A life for the birds

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2009 - 4:38 PM

Bird-watcher's biography is rare and beautiful.

Life List by Olivia Gentile

In May 1965, a bored, blue 34-year-old housewife from New Brighton focused borrowed binoculars on something that "nearly knocked me over with astonishment," she wrote later -- a black and white bird with a yellow head, an orange throat and a flutey trill.

For Phoebe Snetsinger, the sight of that Blackburnian warbler was an epiphany, "a blinding white light" that catapulted her into a lifelong quest to see most of the birds on Earth.

Olivia Gentile stumbled across Snetsinger's story while working on a feature story about birders. The more she heard, the more fascinated she became, and she set out on a seven- year quest of her own to find out more about this remarkable Minnesota woman.

The result is "Life List: A Woman's Quest for the World's Most Amazing Birds," a biography that's about much more than a champion birder. It's about a dream deferred -- in a different era, this wistful, poetry-writing mother of four might have become a scientist. It's about the fine line between passion and compulsion. And it explores Gentile's question: "What does it mean, ultimately, to live, and die, well?"

"Birding," Gentile writes, "is like a religion. Some people get hooked on birds gradually, but many others have an experience like Phoebe's, an awakening triggered by a 'spark bird.' Many religious people seek to transcend the everyday by praying or meditating; birders seek transcendence by spending time in nature."

The discovery in her neighbor's back yard inspired Snetsinger to link up with other birders in Minnesota and Missouri, where her family later moved. Increasingly, she hungered for more flashes of feathered beauty and the ensuing euphoria. In 1985, after a diagnosis of melanoma that doctors said would kill her within a year, she intensified her birding, eager to see as many as she could before she died. Again and again the cancer stalled, and the "last-ditch" global travels she kept signing up for brought her life list of birds to 8,674, about 84 percent of all living birds.

But this magnificent obsession had a dark side, and it is Gentile's frank but respectful examination of that aspect that makes her book a page-turner. Snetsinger was blessed with an exceptionally understanding husband and children, but over time, her loss of interest in them took a toll, and by the time she began to care, the damage had been done.

There's another kind of dark drama in Snetsinger's story. Seeking ever rarer birds, she traveled to crime-ridden, war-torn areas. She survived many harrowing events, including a horrific gang rape in New Guinea in 1986, but would not outlive a 1999 event.

Was this a life well-lived? Snetsinger probably would have said a resounding yes, but her family members, extensively interviewed by Gentile, aren't so sure. Gentile herself refrains from trying to answer the question. But readers will ponder it long after setting down this book, as well as more closely watching their own habitats for flashes of beauty, mystery and meaning.

Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.

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  • Author Olivia Gentile

  • LIFE LIST

    By: Olivia Gentile.

    Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, 352 pages, $26.

    Review: Birds were Phoebe Snetsinger's life. But there was far more to her existence than bird-watching, as this unusual, highly readable biography reveals.

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