A cheeky lad, Geoffrey McMullan was regularly subjected to brutal discipline at his English boarding school. He found some solace when, at age eleven, he became entranced with birds – specifically, with a Green Woodpecker — and that sighting, he says, “took me to another, safer world.”
The avian avocation became lifelong for McMullan, including for the 22 years he spent in the British Army (the Royal Regiment of Artillery), from which he retired as a Staff Sergeant, having become by that time an expert birder and artist, world traveler, naturalist, and seeming mystic of sorts. More Birds Than Bullets: My Life With Birds is his account of the centrality of birds in all of these endeavors, and in his life.
As McMullan tells it, birding goes pretty well with the military lifestyle, at least for himself and a select few others. “Hurry up and wait” applies to every army, and there is enough downtime to be able to sneak off for birding expeditions. Influence in high places helps, too, such as when, to his delight, McMullan, a mere corporal at the time, discovers that his Brigadier (the boss of McMullan’s boss) is avid to see a Tengmalm’s Owl that McMullan had photographed (in Germany), and gets McMullan to guide him.
And birds are, after all, everywhere, such as the Red-breasted Flycatcher that McMullan spots atop an ammo box in Kuwait (in the first Gulf War); or the stunningly beautiful song of the Greater Hoopoe Lark that wakes him, lying in his sleeping bag in the desert; or, less prosaically and more horrifically, various birds of prey flying off with human body parts in Iraq. What he calls “extreme birding” is part of his unique fun, as well – by that he means looking for lifers or other interesting birds while involved in such things as a firefight with the Taliban in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. As he says, “service personnel get to bird where no other birders can.” (Or would want to, one guesses.)
As shown by the photo, below, of McMullan and Merlin, his Eurasian Eagle Owl friend, McMullan is a rough-hewn 6’4” foot bear of a man; he describes himself as resembling a character from the World Wrestling Federation.
But bears can be sensitive creatures, as well, and some of the best parts of the book are when McMullan describes himself, alone in nature, in silent contemplation and observation, being attentive to the concentric rings of energy he radiates as he walks, or sits. (He’s somewhat of a devotee of the tracking and bushwork guru Tom Brown, Jr.) He tells, for example, of sitting close by a fox den, and watching a raccoon walk past it with a look of acknowledgement. The coon wasn’t scared, McMullan explains, because it can hold its own with a fox in a fight. But the coon wanted the fox to know, nevertheless, that the coon was aware of its presence.
McMullan had some sort of spiritual awakening in Bosnia when he saw a woman weeping outside her destroyed home. But he pretty much drops the subject, except for a final Chapter 9, “My Transition,” when he addresses it briefly, and says “I could write a book about these experiences alone.” He probably should do.
In his Preface, McMullan warns the reader that the book is not written in chronological order and he’s not kidding: the narrative goes from Thailand to Seattle, from Senegal to the Everglades, without segue or even much of a breath. He is not a stickler for standard orthography, syntax, or punctuation, and, despite his promise to limit the use of military jargon, the book is full of acronyms that are hard to keep track of.
But all that is OK: in a rollicking narrative like this one, the reader gets used to McMullan’s prose idiosyncrasies. It’s like being with a bunch of his squaddies down at the Gas Light bar on a Friday night, laughing and chaffing while downing pints, and listening to his stories.
More Birds Than Bullets is not the first of its genre. Jonathan Trouern-Trend’s Birding Babylon: A Soldier’s Journal From Irag, a lovely little 2006 book, is also well worth your time.
Drawings of the Green Woodpecker and M109 American Artillery Self Propelled Gun (not a tank), with Common Buzzard by Geoffrey McMullan; photo of Geoffrey McMullan and Merlin (not a merlin) by Frank Edwards; drawing of Geoffrey McMullan by Cliff Wright.
More Birds Than Bullets: My Life With Birds. By Geoffrey McMullan. Pathfinder UK, 2020, 220 pp., £14.99 UK, $18.99 US, €16.99 EU. ISBN 978-0-9576181-4-5 (Paper); ISBN 978-0-9576181-3-8