While sketching in the human background to his mission, Slaght treats his companions too summarily. He lets slip that one assistant had spent 24 years down a Siberian coal mine. What on earth was that like? Alas, we never learn. And only in passing does he mention the hunter who was gored to death and half eaten by a wild boar he’d been chasing. There is also only a cursory evocation of the region in general, with its lakes, rivers and springs and its extraordinary fauna and flora. Apart from Blakiston’s fish owl, Slaght mentions barely a dozen other birds. Here is a man, one senses, with only one thing on his mind.
These histories are delicately woven into Owls of the Eastern Ice, as Slaght and his team criss-cross Primorye and are given food and shelter by larger-than-life personalities who could feel like caricatures in another writer’s hands. One example is Anatoliy, a hermit living alone deep in the woods, who mumbles to himself and believes that gnomes come to his cabin at night to tickle his feet. All of this makes for an engrossing and compelling debut from Slaght, and a rich account of the challenges that conservationists must sometimes overcome in order to learn about and protect a species.
Unlike much current nature writing, Owls of the Eastern Ice does not treat encounters with wild creatures as opportunities for the writer to explore their own emotional and psychological landscape, or to kick-start a discussion of literature, philosophy or social history. In this regard, Slaght’s book is refreshingly old-school, a tautly strung adventure featuring not just the narrator, but his co-workers, his crew. These men crowd the pages fabulously;they include field-team leader Sergei Avdeyuk, with his cropped hair, gold teeth, swaggering gait and perpetual cigarette. As Slaght explains of his assistant Shurik, professional field assistants in many parts of the world conduct biological survey work out of economic necessity, rather than from the all-consuming love of nature we tend to assume lies behind careers in biology. For them, says Slaght, an owl is “just another bird”.
Slaght’s achievement is to turn the plodding fieldwork into a charming, lyrical and gently uplifting memoir of years spent in pursuit of a strange and beautiful bird. The bird itself is elusive. Weeks pass without any sightings. Years pass before he holds one in his hands. Slaght does justice to the frustration and ennui that accompanies his research without boring the reader.
He is also honest about how little he knows about the birds — years into the project he is still unsure how to tell the male from the female fish owl. And yet the narrative never falters. Exquisite prose punctuates his account, as when he first discovers an owl’s footprint in the snow: “The frost overnight had formed a crust on the deep snow, bearing the owl’s weight and yielding just enough to leave clear, crisp indentations on the sparkling surface. The owl had walked with a calm swagger, each toe pad clearly articulated and its two hind talons raking lines in the snow like a spur-heeled cowboy in the rodeo dust.”