I think about the fact that we live 1,000 miles apart yet talk to each other more than pretty much anybody else in our lives. Still, there are huge swaths of life that we never talk about to each other.
Like, for instance, my thing with birds.
I know I’ve gone on about bluebirds and owls in this space, but really: I think about birds all the time. When I’m talking to you on the phone, I’m actually mostly looking at the birds on the feeders outside my window. Maybe you can tell this.
I don’t have a life list, or binoculars, or any particular ornithological expertise. I love them abjectly, that’s all. I love listening to them, and seeing them, and wishing I were one of them.
Last Saturday, I discovered an artist who spent four years on a project that has left me speechless.
Amid the sweaty hordes at the New York Art Book Fair—such a scene—there was a serene corner with a table of books by a photographer named Stephen Gill.
The books on the table were beautifully plain, but when I opened The Pillar, I couldn’t believe the extravagant life hidden behind the simple cover. See the video up top for a glimpse, which is wholly inadequate because this book reads like a novel.
Page after page of birds—wild-eyed raptors, blurry owls, songbirds, each one landed on the same wooden pillar. The seasons change, but the post never moves.
It is the result of an experiment. Stephen Gill set up a motion-sensing camera beside a post he planted in a flat field near his home in Sweden. (He is British by birth but now lives in Sweden.) He writes:
“In January 2015, with the inkling of an idea that their activity might be more prevalent than I first thought, I decided to try to pull the birds from the sky. On the edge of a field next to a stream I set up a six-centimeter-diameter stage in the form of a wooden pillar about one and half metres high. Opposite it I placed another, the same size, on which I mounted a motion-sensor camera. When I visited the camera a few days later, to my surprise, it had worked. The pillar had funneled the birds from the sky, offering them a place to rest, feed, nurse their young, and look around. I was captivated.”
When I realized that the man I was talking to behind the table was the photographer himself, I was so surprised that I didn’t know what to say. How rare to discover a book and its creator in the same moment, especially a book that grabbed my imagination so instantly.
Here’s a review from The Guardian.
And here’s where you can order a copy of this book. Stephen self-publishes his work (a man after my own heart) in order to have complete control over his editions.
I didn’t even mention the booklet that is tucked in the back, an essay, “Birdland,” by the best-selling Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.
It’s lovely, but The Pillar is a book that needs no words at all.