In her debut novel, The Wild Birds (Rare Bird Books, 2018), author Emily Strelow interrogates what it means to be “wild” by layering the word’s many meanings onto palpable, empathic, and deeply-flawed characters, all who live among the diverse and wondrous environs of the American West.
The Wild Birds is told in alternating, non-linear chapters—an appropriate structure for a story concerned with the interconnectivity of all living things. The book takes readers on a woven journey, spanning historically and temporally between the Farallon Islands off the coast of northern California in 1874 to a small rural Oregon town in 1994. Like many relationships in nature—the parasitic and the symbiotic—these chapters give and take from each other, foreshadowing later events, hinting at previous tensions, and dropping detailed breadcrumbs of artifacts which will prove significant in each of the character’s lives.
For the majority of the book, we follow the stories of four women: Lily, a young teenager attempting to discover truths about her family while still discovering herself; Alice, Lily’s single mother, who is hiding a big secret from the daughter she doesn’t know how to protect; Sal, a woman holding onto feelings she has for the best friend of her youth; and Olive, a teenaged orphan in the late-1800s who disguises herself as a boy in order to make a living or frankly, survive. Each character yearns to escape the path set out in front of them, unaware they are trying to run away from the very things that root them to this earth.
If only they could be as wild and free as the birds which pepper throughout the novel. In one chapter, while weeding their filbert farm, Lily and Alice watch a blind harrier hunt her prey successfully, despite her lack of vision. In another section, Olive observes a tufted puffin “with its long yellow ear tassels” and notes how the bird flies with a purpose, appearing “to know just exactly what they needed to do and never second-guess[ing] their instincts.” The birds in this novel take on a mythical and metaphorical identity of the ideal. They symbolize an inexplicable perfection that is always just out of the human reach. It is no small coincidence that a collection of precious eggshells started by Olive somehow falls into the hands of Lily, just short of a hundred years later. The birds and the legacies they birth from their fragile bodies literally knit these seemingly disparate stories together.
However, the humans, the birds, and the earth they all inhabit are in danger of becoming obsolete. The risk of living comes with the inevitable possibility of rejection, failure, or even death. Every living creature populating Strelow’s novel must confront this danger throughout. A robin flies into the window of a house and dies on impact. Construction and housing developments are a nefarious threat to the land, like a “giant, poorly placed, wrinkled Band-Aid laid out over an otherwise wild field.” A voyeuristic group of people gather on a beach to view a stranded, dying whale. Somewhere in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, a baby bird is devoured by a Gila monster. Olive is left barren as a result of a terrible and violent injury. Lily discovers a secret her mother has kept from her—a secret that almost resulted in Lily not being born at all. Lily, who desperately wants to grow up and become her own free-reigned woman, comes to the terrifying realization that “[s]he or someone could be gone tomorrow and there was nothing she could do about it.”
Looming even larger over the entire novel is the slow and steady destruction of the surrounding environment. Land which was once inhabited by Native peoples is now a barren and dusty construction site. Lily and her friend, Max, hang out in a spot of the woods which will soon be swallowed by a row of tract housing. Half Stiletz Indian, Max says, “You ever wonder why we, I mean, man, generally feel the need to dominate the landscape instead of just live in it?” Chapters later, Strelow takes us back in time to 1932. A group of people calling themselves Jeffersonians vote to secede from California. Olive, the young orphan from the Farallons, is now grown up and married, and fights for the rights of the local birds. A shot rings out and a bloodied nighthawk falls out of the sky. Greed is ubiquitous—a badge to be worn on a shirt; a bird to sling over the shoulder; a weapon to pull from your side. Olive considers the increasing use of coal in America:
“Consumption showed no sign of stopping…Humans just kept taking resources but never considered the outcome. All these goods we take from the land, she thought, they have to grow, settle, and age. The rate of taking exceeds that of growth, which just can’t go on forever.“
But the taking doesn’t end. Later in a chapter set in 1994, Lily and her mother’s friend, Boomer, drive by a logged patch of land off the highway and pay their respects to the earth’s loss.
Boomer glanced at her dark gaze.
“Salvage, they called it,” he broke the silence. “But that hardly seems the right word for it.”
“It’s just like a graveyard now,” Lily said. “Each stump is like a little tombstone sticking up.”
What could easily end up as a depressing environmental admonition feels more like an inspiring call-to-arms in Strelow’s hopeful hands. It is not too late for humans to stop this death of our land, to take action against further crisis. How can we transfer our efforts and energy from destructive to constructive endeavors, the book asks of us. With the keen eye of a biologist and the lyricism of a poet, Strelow references the ongoing cycle of energy: transferring from sun to plant, from plant to animal, from dying animal to earth. The Wild Birds demonstrates that there is beauty in this dependable repetition. For example, at the end of the book, Sal and Alice meet again for the first time in over ten years and rekindle their love for each other. In a beautiful scene infused with love and death and life, the two women watch a kettle of scavenging turkey vultures:
“What would we do without the majestic vulture?” Sal remarked, her head tilted skyward.
“We’d be overrun by carrion,” Alice said, her face lit up by the evening light. “Swimming in death.”
“They are the arbiters of tender rot. Death isn’t an end for those birds.”
“Oh, it’s definitely more of a beginning.”
From the glimmering and tactile tour of various Western American landscapes to the gritty, vulnerable tales of strong women as they break down the barriers trying to pen them, The Wild Birds is a vivid and compelling ode to the beauty of life. Life is not without its risks, its dangers, its uncertainties. Nevertheless, the relationships we nurture throughout our lifetimes carry us onward and make the fight worthwhile. Love, then, might be the ingredient which keeps us all a little wild. Although she doesn’t shy away from illuminating the dark and destructive elements of humans’ relationship to the environment, Strelow ultimately has composed a song of hope. The wild surrounds us—like the puffin, the the harrier, the fallen nighthawk. “Wild” is a state to which one has the ability to return. “Wild” can be discovered (or rediscovered). “Wild” can be thoughtfully cultivated with practice, love, and trust. Or perhaps we should simply pay more attention to the birds. After all, they’ve been practicing the art of being wild for centuries.
In anticipation of the forthcoming paperback release this summer, I asked Emily Strelow a few questions about The Wild Birds over email.
Cameron Finch: What was the first seedling for The Wild Birds? What inspired you to start writing it?
Emily Strelow: I wrote a short story in 2005 that kept getting longer and longer. The main characters were Lily and Alice, pretty much as they exist in The Wild Birds. I submitted it to a few journals and got positive responses but kept being asked if I could make the story shorter (it was about ~28,000 words). I tried, but just couldn’t edit it down. Each time I sat down I added hundreds of words to the original. And one day in lamentation with my mother about this fact, she said, “Maybe it should just be a novel?” A light went off. Thanks, Mom!
The novel then grew with me as I moved from place to place doing various jobs as an avian biological field tech. I lived in the desert and wove it in. I lived in the forest and wove it in. I’ve always loved novels that are like complex puzzle boxes of imagery and meaning. So as I collected literary specimens from the landscapes I lived in, I wrote it all together into the kind of book that I enjoy.
CF: The novel features scenes set in 1874, 1932, 1941, 1988, and 1994 (to name a few). They feel so seamlessly woven! How did you go about ordering a book with multiple timelines? What was that sequencing process like for you? Did you have to add material or take out any chapters? Do you use a particular program/software to help you organize?
ES: I had very little system of organization besides a canvas tote filled with notebooks, a large standing desk, walls, and a studio in Portland down by the train tracks that I shared with my friend, Melanie. Especially toward the end of writing the manuscript, it was a lot of shuffling around of physical printed pages. I started out with three timelines (1994, 1874, and 1941). The additional related years and chapters all tie into those three main timelines and were born of the story once it had fully inhabited my mind. It really was like a possession toward the end. It must have been difficult for my husband to talk to me about anything without my eyes glazing over as part of my brain morphed back into one of my character’s world.
The first part of writing was piecemeal, inspiration to inspiration, while out camping and working in the field. For the final six months of writing, however, I worked in a studio and filled in bits and pieces until one day I’d dusted all the corners, fact checked all the references, double checked the dates, and stitched the narrative the way I wanted it to be. Only then was I able to type THE END. Maybe that’s why it took me over ten years to write the thing! I’m sure there was a more efficient way to go about it. And I would never write another book in this exact, slow, torturous way again. But I do appreciate the process for what it was—a slow development and therapy for my soul. I have now discovered Scrivener, color coding, self-ascribed deadlines, and plotting ahead of time. “Adulting” for novelists.
CF: This novel is partly historical in nature, especially the story about Olive, a young orphan who disguises herself as a boy and works as a lighthouse keeper in 1874. How did you research for that particular section?
ES: After the detailed process of researching the Farallons in the 1870’s, I have such respect for people who write historical fiction. It is long, difficult, but fascinating work. I researched historical timelines for the eggers, the Gold Rush, the structures and bridges that existed (or didn’t) in San Francisco during the 1870’s, the language and slang used then, what kinds of goods were available for sale in the markets, and the different populations of people that had recently begun to settle in the city. For the Farallons I researched which wildlife populations existed during that time and what species had been hunted or collected almost into extinction. I pored over maps and actual letters from lighthouse keepers written to their loved ones back home. I made maps of my own from the historical materials. Most of my primary sources came from the California Historical Society (top floor of the SF downtown library), the Oregon Historical Society, and online resources. Those historical librarians were incredibly helpful. I am forever in their debt. I have to say, the deep dive into another time as I processed the materials was a lot of fun. I highly recommend it to any writer that wants to stretch their language and historical knowledge.
CF: This novel is strongly grounded in the American West, and features namely Oregon, Northern California, and the Southwestern deserts; landscapes you were quite familiar with from your previous work as an avian field biologist. How did your work with the birds influence your approach to telling your characters’ stories?
ES: I would wager that every observation of the natural world that is found in the book is influenced by moments of wonder from my real life. Some readers have described the book as “slow, in a good way.” Slow, in a good way, is a nice way of describing walking through desert washes from 4 am to 3 pm, collecting data on bird presence, behavior, and nesting. As a field tech you are often alone, listening and watching. It’s a lot of disconnecting the talkative brain and engaging the listening and observation brain. It’s quite meditative, in a way. Sometimes I think that field biology saved my life. When I learned to shut off the cycles of trauma-induced anxiety in my brain and connect more deeply with the living, breathing world around me, I became an absolutely new person. I straight up phoenixed.
CF: Were any of the threads especially easy or difficult to write? Are there certain characters in the novel that have inherited traits or elements of yourself?
ES: I like to say I’m all of the characters and I’m none of them. I think writers can’t help but insert into their writing some of their own traits, likes, anxieties, fascinations, and peccadillos. In my opinion, that’s how writing feels real—the mind of the creator is a prism for the story. And since the overarching theme of the novel is the interconnectivity of all humans (and animals), the characters share many traits among one another. The characters connect through their similar struggles and hurdles; Warren and Sal are connected, as are Alice and Lily, Victor and Alice, even Alice and the rooster are connected. I intentionally interwove their narratives with the intent that their distinct stories would begin to echo and answer one another in such a way that it would start to feel like one single story with many layers. Like looking at one of those magic eye pictures, the ship would finally emerge whole out of the fog.
In graduate school at the University of Washington, I did my academic thesis on the literary device metonymy—the use of a linked term that stands in for an object. As I wrote The Wild Birds, I implemented a system of symbology using metonymy, metaphor, symbolism and even a dash of synecdoche for good measure. I used these devices throughout the book in order to layer meaning and allow the novel’s structure to lean on conceptual links instead of solely on the more typical devices of time and plot.
CF: One theme which this novel seems to be exploring is the unstoppable impermanence of things and more generally, the always hovering presence of death in life. How has your relationship with impermanence changed throughout your life, or more specifically, as you worked on The Wild Birds? What do you think is able to defy impermanence, if anything?
ES: The life of a biological field tech is steeped in impermanence and death. One encounters dead things, both freshly dead and long gone, on a daily basis. Feathers, bones, horns, shells, pellets—these became my love language out in the desert. The cycle of animals and nutrients is visible all around you. In the desert especially, items stick around longer because decay is slower. So as you move through the landscape, you find yourself face-to-face with evidence of that old cycle of life.
In the middle of writing the book, I had my own brush with death when I ended up in the ICU overnight after losing pretty much every last drop of my blood during childbirth. They gave me 8 pints of blood in the transfusion. Isn’t that more than the human body holds, I asked? Not quite, but close, it turns out. Down in the ICU (I always think of it as down, for some reason) I watched black plastic bags containing recently deceased people being wheeled in the hallway outside my incessantly beeping, curtained area. This experience gave me a new sense of what it meant to be alive. Bringing new life into the world sandwiched together with almost losing my own absolutely gave me a renewed sense of purpose. After that, I finished the book with urgency because I realized that life really wasn’t guaranteed to continue on. It is truly something that can be whisked away at any moment. With that said, I’m not sure I can think of a single thing that defies impermanence.
CF: While there are beautiful passages of joy and passion within this novel (your lyricism is incredible!), there is always a creeping darkness looming around the corner—whether that is in the presence of men taking advantage of women, the divine destruction of extreme weather, or the fact that we as a human race are destroying our earth by way of housing developments, pollution, and deforestation. We need these stories to keep us grounded and to wake us up! And yet somehow, your prose never feels demoralizing—there is always a poetic sense of hope, even in the descriptions of cut tree stumps. How did you find this linguistic balance between beauty and terrifying reality? And why is that balance important?
ES: First of all, thank you! Such a great, complicated question. I am so acutely aware of all humanity’s egregious actions against the environment (and how these actions also affect our most vulnerable human populations). I’m researching climate change on the daily and at times this makes me feel hopeless. But I want my writing to spur change, to make people take stock of their own lives and reexamine their priorities, instead of just depress them. Action by all of us is the only way we are going to beat back the great beast that is climate change. So if I can’t imbue the reader with some sense of hope, there is no chance for actual change. They are inextricably linked, in my opinion.
CF: Everyone in The Wild Birds has a secret. Some are hiding who they love, others are hiding significant events from their past, some are hiding parts of their identity. The novel seems to ask “Which stories do we tell ourselves and each other? And how do we know which stories are true and which ones are false?” What interests you about secrets?
ES: I love reading literature about secrets. What else drives a reader to keep reading more than the desire to figure out all the twists and turns of a character’s mind? I think secrets and their slow unraveling is one of my favorite plot devices ever. Also, I am a Pisces, and apparently we love our secrets. I have been a lifelong fan of Virginia Woolf, the master of secrets herself. She so deftly could imbue an object with a secret desire, a landscape with longing. She is really a major reason I am a writer. Her words, her lyricism—it led me down a beautiful path paved with secrets and intoxicated me as a young reader.
CF: Your work is a strong contribution to a line of many female naturalist writers, using their storytelling skills to speak on matters of the environment and climate change. A few that come to my mind are Barbara Kingsolver, Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Robin MacArthur. Who are some of your creative influences (for this project and/or more broadly)?
ES: I absolutely adore Annie Dillard, Rachel Carson and Barbara Kingsolver. They were certainly influences. I also love Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and Bernt Heinrich. Jim Harrison and his nature prose are also an influence, though I am often distracted by his obsession with butts in his writing. I swear, that man could link anything back to the female butt.
I love reading poetry, as well. But sometimes it feels like I need to broaden my scope. I love Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, and the late greats, W.S. Merwin and Mary Oliver. These are my go-to poets when I need to leave my body and go travel into the forest or the cosmos. I enjoy reading Keith Taylor’s poetry and his connection to birds, as well as William Stafford and his son Kim Stafford, who is currently Oregon’s Poet Laureate. I’m often asking people: who are the good nature poets writing right now? Ada Limón is a current fave.
CF: In Chapter One of The Wild Birds, you introduce Alice’s most prized possession: “an antique wrought silver box engraved with vines and flowers, with thick beveled glass and sun-bleached pink velvet inside, the threadbare velvet holding up an almost full collection of emptied bird eggs.” Throughout the novel, we are witness to the passing of this item from hand to hand, until it lands in Alice’s care. What a beautiful way to connect seemingly disparate stories together. The item’s symbolism changes for each person, but its significance is nevertheless powerful. The artist Maira Kalman speaks often about the power of objects to hold human stories within them. Is there a particular item or family heirloom you own that has been passed down for generations? Do you know the story behind it?
I can’t think of one specific object from my parent’s household, but I have been an admirer and a collector of old and beautiful objects for much of my life. I think a physical specimen from another time can hold potent magic—whether that is all in the mind of the beholder or inherent in the physical object I don’t know. But isn’t it a lovely idea to think that an object can have a sort of soul, too?
CF: What future projects are on your horizon?
ES: I have a finished draft of a second novel that I’m in the process of editing with my agent. It’s a climate change novel, or “#Clifi,” as the kids are calling it. It’s a modern book about big oil, government, and the environmental movement, while also taking moments to laugh and wonder at our world. It’s also about mothers and daughters, the difficulty of marriage, abandoned dreams, and redemption. So while it may share some spirit with The Wild Birds, it is most certainly its own story. It’s a little brash and edgy, but still has slow meditative moments about the natural world. It does not hold nature up on a pedestal, but instead acknowledges the imbalanced, brutal systems always pulling against themselves—kindred with Emma Marris’ ideas in Rambunctious Garden. It defies the idea of a divine “balance” in nature and celebrates the messiness of existence and change. I’m very excited about it and can’t wait to share it with the world!
Emily Strelow was born and raised in Oregon’s Willamette Valley but has lived all over the West—and now, the Midwest. For the last decade, she’s combined teaching writing with doing seasonal avian field biology with her husband. While doing field jobs she’s camped and written in remote areas of the desert, mountains, and by the ocean. She is a mother to two boys, a naturalist, and a writer. Find out more at emilystrelow.com, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.