I received this book from Unbound, the excellent subscription publishing service where, like in the first days of publishing or with crowd-funders in general, you pledge an amount of money, then when enough people have pledged, the book is published and you get your copy (with your name in the list of subscribers at the back!). This is the first project I’ve pledged which has made it into book form – I had one failed one for a book about John Cowper Powys where I got a credit returned to me, and am waiting to see how two more do, “100 Voices” which shares 100 women’s voices 100 years (ish) after getting the vote, and “Ending the Pursuit” which I just pledged for as part of my aim to read more diverse voices/experiences. Funnily enough, I have a couple of other Unbound books on my TBR which I picked up locally, too! I picked this one right out of the middle of the TBR to read because I gave it to my best friend Emma for her birthday and she was reading it at the time, too.

Joe Harkness – “Bird Therapy”

(04 May 2019 – from the publisher)

Starting with a powerful foreword by Chris Packham (trigger warning: there is talk of taking one’s own life including some information on planning: it is by no means suicide-positive of course) this book pulls no punches in its descriptions of the effects of poor mental health, but is ultimately a positive read and experience.

After explaining the origins of his hobby in childhood experiences, and giving us many excellent descriptions of birds, Harkness adapts the five ways to well-being to birdwatching and explains eloquently how it has helped him in particular and can help others in general. He did a survey via his blog when planning the book, and surveyed the literature on birdwatching (there is some!) and more general works on the value of getting outside in nature, so his claims are nicely backed up.

I find it interesting that of the kinds of approaches to birdwatching he lists, he found twitching/ticking too stressful and competitive, but preferred the quietness of getting to know a local patch in all its seasons. I really hate rushing to see a particular bird for the sake of it (the most I’ve ever done of that was walking the almost negligible distance from Penzance to Newlyn to look at an Iceland Gull on a harbour wall, and we still spent quite a while watching it and its behaviour!). I don’t necessarily agree that bird photography moves the proponent too far away from the basics, as I find it relaxing lining up my bird shots, but I can understand why he thinks that.

Running has its moment when talking about the benefits of exercising outdoors, and as a running birdwatcher, I certainly recognise the process of having to hold a sighting in your mind until you get home! One of my running friends asked me a while back to help her learn the British birds and we and other friends have had great fun watching herons and little white egrets on the canals and rivers. I also managed to see some interesting wagtails during my first marathon, remember where I saw them and return there the next day during my recovery walk!

Harkness speaks from a position of being able to tell when he’s in danger of crisis and being able to head it off, which is reassuring and positive. I was saddened to read of his early (and all-too-familiar) run-ins with established birdwatchers in hides and online, who can be sneery, but was glad to see he has now found his tribe as well as an enjoyment of the hobby solo. He also clearly continues to try to inspire young people, both those he teaches and those who enter hides he’s in, and newbies in general.

There’s a good section where he highlights what initiatives are being done to make hides and reserves more accessible to wheelchair users and the like, and there are great descriptions of exactly what it’s like to visit a bird reserve. Handy hints at the end of each chapter appeal to the birdwatcher or starter alike. A great and inspiring read.

Joe Harkness doesn’t appear to be on social media any more, but has a website here, and he also has a great-looking teaching pack (info here) which I think would appeal to lots of people.