Birding Babylon: A Soldier's Journal from Iraq (Sierra Club Books), is the tale of a Connecticut Army National Guardman's obsession with nature, even in the grim face of a desert ravaged by war and death. The book is an outcropping of Sergeant First Class Jonathan Trouern-Trend's war-time blog, Birdng Babylon, a look beyond the barbed wire in search of the life that was all around him during his yearlong tour of duty in Iraq. What's particularly lovely about this book is Trouern-Trend's intentional near-omission of doom and gloom (though from his hints we know that he's in the thick of it all). Stationed on a base that saw daily rocket and mortar attacks, he preferred to focus on the life that sprung eternal all around him. Whether or not the birds were too concerned about the conflict is hard to tell, but they remained abundant through his binoculars, which he'd don non-stop around base and "beyond the wire," as he slogged through mud puddles, cruised the parameters, and traveled to all corners of the country (all the while enticing other soldiers to wonder about his strange "missions.")
"In Iraq there are ten thousand ways to see the world," he writes. "I consider myself lucky to have seen it through the eyes of a naturalist." By trading in violence and chaos for natural beauty, Trouern-Trend focuses on what he describes as the "resiliency of life in the face of crisis." If it's possible for a soldier's wartime blog to be sweet, this one certainly is.
Though he did see 122 "lifers" (that's bird-speak for species he'd never seen before) during his tour, it's the birds "that could just as easily have been seen in Connecticut" that are especially touching—reminding us that that the politics and uniforms and guns that humans have used to divide up the world are virtually meaningless when it comes to the borderlessness of the natural world.
Though his tour of duty ended in February 2005, Trouern-Trend still blogs intermittently at Birding Babylon. His latest update? Good news: An announcement of what's probably the first wildlife refuge in Iraq, the Assafia Wildlife Sanctuary in the Al-Hawizah Marsh. Located between Basrah and Amara near the Iranian border, the spot is essentially the lone area of the Mesopotamian marshes that survived draining during the 1980s and 1990s. ::Birding Babylon ::Sierra Club Books