The sight of house sparrows in the city is so ubiquitous, the little guys might as well be invisible. We hear them chirping en masse from the protection of shrubbery, and we may see them, bobbing after a bagel crumb or squabbling with a sudden interloper, but we don't often watch them for longer than a few seconds -- if we stop to notice them at all.
When Chris Chester first noticed the fallen baby sparrow outside his Portland, Ore., home, he had no idea how quickly the small creature would change his life. As he writes in his engaging memoir, Providence of a Sparrow, the thing looked like "a testicle with a beak attached." Born blind, featherless and utterly defenseless, the bird -- who Chester (with the help of his wife of Rebecca) named "birdbrain," then "BB, then "The B" and finally just "B" -- would certainly have died had it not been for his intervention.
"One of the reasons I became so enamored of B right off the bat probably has to do with his strangeness relative to anything I'd ever seen before," says Chester, who reads from his book Tuesday at Auntie's. "There was something mesmerizing about him, something alien and yet vulnerable."
They brought him indoors, quickly learning that a heating pad and a can of Blue Mountain puppy food are two essentials the foster parent of a sparrow cannot be without. To the surprise of everyone, the young bird not only thrived, but began to display evidence of a distinct personality. He liked Rebecca and bonded with Chris. He taught his humans to play along with a few of his favorite games: "war bird" and "love bird," both stemming from basic sparrow mating behaviors. He even picked favorites among the Chesters' friends and family, warming up to some and clearly shunning others.
But having a small, clearly sentient being in the house is no small endeavor. First came the cage, and along with it the realization that "caging a bird punishes it, in effect, for possessing the ability to fly." Unwilling to curtail the avian activity of his new friend, Chester settled on giving B his own upstairs room. There was also the dilemma of whether to release B back into the wild. While the humans were indecisive, B seemingly made his decision the moment he flew to Chester's shoulder and in effect, "never really left." And finally there is the daily discipline of a life that has literally "gone to the birds." Hours of cleaning, lengthy bedtime rituals and the inclusion of several other bird species have all been taken in stride by the two, who have turned the entire upstairs of their house into an aviary.
"This sort of lifestyle, if you will, evolved," says Chester, who now has four sparrows, two finches and three canaries. "To suddenly be confronted with such a radical departure in the way you live, to all at once consider turning your upstairs into an aviary, you'd think, 'God, that's insane.' The only way we could have done it is by making our adjustments gradually."
Whatever your personal feelings are regarding birds, Providence of a Sparrow (the title is a reference to Hamlet) is filled with the kind of prose you want to read out loud to anyone who will listen. Whether it's the author's assessment of cat food as "a pinkish dollop of reeking putrefaction" or his satisfying descriptions of a life proceeding with "a small bird at its center," the story is appreciable on both its natural history and literary merits. Encouraged by a friend to write about life with B, Chester penned a few chapters and sent them off to the University of Utah Press, where they were immediately accepted and published. Publication rights for the paperback have already been optioned off to Random House. It helps that Chester, a computer technician, is also a voracious reader who peppers his passages with rich literary and pop cultural references. And it's also worth noting that the characters -- both human and otherwise -- are unforgettable. In addition to Chester and B, there is Rebecca, also a computer technician, who sews her own belly dancing costumes and fiercely adores the creatures who inhabit her house. Then there are the libidinous finches, Akbar and Jeff, who, as Chester writes, "liked each other -- really liked each other."
The life that Chester describes is, while self-admittedly weird, is also so soothing that it's not surprising that the planners of the recent Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association conference asked him to be part of a panel on "Living the Good Life." He is quick however, to point out that he's not on a crusade.
"There's a reason why there's a chapter in the book entitled, 'Don't Try This At Home,' " he laughs. "It's certainly not my manifesto or anything. All I can say is that my life has changed for the better because I've come to appreciate the small things often overlooked by the dominant culture."