Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Jonathan C. Slaght - Owls of the Eastern Ice

Reading a blow by blow account of someone studying for a PHd might not be the most exciting of book choices, but Jonathan Slaght's account of his studies of Blakiston's Fish Owl is absolutely riveting. These particular owl's are extremely rare. They live in Japan and Primorye, an extremely remote part of Russia, north-east of Vladivostok and near the mutual border with China and North Korea. This is a genuine wilderness area, of tiny frontier towns, few roads, vast expanses of forest and some unusual ecological systems. Slaght know's the area relatively well and he is well acquainted with Russian and Russia. But he is very much an outsider. Many of the people he meet with are gobsmacked to meet someone from America and he's bombarded with questions about the life they expect him to lead based on their knowledge from television.

Slaght's plan is spend several seasons locating pairs of owls, then tag and trace their movements over the next few years. Plans, of course, seem very straightforward when they are written in the comfort of offices. But the reality of the cold, desolate and wet wilderness makes things very difficult indeed. Slaght could not have succeeded without a supporting cast of conservationists and colleagues. These men (and they are all men) have more experience than he does, and are more knowledgeable of the surroundings. They know locations, people and, crucially, the owls. They are also wonderfully eccentric. Slaght quickly learns to drink vodka - visitors who come to their hut to see the America inevitably bring a bottle of vodka with them. Slaght learns that Russian vodka often only has a foil cap. Once opened the bottle is always drained - why would you need a screw on lid? At one celebration when he has finally managed to tag an owl, Slaght gets very drunk and wakes with a terrible hangover. It turns out the guests that night had brought cleaning fluid not vodka.

Fish owl's are fascinating creatures. They live off fish and seek a space with open water, nesting in the trunk of a dead tree nearby. They have a unique mournful cry that a pair will duet together, and look (from both the pictures in this book and Slaght's description) like a bedraggled grumpy bird that Slaght describes at one point as looking like "feathered golems". They are also huge - as big as eagles.

Primorye is wilderness, but it is being opened up by loggers. The logging companies threaten the bird's landscape but ironically often provide the support infrastructure that the conservationists need. Slaght recognises that he has to work with the companies to protect the owls and, together with his colleagues, seems to have some success. There is a similar convoluted relationship with the hunters of the region whose actions threaten not just the owls, but also the rarer tigers. 

Oddly enough, for a book focused on fish owls, I felt that I wanted to know more about the birds themselves. They are elusive and I suspect few people who read this book will have heard of them before. But because Slaght focuses on the story of his studies, we tend to learn about the owls as he does. It means that the totality isn't really brought together. 

A Japanese fish owl. Image from wikipedia.
But the book is more than just an account of these studies. It is a fascinating account of the human ecology of Primorye. The people here are poor and buffeted by wider social, environmental and economic forces that appear, as if by magic, to transform their lives and landscapes. Their confusion at the idea of western people studying the owls is made plain by several people Slaght talks too. But so are their wider hopes. There's a poignant moment when when Slaght is in his van, two older women stop them and ask how to get treatment. Confused by this, Slaght learns that rumours where that a team of doctors were driving an X-ray van around the region helping people. Slaght has to dispel the myth though the story underlines the remoteness and lack of infrastructure in the area.

It's possible to read Owls of the Eastern Ice on many levels. It is firstly a fascinating insight into the hard work, science and boredom that goes into much crucial conservation work. It is also an entertaining travelogue of the type that opens up an entirely different community to outsiders eyes, though Slaght is not so crude a writer that this feels patronising or obtrusive. Finally it is a study of a rare and endangered animal that helps us understand how wider capitalist economics can threaten and transform an entire landscape. I highly recommend this fascinating read - even if you've never heard of Blakiston's Fish Owl before.

Related Reviews

Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds
Carson - Silent Spring
Lymbery - Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were
Weiner - The Beak of the Finch: Evolution in Real Time

No comments: