Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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There are so many ways to fail

A quite beautiful essay at The Millions, by Emily Strelow: Us Animals: Writing the Natural World Back into the Human

There are so many ways for a nest to fail. So many ways for a sentence to fail. In my years as a field biologist I watched how the natural world dealt with the inevitability of failure—in life, mating, reproduction, predation. Unaware, I began to translate what I observed directly into my writing style….The survival rate for songbird offspring is only about 30 percent. … While doing nest monitoring on the Gila River, our crew monitored some 50-plus Southwestern willow flycatcher nests. … Over and over in the course of just one field season we watched this struggling population build, lose offspring, rebuild, and try all over again. I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, but this kind of constant reminder of life’s fragility crept its way into my perspective and prose.

Not an analogy I would have thought to draw. However, I have certainly been captured by Strelow’s essay because of the repeated nesting failures of the flycatchers that nest on the lights over my deck. Too much cold, stormy weather will kill the babies in some years; all of young nestlings died last year during an unrelenting three-day storm of violent winds and cold rains. In other years, the babies fledge into my yard, where they run the gamut of many spaniels and one (admittedly elderly) cat. This generally ends badly, though I try hard to keep an eye out for the fledglings.

The natural world is filled with dangers for fledglings. One year a turtle got one of the babies and ate its legs. I had to kill the poor thing myself to spare it further suffering. I’ve never felt quite the same about box turtles since.

I watched a pair of wrens lose three nests in one year to raccoons. I like wrens a lot. They built their nest somewhere else the next year, fortunately.

I don’t think I would like to monitor 50 nests a year. The failure rate would be hard on the heart.

I began to write stories about loss—and then survival—with the particular lens of a biologist. The people in my novel began to share traits with some of the animals I observed. My characters knew how to pick up the pieces and march on into the future. They didn’t make a big deal of it when their whole life fell apart, but moved on because they had to.

In The Dark Hand of Magic, Barbara Hambly has a secondary character lose his daughters — they are killed, to be plain — and later he says, “I’ll get over it, I know. I mean, people do.” This struck me hard at the time. I mean, people do. It’s the doubtful phrase of someone who has seen enough death to know that people do go on, even if he can’t quite imagine how.

Sharon Shinn captures the same type of moment in Fortune and Fate. “I don’t know if I can live with that,” one character says. And another answers, “But you already have.” It’s a powerful moment.

It’s shocking sometimes, to pause and consider what life was like for most people throughout most of history. Children die; loved ones die; whole villages are devastated by natural disaster or the Mongol horde. And then the survivors go on.

I don’t like quite that much tragedy in my fiction, usually.

Strelow post isn’t actually about death. It’s about how we are influenced by our environment, and by our biology. She finishes:

As Barbara Kingsolver said in Animal Dreams, “We’re animals. We’re born like every other mammal and we live our whole lives around disguised animal thoughts.” When I finally wrote my novel, I took this idea to heart. I wrapped the scientist, the mother, the writer, all together. I bundled her up and packed her through the desert, through a grassland, and down a swollen stream in order to try and understand in some small way what living as a human animal is all about.

I was interested enough to look up her novel, which it turns out is called — perhaps this is not surprising — The Wild Birds. Here is what Amazon says about it:


Cast adrift in 1870s San Francisco after the death of her mother, a girl named Olive disguises herself as a boy and works as a lighthouse keeper’s assistant on the Farallon Islands to escape the dangers of a world unkind to young women. In 1941, nomad Victor scours the Sierras searching for refuge from a home to which he never belonged. And in the present day, precocious fifteen year-old Lily struggles, despite her willfulness, to find a place for herself amongst the small town attitudes of Burning Hills, Oregon. Living alone with her hardscrabble mother Alice compounds the problem―though their unique relationship to the natural world ties them together, Alice keeps an awful secret from her daughter, one that threatens to ignite the tension growing between them.

Emily Strelow’s mesmerizing debut stitches together a sprawling saga of the feral Northwest across farmlands and deserts and generations: an American mosaic alive with birdsong and gunsmoke, held together by a silver box of eggshells―a long-ago gift from a mother to her daughter. Written with grace, grit, and an acute knowledge of how the past insists upon itself, The Wild Birds is a radiant and human story about the shelters we find and make along our crooked paths home.

Literary fiction, obviously. It has nine reviews so far, all five star, but I am not super-confident I would like it. All those awful secrets and growing tension! Well, I think I will get a sample just to see.

INCIDENTALLY, Shadow Twin has only 6 reviews so far. If you left one of them, thanks! If not, well …

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2 Comments There are so many ways to fail

  1. SarahZ

    I was trying to find some nature docs that were death free enough that I could watch them with my 2 year old, and sort of struck out. Lots of dead baby animals in that Islands episode of planet earth, for example :/

  2. Hanneke

    @SarahZ, you might do better with the older David Attenborough series from the BBC.
    Prey animals die when he’s showing predators, but he doesn’t dwell so much on the “nature red in tooth and claw” violence and death aspects.
    It’s been a while since I’ve watched the collection, but I have good memories from (among others) Private life of plants, Birds, and Life in the freezer, IIRC. Caveat: not all episodes in each series will be suitable!

    In my experience, anything from Discovery and National Geographic channel (that I’ve seen) tends to go for the dramatic, and has more emphasis on violence and death than I like.

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