, immersive stories of his worldwide birding adventures, the people he meets along the way, and his days working as an editor for Marvel Comics.

His unabashed love for things with wings bellows from the pages, making you wish you could be there alongside him, sharing in the rapture. His analogies of bird behavior to aspects of African-American history such as migration seem a bit strained at times, but, overall, they hit the mark. Multiple birding tips, useful for new and experienced birders alike, punctuate the text. Finally, Cooper anchors his book with his “Seven Joys of Birding” such as his “First Pleasure of Birding: The Beauty of Birds.” I can't disagree with that one! More poignant aspects of the book explore his uneasy relationship with his distant late father and Cooper’s doomed love affairs.

The penultimate chapter explores in depth “The Incident” and his reaction to the murder of George Floyd. Cooper's refusal to prosecute “Central Park Karen” astounded many African-Americans (including myself). After all, baseless accusations by women have led to the lynching of many Black men and boys in both the North and the South. Emmet Till's horrific death for supposedly whistling at a white woman in a store in 1955, just a year before my birth, remains seared in our collective memory. But for Cooper, this was the right thing to do, and his explanation for why he did not seek retribution is remarkable reading. The last chapter addresses the existing social and racial barriers hindering birders of color and Cooper’s work in promoting birding in young people as both a bird walk leader and as host of the televised nature program, Extraordinary Birder with Christan Cooper on National Geographic. In this chapter, Cooper returns to Alabama, the land of his ancestors, to participate in the Black Belt Birding Festival. His ambivalence about the South is palpable, but his short stay in Alabama ended on a positive note—chasing Chimney Swifts in Selma.

I greatly enjoyed reading Cooper's new memoir. While his writing lacks the lyrical beauty of a Camille Dungy or J. Drew Lanham, Cooper more than makes up for this with his exuberant storytelling, infectious enthusiasm for birds, and his willingness to probe difficult realities. I especially enjoyed his discussion on how he came to see the Common Grackle with new eyes thanks to a young child: “To recognize something as beautiful, sometimes all it takes is a change of perspective.” Amen. Better Living Through Birding is an important addition to the growing lexicon of works by naturalists and birders of color. It offers something for everyone; whether you're a diehard lister or casual birdwatcher, gay or straight, Black or white, the lessons imparted are universal. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was the importance of forgiveness. Whenever we can forgive others, we forgive ourselves, removing a burden that helps us move forward to take on with greater fortitude the tough issues threatening our planet. Forgive we must. For ourselves and for the birds.

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April D. Campbell, MD grew up in rural Connecticut surrounded by wildness. Her love of birds was inspired by the whirling Barn Swallows that nested in her family's heritage barn. Upon retirement, Dr. Campbell founded BIPOC Birders of Michigan, an organization devoted to introducing marginalized communities to the joys of nature. She currently resides in Ann Arbor with her wife, three cats, and a very stubborn dachshund.