Review: Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World

British naturalist John Lister-Kaye creates an anthem for the wilderness, and cautions against a warming planet.

When I was a kid I used to wake before sunrise to go turkey hunting with my dad in the cedar-lined pockets of central Nebraska. Though I no longer hunt, I often find myself daydreaming of those early morning hours, hunkered down in the dewy grass beside my dad, the heat of my own breath lingering in my hunting mask. It’s not the kill that I miss, or the weight of the 12-gauge against my shoulder. It’s the waiting. It’s the stillness that followed the box call. On those mornings, we watched the prairie wake up. We listened for a tom in the distance or a clucking hen, and heard everything else: the meadowlarks and the cardinals, the finches and the sparrows, the crickets, beetles, grasshoppers, and dragonflies. In the absence of society’s distractions, something primitive crept into our perspective—the faintest hint, perhaps, of our ancient biorhythms.

“Have we got it all wrong?” asks British naturalist John Lister-Kaye in his latest book, Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-Eye View of a Changing World. “Has the march of what we have labeled ‘civilisation’ now taken us so far away from nature, from biorhythms, from contact with the soil that we have lost the ability to assess what damage our actions inflict on the planet?”

Celebrated in the United Kingdom for both his writing and his conservation work, Lister-Kaye has, for nearly 40 years, directed the Aigas Field Centre in the Scottish Highlands, “an exceptionally diverse landscape of rivers, marshes and wet meadows, hill grazings, forests and birch woods, high moors and lochs, all set against the often snowcapped, four-thousand-foot Affric Mountains to the west.” No creature is small enough to escape his attention; he eulogizes insects and roe deer, rhododendrons, and, of course, birds, which he calls “my gods of the morning, lifting our days with song and character.” He tracks the coming and going of seasons, and notes the birds that chase summer to the tropics and those that bear the brutal Highlands winter with steely reserve. Looming over this idyllic tangle of life are the unpredictable threats of a warming planet, threats that test the flexibility of each and every species—but especially birds, the “thermometers of environmental health and change.”

“Perhaps this is what we have to expect now: massive swings and surges; unreliable seasons; soaring and plumbing temperatures . . . ” he writes. “The scientists continue to argue, and no one really knows what is happening and how it will alter our lives. But the rooks know, and the great tits, and the crane flies and the looping caterpillars.”

To read Gods of the Morning is to sink back into the grass, slip away from rush-hour traffic and conference calls, and notice once again the bugs circling in the dirt and that first hint of fall in the air. It’s to expose oneself to all that life brimming behind the curtain of our nine-to-fives. In the hands of a less skilled and less pragmatic writer, this hyperawareness could induce boredom, fatigue, even melancholy. But not so for Lister-Kaye, who time and again homes in on familiar subjects, stripping away pretensions and introducing the vigor and realism that’s often missing from nature writing. Consider his description of a pine marten in the henhouse:

“If one chews his way in under the door, squeezing his liquid body through the gap like toothpaste from a tube, the result is mayhem. . . . He becomes a terrorist. Mayhem ensues. To open the door at first light is to view Samson’s slaughter of the Philistines. Corpses heaped in every direction. Once it was twenty-seven hens.”

Though each chapter eventually snaps into focus, usually on a single species (owls, sparrows, the author’s beloved Rooks, etc.), Lister-Kaye takes his time getting there, often wandering off the path to explore a childhood memory or warn against humankind’s often-myopic responses to the natural world. “ ‘Field’ wisdom has given way to ‘field guide’ wisdom,” he writes. “We look it up or we Google it, blindly accepting the one-dimensional Wiki-wisdom as gospel and all we need to know.”

In his wandering, Lister-Kaye fights the frenetic tension of society, forcing the reader to slow down, to forget where the story may lead and accept where the story already is: with the millions of money spiders ballooning down the valley, with the “soft-edge bugling” of the Whooper Swan, “pitched like a B-flat flugelhorn.” After all, what is nature writing if not a tacit endorsement for bucking the trail?

In truth, this book is all of the jaded descriptors that have come to blemish the genre, sans the bitter aftertaste. It’s quiet but never tedious; meditative but never self-important; reverential but never blindly so. Gods of the Morning is a book you’ll want to put down, not because you’ve lost your interest, but precisely because you’ve found it—in the birds outside your window, in the grass beneath your feet, in the moonlight between the trees.


Gods of the Morning: A Bird's-Eye View of a Changing World, by John Lister-Kaye, Pegasus Books, 304 pages, $19.72. Buy it at Amazon.