{Guest Post} Meera Lee Sethi: Seeing the World From the Back of a Goat

Mountainfit by Meera Lee Sethi
Release date: June 10

I can't tell you how much this post makes me smile - it reminds me to smell the roses (among many other things).  I guess you all will just have to read it, so you can smile with me! Welcome, Meera, to Guiltless Reading! 

Seeing the World From the Back of a Goat
by Meera Lee Sethi

I am having lunch at the peak of Getryggen, Goatback mountain, in the Swedish province of Jämtland—in the middle of the strange, bumpy ridge that gives the mountain its name. It is a brilliant blue day at 1380 meters above sea level; the southerly wind that whips my hair behind my head is also blowing puffy white clouds across the sky, like a dog herding sheep. The diamond sun glances off the lake and river below me. When I finish eating, I pick up my antenna and headset from the moss. I am not sure where the stubborn great snipe I am tracking today is hiding her nest, herself, and the radio transmitter attached to her back. But for once I know exactly where I am—and it’s where I want to be.

***

If you lack a good sense of direction, it is not you who gets lost, but everything else that won’t stay in place. Buildings switch places behind your back. Roads twist beneath your feet. It’s crazy, but it’s the way it feels. For the worried lost, a map is a talisman against a fickle terrain, a way to fix the world in place. For me—not only a person who needs help finding her way in most physical landscapes, but someone trying to find her way through the profound confusion of life itself—to be a writer is to be a mapmaker. When I write I can see where I am, where I have been, and where one event in my life sits in relation to the others.

A few years ago, what I saw was that I was in the wrong place. I was a science writer who loved birds, nature, and the wild, humming beauty of the world. But while the scientists I wrote about were out there trying to understand those things, I spent every day sitting behind a desk in my Chicago apartment. I felt lost. So I asked bird observatories, field researchers, and nature reserves if they would let me spend the summer with them. I wrote to China; Israel; Canada; Costa Rica. And I wrote to many places in the United States, where I have lived for the past 13 years. Most of my emails went unanswered—others were answered with regrets. After all, I had spent my life studying books of literature, not biology. I had no experience handling live birds or doing field research.

One of my emails went all the way to Sweden, where the wonderful, tiny, beginner-friendly Lake Ånnsjön Bird Observatory invited me to come and join them. If I came, I was told, I could participate in research about the nesting and migration habits of great snipe, a near-threatened shorebird species; I would learn to capture and band birds, and I’d help with census work documenting population numbers and ranges. I knew it would be an amazing summer, one that might change my position in the world. I also knew I needed to chart those experiences; otherwise, I knew everything I saw and felt would shift around me when I tried to recall it, just like the streets and skyscrapers of an unfamiliar city always do.

***

I decided to write a book about my Swedish summer. But I wanted a way to organize it—a map for my map. I found what I was looking for in the myth of the language of the birds.

In ancient Scandinavian mythology, it is written that King Dagr Spaka had a sparrow that would bring him news from far and wide; the loyal ravens Huginn and Muninn did the same for Odin. And when the warrior Sigurd tasted a drop of dragon blood, he suddenly realized that the chirps of the titmice nearby were warning him about a plot against his life. What runs through each of these narratives is a single, irresistible suggestion: that anyone who can understand the language of the birds has access to a powerful source of knowledge.

Of course, there is no way to literally translate birdsong into human language—whether or not it communicates mysterious secrets. But this ancient, fantastical idea is a wonderful metaphor for what we are doing every time we observe a bird. When we pay attention, not only to birdsong, but bird behavior, migration patterns, feeding and nesting habits, morphology, and genetic relationships, we are collecting vital pieces of information about the world we live in. What is the connection between an environment and the life forms it supports? How are human activities changing ecosystems? These are questions we can try to answer by “listening” to the winged creatures around us and “decoding” what they have to tell us. My book, I decided, would be driven by this idea—that systematically gathering scientific data about birds connects us, in some deep way, to Odin, to Sigurd, to Dag.

***

When I returned home and began working on the book that eventually became Mountainfit, I started to see the summer from above. I marked things down. Here was where I caught a baby lemming in my hands and felt like the universe was conspiring to surprise me. Here is where the shrieking rough-legged buzzard thought I was too close to her nest, and I understood that fear and anger make you beautiful sometimes. And here—right here—is the day I sat on Getryggen, staring at the lake and knowing I was in the right place.

I didn’t tell you this before, but a huge raven—one of Odin’s ancient spies—flew high overhead that day. It circled and called in the sky. For a moment, I almost expected it to land on my shoulder and whisper something in my ear.


About Meera Lee Sethi

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Meera Lee Sethi is a curious human being about whom you already know too much. In 1998 Meera moved from Singapore to the U.S. and began falling in love with science slowly and inconveniently, while earning degrees in the humanities. Any errors of fact or judgment here were committed by her; any beauty has been borrowed from the people, land, and birds of Sweden.

Synopsis: In 2011, a tiny bird observatory in far western Sweden found itself hosting its first American volunteer, and Meera Lee Sethi found herself exactly where she wanted to be: watching great snipe court each other under the midnight sun and disturbing lemmings on her way to find a gyrfalcon nest. Mountainfit is an ecological field notebook, a keenly observed natural history of the life that sings from the birches, wheels under the clouds, and scuttles over the peat bogs of the Swedish highlands. And it is a letter, in 21 jewel-like parts, from a well-read and funny friend. Meera's vigorous, graceful prose communicates a wry understanding of how utterly ordinary it is to long for more out of life--and how extraordinary it can feel to trust that longing. Meera's intent was to create a book small enough to fit in your pocket and read on the train to work in the morning. It is that. But it's also large enough to contain a mountain or two.

3 comments

  1. I'll be writing a guest post here soon, and have been reading various guest posts to get a sense of what works best for a guiltless reader... I have to say, this is so beautiful, and even more than that, Meera Lee Sethi's bio is in my Top Five Favorite Author Bios. Absolutely charming :-)

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    1. Thank you for coming by Nicole and I really look forward to hosting you here soon! I think Meera lives guiltlessly .... so much more than being a guiltless reader! :)

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  2. I have enjoyed Meera's writing for several years. I am so glad that she had this wonderful experience in Sweden and that she is sharing it with us. Beautiful writing. Simply beautiful.

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall