In this series, we ask SF/F authors to describe a specialty in their lives that has nothing (or very little) to do with writing. Join us as we discover what draws authors to their various hobbies, how they fit into their daily lives, and how and they inform the author’s literary identity!
I was one of those renaissance-artsy kids, always obsessively creating things. Writing when I barely knew how to construct sentences, drawing, sculpting, singing, dancing, dressing-up; I was engaged in storytelling in every possible way from my earliest understanding of human expression. My wonderful, tolerant college professor parents knew they had a compulsively creative soul on their hands, but they couldn’t have expected some of the obsessions that went along with that restlessly creative spirit.
I showed an early interest in and love of birds. They were always my favorite animals. My first word was “bird,” uttered while sitting atop a stone eagle at my father’s alma mater. I love winged, feathered creatures, real and mythical—to me, they have always represented magic, freedom, and limitless possibility. When I was given the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds around age 8 or 9, I began to understand birding as a science. I memorized the whole guide, bird by bird (just like Anne Lamott’s great writer’s guide), and began my “life list,” marking down all the birds I’d seen.
I learned the word ornithology and began to consider myself an ornithologist in training. My parents got me a subscription to Cornell University’s incredible magazine Living Bird and I assumed I’d attend college there as they have the leading ornithology department in the nation. I developed a keen eye for bird-like details in all kinds of surroundings. My mind stored increasing amounts of bird facts and calls, flight patterns and silhouettes. My eyes and heart were trained and attuned to these fragile, beautiful, majestic, miraculous, hollow-boned beings.
Birds have always been a symbol of the soul for me. In all kinds of traditions and mythologies, birds are seen as messengers and conduits to the heavens. As I’ve always been drawn to deeply spiritual narratives and symbols, birds became an extension of my thoughts on the soul and its ability to be more than just an entity within a body; an essence that could sometimes float and fly out from its bounds. Limitless possibility.
My love of ghost stories, of reading them and dreaming them up, of telling them around Girl Scout campfires, crested during this time of heavy ornithological obsession, likely due to that crystalizing sense of self and soul. I began to consider different birds as symbols for different spiritual and emotional states, birds as both signs of departed souls and creatures bearing tidings from the beyond. I’ve always lived in a pleasant openness with divine mystery. The infinite, unfathomable wonder of the world flits in and out of my notice like a lark or a hummingbird, sometimes swooping into my consciousness like a raptor or soaring dreamily out over open water like a gull.
My love of the arts eventually outweighed my obsession with the migratory patterns of sparrows and the call of my storytelling wilds drowned out the gentle, rasping chirps of chickadees. However I’ve never lost sight of my first great love. Birds play roles in all my work, as both characters and symbols. They often grace the covers of my books: the mythic phoenix graces Perilous Prophecy and ravens adorn all my Eterna Files. They appear as familiars, messengers, and harbingers. Much of my work takes metaphoric or literal flight, and I owe that to the creatures that have remained the keys to my heart.
I remain tied to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology as a constant supporter and modest donor; I am a member of NYC’s Audubon Society and love how the group tailors its love of birds and avid bird-watching to New York City living (there are many opportunities to be a birder in the big city!). I celebrate the vital environmental studies and legislative victories these institutions fight for and I worry for the fate of so many native species undergoing the threats of climate change. Birds are one of the first indicators of climate trends, problems, and changes. Canaries in the coal mines of our world, they are precious jewels we must take care of.
In these dark and oft trying times, it remains all the more vital to reach both inwards and outwards towards inspiration, to what’s not only within us as our great passions but what can be protected and treasured in the outside world. I invite you to look around you to find the symbols, icons, beings and creations that most inspire and excite you, and see what messages and meaning they have for you.
Originally published in June 2017.
Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, playwright, artist and the award-winning, bestselling author of Gothic Victorian Fantasy novels for adults and teens including the Strangely Beautiful, Eterna Files, Magic Most Foul, and Spectral City series. Rarely seen out of Victorian garb, Hieber has won several Prism Awards and was a finalist for the Daphne Du Maurier Award. A talented actor and singer, Hieber has appeared on stage and screen, including episodes of Boardwalk Empire, and regularly leads ghost tours in New York City.