Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

On Writing, with Richard Pope

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Cobourg resident Richard Pope, an enthusiastic birder and member of the Ontario Ornithological Club and the Ontario Field Ornithologists, is the author of The Reluctant Twitcher (Dundurn Press), a book that tells the story of his attempt to see more than 300 birds in Ontario in one year. Filled with colour photographs by Ontario’s best bird photographers, this is a great book for nature lovers, but it also uniquely portrays the human side of birding. Today, Richard tells Open Book about what led him to become a bird “twitcher” and not just a bird “watcher,” describes the strangest situation he found himself in during his Big Birding Year and explains how birdwatchers are similar to writers.

Open Book:

Tell us about your latest book, The Reluctant Twitcher.

Richard Pope:

The Reluctant Twitcher is a humorous description of my serious attempt to see more than 300 birds in Ontario in one year — in other words, to do what birders call a “Big Year.” I describe both the birds themselves and the myriad problems involved in the pursuit, not least of which is telling your family that no, you will not be attending the function at hand because you have to go haring off after some recently appearing rarity. Though written on a level that satisfies birders, the book is also aimed at general readers with an interest in nature and presents the human side of birding. The book features 40 colour photographs by nine of Ontario’s best bird photographers.


What was it that caused you to go from being a bird “watcher” to a bird “twitcher”?


A serious birder from childhood — my first heard-only bird was a Pileated Woodpecker heard after only five months in the womb (details in the book) — I had never really had the time or inclination to race off after every reported rarity, preferring rather a more leisurely pace and to find my own birds. Upon retiring, however, one of my closest birding friends, Hugh Currie, a fellow member of the Toronto Ornithological Club and a hardcore twitcher, suggested I do a Big Year in Ontario. At first I rejected the idea outright, but then as I thought about it, I warmed to the idea and felt it might be fun and give me something to do in case time hung heavy on my hands. I did not foresee getting completely hooked on the chase; nor did I anticipate the desperate fear of failure that would come over me and drive me towards madness as the year went, or perhaps I would have taken up solitaire or the drink. I did not fully understand the meaning of someone being “strictly for the birds.”


Can you describe the strangest situation that you found yourself in during your Big Birding Year?


By late November it had really become difficult to find new Ontario year birds. I was stuck at 295 and sinking ever deeper into the slough of despond. People were already writing me off as a loser and saying things like, “Oh, well, 295 is pretty good, you know,” i.e., for someone like me. Then a Yellow-breasted Chat turned up in the park at Ashbridge’s Bay in Toronto! I had somehow missed this migrant during the spring and summer and had long since given up hope for one. On November 21 in dreadful freezing rain I raced to Toronto to try for the Chat in fullest comprehension of the certainty of defeat. You can’t count a bird in a block of ice even if it twitches when touched with a cattle prod.

The bird had been seen in the extreme southwest corner of the park. I arrived and ran full tilt to the extreme southeast corner of the park and searched desperately for several hours in pelting sleet. I hated to give up and stopped to regroup and clarify my thoughts. “What do I know?” I asked myself. I know the bird is in the extreme southwest corner of the park. “Why, then, you idiot, are you in the southeast corner?” I asked myself. I rushed over to the other side of the park and managed to find the bird before one of the two of us perished in the freezing rain. Numb with cold I staggered back to the car to warm up and called my wife to report my success. Breathlessly she told me my friend Margaret had just called to say the Northern Gannet I had missed was back in the Cobourg Harbour. In just under an hour I was on the end of the harbour headland, my fingers and eye freezing to my telescope, thinking that perhaps I should stick to tropical birding from now on.


Would you say there are similarities between the personalities of birdwatchers and writers? How do the two pursuits complement each other?


Both birders and writers tend to be compulsive and obsessive and driven by the subject at hand. Birds are essentially poetic, as the enormous amount of bird poetry would suggest, and their esthetic appeal and the birder’s desire to know everything about them mirror the writer’s desire to research and master a subject and then put it into perfect form.


What is your ideal writing environment?


Like William Boyd, I like to write in my study surrounded by my library. Since I am a book buyer, my library is always full of books about my subject at hand. I am a compulsive researcher. However, to my surprise, I can write anywhere, no matter what the distractions or for how brief a time. If one is interested enough in one’s writing, it seems anywhere is ideal. I wrote my first book in four leisurely months in a log cabin in the bush and my second one over eight years in spare moments snatched when not teaching or preparing classes. The bird book I wrote in that ideal study.


What is your ideal birdwatching environment?


As with writing, so with birdwatching: any environment can be ideal if you are interested enough in the birds you are pursuing. However, I must say that watching great numbers of colourful birds close at hand in the warm jungles of places like Costa Rica, Belize and Panama — to name just three favorites — is hard to beat.


What are you working on now?


I have just completed a satirical novel about the writing industry called Dostoevsky’s Advice and am trying to place my recently finished World War I novel, On Sorrow’s Watch. I am forever rewriting and improving my large historical novel set in the late 18th century presenting the fur trade through Ojibwe eyes.

Richard Pope, author of Me n Len: Life in the Haliburton Bush, 1900-1940 and the voyageur epic Superior Illusions (Dundurn Press), is a recently retired professor of Russian literature and culture at York University and a long-standing member of the Ontario Ornithological Club and the Ontario Field Ornithologists. He and his wife, Felicity, live in Cobourg, Ontario.

For more information about The Reluctant Twitcher please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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