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Ornithologies of Desire

Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay

By Travis V. Mason
Subjects Environmental Studies, Poetry
Series Environmental Humanities Hide Details
Hardcover : 9781554586301, 306 pages, April 2013
Paperback : 9781771123488, 306 pages, June 2018
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554583713, 306 pages, September 2013

Table of contents

Table of Contents for Ornithologies of Desire: Ecocritical Essays, Avian Poetics, and Don McKay by Travis V. Mason
List of Abbreviations
Note on the Cover
Beginnings: An Introduction
Chapter One: Nesting
Chapter Two: Naming
Ecotone One: Field Marks
Chapter Three: Homologies
Chapter Four: Flight
Chapter Five: Gravity
Ecotone Two: Field Guides
Chapter Six: Notes
Chapter Seven: Birdsong
Chapter Eight: Listening
Ecotone Three: Field Notes
Chapter Nine: Birder-Poet
Chapter Ten: Science
Ecotone Four: Field Trips
Ending: Ravens
Appendix: Bird Concordance
Works Cited


Ornithologies of Desire develops ecocritical reading strategies that engage scientific texts, field guides, and observation. Focusing on poetry about birds and birdwatching, this book argues that attending to specific details about the physical world when reading environmentally conscious poetry invites a critical humility in the face of environmental crises and evolutionary history.
The poetry and poetics of Don McKay provide Ornithologies of Desire with its primary subject matter, which is predicated on attention to ornithological knowledge and avian metaphors. This focus on birds enables a consideration of more broadly ecological relations and concerns, since an awareness of birds in their habitats insists on awareness of plants, insects, mammals, rocks, and all else that constitutes place. The book’s chapters are organized according to: apparatus (that is, science as ecocritical tool), flight, and song.
Reading McKay’s work alongside ecology and ornithology, through flight and birdsong, both challenges assumptions regarding humans’ place in the earth system and celebrates the sheer virtuosity of lyric poetry rich with associative as well as scientific details. The resulting chapters, interchapter, and concordance of birds that appear in McKay’s poetry encourage amateurs and specialists, birdwatchers and poetry readers, to reconsider birds in English literature on the page and in the field.


Indispensable to scholars of contemporary Canadian poetry. Perhaps the book's most striking feature is its unusual structure. Every two to three chapters, there is an interlude chapter or, as he calls them, ‘ecotones,’ which are ‘areas where two ecosystem meet at their edges and create a third ecosystem’ (32). By mixing academic prose with these ecotones, the book lives up to the author's promise to write ‘polyphonically’ )xi).... Mason's writing is full of vitality and quotable moments, conveying his enthusiasm for birds, McKay, and ecocriticism. This is a beautiful book.

- John Claborn, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, ISLE (Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment), 21.1, Winter 2014, 2014 June

Psssssst. Literary critic Travis Mason has been outside watching birds and inside reading field guides, scientific articles, and biology textbooks. He approaches his subject of ‘avian poetics’ with a solid background in natural history and is therefore able to forge a scientifically grounded ecocriticism. Ornithologies of Desire is an important new ecocritical study of birds, poetry, and Canadian literature. Most valuable of all, this book places contemporary Canadian poet Don McKay among the great North American nature writers. Mason's book will make you want to read McKay—and then go outside and watch birds.

- Cheryll Glotfelty, English Department, University of Nevada, Reno, 2013 February

Mason's work allows readers to explore critical depths in the poetry of McKay and to understand how the trope of birding resonates. But more than that, Mason makes readers realize why bird poetry still matters in 21st-century poetics.... Recommended.

- K. Gale, University of Nebraska, CHOICE, November 2013, 2013 December