Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Orison for a Curlew - Horatio Clare

One of the things that I particularly like about Little Toller is how beautiful their books are. They're lovely to touch and look at in a way that not just makes them a pleasure to read, but reinforces the sense of what I'm reading. In this case the illustrations by Beatrice Forshall* act almost like punctuation - the moments I took to look at the image that prefaces each chapter was enough of a pause to let the previous chapter sink in a little bit more.

'Orison for a Curlew' was a Christmas present from my sister (thoughtfully chosen from my wish list, where it was sitting because the Eurasian Curlew, especially its distinctive call, is a defining part of the Shetland landscape I grew up in). The Curlew, Horatio Clare writes about here is its elusive cousin, Numenius Tenuirostris (the slim beak of the new moon) or Slender-billed Curlew. It's so elusive that it's officially one of the world's rarest birds. So rare that at the time of writing it looked very like it may actually be extinct.

A book about a search for a bird that hadn't been reliably spotted in years sounds like it might be quite depressing - this one isn't. Instead it's an unexpectedly uplifting homage to the people who have thought to save the habitats and landscapes to which the bird so recently belonged, and recognition that even if the Slender-billed Curlew has gone forever, it hasn't gone unnoticed and efforts to find it have created a positive legacy.

The question that Clare asks again and again as he travels across Greece and around the Balkans is does it matter if the bird is extinct? The answer is yes, and it's yes mostly because we don't understand why. Not so long ago this was a common enough bird, and whilst it's not been lucky with its habitat, it's cousins and neighbours have not suffered in quite the same way. If we don't know why, we don't know what it's disappearance means, the implications it has for other species, the implications it has for us. And that's quite apart from considerations about what sort of world were leaving behind us, or what responsibility we have towards the environment we live in.

The good thing is that people realise this, attitudes are changing, and as is demonstrated again and again throughout the book "passionate efforts by very small numbers of committed people can have a tremendous effect". So in the end it's a hopeful book, and there's an even more hopeful post script. By the end of the book its years since a confirmed sighting of the Curlew, there are rumours, and the odd possibility, but they feel like wishful thinking, the inevitable conclusion is that the bird has gone. Since then however there is news that Numenius Tenuirostris might have been hiding in Holland and Kazakhstan, that it might not be to late to learn from it after all, and that almost miraculously this is something we haven't broken. Not yet anyway.

*I really like Forshall's work generally, and as this is the closest I'll come to owning any of it in the foreseeable future, these illustrations were a real bonus.


  1. By the most extraordinary coincidence, I am now working on a curlew print after reading of their rapid decline in this book! Great minds!

  2. It's an extraordinary story, so it seems like an appropriate coincidence! Will your Curlew be slender billed or Eurasian? I'll be looking out for it with great interest either way.

  3. Goodness, what a coincidence that Deborah is working on a print of that self same bird.

    I have put the book on my wish list, thank you for drawing my attention to it, birds are a passion.

  4. It's obviously an inspiring book! Birds are a passion for me too, and it's worrying to see how many that gave the landscapes and places in my life sound and animation are struggling.