... engaging ... Deep in the woods it gets strange, and Slaght’s tireless search for owls is relieved by entertaining accounts of eccentric recluses, hunters and mystical hermits ... Mostly this is a book about the rigors of fieldwork, about cohabitating in close quarters, being stranded for weeks by storms, floods and melting ice, rejiggering strategies, 'aching' immobility, malfunctioning equipment and various other misfortunes, all vividly rendered. Slaght knows this life, but he has never burrowed so deep into its dark, silent heart ... Slaght has spent so much of his life waiting that waiting has long since evolved into a Zen-like state of noticing, of presence. Keeping us tucked close, we discover what it feels like to become aware of every little thing, to fully inhabit a living landscape. For this reason and others, this is an unusual (and welcome) book for our times ... It is a testament to his talents as a writer-researcher that we appreciate why Slaght loves it here. The primal forces of the Primorye have drawn him close to his essence; to his strengths and vulnerabilities — to his impermanence. There is peace and healing to be found in such a life, and perhaps just the right balance for his soul.
Mr. Slaght’s book is a stellar example of the fruitful intersection of scientific inquiry, conservation advocacy and wilderness adventure. It belongs to a rare species of nature writing in which facts are delivered with both exactitude and storytelling panache ... Owls is replete with the narrative excitements of serious stakes, daunting challenges and disappointing setbacks, from blizzards, roadblocks and frigid nocturnal vigils on icy riverbanks to technological failures, dangerously thin spring ice, and an exhausting, overly loquacious field assistant. But it is also leavened by humorous profiles of Mr. Slaght’s changing crew of roving researchers and the eccentric, heavy-drinking fishermen, hunters, loggers, hermits and outlaws they meet ... His enthusiastic reporting encompasses both the local color and the colorful locals.
Slaght has a rare gift for startling evocations of the natural world ... Primoye is a remarkable place, and Slaght’s passion for it is palpable; his fascination with fish owls, too, the reader quickly understands and shares. But I can’t help feeling that the real subject of this book is neither forests nor owls, but fieldwork ... Slaght is a wonderful guide to the reality of fieldwork, a pursuit marked by tests and tribulations that will inspire and drain you, corrode your faith and devotion to your cause, induce vast mood-swings that range from despair to dizzying elation, and that requires a suite of personal and practical skills far from those of a lab-bound scientist. His quest has deep moral, as well as personal significance ... Unlike much current nature writing, Owls of the Eastern Ice does not treat encounters with wild creatures as opportunities for the writer to explore their own emotional and psychological landscape, or to kick-start a discussion of literature, philosophy or social history. In this regard, Slaght’s book is refreshingly old-school, a tautly strung adventure featuring not just the narrator, but his co-workers, his crew. These men crowd the pages fabulously[.]
... Owls of the Eastern Ice [has] the heroic flavor of a Boy’s Own story ... Slaght regularly peppers his book with...anecdotes, little doses of bro-humor in the Primorye style mixed with bird facts ... an undeniably compelling story, especially for a book about owls, but there’s something almost retrograde about this story of a hero chasing animals through the wilderness and glaring at Russian strangers across the banya steam-clouds. One of the key ideas of the school of 'ecocriticism'—an umbrella term for the study of the relation between literature and the environment—is that 'man' and 'nature' form a false dichotomy ... Slaght ends up inadvertently reinforcing some of the assumptions that ecocriticism most abhors.
... an absolute marvel of a book. Part science narrative, part memoir, part adventure story, it is captivating, thrilling and beautifully written ... Slaght’s book abounds with vivid descriptions, colorful characters—Russian scientists, researchers and woodsy hermits—and death-defying adventures ... Slaght is a terrific, thoughtful writer, and he tells his story well, with cliffhangers and drama, careful scientific observation and a dash of humor and humility.
... excellent ... Slaght’s achievement is to turn the plodding fieldwork into a charming, lyrical and gently uplifting memoir of years spent in pursuit of a strange and beautiful bird. Slaght does justice to the frustration and ennui that accompanies his research without boring the reader. He is also honest about how little he knows about the birds—years into the project he is still unsure how to tell the male from the female fish owl. And yet the narrative never falters. Exquisite prose punctuates his account ... The owl’s sheer oddity draws the reader in. So does the weirdness of the humans who populate the region ... The reader becomes, like the author, 'stunned by the quiet violence of this place.' This is, though, a hopeful book. Slaght does make genuine scientific breakthroughs. By refusing to glamorise either the region or the occasionally tedious nature of fieldwork, Slaght does justice to the difficult, incremental and error-prone methodology by which we learn new things about our world with the goal of learning to live better within it.
Indeed, in Slaght’s capable hands, the scientist-as-adventurer narrative brings readers into a strange land ... Slaght’s book does not end in any great dramatic revelation or climax. But readers will appreciate the dedication that such research takes, the kind of single-mindedness that once led a graduate student to spend months in a frigid sleeping bag, watching a tree where he believed there might be an owl.
While sketching in the human background to his mission, Slaght treats his companions too summarily. He lets slip that one assistant had spent 24 years down a Siberian coal mine. What on earth was that like? Alas, we never learn ... Slaght has the astonishing commitment to withstand the rigours of this strange landscape but neither the language nor attentiveness to put his magnificent owl in context.
... the owl’s presence can be felt throughout the book, thanks to some evocative writing by Slaght ... his book is as much a portrait of those who live alongside the Blakiston’s fish owl as it is of the owl itself ... These histories are delicately woven into Owls of the Eastern Ice, as Slaght and his team criss-cross Primorye and are given food and shelter by larger-than-life personalities who could feel like caricatures in another writer’s hands ... an engrossing and compelling debut from Slaght, and a rich account of the challenges that conservationists must sometimes overcome in order to learn about and protect a species.
The excitement of finding owl tracks in the snow (the owls fish for salmon along open stretches of rivers) and owl nests is intertwined with stories of camping, attaching transmitters to owls, and dealing with recalcitrant equipment and villagers. Slowly the owls reveal their secrets, and Slaght lets readers revel in the discoveries along with him.
... a detailed and thrilling account ... Conscientious about crediting his Russian collaborators, Slaght also evinces humor, tirelessness, and dedication in relating the hard and crucial work of conservation. Readers will be drawn to this exciting chronicle of science and adventure, 'a demonstration that wilderness can still be found.'
From the very first pages, Slaght, the Russia and Northeast Asian Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society, grips readers with vivid language and tight storytelling ... Part of the book’s success lies in the author’s ability to present the stakes and draw out the tension therein, making what could be a dry tale of bird-watching a compelling story of the necessity of conservation ... He is an engaging writer who imbues each scene with an intimate sense of place ... The cast of characters he brings to life—both human and avian—illuminates the delicate symbiosis of the natural world and sheds a welcome light on the remarkable creatures that are too little known. Top-notch nature writing in service of a magnificent, vulnerable creature.