A Life in Birding
New York Times Sunday Book Review, 1990


by Erma J. Fisk
Illustrations by Louise Russell
248 pp; W.W. Norton; $19.95.

THE LATE ERMA J. FISK was a multi-sided warbler. At 80, she was still wondering how to keep in shape if she couldn't shovel her own snow, but unnerving friends by saying" I wish I were small and cuddly, wore ruffles and got kissed at parties." A serious amateur ornithologist of national note, she worked harder and longer studying the Least tern and spent more money and time trying to protect the species than anyone in the world. But she bore grudges against grackles, and had been known to describe sparrows as "stripy little brown birds" difficult to identify. Once she put out a store-bought duck to provide Christmas dinner for a neighborhood Cape Cod fox.

The Fisk method for getting to sleep (" Sheep are boring," she said) involved counting the different beds she'd slept in (in 41 countries) first as devoted Buffalo wife and mother, then as a Washington hostess, finally as a perennially grieving widow, field naturalist and aide to platoons of professional ornithologists in wild corners of the western hemisphere.

Had that been all, only a legion or so of friends and fellow a cult bestsellerbirders, would know of her. But starting at age 75, she began turning out books: The Peacocks of Baboquivari, Parrots' Wood and even an anecdote-filled A Birdwatcher's Cookbook which dismayed her by outselling her more serious work. Practically overnight she found herself a kind of cult bestseller, sought after as a literary celebrity on the lecture circuit.

Cape Cod Journal is a posthumous volume, apparently stitched together by her publisher. Readers of the earlier books will recognize the mix. The prose is spare, sophisticated, sneaky-fast, often comic, sometimes folksy, sometimes eloquent. She is the master of self-deflating parentheses (after a resounding statement), and brilliant, jack rabbit zig­zags down "the telescope of time" and into a seven-decade-long warren of memories. She tosses in letters to friends and disarming informal essays of the kind she has done in the past on such things as all the Jims in her life (the first a long dead dancing class partner in Brookline, Mass).

As before, when writing about the netting, handling and banding of birds, she is compelling, especially in conveying, say, the delicate, vibrating awe stirred by holding such a wondrous thing as a humming bird in the palm of your hand. If people expended energy as fast as these creatures, she has noted, they would have to gulp down 155,000 calories of food every twenty four hours. (For anyone counting, I figure that would come to 333 sirloin steaks, or 129 quarts of vanilla ice cream a day).

In Cape Cod Journal Mrs. Fisk is still banging around with reckless disregard for lost hearing, her gimpy leg, and now abedevilled by patronizing peacocks  bad heart that threatens to subtract her from the world at the drop of a Balchatri bird trap. Peacocks and Parrots involved her in fascinating, short-term bird work, alone in the wintry Arizona desert or the back country of Belize, variously bedeviled by flash floods, Doberman Pinschers, marauding hawks and patronizing peacocks. This book sets her down in her last home near Nauset Beach, and runs roughly between 1982 and her death at 85 in January 1990.

The entries are not day-to-day, either. Often dated months apart, they occasionally repeat almost word for word sentiments expressed in other books. The scrapes she gets into this time have less to do with nature and birding, more to do with taking on too many lectures, and trying to flog the sale of her books. She would, she tells us, even stop and sell copies of Peacocks from the back of her Volkswagen - an okay procedure, since characteristically she had transferred all royalties to the Nature Conservancy. Cape Cod's working title, in fact, should be " What was it like to publish a book and tear around giving lectures as an octogenarian bird lady turned author?"

Well, it was fun, of course. Though testy with young female copy-writers who mess with her commas, Mrs. Fisk had a shameless crush on W.W. Norton. She is the only writer I know of who actually dispatched a New York friend to take snapshots of her editor, his office and his assistant ("See if she has pretty legs?" she wants to know. "Tell me if he's the kind who notices legs?") When the first copy of Peacocks arrived her emotion was so strong she did not think of champagne. "I pulled out the vacuum cleaner and furniture polish, " she writes, letting the grin show through, "A Norton author mustn't live in a dusty home. "

As an anecdotal nature writer doing cheerfully jeweled bridgework between the world of birds and the world of people, Mrs. Fisk deserves all the critical success she has had. Her large, popular following, though, came from readers who Adventure is a state of mind.cared more about the birder than the birding. She thought she had written "a bird journal," she says, but found readers thanking her "for giving them courage." During book and bird lectures soon found herself having to offer advice, based on approaches that had helped provide second and third acts in her particular American life. Sometimes, she admits, she felt a bit like a fraud. Indeed, the advice offered mostly struck this reader as standard issue upbeat: Adventure is a state of mind. You never stop learning; step through one door and another will open for you. Get a job - anything to keep you busy.

Older people, especially, paid attention, though, partly for the same reason you listen when a combat veteran talk about combat. Mrs. Fisk was no stranger to the "small deaths of the spirit," and the "the sneaky indignities" of old age. Bit by bit, almost inadvertently, the glancing, often understated personal references in her birding (and now publishing) journals, add up to a provocative autobiography, erratically presented fragments of a life whose with gaps and reticences that stir curiosity.

A broad jumper at Vassar with father who taught her that men know best. A traditional woman in a traditional pre-war marriage that she loved. The death of a husband from which, in thirty years, she did not recover. After he died, she writes, "I couldn't pretend to gaiety. Handle the necessary chitchat." So she moved away from her children, old friends, old haunts, and parleyed enthusiasm for birding into a career, a different sort of usefulness, some kind of fame. Only the young believe that grief is wholly curable.

"When we are gone, our book is closed," Mrs.Fisk wrote in Parrots' Wood. "It goes on the shelf.  We live only in memories until the people who remember us are also gone." Whether that is all there is to it or not, "Peacocks and Parrots'" are likely to have a longish shelf life. Perhaps Cape Cod Journal too. But beside them, it seems like mere gleanings from a richer harvest.