Joe Duff, CEO of Operation Migration, is not the only conservationist to wear a uniform to work. But instead of the khakis and polos that serve to show that humans are all part of the same team, his uniform helps him blend in among a flock of whooping cranes. It’s not a bird costume, per se. Rather than making the wearer look like something else, its purpose is to conceal what they are — a human being who’s trying to teach these cranes how to be wild.
Most of the suit is nothing more than an amorphous white bag that covers the wearer’s arms and everything from head to mid-calf. A volunteer of theirs makes every part specially for the program. To hide their faces, they use white plastic construction helmets covered in a layer of white fabric, except for a small plate made out of reflective mylar that they use to see and a strip of mesh to help them breathe. The costumes are neither stylish nor, in the hot summer months, particularly comfortable. (“Whooping cranes can spend their life in the marsh and mud and they’re still pure white; we can’t spend 10 minutes,” Duff says.) They use the same outfits year-round and have to make them from a material thick enough that when the light shines through, there’s no chance of a crane making out the human silhouette underneath. One hand is covered by a black fabric mitten stitched to the costume so the birds never see a glimpse of skin. In the other, they carry a puppet meant to look like the head of a whooping crane. It’s this, not the blob of white human attached to it, that the birds interact with.
The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.
And they did.
If one is to appreciate Coetzee’s essays, one must recognize how precisely, with what concentration, he lays bare a terrifically complex psychology, giving readers a handhold on which to build even more complex readings of their own.
It's a deeply generous, compassionate book that asks its readers to open their hearts and treat one another with understanding, even as the world grows more complicated, and more unknowable, every day.