Tracking Desire

Susan Cerulean

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About the book

It took just one sighting of a swallow-tailed kite to dispatch Susan Cerulean on a pilgrimage through its fragmented and ever-shrinking habitats. In Tracking Desire, Cerulean immerses us in the natural history and biology of Elanoides forficatus. At the same time, she sifts through her past—as a child, student, biologist, parent, and activist—to muse on a lifelong absorption with nature.

Once at home throughout much of the eastern United States, the swallow-tailed kite is now seldom seen. With ornithologist Ken Meyer, and then on her own, Cerulean roams the kite’s much-reduced homelands, gaining knowledge about the bird and the grave threats to its breeding grounds and migration patterns. Her quest takes her to the muddy banks of the Mississippi, to an enormous and vulnerable roost on corporate ranchlands in southwest Florida, and to the remnant pinelands of Everglades National Park.

In seeking the bird, Cerulean comes to question her own place in our consumerist society. “My journeys after kites have led me to understand that the power of our longings is placing the integrity of life on our tender emerald planet so greatly at risk,” she writes. “What are the fractured places in our hearts and minds and spirits that have allowed us to stand by and watch, and even to participate in, the destruction of so much of life?”

About the author

Susan Cerulean is the director of the Red Hills Writers Project in Tallahassee, Florida, and coeditor of Between Two Rivers: Stories from the Red Hills to the Gulf. She is also the author of Florida Wildlife Viewing Guide, editor of The Book of the Everglades, and coeditor of Guide to the Great Florida Birding Trail: East Section and The Wild Heart of Florida.

For discussion

  1. Were you aware of the variety of natural landscapes in Florida before reading Tracking Desire? What were your preconceptions about the state?
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  3. Cerulean’s writing in this book has been called honest, soul-searching, obsessive, and deeply personal. How would you describe it?
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  5. How many birds can you identify by name? Of all the birds and other animals you know, is there one you especially love or identify with? If so, why? How much do you know about what that animal requires to live?
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  7. What species in your area are at risk of extinction? Why?
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  9. What was your relationship to nature as a child? Did you grow up in the city, a suburb, the countryside?
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  11. How do your children or children you are close to, learn about the natural world? How much time do they spend out of doors, besides participating in organized sports? Is that different from your own childhood?
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  13. How do you feel when you are in wild places? Where, specifically, outdoors, do you feel most at home?
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  15. What have been the settlement patterns of your own family with respect to the North American continent? In what ways are your people connected to the places they live?
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  17. What are the often-told dreams and stories of your family? Do any of them have to do with the natural world?
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  19. How do your own religious/spiritual beliefs contribute to or mold your relationship to the natural world? Does your place of worship have a “Green Sanctuary” program, or something similar?