Better Living Through Birding: Notes from a Black Man in the Natural World By Christian Cooper
Christian Cooper in early 2020 was something of a niche celebrity.
Some, including myself, knew him from his occasional guest hosting on the GLBT weekly news program, Gay USA. Others knew him from his movie reviews, which often reflected his love of science fiction and fantasy-related films. Cooper himself once worked for Marvel Comics.
And, some knew him as a birder, particularly one who favored Central Park in New York City. Cooper was taking part in his beloved birding, which he had been doing since he was a child when he came across a woman with a dog off a leash. He soon became a national celebrity.
Most dog walkers either followed the rules or begrudgingly did so when asked. Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman, did not. The encounter grew into a racial incident when Amy Cooper told Chris Cooper that if he did not stop filming her (a common approach to deal with scofflaws), she would call the police. And, say an African-American was threatening her.
The video he later posted became viral, though Chris Cooper himself was wary about how far the whole thing was taken. A few years later, he released his autobiography, of which this incident is only one chapter. After all, a sixty-year-old African American, gay birder, with a complicated family life, involved in comics, and a world traveler has a lot more to tell.
Chris Cooper engagingly tells his story with a mix of his familiar cheerful polite personality that at times is mixed with a bit more spice when it is deserved. Many different people will appreciate this book, which has a healthy amount of birding material but is not just about that. There are no pictures of the birds, but he makes them come alive.
One curious thing is that he barely mentions his partner, though he provides a touching reference in the acknowledgments. Cooper provides some details about his dating life, including a short-lived marriage. But, we don’t even get a reference to how these two met. Wonder why.
That mystery aside, this is a very good book.
Why I Read This Book
Gay USA has been a primary source of my GLBTQ news over the years. Chris Cooper (he goes by “Chris” on the show) was a pleasant contributor, his style more laid back than the usual hosts.
His “black nerd” persona was appreciated (we white nerds can relate). The Central Park incident added additional interest. And, I am not a birder, but have written multiple entries about birds on another website. So, my interest in his autobiography was piqued. And, I checked it out.
I felt a few chapters went a bit too long but others might appreciate the additional detail. I also was left wanting to learn more about his gay advocacy, the one main incident more about his father’s role in his life. He does not even reference Gay USA though it is true he is only occasionally a guest host or contributor. Overall, however, I am glad I read the book.
Birds and Birding
Chris Cooper’s love of birding arose for a variety of reasons.
He was the son of teachers, his father being a science teacher. Chris shared both his love of nature and fantasy with his dad. His dad encouraged his birding, including taking him on nature walks each weekend. As a grown-up, father and son bonded over watching an eclipse.
The joy of flying things, including the freedom they had, also was shared with his dad. His dad loved planes and gliders. Chris fell in love with birds. Birds symbolize many things, especially nature and an ability to soar the heavens. They are also beautiful in sight and sound.
The book talks about his many birding excursions both in the U.S. and around the world, providing a range of “birding tips.” Cooper now hosts Extraordinary Birder on the National Geographic Channel. Talk about choosing to work in a field you love.
Notes From A Black Man
Chris Cooper and his sister grew up in the 1960s and 1970s in suburban Long Island, New York. Their parents were school teachers, so did not have too much money. But, he had a fairly comfortable enough childhood in various ways. When Chris as a teen ill-advisedly took out a ceremonial sword (a sci-fi souvenir) on the subway, “I am from Long Island” helped explain to the police why this black kid was doing dumb things.
The Coopers were still African Americans in a racist society. His parents instilled in him personal self-respect as a black child and the need to fight injustice.
He also on some level took for granted that racism was a part of life. When Cooper went abroad to places where black people were not seen as a threat, the experience was quite a revelation to him. For instance, in Argentina, he was seen as quite a catch as a black man.
Perhaps, his many experiences affected how he treated that infamous event in Central Park, which happened the same day George Floyd was killed. Chris Cooper was in his fifties and knew how to put things in perspective. He was not killed.
Chris Cooper did not want Amy Cooper, whose life was ruined for various reasons by her racist actions, prosecuted. Police were not always wrong. But, many different types of people from multiple incidents clearly rightly had a reason to be very wary of them. He saw this from his gay activism, most of his arrests were handled professionally, except that time when it was not.
He did not feel “traumatized” by the whole encounter. It was a troubling incident of a society still racist in various ways. I respect the nuanced empathy he showed with a touch of the bizarre humor of the situation when a year later another woman threatened to call the police.
A Gay Black Man
I believe the best way to begin reconnecting humanity’s heart, mind, and soul to nature is for us to share our individual stories.
- J. Drew Lanham, The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair With Nature
The opening quote of the book is from J. Drew Lanham, a black naturalist, and one of Chris Cooper’s mentors. This book is Chris Cooper’s story.
An important part of his story was his life as a gay man. He was closeted as a child, coming out to his Harvard roommates (around 1980). Cooper eloquently talks about his struggles, how at least black people knew they had each other if something happened. In this fashion, life in the closet (which offers a bit of safety) was so much worse. You are all alone.
Birding and fantasy were two major outlets. These things later meshed when he was able to get a job at Marvel Comics. He was one of the first openly gay writers and editors there and had a chance to take part in the first openly gay character, introducing one of his own as well.
(Cooper worked in comics in the 1990s but eventually went into another field, which he does not talk about in the book. It is only from another source that I knew he became a senior editorial director at Health Science Communications.)
Chris talks some about his relationships, including the joy of openly taking part in gay celebrations, and a partner he met when traveling to Argentina. He does not talk about his “first” time but does talk about proposing marriage (which did not last).
Chris Cooper was co-chair of the board of directors of the gay advocacy group GLAAD but does not talk much about his part in gay activism. He does talk about some times when civil disobedience led to arrests, which his black activist father respected.
Frank Cooper had a troubled relationship with his wife and children, which made growing up that much harder. As an adult, Frank mellowed some, and he and his son had a closer relationship. This makes sense since Chris Cooper is like his dad in various ways, especially the black nerd side, and even the nasty side was not shown to the public at large.
Chris also talks about his beloved grandmother and his complicated relationship with his mother. Not much on his sister. Two later chapters are focused on family matters.
… In The Natural World
When I talked about why people believe in God, I noted my personal belief that “God” is a form of poetry. Chris Cooper uses a similar metaphor about religion, noting as well that religious experience is subjective. What we believe can be for someone else seem quite ridiculous.
For instance, even though he went to see the Himalayas with his long-term partner at the time, whom he later married, Chris did not discuss how the visit for him had a sacred character. His partner was a secular sort, who found such things ridiculous.
Chris discusses that he is a pagan, who sees God in nature. This is not surprising for someone who loves nature as much as he did, finding spiritual value there from his childhood.
His pagan beliefs also fit well with his love of fantasy, including comic book superheroes, which have wondrous stories filled with symbolism. Myth and storytelling generally is an important part of being human. The supernatural and natural are both part of our lives.
“My Life as a Pagan” very well might be a good alternative title for this rewarding book.
Today, in a bit of serendipity, there is an article about birding, “In New York City, the Odds of Spotting a Rare Bird are Rising.” Happy Reading!