A Q & A with Tom Gallant
author of THE LORD GOD BIRD – A Novel
Q. Although The Lord God Bird is a novel, your tale derives from actual events⎯the 2004 reported sighting of a male Ivory Billed Woodpecker, a bird believed to be extinct, in Arkansas and the subsequent investigation by a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Despite intensive searching over five years following the initial sightings, no definitive confirmation of those reports emerged. What was it about this story that inspired you and how does it figure into the fictional events that unfold within the book?
A. I was engaged at first by the possibility that the bird was still there, just like everyone else. But I was also captured by the phrase “Lord God Bird” employed to describe the Ivory Bill. It just stuck in my brain, insisting on being a title. When the controversy began over the four seconds of alleged film of the bird, my sympathies began to gather around the bird and the man who first claimed to see him. What if they were aware of one another in a deeper way than we imagine possible? That’s when the story began to grow. The only thing the real facts have to do with the novel is that a man saw an Ivory Bill, there was a search, and four seconds of disputed film resulted. Everything else in the book is pure fiction. I had been thinking a lot about how disengaged we’re getting from the natural world, and how that makes it possible for us to be so wrong in what we do. I sail a traditional schooner, and that puts me very close to the physical realities of this world. We pay an awful price when we wrap ourselves in a virtual world at the expense of the real world. As I wrote the book, it emerged that this was what it was about… how we feel and touch and relate to the creatures we share the planet with, and how we use the planet itself.
Q. We know that the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, which is listed as “definitely or probably extinct” by The American Birding Association, was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world but, unfortunately, odds are that none of us will ever have the opportunity to witness a living one. The birds in your novel exhibit behaviors long associated with true Ivory Billed Woodpecker, but they also communicate telepathically and experience very humanlike emotions. Where does the real bird end and yours begin?
A. I researched what is known about the bird, and it’s habitat, so that it’s behaviors would be accurate. After that, I relied upon what a lifetime of observation of animals had taught me. It’s funny that science is increasingly finding ways to figure out that animals are much smarter than we once thought, that they display empathy, use tools etc. Anyone who’s lived in the country, or sailed on the ocean, already knows this. How does a monarch butterfly that was born in Mexico know exactly were to go in Ontario for the summer? Is it such a leap to conclude that they’re born with the memories of their ancestors? In many ways, it’s the most logical explanation. As for the emotional life of the birds, and the other creatures in the book, I’ve been close friends with some cats and dogs over the years and know absolutely that they understand much more than many of us will admit, that they are capable of deep understanding and empathy. It was a short leap of faith to believe these things exist in wild creatures. As the story grew, I was often surprised by the way the animals were communicating, but I found believing that they did caused a growth in my own empathy and compassion, and I liked how that made me feel.
Q. The art of canoe building, and the pleasure of manning a well-made wooden boat, figure prominently in The Lord God Bird. As the story unfolds, this simple wooden vessel comes in stark contrast to the high-tech gadgets and equipment carried by the Cornell ornithologists. How is this symbolism so crucial to the story? If we look closely, is it possible to detect autobiographical elements from your time spent travelling 50,000 miles aboard a schooner in the book?
A. The more the digital world mediates our experience, the less we are reacting to the natural world, and the less human we become. We are now letting technology that is just decades old completely occupy our time, and repudiating hundreds of years of natural experience and evolution. Something in all of this has always made me uncomfortable.
You’re very right that my years of sailing a traditional schooner in deep water, and maintaining the vessel using ancient skills and tools, has been a great influence on my thinking. It’s more than just thinking. There’s a deep feeling and understanding that practicing these ancient arts confers. Things unfold slowly, and skills develop from faithful repetition, observation and application. The knowledge gained is not theoretical, but practical and real. There’s serious truth there. This is why all the old craftsmen I learned from tended to talk slowly and quietly, and why they were so happy. They knew what they could do, and it gave them gravitas and even nobility. A far cry from the shrill discourse we see today. I believe we need these kinds of arts more now than ever, to show us how to learn real truth, how to properly address a problem, how to work things out.
Q. Though well-meaning, it seems that the various scientists and ornithologists who travel to Big Woods to confirm the protagonist’s Ivory Billed Woodpecker sighting have an adulterated or compromised relationship with the natural world. Why is that?
A. I once sailed a group of scientists to Newfoundland, doing a film for the National Film Board. They were good folks, but I was puzzled by their attitude to the natural world. They used a jargon that made their talk difficult to penetrate, and their attempts to “keep things scientific” sometimes diminished what I felt was the natural empathy that a human should show to wild creatures. They explained this by saying they were working towards some “greater good”. We need only think of what we did to primates and other animals in medical research to see the end of this way of relating to the world. I’m quite sure that science will finally find a way to understand what the native peoples of this continent have always known about the natural world, and when they do, they will be profoundly ashamed of their practices in the past.
Q. Through approaching the degradation of the natural world, the loss of species, and the loneliness and despair that accompanies the death of a loved one (the narrator’s wife, and others) through the lens of fiction, what truths do you hope to convey about the way human beings live in this world?
A. The wonderful thing about fiction is that in writing it, you find out what you really think about things, and sometimes you are surprised. I had no idea that my sense of “planetary” loss was so profound, but turns out it is. Life is a process of loss, and what we do about it says a lot about us. The word “husband” means “caregiver”. If you think about living a “moral” life, it soon becomes apparent that we’re meant to take care of one another and all that exists around us. That can sound trite and self-evident, but we seem to be awfully good at forgetting self-evident truths. So perhaps we need stories like this, which remind us how a gentle and loving heart operates.
Q. The book is written in a very distinctive style, with spare, minimalist sentences that each carry a lot of weight, and a third person narration that keeps us at arm’s length from the protagonist. The effect is quite powerful. Did you set off to write the book in this manner from the beginning, or did your style evolve during the writing process?
A. I wrote the first chapter aboard my schooner while riding out a hurricane in Lunenburg Harbour (Nova Scotia, Canada). I made no decisions about the position of the narrator, or the fact that I’d never give “the Man” a name. I just wrote the chapter. Then I read it over a few times, and it rang true to me. So the die was cast. I’ve always liked spare, clean prose. It’s difficult to pull off, but since the first time I read The Old Man and The Sea, it’s been high on my list of worthy goals. So, once the first chapter was written, my job became to stay in that place, honor that voice. I like a well-turned metaphor as well as the next fella, but when there are too many of them, and they reach too far, they defeat the purpose. My purpose here was to emulate the simplicity and honest workmanship I was talking about in the building of the canoe.
Q. In your opinion, what is the true place of humans in the world?
A. We are just part of it all, and our cleverness and busyness means we should be humble. There’s no more toxic mixture than talent and vanity, and that’s how we behave. If we were humble, and quiet and watchful, we would learn how clever and busy the other creatures we share the world with are. We would admire and learn from them. We would gain an understanding of the true virtues of life. Many of our present day opinions, like the old saw that “it’s just business”, exist to make greed and bad behavior excusable. But look at what we’ve done to the planet. How much loss are we willing to bear for another BMW and diamond encrusted Rolex? Do I really need to say these things? Do we not all know that we’re on the wrong road? We need to be like the man in the book; loving, observant, hard working, accepting of life’s hardships, appreciative of life’s wonders, responsible for his place in the world. And we all need a dog like Paul.