Book Review - NYT 8.3.08

To: "Birding Aus" <>
Subject: Book Review - NYT 8.3.08
From: "Tony Lawson" <>
Date: Sun, 16 Mar 2008 07:14:05 +1100
This may be of interest to some.

Tony Lawson

By Jonathan Rosen.

Illustrated. 324 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $24.

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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