I don’t recall how or when I first came across the writing of Meera Lee Sethi at her blog, The Science Essayist, but I remember slowing down my normal speed reading to savor her thoughts and words. While there are many blogs I enjoy for their content, I enjoy Meera’s blog for her lyricism, poetry, and sharp insight. She has a way of taking a seemingly ordinary natural thing, like dragon flies along the Gulf Coast, and imbuing it with extraordinary meaning, sense of place, history, and ecological and literary context.
Her writing dissects in detail things from the natural world that most people would simply lump into an archetypal category such as “insect” or “bird;” but she patiently peels back layer after layer until whatever thing it is she’s writing about is laid bare, explored, and exposed as a unique organism with a unique story and a unique place in the universe.
Meera volunteers at the Chicago Field Museum’s ornithology lab a day or two each week where she prepares bird skins. Sometimes she writes blog posts about the birds she encounters there. Sometimes it’s a tidbit about the species, sometimes it’s a tale of a particular bird or an interesting nugget about its life cycle, behavior or ecology. It’s always interesting.
Last summer, Meera sent an email to her friends and colleagues asking them to support a project she’d posted to Kickstarter. She was going to volunteer at a bird lab in Sweden, and she wanted to self-publish a book about the experience. I happily donated $50 and wished her well though secretly I was a bit jealous. Whereas I would spend my whole summer indoors planted at my desk, having an intimate affair with my laptop (writing my own book), she would spend hers hiking rugged mountains in Sweden and spending her daylight hours out of doors, chasing beautiful birds with beautiful stories.
A few months ago, her book arrived. It’s called MountainFit: Fjall Sommar, Fjallsjalv. Though she’d originally pitched the book as a “thank you” to folks supporting her project, I got the sense through various emails and tweets that her book had taken on a strange life of its own in the ensuing months since she’d returned from Sweden to her home in Chicago. It seemed she was wrestling with something deeply internal and personal… which is why I knew it was going to be an awesome read before I even cracked it open.
When I finally had a clear mind to read MountainFit, I was mesmerized. It’s some of her best writing that I’ve yet read.
In a nutshell, she composed a very long essay in twenty-one parts, with each part delineated as a chapter. Though I’ve been calling it a book because she does (I’ve no idea what the total word count is) the book’s length is on par with a longform New Yorker piece. It is the story of her experiences at the bird lab in Sweden; it’s a story of geography and ornithological natural history and the myths people have created around animals. But on a deeper level, it may also be a story of Meera’s reconciling of her inner geography, her sense of finding her place in the world, learning to be herself and trust herself wherever she happens to be.
She wrote of her doings at the bird lab, of learning to track gyrfalcons with radio telemetry, to monitor flycatchers in nest boxes, and the ecological importance of lemming erruptions to snowy owls, among many other predators. And while the events of the summer are interesting, what makes them truly engaging is Meera’s powerful sense of description and word choice. Take, for example, this excerpt describing catching a live bird:
I touch a finger to the azure head of a blue tit — still spitting bombshells from an open bill — and watch its feathers part when Stefan blows against its belly to check for fat below its filmy, wrinkled skin. This is the moment it first becomes obvious why being close to a bird, particularly a small one, moves us so: its entire body is a fibrillating heart.
Earlier in the text Meera described the first time she held a live bird as “shot through with the fevered nerve of a first kiss;” and despite a cold rain, the bird’s stomach was “warm as summer mud.” Meera’s attention to word choice, her sentence structure, cadence and pacing within each chapter/essay are exquisite. I could have just as easily stumbled across this story as a longform piece in Orion or a similar literary magazine.
In another poetic example she described herself, a brown-skinned girl from Singapore adrift in a pale white Nordic country. But the way she portrays the out-of-placeness of her skin color is stupefyingly beautiful: she recounts an anecdote where she and one of the Swedish bird lab staff members, Jennie, are sunning themselves on a hillside when Jennie reaches out to inspect Meera’s arm:
This is how I know I am strange to her: that she needs to see me up close. Jennie holds my arm close to her face… She has not known this shade of me before. She turns me over and under, over and under, measuring the milk-tea underside of my arm against the burnt carmel top. The difference astonishes… She returns my arm, turns to the sun, and closes her eyes. I can’t be sure, but I believe she’s made a brief addendum to the entry labeled with my name in the field guide she is keeping in her mind: After summer sun, turns umber.
What is lovely to me about this passage is Meera’s ability to turn her scrutiny of wildlife, her keen naturalists’ eye, onto herself. Given that she’s spending a summer detailing the behavior and ecology of birds, the twist of perceiving herself through the eyes of her Swedish hosts — that they may be cataloging her otherness with a naturalists’ propensity for noting anatomical details, just as she’s been cataloging their birds with the same powers of observation — reveals her remarkable capacity for finding meaning and insight in the simplest of interactions. But the color of her skin is most likely also a physical metaphor for the mental otherness in which she percieves herself in comparison to others: it’s as if in studying birds she is searching for meaning about where and how she herself fits into the world.
In this vein, she makes a deep discovery by way of a migrating lanceolated warbler which has lost its way and ended up very off course, very out of its natural element, and very out of place. Visiting the meadow where this vagrant bird had been reported, Meera heard it singing for a mate it would never find. She reflected that its song was “the voice of conviction in the face of loss.” For birders, vagrants are entrancing and beguiling things to be gawked at and observed. She writes that they represent an animal which had a clear objective to get somewhere but somehow along its journey got irreconcilably off course and landed in a place where it was never intended to be. Meera relates to the bird’s state of being lost, of searching for a path to lead it where it is supposed to be.
Meera’s sighting of the lanceolated warbler comes near the end of her stay at the bird observatory and in the closing sections of the book. She traveled several hundred kilometers with an ornithologist to see the lost bird. Something fundamentally transformative must have transpired when she finally spied and heard that little wayward warbler, several thousand kilometers away from the breeding grounds where it was meant to be. She writes that she realized she’d spent most of her life seeking out an internal map to chart her course through life — something intrinsic to comfort her that she was on the right track, something to offer the certainty of knowing she was heading in the right direction, something like the internal map that guides birds on migrations — but that she’d never before “realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There is very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return.” In that moment, it became clear to Meera that although she was born lacking a blueprint or a map for life’s journeys, what separated her from the bird’s purgatory in lostness was that she knew the geography in which she was wandering; and she knew that home was where she chose to make it. From this revelation she was comforted with the knowledge that she could never be truly lost. I would seem that seeing the vagrant birthed an epiphany that she didn’t need a blueprint or a map, what she most needed was to simply trust that she herself could be a reliable guide through her own life.
It’s clear that Meera’s journey to Sweden turned out to be as much about seeking out new birds as it was about seeking out new insights of self. She learned to be comfortable out of her element, comfortable exploring new physical and emotional geographies, and somehow it seems she discovered that home — or at least a comforting sense of place — can be present even when wandering in uncharted territories and new lands.
Though only a limited number of MountainFit copies were printed in paperback form, anyone can purchase this delightful piece as an e-book from her website.