Thursday, December 27, 2007


Sightings: Extraordinay Encounters with Ordinary Birds by Sam Keen. Keen offers his take on naturalistic spirituality in a series of short essays, many of which center on the author’s experiences as a birdwatcher. More than a few of these present what sounds like a romanticized version of his childhood, as, for instance, when he describes his first sighting of an Indigo Bunting (at the age of 10) as effortlessly slipping “into a state of grace in which I felt honored by a magical being...”. Some of the personal revelations also seem unnecessarily confessional.

In one essay he makes the somewhat bizarre assertion that his DNA has been around since the Big Bang (p 53), indicating a decided lack of familiarity with astrophysics and genetics. He subsequently states he does not understand much about the Big Bang (p 80), which, unfortunately, does not prevent him from indulging in loopy speculation about it.

The theme of the book, experiencing the sacred through rapport with the natural world, is appealing, but the author fails to convey the essence of such experiences and his thinking is often muddled and confused. Despite these problems, the ideas he tries (somewhat ineptly) to explore are worth the attention of those interested in naturalism. Personally, I found myself in strong agreement with some of his arguments and enjoyed the book despite its flaws. My favorite among his essays, “Dwelling Among Familiars,” concerns a flock of wild turkeys that congregated around his house one year.

Mary Woodin’s lovely watercolor illustrations compensate to a certain extent for the shortcomings of the text. The book itself is beautifully designed, as Chronicle books tend to be.

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