A brief introduction and a few shared thoughts on my book choice for Reading Wales 2023
“I mistrust the love of wild places, and ideas of the natural world. I mean my own love of wild places, of the idea of the wild, as much as anyone else’s.”
When Jasmine Donahaye speaks of ‘birdsplaining’, she is aware that some readers may object to the term, finding it judgemental, perhaps even threatening – much as they are aggravated by ‘mansplaining‘, the word from which it derives – but she sees its use in describing “situations where there is an imbalance of power [and a] member of a majority group presuming to ‘explain’ to a member of a disempowered minority what they ought to think” as constructive and really rather useful. The expression allows her to use the study of birds as a means of understanding social and human relationships and enables her to react to privilege and power-exercising in everyday life. ‘Birdsplaining’, therefore, represents to the author the manner in which some people “talk over, talk down to, and explain others’ experience for them” – only in this instance, it is via the world of birdwatching.
Birdsplaining: A Natural History is a is a medley of memoir, environmental essay and thoughtful dialogue focussed on the uniqueness of women’s understanding of nature and the restrictions so often placed upon it. The collection started life as Reading the Signs, the working title for five interlinked essays “exploring the constraints and boundaries placed upon women’s experience of the natural world.” In this form it won the New Welsh Writing Awards: Rheidol Prize for Prose with a Welsh Theme or Setting in 2021 and was described by judge Gwen Davies as a “rich and highly rewarding” non-fiction treatise formulating a “feminist case against self-annihilation in nature and in nature writing.”
The completed book, published only in January, describes on the cover the author “understanding things on her own terms and undoing old lessons about how to behave.” Here, she has found the ideal platform to confront fears of violence and the “body’s betrayals” by pluckily (pun intended) permitting herself to “get things wrong”.
As she treks across Wales, Scotland and California, discovering that the natural world isn’t necessarily “transformative and spectacular,” but is often “squalid and mundane,” she weaves her experiences of grief, sickness, domestic violence, sexism and, of course, birds (along with other wildlife) into the narrative.
She is peeved to realise that field guides and ornithologists in general give precedence to male birds. They are typically depicted on the page as being far more interesting than females of the species – the latter seemingly included as an afterthought. This example (one of many) leads her to draw intriguing comparisons with human patriarchal and colonial hierarchies and gives weight to her refreshing approach to natural history.
Donahaye claims to know little about birds (although, frankly, I would dispute her assertion since she can clearly tell her nuthatch from her treecreeper), and the “presiding mode” of her book is “uncertainty”. However, these warm-blooded, egg-laying, feathered vertebrate do help her find meaning in life through encounters and sometimes symbolism. In chapter 12, for instance, she confesses that whenever spotting gannets out at sea (comically described here as “stinking great bird[s] with a sword for a beak, and ridiculous webbed feet”) she suspects them of being a portent, carrying “some message” for her.
This thought-provoking collection is perceptive, funny, unflinching, even angry at times, but it is also as rare as a kelp gull in Cardigan Bay. Birdsplaining is an innovative way to examine power, which completely overturns traditional ways of observing the natural world. I am delighted that I chose to read it for Dewithon 23.
“Living in a state of fear leaves a permanent mark. You can’t entirely unlearn it. But you can change what you do about it…”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Based in the village of Lledrod in rural Ceredigion, Jasmine Donahaye – Professor of Creative Writing at Swansea University – is known in Wales and beyond for penning a range of narrative non-fiction, fiction, poetry and cultural criticism, including Losing Israel, which won the non-fiction category of Wales Book of the Year 2016.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on Birdsplaining.
Categories: Reading Wales