"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Sunday, February 1, 2009


An Homage To Birds....

I've long enjoyed Jonathan Rosen's essays in various places, and am a bird-lover, so it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to his work "The Life of the Skies" when I first heard it was due to be published. Thankfully, he didn't disappoint. This book won't meet everyone's desire, but for my taste it is the best, and most unconventional, bird-related volume out in awhile, with its rich overview of the pastime of birding; not strictly the science, nor sport, nor even art or history of birding (there are other books that do that), but the sheer spirit and joy of birding!

Early on in the volume, Rosen notes that birds are almost the ONLY wild animals most people encounter anymore on a regular basis throughout their lives; we have so exterminated, or removed from our environs, all the others; and unfortunately birds themselves are declining rapidly as well. Birds are in a sense our single remaining thread to a world long gone. It is a sad thought, and the lingering thought that cloaks the entire remainder of the book with poignancy.

The book is liberally sprinkled with interesting historical facts, stories, lyrical writing, and unpredictable jumps from subject to subject (if you're looking for a straightforward, scientific history of American birding, this book isn't for you). A wide range of figures appear with wonderful narrative as well (Audubon, Thoreau, Whitman, Burroughs, Theodore Roosevelt, Alfred Russel Wallace, Robert Frost, E.O. Wilson, among others); even Jewish mysticism arises recurringly out of the wonderful prose.

One of the most heated debates in birding the last few years has been over the possible existence (or extinction) of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, one of the grandest birds ever to inhabit North American forests of the south. Rosen looked (unsuccessfully) for the bird in Louisiana following a credible claim for its appearance back in 1999, and the book starts off by name-dropping this "ghost bird," which then returns time and time again throughout the volume, almost as a mascot for the gloom... and hope... of which the volume so often hints.

The chapters of this book are so varied and sometimes disjointed that they can almost be read non-sequentially. So too, different readers will vary widely in which chapters they most enjoy. Chapter 10 is especially entertaining, tackling the age-old question of whether one can be a birder and still be manly (my phrasing, not Rosen's, and I won't give his answer here). His chapters on birding in Israel are also oddly entertaining and especially so his treatment of the middle eastern 'bird of paradox,' the Hoopoe. But everyone will have their own favorite chapters; it's difficult to choose.

There are pages or passages, as in any 300-page volume, that don't seem to carry their weight as well, but I admire Rosen for even daring to put forth such eclectic, wide-ranging flights of fancy (there is history, poetry, science, theology, meditation, humor, stream-of-consciousness, and oh yeah, birds, here). I would have enjoyed reading more about modern birding, about Roger Tory Peterson and even Pete Dunne, and many of the current activities of birding, but that just doesn't appear to be Rosen's intention here.

Publishers Weekly once wrote of Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, "This book of wonder is one of the truly beautiful books of this or any season... which, on any page, offers a passage one can scarcely wait to share with a friend. It is a triumph." I would say pretty much the same for Rosen's offering.
If you're a bird or nature lover I heartily recommend this book. But maybe more importantly, IF you're NOT a bird or nature lover (but enjoy good writing)... read THIS book... and, become one.


1 comment:

James said...

I read this last summer and loved it. I especially enjoyed how he wove his love of literature and poetry into his experience of birding. That resonated because those things are deeply entwined for me as well.