Books

How birdwatching inspired CBC Short Story Prize finalist Julia Zarankin's first book

In her memoir Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, the Toronto-based writer shares how taking up the hobby helped her navigate life's challenges with a new perspective.
Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder is a book by Julia Zarankin. (Douglas & McIntyre, Submitted by Julia Zarankin)

CBC Short Story Prize finalist Julia Zarankin has released her first book, Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder: A Memoir.

In it, Zarakin recounts how she took up birdwatching during a stressful career transition following a divorce. Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder explores how finding meaning in midlife can often happen in unexpected ways.

Julia Zarankin with a bufflehead bird. (Submitted by Julia Zarankin)

Zarakin's story Black-legged Kittiwake, which follows a quirky couple with a passion for birding who slowly drift apart, made the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist.

The 2021 CBC Short Story Prize is currently open and is accepting submissions until Oct. 31, 2020. 

The Toronto-based writer spoke with CBC Radio's Fresh Air host Jelena Adzic about the inspiration behind her new memoir.

Author Julia Zarankin describes her journey of looking for a path forward after a time of being in between careers and dealing with the end of a relationship. It's a journey she documents in her new book 'Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder - A Memoir'. Host Jelena Adzic connects with the author to helps us all glean wisdom from the winged ones. 8:41

My bird problem

"It began when I was transitioning between careers. I was at loose ends. I started auditioning hobbies. I tried pottery. I tried this. I tried that. I wanted something contemplative without having to do yoga and contortionist poses. And I happened upon an essay by Jonathan Franzen called My Bird Problem and I became hooked. And I thought, 'Maybe that's what I need! Maybe that will solve all my issues — a bird problem of my own.'

I saw my first red-winged blackbird and it completely changed my life. It made me see in a different way.

"The first time I went birding, I went initially to stare at the birders because I had had a completely indoor life. My family didn't camp. My parents are concert pianists. We went to the symphony. We went to the ballet, opera. We didn't do the outdoors, so this is a totally different new world for me.

"I saw my first red-winged blackbird and it completely changed my life. It made me see in a different way. I had just assumed that this bird — which incidentally is one of the most common migrants — I had assumed it was exotic. My bird group was like, 'No, no, they're common.' Then I suddenly wondered, what else had I been missing all these years?

"It forced me to slow down and it forced me to look at the details of things. When you're watching birds, you're attuned to find detail. That forced me to embrace the present moment, to stop hoping that it would be something else and just be happy with what was in front of me."

Julia Zarankin birding on a beach. (Submitted by Julia Zarankin)

Lessons in love

"What birds really taught me about love was not how to fall in love, but how to stay in love. And that was the area that I needed the most coaching in. 

What birds really taught me about love was not how to fall in love, but how to stay in love.

"When you watch birds closely, it's important to pay attention to what's in front of you and not to what you would like to see in front of you. It's about embracing reality and also understanding the minute differences are often what help us get along. Diversity is important. Those are some of the lessons I learned from birding and it certainly made the marriage stronger."

A new book "Field Notes From an Unintentional Birder - A Memoir" 7:20

Advice to budding birders

"If you do have a backyard, set up a feeder. You will get more feeder drama than you ever imagined. Things get exciting in your backyard. If you don't have a backyard, just look up any time you're out for a walk. Go to the ravines or anywhere near water and you will just see tons of diversity. Pretty much the only thing you need is a pair of binoculars. Look up and be mesmerized."

Julia Zarankin's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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