Jonathan Franzen Talks Birds

The best-selling author calls discovering birds “the third major revelation of my life."

He crafts novels on the human experience and nonfiction articles on birds. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a National Book Award winner for The Corrections, and his latest book, Freedom, was hailed as a masterpiece of American fiction when it was published in 2010. Jonathan Franzen incorporates environmental themes seamlessly into his works, which may be due, in part, to his love of all things avian.

How did you get hooked on birding? The proximate cause was that my spouse equivalent, my longtime girlfriend, has a sister and brother-in-law who are serious birders. In May of 2000 they came to New York to see us, and we went out into Central Park birding with them. I had walked through the park several times every week for years, and I had the sensation that I didn’t know the park, that there was this whole dimension to the world that I had never been aware of. That doesn’t happen very often. When you’re a teenager and suddenly sex hits you, it’s like, Oh, there’s this other thing in the world, which is completely unlike anything else, and there’s more to life than I would have guessed. I think I had that experience when I started to understand what was going on in literature, and probably the revelation of birds in the world was the third major revelation of my life.

Why would you say that birds matter to you? Why do birds matter to me? Oh, because I love them.

And why do you love them? Well, love is a hard thing to try to explain, right? I think they’re the other great thing in the world besides humans. I’m sure if I were into bacteria, I would feel that about bacteria. But I think that really, in the history of the planet, there have been two kinds of amazing animal developments. One is us—in terms of totally transforming things—and the dinosaurs were the other. And the birds are what became of dinosaurs. The dinosaurs retooled instead of lumbering around, crashing around, earthbound. They got all light and they got feathers, truly one of the remarkable adaptations in the history of evolution. The list goes on and on, though. They sing. They fly. You can actually see the whole animal taking wing. They make nests. Flight, the complexity of their behavior, their beauty, and I’ve already mentioned song, but I’ll mention it again. You can love nature in the abstract and care about it, but really that’s a quick way to get very angry at what human beings are doing. And you just get consumed with anger. But once you actually start having an emotional connection with part of nature, like birds, then it becomes a wholly different thing. 

What do your friends think of your birding interest? They like it because they like me as I like them. And if you like somebody, you like to see them happy, so they know this is something that brings me joy. I work on the more susceptible friends and try to get them either interested in birds or more interested in birds, and I’ve made some converts. It’s very much like any other religion. It spreads through direct contact with other believers. Birders think the same way. We want there to be more birders. We want more people to be interested in birds because when you create somebody who cares about birds, you create somebody who is concerned about the environment. It doesn’t take long to make that connection. I think as a boon to the world, it’s good to turn more people onto birds. But it’s also fun to have company.

How do you think birds fit into the larger conversation about protecting the environment and being a good steward? Well, I think of birds as being one of the primary indicators of the health of the natural environment. When you see the numbers going down, as we are these days, it’s a sure sign that something is out of balance, something is not right, and even at the very local level, you can see some woods and a pond and sometimes it’ll be devoid of birds, and sometimes a rather similar-looking place will have good diversity of birdlife. A couple of warblers nesting in the woods, a heron or two in the pond—if they’re there, then they must have something to eat, and if they have something to eat and they’re also preyed upon, it’s an indication that the ecosystem is functioning just a little bit. There’s a selfish component, of course. I would like there to continue to be birds because I enjoy looking at them, but what’s wrong with that?

Is there somewhere youve been dying to go to see a specific species? Well, once I heard about the Masafuera rayadito, which is found only on the grim little island of Más Afuera in the Juan Fernandez archipelago [400 miles off the coast of Chile]. I created an idea for a New Yorker piece that would get me to this very difficult-to-get-to island, where I failed to see the Masafuera rayadito. I did try, at some risk to my own life. The list itself, ticking off species, or even seeing and watching the long-sought-after species, is not the main purpose. The main purpose is to have an experience. And the goal of seeing species you haven’t seen is a way to force yourself to have experiences that you otherwise might not. One of the great things about birding anywhere, and overseas certainly, is that it takes you to all these places that you would never go as a tourist. You see a very different Italy if you’re looking for birds in Italy. You can waste a lot of time, but sometimes, especially if it’s a single species that I’m looking for, I don’t want to plan. I want to try to have the adventure of trying to find it on my own.

You cover a number of environmental issues in your works: mountaintop mining, overpopulation, and songbird population declines. Why do you choose to weave those into your narratives? I specifically don’t want to be in a position where I’m trying to raise a reader’s awareness of a problem, because that seems to me a condescending relationship to be in with a reader of fiction.

What about in nonfiction? Not in an essay, because in an essay there again, I think it’s important to level with the reader and to not preach. One thing that kills my interest in an essay quickly is a feeling that the writer thinks he has some greater wisdom about something than I do, but with nonfiction, it’s fair game. It’s still a very challenging problem how not to just make it just another story of eco-woe. As a reader I have a very short attention span for depressing stories, so care has to be taken to tell a human story, not just to lambast the reader with more depressing news about what we’re doing to the environment. But yes, certainly, I would not have written about the troubles that European migrants have in the Mediterranean had I not wanted to raise awareness. But frankly another attraction of including some environmental themes in the fiction is that these are terribly intractable problems that we’re all implicated in.

What do you think are some of the most significant environmental issues of today? Well, obviously, many of our troubles are driven by the large world population—more than seven billion now—and the demand for resources would be much less if the population were smaller. But that’s a political and human problem, not an environmental problem. I would say, on the water, the decimation of fisheries, just the vacuuming of protein out of the water using all of these new technologies. And on land it’s habitat loss, particularly habitat fragmentation. There is, as Walter Berglund in Freedom notes, enough open unused land in the United States to guarantee healthy populations of all of the plant and animal species we all have and we want to preserve. But the disturbance to the habitat and the fragmentation to the habitat is resulting in deep trouble for a lot of those species. But all this leads right up to global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. I hesitate to say that is the most important environmental challenge facing us, because I’m afraid I think the cat’s already out of the bag on that one. The cow is out of the barn. It’s not going to happen. We’re not going to significantly reduce the amount, voluntarily reduce the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere. It will not happen. We might slow the rate of increase. So I’m loath to name as a top priority or to identify as the central problem something that is not really amenable to a solution.

Youd rather focus on things you can change. We really can manage land better. We can concentrate energy extraction in a more rational way that leaves room for wildlife, and we can manage the oceans better. There are things that can be done, even at the international level. Pressure can be brought to bear. So I’ll stick with those two.