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Author Amy Tan's 'backyard bird chronicles'

Bird watchers look through their binoculars at a bird pointed out by naturalist Doug Hitchcox during the weekly bird walk at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
Bird watchers look through their binoculars at a bird pointed out by naturalist Doug Hitchcox during the weekly bird walk at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth on Thursday, August 24, 2023. (Staff photo by Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

Celebrated author Amy Tan doesn’t just write best-selling novels.

She’s a passionate birder, too.

Her new book on birding describes the wonder she sees looking out her window.

Today, On Point: Author Amy Tan’s ‘backyard bird chronicles.’

Guest

Amy Tan, New York Times bestselling author of many books, including “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Valley of Amazement.” Her new book is “The Backyard Bird Chronicles.”

Transcript

Part I

AMY TAN: This is Amy Tan. It’s March 4th, 2023. Listening to birds in my yard in Sausalito. That was a great horned owl. (OWL HOOTS)

It’s the end of the day, almost dusk. So the only birds you’ll probably hear are hummingbirds and the owl.

The scratchy sounds are the Anna’s hummingbird. 

You might be able to hear the sound of the hummingbird’s wings next to us.

He’s making little clicky sounds and he’s only about a foot to two feet away. He just chased away a competitor.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: That’s best-selling, celebrated author Amy Tan in her backyard last year, and today she joins us on the show. Amy Tan, welcome to On Point.

AMY TAN: Thank you. Good to be here.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh my gosh. It is such a thrill to be able to talk with you.

And we’re going to talk about the title of your book in just a second, I hope you don’t mind if I share this. I purposely did not listen to that sound until just now, along with everybody else. And as I did, I just, this huge grin came to my face.

TAN: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: I almost stopped breathing because you like, lean into the moment.

And then I like, looked up when the sound of the hummingbird’s wings came up. It’s completely transformative.

TAN: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: How did it feel being there and actually witnessing these things?

TAN: It was totally spontaneous too, there. It seemed like it was choreographed. It’s like ‘Hoot,’ and then this is Amy Tan as though I queued in these birds and I didn’t.

It was all in one take. And but I see the hummingbirds and they do that. They come so close. Sometimes they land on me, but the owl, to have both of them in the yard at that moment. How perfect. One of the biggest birds out there and one of the smallest.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And I love how the hummingbird’s just chasing away a little.

Yeah, exactly.

TAN: Sorry. Excuse me. They’re, taken off for a short while.

CHAKRABARTI: My spot. Yeah. So obviously everyone, this is Amy Tan, bestselling, phenomenal author of books like The Joy Luck Club, The Valley of Amazement. But today she joins us to talk about her new book. It’s called The Backyard Bird Chronicles.

And not only did Amy write it, boy, did she illustrate the heck out of it. I did not know you were such an accomplished illustrator. Have you always been an artist as well?

TAN: Thank you. As a kid, I loved to draw, and I secretly wanted to be an artist, but my parents would have been horrified at the thought.

And my high school teacher actually wrote in a report card that I had no imagination and/or drive necessary to a deeper creative level. And I thought, okay I guess I shouldn’t go into the arts. Yeah, no imagination. So I love to draw, but I didn’t pursue it. I didn’t draw for, I don’t know, every few years, I would draw.

And then I, for a while, I drew cartoons of my dogs or cartoons of roaches and, just funny things, but not nature drawing.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Oh my gosh. It just shows you the power of those early influences in life. But I’m actually, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Can you tell me a little bit more, first of all, just still thinking of that moment from March of last year.

When you’re observing or just sitting there being part of that space that is your backyard and you see the birds coming through, what does it feel like? What does it almost feel like in your body as you’re experiencing these moments?

TAN: It’s your entry into another world. And because they acknowledge you and it’s though you’re, for the moment, accepted.

I know I’m not their friend, but they don’t seem to be wary of me. They don’t leave. And that counts for something. I’m just thrilled, like anybody else. I have adrenaline. Every time I see a bird looking at me or coming close to me or acknowledging me. I get that shot of what is the hormone that makes you feel great?

That’s what it is. Bizarre.

CHAKRABARTI: Why do birds do that, do you think? Because I don’t know of many people. Maybe there’s some out there, but I don’t know of many people who go like deer watching.

TAN: Ah, yes.

CHAKRABARTI: But there’s something about birds.

TAN: They’re magical creatures in a way. For one thing, there’s so many different varieties. Their colors are spectacular, and they fly. And flying has always represented this great freedom that we long for, which is the reason, I think, why a lot of people think that when a beloved person dies, they might come back as a bird to say, Here I am.

I’m freed. So it’s also symbolic of so many things. But I think it’s the fact that they’re tiny. They can come toward you, and they can back away. And if they come toward you, you just feel amazed that this wild creature is there before you.

CHAKRABARTI: I think you put it so perfectly. Because they’re definitely a species, all wild species are like this, but especially birds, where you only are able to have the kind of experiences that you have, when they let you into their space.

TAN: Yeah. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: So let’s go back in time then. Why and when did you start doing this kind of intensive observation and journaling of what you saw in your backyard?

TAN: Yeah. Yeah. It was toward the end of 2016, and I had been enduring, like everybody else, listening to the news, it’s so divisive, and I also saw or heard this increase in racial epithets, all kinds of things being said, and it was so depressing to me.

The news was always bad, and I decided I had to do something to get my mind off of it. And I chose to do something, I promised myself from the time I was about 30 years old, that when I retired, I would go back to art despite what that teacher had said, and start learning to draw. And I said, this is the best moment.

I need to get out into nature, and I need to draw, and I will enroll in this nature journaling class taught by a guy named John Muir Laws. And that’s what I did. I would go to the class with all these other 30 people and sit there and do the practice and learn how to do certain techniques. But the great thing is that John Muir Laws, Jack, as we called him, his whole thing was about also feeling the bird, feeling what the life force, the bird was.

And me being the fiction writer just took that a little farther and I became a birder when I was drawing them.

CHAKRABARTI: I was just gonna ask, why did Amy Tan need to take a writing class?

TAN: Oh, it’s nature journaling class. That’s different. It was different because the whole point of it was to be in awe and to wonder and to ask questions, to be curious.

Curiosity never ending. And I didn’t get that. I was trying to draw the pretty picture and not doing very well. And I remember being next to a girl at a field trip. She’s about, just turned 13, and she was just asking questions all the time, why is the sky blue kind of question?

And I thought, what an annoying child to get away.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

TAN: And I found out later, no, that’s the point of being here. You have to ask the questions. And then in future field trips, I would seek her out and sidle up next to her and peer over, and look at what she was writing, like cheating in a math test. Okay, she’s this childhood wonder, is what I needed to do to be in nature, to really see and be open to it. None of my adult so-called knowledge and conceptual understanding. No, that was out the window. I had to start over to the child level.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting, because this wasn’t the first time that you had turned to nature for that kind of healing and solace that you were seeking in 2016, right?

Speaking of children, yeah, go ahead.

TAN: I lived for a while, three years in Santa Rosa, and we lived next to a creek. And there were times that my mother would spin off into a rage and the creek was my refuge. And in those days, we could just go off on our own. Nobody worried, I was eight years old, nine years old in the creek, looking for snakes and frogs and tadpoles and centipedes or whatever was out there. And making forts out of vines, tumbling down the banks.

And this was some of the best memories of childhood that I had. Being alone, being in nature, wondering over every single thing and watching for hours, just looking at tadpoles. So that was so important to me. But the strange thing is I never really looked at birds. And I think it was because I was nearsighted and also I always looked down at the ground.

That’s where these bugs and creatures were.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more about what you gained by being out there?

Obviously, there was a respite and an escape, but a lot of kids in those same situations, they go elsewhere. They find other people or groups or whatnot.

TAN: I was with some friends at times, but they were interested, I remember a neighbor boy, he was more interested in killing frogs, ’cause I didn’t really want to be around him. But I would just go down and wander and there would be little pools. I would look inside and see what was going on there. And it was a world, in another sense, because I would try to build a kingdom, believe it or not, with little steps going up to it and then it would be time to go home.

My mother was a very volatile woman who also sometimes was suicidal. So I definitely needed to get away and think about something else. And I’d return and she would have sandwiches for me and all would go back to normal.

Part II

FERN ZALIN: Good morning. It’s 6:30 in the morning in Valencia, California. There’s lots of birds out but I’m specifically looking for western tanagers that migrate through for a couple weeks this time of year. They’re beautiful birds with dark red heads, bright yellow bodies and black wings – and Oh! Oh! There’s two in the bottlebrush! There’s lots of birds right now but I’m mostly interested in the western tanagers. They like the bottlebrush. Whoa. (BIRDSONG) So I’m hoping to find more.

LARRY KOLDEN: (BIRDSONG) First brown thrush of the year showed up this morning. (BIRDSONG) I can hear him in woods right now. (BIRDSONG)

JILLIAN GUSTAFSON: I am standing on my back deck. I don’t have to walk far to hear a lot of bird activity, see a lot of bird activity. (BIRDSONG) I put birdseed out every morning and they come to my railing. We have cardinals, mourning doves, robins, red winged blackbirds. Um, grackles? (LAUGHS) Uh, blue jays. (LAUGHS) A lot of things. And it’s very nice here in Northern Virginia. And you can hear the activity. Uh, mockingbirds. (LAUGHS) Lots of things!

CHAKRABARTI: On Point birders Fern Zalin in Valencia, California; Larry Kolden in Genoa, Wisconsin; and Jillian Gustafson in Alexandria, Virginia.

And Amy Tan, those are just a few of the avalanche of birders who sent us messages when we said we were going to be talking to you about your new book.

TAN: They’re my people.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) And I’m trusting that every single one of them now has the Backyard Bird Chronicles in hand, as well. Yeah, we literally just asked people to go outside into their own yards and tell us what they saw. And what’s remarkable is they all sound, they all are captivated in that same sense of wonder that you were in that tape of you we played from last year at the top of the show.

TAN: Yeah. Seeing it. Oh wow, it really is there.

CHAKRABARTI: So I want to talk in more detail about some of what’s in the book. Because I’ve got it here in front of me and earlier when you corrected me and said it’s journaling, not writing a novel per se, upon more reflection during the break, I can see why the distinction is really important. Because you also say that writing a novel can be torturous, whereas nature journaling wasn’t that, but I’m looking at early in the book, this big illustration from September 16th of 2017, the bird in hand illustration. Do you have your book with you?

TAN: Yes, I do. I do.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

TAN: So, I know what you’re talking about.

CHAKRABARTI: Could you actually, if you can turn to that page, could you read, cause that’s straight from your journal. Could you read that page?

TAN: Yeah.

“While watching hummingbirds buzz around me, I recall the fantasy every child has that I could win the trust of wild animals, and they would willingly come to me. I imagine tiny avian helicopters dining on my palm. To lure them, I bought Lilliputian hummingbird feeders, four for ten dollars. Hope came cheap enough, but I was also realistic. It might take months to gain the hummingbird’s interest in the feeder and for it to lose its fear of me. Yesterday, I set a little feeder on the rail near the regular hummingbird feeders on the patio and then sat at a table about 10 feet away.

“Within minutes, a hummingbird came to inspect. A male with a flashing red head. He hovered, gave a cursory glance, at least he noticed it. A good beginning. Then he returned, inspected again from different angles, and left. The third time, he did a little dance around the feeder, approached, and stuck his bill in the hole, and drank.

“I was astonished. That was fast. Other hummingbirds came, and they did their usual territorial display of chasing each other off before the victor returned. And throughout the day, I noticed that the hummingbirds seemed to prefer the little feeder over the larger one. Why was that? Because it was new, and they had to take turns in claiming it?

“Today, at 1:30 p.m., I sat at the patio table again. It was quiet. I called the songbirds. Each day, I’d pair my own whistled bird song with tidbits of food to encourage them to come. In about two minutes, I heard the raspy chitter and squeak of the titmouse and chickadee. They sounded excited to find peanuts.

“Then I heard the staticky sound of a hummingbird. It was a male. I had left the feeder on the table where I was sitting. I put it on my palm and held it out. Within ten seconds, the hummingbird came over, landed on my hand, and immediately started feeding. I held my breath and kept my hand with the feeder all at bay. And, still as possible, his feet felt scratchy.

“He was assessing me the whole time he fed. We stared at each other eye to eye. I remembered what Jack Laws said. ‘Feel the bird. Be the bird.’ What did the hummingbird see in my eyes? Is that how a hummingbird evaluates trustworthiness? As he fed, I examined the tiny feathers on his head, the pink, orange, and red color at his throat.

“The winged blur, the exquisitely tiny feet, I tried to mentally recite what I was seeing so I could later draw the hummingbird. The overlay of tiny feathers on its head are successively larger as they move from the front of the bill toward the back of the head. The legs are short and its toes are the width of dental floss.

“What is he noting about me? After a minute, the hummingbird shot up into the oak tree. He had remained on the hand feeder for 45 seconds, or maybe my excitement had lengthened the actual duration of that moment, one that altered my life. I had gained entry into a wild animal’s world. It was my own backyard with a portal big enough for a bird I imagined myself to be.

“An hour later, I was seated at the patio table, eating lunch, when I heard the familiar sound of beating wings around my head, I am certain he was the same hummingbird. Because when I held up the feeder, he immediately settled and started feeding. After a minute, he flew up to my face, inches away, eye to eye.

“I could feel a little breeze coming off his wings. He seemed fearless and I was slightly concerned his little sword would pierce my eye. Was he curious? Was he being aggressive, warning me that he owned the feeder? Whatever his meaning, he had come back. He had acknowledged me. We have a relationship. I am in love.”

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Amy Tan reading from her new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles. I can’t thank you enough for indulging me on that and reading it. We all need that. Even just listening to you and experiencing that moment through your words, a sense of peace washes over the reader, in my case, the listener. When you had that eye-to-eye moment, you’re right, there’s so many questions. Because you’re not the bird, you’re trying to be the bird, but you’re not him.

But did time really feel like it stopped?

TAN: It did. I’m guessing at the amount of time, it could have been two minutes, could have been 10 seconds. You’re in another time zone. And I, at that very moment, I just realized this respect, the difference, my trying to be the bird, my knowing that I was so privileged, being allowed, the fact that he looked at me and didn’t take off.

In future encounters, I used to just talk to them, and they never flew away. They didn’t seem concerned. I would talk in my very soft voice. You’re so beautiful. You’re such a good boy. Are you hungry? They would just look at me and just keep feeding. And I don’t know what they’re thinking. I can’t assign my own interpretation or my intentions to that of the bird the hummingbird. I can only guess, by the behavior, that at that moment, it does not have fear of me.

Whether it trusts me forever or if I made an abrupt movement, it’d probably take off, so whatever that feeling was that the bird has, I can only guess.

CHAKRABARTI: And also, experiencing that moment through the words of a masterful writer, a masterful novelist takes it to another level. Because the detail with which you relate your observations to us, like his little toes, like dental floss.

TAN: Yeah. It’s journaling, to me, I just realized the other day it’s like spontaneous memoir. So what you’re seeing in front of you is what you’re recording, and later you will look at it and remember as you read it. And that was the purpose for me. I wasn’t writing this for anybody else.

It was a personal journal and instead of writing about ideas for stories or some thought that I had about the day, it really was just about what happened there in front of me, the drama and unfolding in front of me in the yard.

CHAKRABARTI: But do you mind if I ask you again just, there’s a difference between someone who works hard at writing and tries to, but may come up with clunky prose, may or may not be talking about myself, and someone like you who can find the perfect words.

I’m just thinking, I don’t think I would ever have come up with dental floss, but as soon as I saw that on the page, I knew exactly what you were talking about. And it was delicate and beautiful and not at all insulting to the bird, if I can put it that way, can you, do you have a process for that?

TAN: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: How did you come up with that?

TAN: I do. And it was taught to me all of us in the class by Jack Laws, the nature journaling class. And it was, when you see this bird, say out loud what you are seeing. So I’m describing the flashing head, the movement, the feel of this bird on my hand, and how would I describe it to another person?

Now in part, it’s because I need to remember these details so I can later draw it. And when you say it aloud, you will remember it far better, so I could write it down. So in my head, I’m constantly doing that. The pattern of the feathers, of the top of the head, that they’re graduated in size, the look of the eye.

And it’s not just describing colors. It’s the sense of these creatures, their attitude, their individual personalities. That’s what I had to capture as well.

And then I would recall it. I would do little gestures on a piece of paper, but I had to go back later, and draw the feeling of what I had seen.

CHAKRABARTI: And just there, like you said, their personalities, right? Because later in the book, you have this wonderful quick sketch from June of 2019 about a food fight between some juvenile scrubs.

TAN: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) I love it. I love it. There’s sneaky nonchalance.

TAN: Yes. Yes. Clever, sneaky, passive aggressive. It’s all there. And I’m of course being anthropomorphic and assigning that there.

But yeah, that’s what it looks like. Yeah.

CHAKRABARTI: I’d like to talk with you about, and hear you tell us a story about why the backyard, your backyard in particular, was the place where you did so much of your observations. Because there’s a story behind that.

TAN: Yeah. We used to take these field trips, but I couldn’t, especially during the pandemic, and I also didn’t drive.

I can’t drive. I developed epilepsy when I got Lyme disease around 2000, and I was stuck. Although what a great place to be stuck in. I had a yard. I had a garden. I had an oak tree habitat. It was a woodland habitat, and we had done the landscaping, especially for flying creatures, bees, butterflies, and birds.

And so it was already there. But, I would just be able, because of the place that I put the feeders, it was 10 feet away from my dining room window where I did my work. And I would just look out, and there they were. In the beginning, it was only the crow, the hummingbird, and another bird I called a blue jay.

Erroneously, it was actually a scrub jay. And I could see those birds, and I realized that there were plenty of other birds that I had just, I had discounted them. … And once I started looking, I realized they were different. I started setting out feeders, many mistakes in feeders, and eventually started making my own to be perfect for the birds in my yard.

A very doting parent with their first child. You want them to have everything, the best, non GMO, organic, whatever. And that was what I did. I tailored my yard. My yard that, my patio that was supposed to be this beautiful patio. And it’s now it looks like a trash city for things for birds.

But that’s what brings me daily joy. I look out and there they are, and they know I’m in there and I’m going to come out with something. They line up on the top of the fence. Yeah, like that movie, The Birds, where they’re lining up and you know they’re going to come after you, only now they’re waiting patiently.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

TAN: They’re all over. They’re sitting on the barbecue grill. They’re sitting on the top of the fence and I have the suet, I’m going to go out there. And they will wait a little bit longer until I leave and then come down and eat.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. I was going to say Hitchcockian is not at all what you described.

TAN: No. That’s what I thought of birds before. And I think people who have a fear of birds, which I can’t imagine. And then I went back to childhood and I thought, yeah, they think the birds are like those Hitchcockian birds that are going to attack you. It’s very strange for me to go back and realize how much I did not pay attention to birds and how I thought of birds as being like probably murderous.

So your connection, your entry into this world, also you can track, you track it by now how many birds you can identify. Because at the beginning of this journey of yours, you write that you could only identify, what, three species in your backyard? How many are you up to now?

TAN: I’m up to 66 and some of the most unlikely birds have come to my yard.

The last one, number 66, was a great blue heron. Okay. That’s a water bird you’d see down by the shore or something, not in my woodland habitat, but I’ll take it. It landed on my roof and that’s the vicinity of my yard. I have a green roof, so it also makes a difference. Green roof signals to these migrating birds, turn left, Amy’s Bistro.

And they come back year after year. So —

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, those great blues are spectacular. I’m just going to have to take a quick break here, Amy, if you can forgive me. Because I’ll let you pick up what you thought in just a moment. But we are, of course, talking to the singular Amy Tan about her new book, The Backyard Bird Chronicles, much more in just a moment.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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