Novelist Amy Tan’s Backyard Birdwatching Journey


You in all probability know Amy Tan from her novels The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter’s Daughter or from her memoir, story collections and kids’s books. But the National Humanities Medal winner can be a passionate animal lover. And as along with her writing, Tan by no means does issues midway. 

When Tan determined she beloved Yorkshire terriers, she quickly turned co-owner of a Yorkie that gained on the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. She additionally has crusaded in opposition to pet mill homeowners. “Animals are a big thing,” Tan says. 

So in 2016, when Tan started to concentrate to birds, her curiosity quickly grew into what she calls an obsession. The product of that point and keenness is The Backyard Bird Chronicles, revealed this month from Knopf and accessible at REI Co-op.  

When she started to observe birds, Tan might identify solely about three of the species that frequented her dwelling in Sausalito. Today, her “yard list” is as much as 63 species. But she’s not in it for the numbers. As her potential to establish them grows, so does her data of their habitat, habits, foraging and the like. A wider appreciation of the world near dwelling opens to her eyes. It seems that birders and novelists have one thing in widespread: They are each good noticers. At age 64, she additionally enrolled in her first-ever nature journaling and drawing class with the naturalist and creator John Muir “Jack” Laws. She practices drawing birds day-after-day, placing in what Laws calls “pencil miles.” It seems that she’s fairly good at it. 

As a end result, the pages of Chronicles are stuffed with Tan’s pretty sketches in addition to her handwritten notes and typed descriptions. David Henkes, ebook purchaser for REI Co-op, was drawn to the creator’s potential to find such surprise proper at dwelling and in addition how Tan makes us really feel that we are able to uncover that too. “That’s what really resonated with me: I’m a novice birder, so anytime I’m going outside, I’m always listening to see what birds might be around,” Henkes mentioned. 

Chronicles is a very totally different sort of ebook for Tan, even the creator acknowledges. The novel, with all its construction and meticulous shaping, “is torment,” she writes in her preface. Chronicles, however, is “pure fun”—“spontaneous, a bit of a mess, come what may,” she writes.  

We sat down with Tan—an REI Co-op member alongside along with her husband since their school years, after they had been avid backpackers—to speak about her distinctive path that resulted on this ebook and the way turning into a birdwatcher has modified her life. 

The book cover for The Backyard Bird Chronicles by Amy Tan
The Backyard Bird Chronicles by Amy Tan, $35

[REI Co-op]: Did you first begin taking nature journaling courses since you wished to be taught to precisely doc wildlife—or was it one other method to pursue your rising curiosity in birds? 

Amy Tan: I didn’t actually set out to attract simply to attract. My entire that means for this initially was to get away from all of the noise and the racist rhetoric of 2016. I had obtained, over the course of my life, varied insults and issues. I’d been advised to “Go back to where you come from” (I all the time wish to say, “Oakland?”)—however to not this diploma, the place I all the time felt I needed to be suspicious. Before and after the 2016 election, it was very disturbing. I didn’t wish to be consumed by the truth that I used to be surrounded by what appeared like loads of hateful folks. This, after all, worsened throughout COVID, and it gave me the sense that that is the truth that African Americans face day-after-day. I’m simply getting just a little a part of it. And I can see the way it simply throws you off steadiness, on a regular basis.  

If someone ignores me in a retailer, or someone doesn’t serve me—serves all people on [an] airplane however me—and doesn’t acknowledge me, doesn’t take a look at me, I believe, Why? And one of many issues that crosses my thoughts is that they’re racist and so they don’t like Asian folks. So that’s to simply provide the sense of what it was that I used to be coping with—the ugliness of it. I made a decision to enter nature and see magnificence.  

The birds, the animals, they don’t care. I imply, they care that you just’re there, in that generally they wish to get away from you. So it’s worthwhile to be taught to have a superb relationship with nature, studying what that respect is, and appreciating it at deeper ranges. Drawing that will allow me to note extra patterns. Details. Seasons of change. And to seize it. 

Illustrations of goldfinches and pine siskins on a branch.

I believe there’s a tipping level in appreciating birds, the place abruptly you’re simply as within the little brown birds as you’re within the large, “interesting,” vibrant birds, and it turns into simply as a lot a pleasure to observe home sparrows as it’s to see an owl or an eagle. Did you will have that arc?  

Tan: Pretty shortly. Of course, folks wish to sketch a giant chook, just like the red-tailed hawk. But there was a hummingbird that landed on my palm, and I might see all the pieces about it. And that was the chook. That first time a hummingbird simply regarded up at me—it’s consuming and taking a look at me, and I’m wanting down on its little head, and looking out on the feather sample, and the way lovely and complicated it was—and to suppose that it had developed, that this chook had come to appear like this, I used to be simply so amazed, and I fell in love with birds.  

And I believe when birds transfer you emotionally, it’s a tipping level. This one moved me in one other route, of being extremely unhappy. It was a sick chook that I noticed—a pine siskin—and it I assumed it was a child chook. It was actual fluffy. And then it landed on me, and I assumed, Well, that’s incorrect. And it wasn’t a child. I noticed it was December; it couldn’t be a child. And I noticed it was sick. I noticed its half-closed eyes; it wasn’t actually consuming and wasn’t actually swallowing. It had salmonellosis [a common, usually fatal disease in birds, often found when they gather in large numbers, including at feeders], which was going round; there was an outbreak.   

I took all of the feeders down. I threw away all of the open luggage of meals and gave away all the pieces else. And I assumed, I’ll by no means do that once more. It’s simply so heartbreaking. But you recognize, when issues break your coronary heart, they open your coronary heart; they break it open. And then I used to be eager about being concerned extra in saving birds or defending birds—in conservation.  

So I went again to it, however I used to be very cautious about monitoring what sort of birds are on the feeder and what I might do to maintain the feeders actually clear.  

You talked just a little bit concerning the accuracy and the foundations you set for your self in Chronicles—that you just weren’t simply going to sprinkle in different birds. But you additionally urged that it was lucky once you began that you just didn’t count on that this was ever going to be revealed as a result of it allowed you to play just a little extra freely within the area. How do you steadiness that need for issues to be good and correct with the enjoyment of simply getting it down on paper? 

Tan: At the time, as a result of it was only for me, I didn’t have this sense that I needed to make every of the drawings within the journal very practical. I used to be eager about studying how to attract birds, so I began doing extra detailed drawings. But that’s very totally different from nature journaling.  

So now, if I had been to do it over once more, I must remind myself concerning the nature of stepping into this for enjoyable—the dearth of subconsciousness, which fits in opposition to spontaneity, goes in opposition to the freshness and naturalness of what I’m doing. And I’d need to keep in mind that that is very a lot one thing for me and never for different folks to say, ‘Oh, wow, she drew a leg really well.’  

That, in the long run, is what’s price it. I take into consideration, additionally—and as I become older, this turns into extra necessary—this notion of: At the top of your life, what’s extra necessary? That she drew an ideal little foot? Or that she had a extremely nice time, simply spontaneously being within the second and seeing that conduct and capturing it? And in order that guides loads of what I do lately.  

An illustration of two ruby crowned kinglets and a typewriter along with some descriptive text that says "Yellow boots with an arrow to the bird's feet" and "It loves suet; it was constant bouncy movement in a tree"

You initially made this ebook only for you—and now it’s on the market for everybody. What are you hoping folks will stroll away with? 

Tan: The identical factor that I received out of it: to have enjoyable but additionally fall in love with birds—after which wish to save them. Birds made me wish to get into conservation. And I believe it’s a pure consequence of loving birds. So, if extra folks received into conservation, I’d be so grateful that that’s the message they received from the ebook. But largely the message is simply: Have enjoyable. Watch them. Love them. Appreciate them. Make your life extra joyful by watching birds. 

I don’t know lots about birds. I’m not an ornithologist. I’m not an professional birder. So I believe I’m coming in at a degree that’s the perfect, which is simply having an open-minded curiosity about them. To those that’ve by no means accomplished it earlier than, I’m saying: You’re so fortunate, as a result of you will have a lot to find. It’s all going to be great. 


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