Chris Goddie’s The Jewel Hunter is not the kind of book I usually love. Gooddie is a lister, not a naturalist; he doesn’t like raptors and makes fun of pigeons. The book belongs to an odd new genre, made possible by money, jets, and the Internet: the “twitcher’s progress.” Gooddie proposes traveling to see every species of pitta—32 bejeweled, reclusive, ground-dwelling songbirds found in the tropical rainforests of Asia, Australia, and Africa—in more countries than I can count, in a single year. Against all odds, he pulls off his task and comes away with a book that is self-deprecating, funny, and deadly accurate about his obsession: “Saying that birders like making lists is like saying Homer Simpson likes Duff beer.”
His real motivation is that he has fallen in love with pittas. His hierarchy, in his italics, reads:
Animals are the best things in the world.
Birds are the best animals.
Pittas are the best birds.
This love and his digressions (food, drink, more italicized lists—such as a long fussy one on how to make proper British tea—and even his sudden proposal of marriage to his fiancée in the penultimate chapter) carry him through 350 pages, crisscrossing tropical countries, looking, eating local food with enthusiasm, despite dysentery, “naughty” elephants, “poisonous flatfish,” leeches, and a leopard. Sometimes he cannot ignore even harsher realities. In Sulawesi, after seeing a host’s total possessions—a shack, three chickens, a transistor radio—he muses “I thought of my chattel-cluttered London life and felt a twinge of shame.”
But his love for birds never flags. He describes his last, the African Pitta, with uncharacteristic lyricism; its spots are “blue. Iridescent blue. Coruscating, oceanic summer-sky blue!” After dancing up and down, “I let my gaze travel up the achingly long, straight road, until I reached the spot where it pierced the horizon and disappeared. Silence except for the boisterous insects. Not a soul was around, no one to stare at a grinning Englishman, a long way from home, celebrating an arcane, thrillingly pointless victory most of the world would struggle to understand.” He exits, thinking to himself: “now it was time to realize another dream.” If it includes birds, and Gooddie writes a book about it, I’ll read it.
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