There are several reasons for that pleasure. First, Brian’s knowledge of the natural world, garnered over a lifetime, is exemplary. That knowledge is based mostly in Nova Scotia, but also gathered from his early years in and return visits to his native New Brunswick, and from field trips in Alberta, Nebraska, and Ireland.
Birds are Brian’s most frequent focus, but he knows his mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles, and fish species too. He’s also amazingly conversant with the plant world – from wildflowers and the Acadian forest to lichen and fungi. Moreover, he always views species and varieties within their habitats – interconnected and inter-dependent. Therefore, he is impressively familiar with rocks (geology), water and clouds (hydrology), winds, snow, sunlight and other interacting phenomena and processes. He is no twitcher merely seeking another bird for his life list. Brian is an ecologist, perceiving the web of life among the four elements.
As well, the human-made features of habitats figure prominently, for example: “Stuck to the cement pillar-props of an overpass, dozens of mud nests like rows of minicaves. Cliff swallows fly into and out of the sun,” and “On the horizon at Dominion Beach, a sign of conflicting times: the towers of wind-power generators lined up on either side of a coal-burning plant. White blades slicing, black smoke rising. Late August, Yellow-rumped Warblers fidget among the thicknesses of myrtle, the seeds so plentiful the birds won’t answer the familiar calls to migrate. Once named Myrtle Warblers, they crack the hard green seeds under the skies of Industry.” And “Over shrubby land near a girls’ soccer tournament, a Northern Harrier lets out sharp whistles distinctly different from the referees’.”
Brian never fails to make the natural world fascinating, through the merging of his keen observations, imaginative and musical language, and wit. “Far past midnight, I wake to the clicking of crickets, which hear each other with their knees’ timpanic membranes. In Queen Square tennis balls and softballs have given way to those insects running a wingtip along the comb-like veins on the oppositive wing’s underside.” Who knew? Brian did. And I’ll now have that wonderful knowledge, and that vivid image, in mind when the crickets play their harps next summer.
Brian often has fun: “After we flung mackerel and popcorn…from the boat, a trio of Northern Fulmars arrives.” Epiphanies abound, joyous and bittersweet: “On the granite barrens we hear a fluster of duck voices, from an unseen pond or pool hidden in the evergreen density below. They’re disembodied, without lungs or beaks or clear location, yet they sound full of spring, the old spring before weather was twisted askew.”
And there are unmitigated laments: “oil oil slicked brown pelican oil oil flightless horned grebe….oil oil golden plover no longer golden.” Brian knows all too well the damage our species does. But that knowledge never overwhelms you; rather, it appears as subtle nudges, with the occasional body-slam. What Ringing Here & There does overwhelmingly is show us the natural world in its luxuriantly diverse omnipresence – the endlessly varied rewards if we pay closer attention. Go for walks and boat rides, gaze out the windows, sit on patios and park benches with eyes and ears and other sense wide open.
Finally, these entries are rewarding for the eminently affable, modest, and witty voice and persona of the writer. He quickly becomes a friend we want to walk with, listen with and to, share discoveries with. As a writer, his voice and persona, and his prose, never come between the reader and the natural world, never interfere with what he wants us to discover. He’s that finger pointing to the moon. The ideal companion.
Ringing Here & There is an ideal book both for seasoned nature lovers and for people who are detached from the natural world and need inspiration to leave their screens and rooms and go outdoors. This is a volume that belongs on a shelf with Thoreau’s and Rachel Carson’s writings, with Aldo Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac, with the poetry of Brian’s friend Don McKay, “the Canadian poet laureate of ecological philosophy.”
As for Brian being storm-stayed in the bird house, when the main road was cleared and he could catch the bus to Halifax, I broke trail in waist-high snow for two hundred yards on our lane, sliding his suitcase ahead of me. Brian followed no doubt looking for chickadees and juncos. Waiting at the end of our lane was Ann Sherman, who, with her poet husband Joe, were old friends of Brian from their time together in Fredericton, in those literary glory years with Alden Nowlan, Fred Cogswell, John Thompson, M. Travis Lane, and other writers who beautifully captured the natural world and humans in their habitats. He left Lee Ellen and me with the gift of Ringing Here & There, more than ample thanks for breaking trail.
Writer, editor, educator.