Book Review - NYT 8.3.08

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Subject: Book Review - NYT 8.3.08
From: "Tony Lawson" <>
Date: Sat, 15 Mar 2008 17:26:34 +1100
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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