William Burt shows us what the world looks like to someone who sits still long enough to really see it. Few of us, not even the birding elite, have either the time or eye, never mind the technical proficiency and patience required. By his own telling, it took three years to get the photos he wanted of a black rail, the pursuit of which sent him back, over and over again, at night, to a marsh on Maryland’s eastern shore.
Burt is entertaining and sobering at the same time — a serious travel writer with a flair for quirky anthropomorphisms like “schizophrenic gulls” and “alarmist beavers.” He takes us from his home marshes in Connecticut, where biologists are waging war on a plague of phragmites, to a sedge meadow in Manitoba, where he snaps a photo of a lightning strike beyond a night marsh filled with points of firefly light. We search for once-grand western marshes now reduced to impounded puddles and explore the vast and ecologically intact coastal grasslands of Louisiana and Georgia, seeing some of the best and worst of what we have rendered.
Books like this help put places like marshes back in the center of things. Burt is a sensualist who lays out the elusive mystery and beauty of marshlands for us with a challenge: “What would it take to rouse [our] sense of wonder? If not pink wading birds with paddle bills, and rainbow iridescent hens with candy-yellow legs and toes … if not these, then what?”