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Through the Russian Wilderness in Search of the World’s Largest Owl

Mostly this is a book about the rigors of fieldwork, about cohabitating in close quarters, being stranded for weeks by storms, floods and melting ice, rejiggering strategies, “aching” immobility, malfunctioning equipment and various other misfortunes, all vividly rendered. Slaght knows this life, but he has never burrowed so deep into its dark, silent heart. We are plunged along with him into “poking thorns, prodding branches and unexpected falls,” into long frozen nights, meals of moose meat and hard candy, shredded clothes, endless paths and trails beaten, rivers forged, catastrophic weather and near-death adventures. And waiting. Lots of waiting.

Slaght has spent so much of his life waiting that waiting has long since evolved into a Zen-like state of noticing, of presence. Keeping us tucked close, we discover what it feels like to become aware of every little thing, to fully inhabit a living landscape. For this reason and others, this is an unusual (and welcome) book for our times.

Halfway through the story floats a feather from Slaght’s other life, a brief sentence about a fiancée and a wedding to plan. As if we’ve found a mango in the snow, we pause, curious. But then it’s back to the owls, and the unlikely (but very true) romance of nights waiting “in silence, like suitors,” for them to sound their enchanting synchronized duets.

The enigmatic fish owls, when they appear, are surprisingly un-owl-like, not gliding down from the trees so much as “dropping” like sacks. At a meter high, they are at once imposing and comical, a jumble of feathers with ragged, twitching ear tufts. Hunting underwater prey, they have lost their adaptation of silent flight, as well as the disk-shaped face designed for maximum audio performance. They seem endearingly awkward creatures, stalking the riverbank like hunched feathery gnomes, peering for glimmers of fish, then hurling themselves talon-first into the current.

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