Church of Birds by Ben H Gagnon is a remarkable book, and if you are into prehistory at all, I heartily recommend it.
I’m an enthusiastic reader of non-fiction books about prehistory. I’m also a sporadic, disorganised reader and no sort of expert. However, I know enough to say that this is an interesting and plausible set of ideas about prehistory, presented well.
Church of Birds examines the role of birds in folklore, ancient sources and imagery around the world. There are a lot of recurring themes. The author speculates that much of this can be explained by the impact on humans of bird migrations. It’s a fascinating idea, and one I found really engaging. There’s a lot of speculation, but the author is clear about his sources, what he can evidence and what is just an interesting idea.
Along the way, the book goes off at a number of tangents, including considering the relationship between humans and the landscape. There’s a substantial look at world trees from around the world – which I found fascinating as it went beyond the Euro-centric content I’m used to seeing.
In places the writing is very dense with information, but on the whole the book is very readable. I found it intriguing. If you have the sort of brain that can absorb a lot of facts when those come in very quick succession, then the sheer quantity of information won’t overwhelm you. Or, like me, you have to read it accepting that a lot of it is unlikely to stick in your head.
I think the ways in which we speculate about prehistory are really important. When we see the past primarily as nasty, opportunistic and violent, that influences where we are in the present. Ben Gagnon’s view of prehistory has a magical quality to it rooted in realism and in recognising that ancient humans were not somehow separate from the landscape or from non-human beings. I found his speculations convincing, but the value of them goes far beyond whether they are ‘correct’ or not. In taking us down lines of thought that are about human responses to the rest of the world, and placing humans firmly in ecosystems, he’s done something really powerful. We need to reimagine our place in the world, and this kind of writing will help us do that.
There’s also huge value in being able to re-imagine the past so as to have the resources to imagine the future differently. Speculation about prehistory that does not primarily reinforce the trajectory we’re on at the moment helps us remember that what’s going on wasn’t inevitable and can be changed.
More on the publishers website, including purchasing options – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/church-birds-eco-history-myth-religion