Review: John Banville on Jonathan Meiburg's “A Most Remarkable Creature”

This wonderful, and, yes, most remarkable book has two main players, one a bird, the other a writer. The bird is the caracara, a species of falcon; the writer is William Henry Hudson, an Anglo-Argentinian born in 1841, known, though not half well enough, for his novel Green Mansions and a captivating memoir of his early life on the pampas, Far Away and Long Ago.

Hudson took a keen interest in the caracara, and no doubt the caracaras with whom he came in contact returned the compliment for this is an intrepid, endlessly inquisitive, and astonishingly intelligent bird. As Jonathan Meiburg remarks, calling caracaras “odd birds of prey feels like calling the painters of the Italian Renaissance a group of unusually gifted apes.”  

Charles Darwin, a supporting actor here, writes of observing the caracara and its antics when the Beagle on which he was voyaging in the early 1830s stopped off at the Falkland Islands, the bird’s main home. He was fascinated by the caracaras’ curiosity and mischievousness, and told how they loved to steal interesting objects from his camp, including a “compass in a red morocco leather case, which was never recovered.”

Jonathan Meiburg, as his book attests, has a passion for the caracara, “one of the strangest and most wonderful animals” in existence. They are, he tells us, “the southernmost birds of prey on Earth, and among the rarest: no more than a few thousand are left.” He describes the bird Darwin encountered: “It had an orange face, a silver-gray beak, and glossy black plumage, and it massed in noisy gangs at the islands’ only settlement to beg for scraps of kitchen garbage.” It likes to be around humans, for we are not only a bountiful supplier of food but also a source of interest, and, in some cases, objects of affection.

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Pop music fans will know Jonathan Meiburg as the lead singer and songwriter with the band Shearwater. He is also an ornithologist, holding a masters degree from the University of Texas at Austin on the subject of—you guessed it—the caracara and its “biogeography.” In 1997 he received a fellowship to spend a year among remote communities around the world, and in 2014 he signed contracts to write A Most Remarkable Creature. “This book,” he notes ruefully, “took a long time;” it was worth every minute he spent on it.

It is famously said of Moby-Dick that it is somewhat more than a book about whales. The caracara is at the heart of Meiburg’s project, but his narrative deals with many topics, ranges over enormous swathes of the world’s wilder landscapes, and introduces us to a large cast of fascinating creatures, not a few of whom are human.

Meiburg recounts thrilling adventures in the forests of Guyana, where the caracara is known as the “bush auntie bird,” in the bleak southern reaches of Tierra del Fuego, in the Falklands, and in the high deserts of the Andes. His book has the breadth and raciness of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel and the warmth of a David Attenborough natural history program.

Not the least of its strengths is a rich, pliant, and muscular prose style that can at times be sublime in the Burkean sense, that is, both beautiful and terrifying. The description here of the impact of the miles-wide asteroid that struck in the southern hemisphere sixty-six million years ago will chill your blood.

But Meiburg’s strongest gift is for drawing the reader into his enthusiasms, the chief of which we know: “Striated caracaras and their kin have surprising and important stories to tell us: about the history of life, about the hidden worlds of their grand and mysterious continent, about how evolution can fashion a mind like ours from different materials. They may even offer us some advice about surviving in a world primed for an upheaval.”

He is as concerned as the rest of us—or those of us at least who are awake to the dangers facing our fragile planet—but he is no merchant of doom. What is delightful about his book is the love of the world it expresses, and the calm fortitude with which it considers our current predicament. We have fallen short on our debt to nature, and nature is considering calling it in. The wild world is watching us. Meiburg writes of the caracaras: “The first ones I saw stared back at me so intensely that I felt slightly abashed, as if I owed them an explanation.”

John Banville’s latest novel is Snow. His next, April in Spain, will be published in October.

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