Reviewed by Phil Jason
This review originally appeared in Florida Weekly. Reprinted with permission.
Florida is blessed with writers devoted to its natural splendors and to exploring the relationship between human endeavor, the environment all creatures share, and the severely threatened nonhuman creatures. I’ve had the privilege over the years to read and write about such passionate and skilled guides as Bill Belleville, Doug Alderson, and Jeff Klinkenberg. Andrew Furman, a professor of literature and creative writing at Florida Atlantic University, joins this company with his totally engaging collection of short essays about his seventeen year journey towards a deep understanding of the place he has chosen to make his home.
This place is not the Boca Raton with which most of us are familiar.
Prof. Furman’s quest was a search for understanding and belonging. He sought to remove the distance between the patterns of his daily life – the routines of suburbia and academe – and the coexistent but largely unnoticed patterns of wildlife and plant life. Over the course of many years, the accumulation of observations and knowledge took on, more and more, a spiritual dimension.
With the exception of an extended meditation on squirrels, the essays mostly concern fish, birds, and trees. The author’s amateur “field work” is accompanied by a great deal of reading and by interaction with those who share his developing passion. He finds that it takes determination – even hard work – to make the time and effort. Energy and hours need be stolen from set responsibilities and ingrained habits. That’s where family comes in.
One of the several charms of this inspiring book is how Andrew Furman and his wife, Wendy, involve their children in this experiment. Child-rearing is enhanced by the ways in which the author shapes his children’s informal education through shared experiences of nature. A redirected use of family time deepens relationships.
The essays reveal Prof. Furman’s keen descriptive skills. He can pin down not only what we need to know, but also what we need to see in order to value the importance – the essential distinction and dignity – of the live oak, the Geiger tree, and the coontie plant. Each essay includes the author in the act of seeking and discovering. Exposition, description, and narration interact with grace and power.
This slim book includes beautifully fashioned fishing essays; gardening essays; detailed appreciations of burrowing owls, painted bunting, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the snail kite; and many essays of moral import.
Andrew Furman and his family are fighting against time, indifference, poor resource management decisions, and the seemingly inevitable consequences of paving paradise. People still don’t get it: remove a grove of trees and you remove the birds that nest only in that particular kind of tree. Every action we take in our shared environment has expected and unexpected consequences. Endangered species? What isn’t?
We need books like this. We need to slow down and absorb “The Tale of a Cuban Immigrant,” sharing Prof. Furman’s excitement over the possible sighting of a rare Cuban pewee. Rolled into this quest is the author’s profound worry:
Mostly, whenever the opportunity arises I light out to various Florida outposts to observe the routine and proper workings of the natural world. The endeavor takes more and more strenuous effort these days in my part of the world, and probably in most of the industrialized world. Indeed, the indigenous rhythms throughout the state of Florida grow all the more faint; and, complicating matters, we grown increasingly deaf to them. These rhythms reverberate out of earshot as we cower in our climate-controlled cars, homes, and offices.
I mentioned above that Bitten is packed with the author’s education through reading. Regularly, he excerpts or paraphrases passages from the great naturalists: William Bartram, Roger Tory Peterson, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and many others. His tragi-comic “Thoreau in Florida” helps us realize habitat differences: In the wake of reading “Walden,” a walking tour in a preserved patch of the northern Everglades doesn’t allow much interaction between Henry David Thoreau’s masterwork and the scene at hand — until a Carolina wren shows up to make the connection. Thoreau had seen one too. He and Mr. Furman’s students had something to share.
For all of us, Bitten has much to share.
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