Book review

Watch birds to see ourselves

CorrespondentFebruary 24, 2008 

  • The Life of the Skies

    Jonathan Rosen

    Farrar Straus Giroux, 306 pages

Bird-watching, which some call "birding," has become one of America's most popular sports. Toting binoculars and spotting scopes, lathered with bug repellents, armed with field guides, we take to the woods, fields and shores seeking the descendants of the dinosaurs. According to Jonathan Rosen, we look also for something else. Our quest involves healing, restoration and acknowledgment of our contrary, but coexisting, impulses to tweak and wrench things to our liking and also to preserve them as they are -- and were.

The subtitle of "The Life of the Skies" -- the title itself comes from a prose poem by D.*. Lawrence -- states Rosen's thesis that we are "Birding at the End of Nature." Our world -- without Carolina parakeets, passenger pigeons and dodos, to name only a few -- has become diminished. Yet, we who have caused the ruination of much of the natural world are the only ones who can restore it to a semblance, if not the actuality, of its former wholeness. In Rosen's view, Charles Darwin, all unwitting, triggered "the seismic disruption of evolutionary theory" that created a huge, perhaps irreparable fault line between science and religion.

But Rosen's book is not bleak. Framing his stories with his own quest to catch a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker -- tantalizingly reported in the swamps of Louisiana and Bayou de View in Arkansas's Big Woods -- he takes us birding through space and time with a host of legendary literary and historical figures. He visits Walden with Thoreau, "the patron saint of backyard bird-watchers," and Paumonk with Walt Whitman, who has delivered a splendid, dactylic eulogy of the mockingbird. With W.B. Yeats, we see Zeus as a great mute swan covering Leto; we hear the loud, insistent song of the oven bird with Robert Frost. We tramp the wilderness with Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. (Rosen, who knows that Audubon tells tall tales, may be forgiven for being taken in by the artist's account of being invited to paint a nude portrait of a lady who would not reveal her name. A good story, but it's not true.)

Rosen's winged imagination also takes us on Darwin's hunt for rheas in Argentina and the search for a bird of paradise, in what is now New Guinea, undertaken by Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace, who had also cottoned to natural selection, perhaps a little earlier than Darwin did. And we're on hand when Theodore Roosevelt establishes game and bird preserves, which will become our national wildlife refuges.

With Rosen as our guide, we go birding in Israel, where we see, among others, a hoopoe and Hume's tawny owl. But his favorite venue lies in Manhattan, his home base, and more exactly in Central Park. The park, he writes, "is a better place to see birds than most suburban backyards -- and than Walden Pond -- precisely because it is in the middle of a big city; migrating birds have fewer choices about where to land as they stop to rest on their migratory journeys."

Just what is bird-watching anyhow? Rosen's definitions are legion, quirky, and captivating. Bird-watching is "sanctioned voyeurism"; "a place where poets and naturalists, scientific seekers and religious seekers, converge"; "a kind of gobbling need to know and see and marvel, a hunger for life"; "a modest, mediating activity alive in the modern world but with roots planted deep in ancient magic"; "global, given the borderless world birds live in, but it is also, like politics, always local" "a way to awaken, but then rechannel, the conquering urge"; "ornithology's stepchild"; "a door not only into the natural world but by extension into the world of evolution"; "a way of bridging disparate worlds -- continents, the air and the earth, the symbolic and the actual, the scientific and the religious"; "seeing infinity in the common, and pursuing a bird of paradise until it turns into a backyard bird"; "half carnal, half religious"

"Bird-watching," he adds, "mediates between the urge to kill and the urge to preserve, between an America of unbounded abundance and a country of shrinking resources."

"The Life of the Skies" powerfully advocates that we try to be aware of everything around us and to see the entire natural world, including us, rather than focusing on just one aspect. We should not, he says, shut ourselves away from what we truly are -- animals. Animals with the power to wreck and restore, but animals nonetheless.

Did Rosen manage to catch a glimpse of the nearly mythic ivory-billed woodpecker? No, but he found something else: Birding tempers our urge to hunt and control with the awe ineluctably generated by the wonders of the feathered world.

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