Don’t you just love Julie Zickefoose? If your answer is “no” it probably means that you’re not acquainted with Julie Zickefoose, haven’t read any of her books or articles, seen her artwork, heard her lectures or monthly National Public Radio spots, or even read her eponymous blog. Your loss. Ms. Zickefoose is a naturalist’s naturalist, someone who has turned the study of plants and animals in their natural surroundings into an amazing way of life. While communion with nature is ultimately a private affair, Ms. Zickefoose harnesses her abundant artistic ability to share her insight, experience, and, above all, delight with her fortunate audience.
This is where Julie Zickefoose’s newest book comes in. Letters From Eden is an exquisite harcover compilation of eight years of the author’s writing and art. Through verdant prose and gossamer watercolors and illustrations, Ms. Zickefoose conjures a rich representation of the paths she’s walked and lives (avian, amphibian, and otherwise) she’s touched. The book’s subtitle “A Year at Home, in the Woods” references the inspired seasonal rather than chronological organization of the essays; Letters From Eden starts in winter, progresses through the warmer months, and ends in autumn, like any good year.
The natural history genre suffers no shortage of books culled from journals. In fact, so many of these journal books exist that they’ve differentiated into various subspecies. Many published nature journals are meant to be educational, with the narrator serving as surrogate student. Club George is an excellent example of a fairly recent book that conveys a great deal of bird watching education while chronicling the author’s growth as a birder. This approach can be contrasted by the journal that places more emphasis on the objects of observation than the subject. Birding Babylon, for example, is about Iraqi avifauna first, the region itself second, and the author’s thoughts and feelings a very distant third. Letters from Eden, on the other hand, represents that distinctive type of natural history journal in which the author is not subordinate to the flora and fauna she encounters but is, in fact, an essential aspect of the narrative.
The pool of celebrity birders who are as interesting as the birds they watch may be pretty small, but Ms. Zickefoose is certainly part of this select group. Letters of Eden may discuss phoebes, grouse, bullfrogs, and box turtles, but the book is really about its passionate author. Letters from Eden will acquaint you with her feeder birds and wayward charges, the garden that needs tending and migrants that need minding, but it also introduces her husband (a member of the birderati in his own right), precious children, and rambling, efflorescent Ohio home. This book is more than just a showcase for Ms. Zickefoose’s artwork and expertise, impressive as these things may be. To me, the book serves as a very welcome, respectfully intimate introduction to an individual who connects with nature with every one of her senses and faculties, who interfaces with the world around her with integrity, compassion, and joy. Letters from Eden is a wonderful read for anyone who aspires to do the same.