This may be of interest to some.
THE LIFE OF THE SKIES
By Jonathan Rosen.
Illustrated. 324 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.
By ROBERT SULLIVAN
Published: March 9, 2008
As goes bird-watching, one of America's fastest growing forms of outdoor
recreation, so go the bird-watching books. Once, Roger Tory Peterson's "Field
Guide to the Birds" and a pair of binoculars were all you needed. Then came
"The Sibley Guide to Birds," with drawings that made things a little easier for
the not-so-eagle-eyed. Now, Jonathan Rosen has written the birding book for the
birder who ponders philosophy and theology while quietly sitting by a pond at
dusk. If Peterson and Sibley provided checklists - birding as scratching off
answers on multiple-choice tests - then "The Life of the Skies" is the essay
question, the question being: Does bird-watching offer a bird-watcher an avenue
toward greater meaning, like prayer or yoga? For his part, Rosen, a novelist
and the author of "The Talmud and the Internet," has a lot of faith in it as a
meditative act. "I can't think of any activity that more fully captures what it
means to be human in the modern world than watching birds,"he writes.
"The Life of the Skies" is part birding history, part birding travelogue,
centered on Rosen's regular migration route from his apartment to Central Park
- the author/birder is based in Manhattan - with the occasional exotic birding
trip. (The descriptions of birding in the Holy Land are particularly
beautiful.) In his introduction, Rosen claims no intelligent design to his bird
musings. "This book offers no grand synthesis," he writes. "It is a book about
birds, the impulse to watch them, the impulse to capture them in poetry and in
stories. It is a book unified only by my own experience, enriched by my reading
and the stories and experiences of others." At its heart, though, "Life of the
Skies" is a consideration of the relationship between spiritual yearning and
evolutionary science by a birder who tries to speak highly of both. As crows
mob hawks, cawing loudly, so do reason and argument seem to be cawing at the
author, who approaches religion as if kettling on the soft warm breezes. "I do
feel that birding, a great and fulfilling pastime, and by the way a lot of fun,
is more than merely that," he continues. "Bird-watching is intimately connected
to the journey we all make to find a place for ourselves in a post-Darwinian
world. This book is my journey."
It is a thoughtful and engaging journey, one that discusses the history of
birding alongside changes in the conception of nature from the 19th century
until the present. There are cameos by Frank Chapman, the banker-turned-birder
who created the Christmas Bird Count in 1900; Kenn Kaufman, the Jack Kerouac of
birding, who in the '70s hitchhiked the back roads of America for sightings;
and Thoreau, who gets taken down as an antisocial hermit and praised as the
inventor of backyard bird-watching. Theodore Roosevelt is Rosen's hero, partly
because he was a books-to-woods president who would drop bird news at a cabinet
meeting ("Just now I saw a chestnut-sided warbler, and this is only February"),
partly because Rosen sees him as "a rare but archetypal creature: an outdoor
intellectual." This statement is feather-ruffling if not overblown and
potentially insulting to the likes of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry and even
Thomas Jefferson. But Rosen sees Roosevelt as presiding over a turning point in
America's relationship with nature. "For all he loved limitless frontiers, he
understood the need for curbs," Rosen writes. Birding is a kind of weaponless
hunting, an attack by well-meaning mimes, and as such, says Rosen, it
highlights our Jekyll and Hyde attitude. "It mediates between the urge to kill
and the urge to preserve; between an America of unbounded abundance and a
country of shrinking resources."
As for Rosen's own style of bird-watching, he is not a "lister," one of those
scorekeeping diehards who bolt from the room when somebody says "chestnut-sided
warbler." He is a guy who runs home to look at a Robert Frost poem, or a story
by Baal Shem Tov, whose presence you can feel in Rosen's birding: it is a
down-to-earth mystical practice, a balm to mere academic pursuits. Birding has
offered him a view on parenting, assuaged his grief over the death of his
father, and given him sheer adventure. "Life of the Skies" begins and almost
ends on a shaggy-dog bird tale, his own search for the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Once thought extinct thanks to the cutting of old-growth swamp, the ivory-bill
appears in William Faulkner's short story "The Bear," where it is referred to
as the Lord-to-God bird. For Faulkner, the clattering of the bird is the
banging of man in the dark swamp of life, the grasp for meaning in the quag.
Birds "seem to possess something that transcends happiness or sadness - they
simply are," Rosen says. "Birding gives me a little of that."
"What to make of a diminished thing?" is the question hovering over Rosen's
book, one that refers both to bird populations and to the world in general. If
Darwin broke the link between God and nature, Rosen thinks some salvageable
version is still there, nesting in the undergrowth. Though he attempts to veer
wide of religious orthodoxy - "May no fate willfully misunderstand me / And
half grant what I wish and snatch me Away / Not to return. Earth's the right
place for love," he quotes from Robert Frost's "Birches" - he occasionally
comes close to being blown off course. "Personally, I believe that there is a
divine spark in us that binds us to the rest of creation, not merely as fellow
creatures but as caretakers, with an earthly responsibility like the one we
imagined for God," he writes. "I'm not saying you can't be a conservationist
without this feeling - it's just harder for me to understand what we owe the
ivory-billed woodpecker without it."
For other people, however, it's not so hard. Woodpeckers peck partly for bugs,
partly to communicate to a mate, to answer the raw and primordial urge of
reproduction, which may be a spark, or a hormone secretion. We may be
caretakers because our own wiring is telling us we are. Thoreau, in his
journals, often finds a natural fact to be transcendent in its very fact-ness.
Nature is in this way the other, or, to put it in more overtly spiritual terms,
something like the Thou in Martin Buber's I-Thou, so that when you meet the
fact it is a meeting that hints at universality, at infinity. You don't need to
get all mystical, in other words, to get mystical. You don't even need
transcendence to appreciate the world. It's an option, naturally. But you can
also just go birding for the birds.
Robert Sullivan, the author of "Rats" and "A Whale Hunt," is currently working
on a book about Thoreau.
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