Book Review: Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer

Bird Cottage, written by Eva Meijer, translated by Antoinette Fawcett, asks many questions. Why does one give up the comfort of a known life, and move to a cottage in the countryside, just to run a research on birds? Why does one antagonize one’s neighbour whose cats terrify the birds? Why does one choose to end up seeming rude to visitors who struggle to understand that every sudden movement would startle the birds? Why does one challenge nasty authorities when they try to destroy the birds’ homes? Why does one choose birds over everything else, at the cost of being called a misanthrope? Why? Why does it matter? But what else matters?

Gwendolen Howard wrote two books – Birds As Individuals and Living With Words — about her extraordinary yet quiet life with birds whom she extensively researched for more than three decades. The male world of science then, in the first half of the 20th century, looked down upon her reports. But Howard’s research offered an intimate view of her life with birds, and revealed a side that was largely unknown about the avian universe. Her best friend Star, a Great Tit, even learned to tap on tables and windows for a specific number of times when Howard requested. Howard was often found walking in Sussex, with a bunch of birds perched on her shoulders and arms. I often think of the image, and it warms my heart.

In Eva Meijer’s Bird Cottage, fact meets fiction. Meijer takes some creative liberty, presents Howard’s life based on the available material, and fills the gap with her own imagination. The final product is a story that’s idyllic and heartbreaking in equal measure. After all the struggle to keep her cottage a safe haven for the birds, Howard left it to the Sussex Naturalists’ Trust, with the hope that it would be turned into a sanctuary, but her dreams died too. Her books, I figure, are out of print as well. But it is comforting to know that there was a person who was unconditionally trusted by the often-misunderstood birds. And there will always be somebody, braving all the ridicule, only to deeply love life in their own ways.

I shouldn’t ask myself whether what I’m doing is useful, or whether it’s enough. The birds show me that time is not the straight line that humans make of it. Things don’t come to an end, they just change form. A feeling becomes a thought, a thought an action, an action a thought, a thought a feeling. The first feeling returns, traces lines through the new one. The first thought sleeps a while, then crops up again later. This is how times intermingle; this is how we exist in different moments all at once.