Saving Jemima: Life and Love with a Hard-Luck Jay. Julie Zickefoose. 2019. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
"Saving Jemima is different from anything I've published before." (p. ix)
At some point in each of our lives, events will take an unexpected downward turn. It could be something as common as the loss of a beloved pet. Or it could be something more serious, like an accident, an unforeseen illness, the loss of a loved one, or the breakup of a relationship. People handle these life-changing dramas in a variety of ways. It might be outright denial that something has happened, or an emotional breakdown. Some people may turn to drink, or even drugs, to get them through these dark times. Close friends become important. You may throw yourself into your work to keep your mind occupied. A few people find solace in the natural world.
When you first pick up Saving Jemima it is easy to expect that this is going to be another typical Zickefoose book. A book filled with her wonderful artwork and unique insights gleaned from her many years of careful observation of the natural world and rehabbing wildlife. Saving Jemima is all those things, but this book is also a personal baring of the author's soul. It is also a confession that the author's life at the time of her writing was an emotional minefield.
This is likely to come as a surprise to some readers. After all, Julie Zickefoose and her then husband, Bill Thompson III, seemed to be the perfect "power couple" of birding. It was easy to imagine them as a couple with boundless energy living the perfect life. They lived in a country home in the Appalachians of Ohio, a place with numerous forest lots and fields. They had even built a tower next to their house to better observe birds. Bill was always leading trips, attending birding fairs, and managing Bird Watcher's Digest. Julie was the indefatigable artist and natural historian, as well as a tireless rehabber of whatever wild waif that came her way. Somehow she also found the time to illustrate and write books that have been widely acclaimed. Together they raised two wonderful children, Phoebe and Liam, posting pictures on social media of them frolicking at shore and field. It was a life that many shared with them through Facebook or their many lectures.
Early on in Saving Jemima, Zickefoose reveals:
I was moving a lot of books, sustaining a yearlong effort. But I was tired—soul tired. I kept reminding myself that giving talks and selling books was a vital part of my work as writing and painting, but there was a growing ache in my creative heart. I missed being home. I needed to get back to my true work. (p. 14)
Zickefoose, "soul-tired"? Zickefoose has long depended on using social media to notify the masses about her many projects and promote books. But social media is a two-way street, and using it means that those same people you are posting to also have access to your life. This means, among other things, that people were constantly sending her pictures of birds and other wildlife, begging her to take them in and raise them. Julie is definitely big-hearted, but rehabbing wildlife is a labor-intensive, emotionally draining occupation. I have interviewed a number of other wildlife rehabilitators, and burnout is always a real possibility. Once it is known that you rehabilitate wildlife, people who have found wildlife in distress will not leave you alone. She writes, "Social media abhors a vacuum. I can't escape the barrage of Facebook messages pleading for help with baby birds." (p. 16)
But this is only the start of Zickefoose's dark year. Her son was breaking up from his first serious relationship. Her daughter was also at risk of burning out at college. Her beloved dog, Chet Baker, featured in so many of Julie's posted photographs, was getting old and it was becoming clear that he would not live much longer. But the most devastating revelation in Saving Jemima is that her marriage was falling apart before her eyes. It had been happening for a while, and Bill and she managed to hide it from their kids for some time, but it was now obvious that the marriage was over. Bill had found someone else. Even though they still remained close, Julie was devastated. Except for close friends, the birding community had no idea any of this was going on: "I was feeling lonely and unsupported." (p. 15) "Zora Neale Hurston's words rang true for me: ‘there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.'" (p. 155)
It is against this emotionally chaotic background that Zickefoose does something she swore she wouldn't do. Needing a project to focus her energies on and take her mind off everything else, she sees a posted photograph of a fledgling jay obviously in distress and decides to take on the challenge of healing this one bird. She rationalizes that she will keep it for a few days until it stabilizes and then pass it on to the Ohio Wildlife Center to finish the job. You can guess what happens next. No sooner is the bird christened Jemima Iris Jay by Phoebe than it becomes part of Zickefoose's family that summer. The story of the ups and downs of trying to get Jemima healthy and ready to live on her own in the wild is what constitutes most of the narrative of Saving Jemima.
"I need to explain why Jemima is so important to me, how receiving that photo of her, dehydrated and down, in May 2017, was the ultimate deus ex machina for a struggling soul." (p. 152) Zickefoose becomes focused on getting this one bird well and out of the door. That would be a happy ending at a time when so many things in her life seemed uncertain. Jemima quickly becomes the focus of the entire Zickefoose household, beloved by Liam, Phoebe, Julie, and Bill. Jays are social birds, and socialization was part of Jemima's rehabilitation.
It was a stroke of great good fortune that Phoebe was home for Jemima's early weeks. She took Jemima's socialization seriously, knowing that, imperfect as it was, our family was Jemima's flock. (p. 45)
The jay is not easy to care for, and jay behavior being what it is, the house is soon a mess. Oddly, Jemima finds Chet Baker fascinating and even plucks hairs from his ears while the poor dog is sleeping. Getting Jemima to the point where she can fly and then fend for herself outside is a complex process. Along the way, Zickefoose and the readers learn a lot about jay health, behavior, and diet. It is sobering how much is still to be learned about some of the most common aspects of this common bird. Take migration. You may think that blue jay migration is well understood and studied. After all, we see jays migrating every year, but in fact little is understood about which jays are moving, where they are going, and why it varies from year to year. "This is migration, blue jay style: periodic, mysterious, latitudinal, longitudinal, and idiosyncratic." (p. 168)
Zickefoose has a network of learned specialists, veterinarians, and scientists who are used to getting inquiries from her, and through the summer she amasses a wealth of information about blue jays, as well as taking many photographs and executing a number of paintings of Jemima.
Another Blue Jay comes to Zickefoose's attention, and so she takes in "Stuart." But it is soon evident that Stuart has an untreatable infection and so must be euthanized. Zickefoose's writing about having to perform the cervical dislocation, "wringing its neck" in other words, is honest and powerful.
"Teaching myself to deal with death has been a necessary evil, because death is always part of the picture when you are trying to save small lives." (p. 39)
I am never the same afterwards. I'm sadder and wiser, and I know a little bit more about what you can fix and what you can't. But there's a piece of me that breaks off and flies away with a bird like Stuart, and I'm not sure it ever comes back. (p. 40)
Even after Jemima is finally released and flying on her own, her medical problems are not over. Jemima comes down with Mycoplasma gallisepticum, better known as House Finch disease. Zickefoose manages to treat Jemima in the wild, at the feeders. Later, many of Jemima's flight feathers appear damaged, likely due to stress at birth. This means that this jay is flying around on a partially feathered wing, dodging the Cooper's Hawks that haunt the area and trying to survive the changing seasons.
How it all turns out I will leave for the reader to discover. But it is now no surprise to reveal that things in Zickefoose's life go from bad to worse when she learns that Bill has pancreatic cancer and is declining rapidly. Saving Jemima also describes Bill's battle with this pernicious cancer and his death. A tribute to Bill, written after his passing, is included at the end of Saving Jemima. Written by Zickefoose, it is a testimony to a loving bond that people who have spent so much time together will always have no matter what happens in their separate lives.
At the end of Jemima's story, there are sections that summarize everything Zickefoose has learned by raising Jemima. This includes tips on how to recognize individual jays at your feeders, how to sex jays, and the meaning of jay vocalizations. A section on jay diet and feeding includes notes on designing a feeder that jays will love and Zickefoose's recipe for her famous "Zick Dough" a unique mélange that birds love. As is typical with Zickefoose's writing, she is opinionated and does not suffer fools who do not have the depth of experience with wildlife that she does. She chastises people who think that hand-raising a jay will imprint it, making it unsuitable for a wild release:
Second, the notion that by hand-raising a jay you could "ruin" her and render her unable to be released because she'll imprint on humans is a conceit of humans and a reflection of our disconnect with nature. In my view, this assumption does blue jays disrespect. (p. 204)
Saving Jemima is unlike any other book that Julie Zickefoose has written. This book focuses on a single bird, rather than a collection of bird species like her other books. Her wonderful watercolors are now augmented by her photography. But it is her honesty about what she is experiencing as her life gets increasingly chaotic that elevates Saving Jemima into something unique. Ultimately, Saving Jemima is about how our connection with the natural world can provide solace, instruction, and direction when our personal lives seem to be falling apart.
Whether in life, marriage, or bird rehabilitation, things rarely work out the way you envision, hope, dream, or plan for. Jemima showed me how hard I hang on to the ones I love even as they are trying to leave. (p. 212)
Listen to a podcast by Mark Lynch with this author: