Better Living Through Birding:
Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World
by Christian Cooper
pub date 13-June-2023
AMBER LOVE 18-MAY-2023 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I also have Amazon recommendations in lists which may provide affiliate income.
- violence by police
Central Park birder Christian Cooper takes us beyond the viral video that shocked a nation and into a world of avian adventures, global excursions, and the unexpected lessons you can learn from a life spent looking up.
Christian Cooper is a self-described “Blerd” (Black nerd), an avid comics fan and expert birder who devotes every spring to gazing upon the migratory birds that stop to rest in Central Park, just a subway ride away from where he lives in New York City. While in the park one morning in May 2020, Cooper was engaged in the birdwatching ritual that had been a part of his life since he was ten years old when what might have been a routine encounter with a dog walker exploded age-old racial tensions. Cooper’s viral video of the incident would send shock waves through the nation.
In Better Living Through Birding, Cooper tells the story of his extraordinary life leading up to the now-infamous incident in Central Park and shows how a life spent looking up at the birds prepared him, in the most uncanny of ways, to be a gay, Black man in America today. From sharpened senses that work just as well at a protest as in a park to what a bird like the Common Grackle can teach us about self-acceptance, Better Living Through Birding exults in the pleasures of a life lived in pursuit of the natural world and invites you to discover them yourself.
Equal parts memoir, travelogue, and primer on the art of birding, this is Cooper’s story of learning to claim and defend space for himself and others like him, from his days at Marvel Comics introducing the first gay storylines to vivid and life-changing birding expeditions through Africa, Australia, the Americas, and the Himalayas. Better Living Through Birding recounts Cooper’s journey through the wonderful world of birds and what they can teach us about life, if only we would look and listen.
** Photos in this post not from the book.
When I say it was an honor and a privilege to get approved by Random House to read an advanced copy of Christian Cooper’s Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World, it is a sentiment that is one-hundred-percent genuine. I’m a middle-aged white woman in the reasonably secure suburbs of New Jersey. Like most of the news-watchers of the New York City area, I first heard about Christian Cooper when he had an infamous interaction with a white woman named Amy Cooper in Central Park. It was Christian’s own video and his sister who uploaded it that made him a viral sensation. He was not prepared for that.
Immediately, since I’m in social circles of comic book nerds, people were posting that Christian used to work at Marvel Comics. I got an email from a mutual friend and former Marvel and DC Comics editor, Bunche, alerting me to what a peaceful sweetheart Christian Cooper is. Bunche is among the coworkers mentioned in Christian’s chapter of being at Marvel Comics which brings me to a key point about Better Living Through Birding—pay attention to the summary; this is a memoir not a book on birding. There are some excellent tips for birding especially in Central Park, but it is not a guide book to birding. I point this out because I noticed other reviewers saying they were disappointed or that they did appreciate reading about Christian’s personal (ie, gay) romantic life in several countries.
Trust me, there is nothing graphicly depicted simply because he talks openly about his social life. All he says is that he spent the night with this man or that man. One of them ends up being a racist, which Christian only discovers after their tryst. It’s the most benign and vanilla way to present dating. If that offends you, I don’t know what to tell you. Guide books on animals have more details about mating rituals.
What you do get is a well-written memoir about the life of a person who goes from being a little gay boy hating himself and afraid to a brilliant man with a talent for the spoken word of human language and bird songs. He can identify any bird in Central Park by its sounds, location, and slightest movements. Christian Cooper is the hero of his story and he doesn’t take full credit. His parents, who did eventually divorce, each had their periods with him showing support. His father Francis wasn’t interested in birding, but loved being outdoors. Francis took his little boy to go on birding walks all the time and this is when Christian met the most influential people of his passion. Was his father great? Hell, no. He was often mean and abusive. In time, Francis married a woman named Miriam who brought out the best in him. By then, Christian was already a Harvard graduate and professional writer and editor.
The chapters are long. There are only thirteen—perhaps done on purpose to challenge readers to let go of old traditions and superstitions in order to make room for new ones. Christian lightly touches upon his own feelings of religion and faith. His love of the planet led him to seeing the divine all around in nature, as a pagan respecting the animals, plants, and stars.
The birding community has grown since the pandemic. Cooper notes this as well. People were suddenly told not to go into work and to work from home. Folks who had been tethered to the padded grey panels of cubicles could be at their kitchen tables with a laptop next to a window. Place a bird feeder out there and, as if by magic, a new world of birding opened up to them. Even more impressive is that because of Cooper’s notoriety from the Amy Cooper Incident, black people were able to see themselves where they hadn’t before.
What makes this book exciting as a reading experience is that Cooper’s honesty with life’s downward spiral moments are then uplifted through his poetic descriptions of birds’ appearances, calls, and a particularly unique behavior of chimney swifts. Cooper shares his global travels in tangible descriptors. He’s been through parts of South America, Africa, Asia (making a harrowing trip to the Mt. Everest base camp), and even into the racially tense Deep South of the United States.
Nothing can stop a birder with this level of dedication and nobody should. Not a white woman having her own issues; not a cop who sees everyone as a suspect. Nearly a year to the very day from the incident (as Cooper prefers to call his run-in with Amy Cooper), he caught another white woman with her dog off its leash in Central Park’s Ramble. She was nicer at first, but after realizing she was being captured on video of her violation of the leash law, she turned on him. The outcome wasn’t viral, but very nearly the same.
Cooper, in his humbleness and passivity, doesn’t want people to focus on those incidents as racial. He emphasizes that he and all the birders were told by the Parks Department to video people violating the leash law. Instead, Cooper would like people to work on themselves and demand change so that violence by law enforcement against black people makes a dent in the systemic, global racism problem. He goes into particular cases like George Floyd and Philando Castile which is why I made a content note at the top.
Chapter two is when Cooper explains the source of his birding love. His own “spark bird” was the Red-Winged Blackbird; that means the bird that first ignited his interest. Coincidentally, I saw my first one while reading his book.
By the end, if a reader isn’t hoping to see a Kirtland’s Warbler or a Blackburnian or a shimmering Grackle, I would be shocked.
The memoir of Christian Cooper is inspiring! From his lifelong activism against racism and climate change to his personal life of being a rare black gay nerd from Long Island with his dream job at National Geographic (as host and consulting producer of Extraordinary Birder), this is a book that actually gives a reader hope.
Rating: 5 stars