Kenn Kaufman, author of A Season on the Wind: Inside the World of Spring Migration, has observed bird migration on all seven continents. He is editor and coauthor of seven titles in the Kaufman Field Guide series, and his memoir, Kingbird Highway, was designated an Outdoor Classic by the National Outdoor Book Awards. Learn more at KaufmanFieldGuides.com.
Get to know Kenn in this Q&A and then join us on Thursday, February 25 at 12 PM EST to hear him discuss his work in SHELF LIFE—Bird Watching: Spring Migrations with Kenn Kaufman & Pete Myers.
Festival: What motivated you to become a writer and naturalist?
Kaufman: The interest in nature came first—I was fascinated by animals as early as I can remember, and was beginning to zero in on birds by the time I was six. That interest continued to grow until it became all-consuming. By the time I was eleven I was reading books by Roger Tory Peterson, Edwin Way Teale, and others, and I decided I wanted to grow up to do the kinds of things they did: writing, art, and photography, all focused on the natural world. It took a few years of poverty and a few detours to get here, but ultimately I wound up with the career I’d pictured at the age of eleven.
Who or what are some of your creative influences?
In terms of writing, I’ve spent a lot of time reading, rereading, and analyzing the work of great authors with very different styles: Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Rachel Carson, John McPhee, and more. Not to try to duplicate any of their styles, but to look at how they maintain an internal consistency and integrity in their writing, how they use their distinctive approaches to create stories with impact.
What was your favorite part about writing your latest book?
Since I do nonfiction, the pattern is always the same: the best part is the research, the worst part is having to sit down and actually write! The latest book was about bird migration, and in a way I’ve been researching that for decades; but once I actually got to work, it gave me an excuse to spend more time outdoors observing migratory birds, and reading dozens more scientific papers about obscure angles of the subject.
Do you have any sources of inspiration that you come back to while writing?
It varies depending on the project. But mostly I’m writing about birds or nature, and the subject matter itself is inspiring. If I start to get bogged down in the wording of a difficult passage, I think about how some migratory songbirds—weighing an ounce or less—may fly nonstop for up to 80 hours to complete a long nonstop flight over open water. When I consider that wondrous, monstrous level of endurance, it makes my struggle with text seem trivial by comparison, so then I knuckle down and get back to work.
What impact or takeaway do you hope your work will have for readers?
With A Season on the Wind, I was trying to convey both the science and the magic of bird migration. It might seem silly to refer to magic here; but for me, the more I learn about the sheer scientific facts of this phenomenon, the more it seems like something magical and extraordinary. In fact, it IS extraordinary. When I think about some tiny bird flying from Alaska to Brazil in the fall, and then flying back north in spring, returning to the very tree in Alaska where it nested the previous year . . . this kind of thing happens billions of times every year, but that doesn’t make it any less of a miracle. I’d like the reader to come away with the sense that we are surrounded by miracles every day, and we just have to open our eyes and look at them.
What is something that you’ve read recently and would recommend to others?
Recently I reread (for the third time) J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. It’s beautifully written and it conveys a powerful viewpoint that just keeps on building from one chapter to the next. A very different book, but one that’s stunning in its scientific revelations, is The Bird Way: A New Look at How Birds Talk, Work, Play, Parent, and Think, the latest from Jennifer Ackerman. I recommend these books to everyone.
What are you working on next?
The next book has more of a historical slant. I’m looking at the end of the age of discovery of the birdlife of eastern North America—focusing on those birds that still remained unknown to science after about 1830, when most of the eastern species had been described and named. It’s fascinating to look at how some of these birds, even common ones, managed to remain unnoticed for so long. This is a history that hasn’t been discussed yet, and I’m enjoying my research on it immensely.