Brand Story - Keen observer John Fitchen candidly examines the delicate human moments that connect two worlds.
Humanity’s list of birding books is long. Its list of medical books, even longer. The number of works that combine both? Perhaps, just one. In “Life Through the Lens of a Doctor-Birder” author John Fitchen follows the threads of uncertainty, curiosity, humor and humility that connect his two worlds. Their main link, however, is that he happens to belong to both, making for a rare lens for readers to experience.
Raised by a high school English teacher and a fine arts professor, Fitchen stayed intimately attentive to the world throughout childhood trips to Europe, a stint in the US Air Force and a career in academic medicine. The details he gathered over the years have found a home in the book’s collection of vignettes – snapshots of pivotal moments from an unusual life.
“My father was a tremendous believer in curiosity. I remember when I was 13 before one of our family’s trips to Europe he told me, ‘John, you’ve got to start paying attention. You should be looking around like an owl perched in a tree in the middle of the night,’” he recalls.
It was in college that Fitchen first translated his love of nature into an appreciation for medicine and recognized that the two were intertwined. This belief was solidified during his medical career in the classroom, at the bedside, in the lab, and in biotech, where he played a critical role in obtaining FDA approval of the first and only oral HIV test.
“There’s a complexity to birding and a complexity to medicine. Both reward close observation and are much bigger than the individual,” Fitchen says. “You have to be able to tolerate disappointment and to move forward without having the full picture, just as in life.”
While reflecting on the soul of the Aleutian Islands or the heartbreak of a failed butterfly capture, the book balances levity and humor with an honest portrayal of life’s realities.
After leaving biotech, his love affair with birding finally had room to grow, culminating in a trip to Attu, a remote island hugging the Bering Sea, followed by a Multnomah County Big Year – a competition wherein birders try to identify as many species as possible in one calendar year.
Inspiration for the book, ultimately published by Inkwater Press, came from Fitchen’s sons and their crew of teenage friends: “They got to asking me more and more for birding stories. Eventually, I said I’d write them down. It just gained momentum from there and ended up being a full-sized book four years later.”
Unlike a traditional memoir, which emphasizes personal details, this “partial memoir” examines the world with contagious curiosity based on the author’s delicate yet unblinking recollections. First a doctor, then a birder, Fitchen’s true calling as a lifelong observer comes across in every line.
Available at Portland-area bookstores and Powells.com
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