This is a book about a quest – an epic, all-consuming quest. Phoebe Snetsinger liked birdwatching, and had the resources to support a lot of travel to do it. Then she got a cancer diagnosis and was told she had three months to live.
It’s a common conversational topic. “What would you do if you knew you only had X amount of time to live?” In a sense, there’s a kind of cosmic permission granted by receiving a death sentence in this manner. All the shackles of convention are loosened. We’re finally free to say what we want to say, do what we want to do, and go where we want to go. Personally, I don’t see why we can’t grant ourselves this permission any old time we like, because we know neither the day nor the hour. As it turns out, Snetsinger’s day came 18 years after her initial diagnosis; she was killed instantly in a bus accident [“bus” in the book; “van” in Wikipedia]. (Medical ethics have changed, too, and doctors don’t usually hand out exact time limitations any more).
Birding on Borrowed Time is really all about birding. It barely mentions Snetsinger’s four children, or her husband, except to point out how her travels caused her to miss her daughter’s wedding and nearly led to divorce. Similarly, she spends about the same amount of ink on her terrifying gang rape as on the time she broke her wrist. The picture that emerges is of a person who will be stopped by nothing. Facing mortality seems to bring about some sea changes in perspective. In her own words: “There were indeed human hazards in this country – but not to go there at all because of the possibility of encountering them? Unthinkable! It has become ever more clear to me that if I had spent my life avoiding any and all potential risks, I would have missed doing most of the things that have comprised the best years of my life.”
Phoebe Snetsinger set a world record for living bird sightings. By her calculations, she saw roughly 84% of all the birds in the world.
This is interesting to me on three levels. For one, I was riveted by the mechanics of birding: her record keeping, the basics of amateur ornithology, the travel planning, the dynamics of private and group trips, the equipment. One of my earliest memories is of a panicked female sparrow that flew into our house and finally allowed my dad to pick her up. I love watching even the most common domestic birds; if I saw some of the exotic birds that Phoebe Snetsinger saw, I might actually vibrate into a different plane of existence.
The second thing that interests me about this book is the interpersonal aspects of what happens when a woman starts to live like a man. When a man is driven, ambitious, single-minded, dedicated, or otherwise somewhat obsessive about a quest, nobody so much as blinks. He goes where he wants, does what he wants, and says what he wants. If he is away from home a lot or misses some weddings, well, that’s the price of excellence. When a woman does it? Say she does what she wants and she sets a world record. Is she judged differently, by society, by her husband or children? Should she be?
The third thing that interests me about this book is that most of its events happen after the author had passed the age of 50. She climbs mountains and rides horseback; she removes leeches and goes out in the wind, rain, and mud. She risks political coups and armed robbery and earthquakes and avalanches. She even climbs over a razor-wire fence. She sprains muscles and breaks bones. She’s 68 when she dies, binoculars in hand. It doesn’t say, but she may actually have “died with her boots on.” This is a fascinating picture of post-menopausal adventure, one that has rarely been seen, but may become more common in future as trailblazers like Phoebe Snetsinger venture forth.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.