If you’ve ever seen an osprey ride a thermal or dive-bomb an unsuspecting fish, you’d have to agree that it’s a glorious creature, physically imposing and a marvel of evolutionary efficiency. As such, it inspires great passion in people, and for a nature writer that kind of passion is often expressed in a hushed voice and the purplest of prose. To his great credit, David Gessner is a writer who determinedly, even militantly, resists that temptation.
In 2001 Gessner published Return of the Osprey , which has acquired a reputation as a minor classic of the genre. But his response to his sudden celebrity was, essentially, "Aargh..." His next book was a collection of droll and iconoclastic essays titled Sick of Nature , a phrase echoed in one of the world’s more uncompromising opening lines: "I am sick of nature. Sick of trees, sick of birds, sick of the ocean."
What bothered him most, it seemed, was the company he found himself keeping. He was repelled by the "pompous humility" of other Nature Writers; the activists were worse. In the same cranky mood as George Orwell’s as he considered his fellow socialists ("every fruit-juice-drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature-Cure Quack,’ pacifist and feminist in England"), Gessner griped in Sick of Nature that he and his cohort of Cape Cod environmentalists "looked like a reunion of Unabombers: solitary, hollow-eyed, scraggly-bearded characters ranting against progress."
But the guy just can’t help himself. Having gotten that off his chest, Gessner returns to the osprey, inviting us to join him on a pilgrimage that traces the bird’s winter migration from the salt ponds of New England to a mountaintop in southeastern Cuba, and thence to Venezuela, where ospreys like to winter. He offers himself as a kind of gonzo/doofus/poet/adventurer/tour guide, fueled by copious injections of caffeine, beer, and rum, his cultural horizons framed by Walt Whitman at one end and Ultimate Frisbee at the other. And even in the most banal parts of his trip -- like the dash to get his rental car back in time to avoid late fees -- he makes an engaging companion.
Although his travels take him through Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Gessner doesn’t evince much interest in human politics. More than anything it’s an annoying distraction. Havana’s charms elude him; it’s just an ugly place for a quick stopover in an uncomfortable hotel. Machine gun–toting soldiers and officious immigration clerks are notable mainly because they rob him of time better spent chasing ospreys and seeking out drinking buddies. The characters he meets along the way, from a Cuban bird-watcher named Freddy to a watched bird called Jaws, are nicely drawn, and each newcomer speeds us along smoothly to the next mini-adventure. There’s plenty of humor and warmth in these encounters, yet not an ounce of sentimentality. The story of a runt osprey chick being pecked to death and then fed to its siblings, for example, isn’t for the fainthearted romantic.
This probably isn’t a book that will change lives. There are only so many ways you can describe the sighting of an osprey, and some musings (the osprey’s restless journey mirrors our own quest for a coherent plot line in life) are a little familiar. Even so, Gessner’s travels are filled with small delights. He has a great gift for conveying reverence without sanctimony, and even at his most sardonic and self-deprecating, his sense of wonder at the osprey never falters. As he stands on a rock above Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, watching ospreys rocket past, we wish we could be up there beside him, binoculars in one hand, a cold beer in the other.
-- George Black