book review


As part of my MFA quest, I now find myself catching up on many classic works of nature literature that I had somehow skipped in my youth: John Muir’s account of the Water Ouzel, Rachel Carson’s seashore vignettes, Ralph Waldo Emerson. And, if you can believe it, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (or at least selected portions thereof.)

Most of this has been illuminating in a good way, but occasionally I run across something that drives home how much times have changed. For instance, Thoreau talking about a “game” he played with a Common Loon:

…having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon… So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless… At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.

Never mind the god of loons — the ABA would certainly be angry at Thoreau, were he to behave like that today! But those were simpler, more self-centered days, especially for an educated white man with a place to live and time to spare; and moreover we did not have the data then that we do now to shed light on the weary business of migration and the toll taken on birds by such games. Still, it is a little jarring!

(On a completely unrelated note, could any reader recommend me a good field guide for the south Texas/ Rio Grande Valley region? I might have some spring break plans.)

No, this is not the annual holiday Return to the Olde Homestead post, but rather about something I should have done years ago but hadn’t: reading Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher’s Wild America. As I pointed out to my professor when justifying my inclusion of the book on my semester-long reading list, Wild America has been profoundly influential on the birding community as well as the travel/nature writing world.

My first impression of this book was that it was not very good, to be honest. Both co-authors were known for expertise other than writing and it shows.

For instance, both authors narrate at different points in the book, and the reader is given very little warning when the narratorship changes hands. Although I eventually got used to this, it was initially very jarring, especially since it didn’t follow a steady pattern. The two men have very similar voices — although whether this is a reflection of their very similar personalities and backgrounds or an artifact of sharing an editor is unclear. With each new section, I was forced to figure out who was speaking using context, and the relevant context often did not appear for several paragraphs.

Both men were also thoroughgoing geeks and the text is laden with numbers and statistics — acres of parkland, miles driven, species tallied, gallons of Coke drunk — many of which are not really necessary for understanding the journey. I find this sort of thing engaging, but between all the numbers and the breakneck pace of the trip (the 300,000 miles in 100 days statistic is cited so often by reviewers that it might as well be the book’s tag line) it’s easy to see why the book is sometimes charged with encouraging the sort of people who collect lists of species like baseball cars rather than seeking a deeper engagement with an ecosystem.

That said, there are also passages of fine description, not only of birds but of plants, insects, and mammals that the pair encountered, and the geology of the landscapes they explored. Both men, like most ornithologists, seem to have been very visually oriented, and they execute little one- or two-sentence portraits of new species with aplomb in the midst of explaining science or history, as well as painting paragraph-long pictures of new landscapes. Their meditations on place, the future of threatened species and landscapes, and the meaning of wilderness, although not groundbreaking even for their time are at least present and linked throughout book.

On the subject of wilderness, Peterson and Fisher make note of some urban parks, but only for their relative pristineness. For the most part wilderness is something they travel to, something that is apart from daily life. On the other hand, they hardly espouse the notion that only untouched nature is worthy or valuable — in fact, in keeping with their era, they seem very sanguine about direct and fairly heavy-handed management. Fisher talks eagerly about which game birds would be most appropriate to introduce in Nova Scotia (whereas Scott Weidensaul, in Return to Wild America, repeatedly names invasive species as the most serious threat to the wild regions he visits, and for that matter Peterson acknowledges the problems caused by chestnut blight and other introduced menaces.) They tour Avery Island, a private bird reserve in Louisiana stocked with egrets by a Tabasco heir, with the same enthusiasm as any public park. They view the Tillamook Burn with no mention of fire ecology, but lots of statistics on fire suppression. That said, they have no hesitation in hauling out the old (even then) cliches about true wilderness being primitive and virginal.

Their attitudes towards people can be a little dated as well; female park rangers are remarkable, while Uncle Remus-style attempts to render the speech of a southern African-American tour guide are sadly apparently not. Native populations they visit in Mexico and Arizona are treated with the same exoticizing tone as the birds and cacti. Fortunately, since people are only rarely the focus of the narrative, this is less jarring than it might be for the modern reader.

In the end, I am forced to acknowledge that despite the fact that I wasn’t very impressed with this book on the level of technique, it succeeded on its own terms. The authors wished to promote enthusiasm for wildlife-watching and support for the National Park system in their readers, and they did so. Moreover, they created a work that has remained in print for over fifty years, one which continues to inspire imitation and response in younger nature writers like Scott Weidensaul, Kenn Kaufman, and Lyn Hancock. The premise in and of itself is loaded with such a multifaceted appeal — as an adventure story, a patriotic celebration of the United States, an aspirational travel guide, and a behind-the-scenes look at one hundred days in the life of a man who was already a celebrity and role model to many birders and environmentalists when the book came out — that it would take genuinely terrible writing, not just occasional awkwardness, to strip it of its charms.

Yesterday I bought… well, probably too many things, but a few of them were to do with birds.

One was a suet feeder. Birdfeeders are not as straightforward here as back east, because they tend to attract bears, but between living in the heart of town and the fact that it is now snowing and all good bears should be asleep, I figured it was safe to risk it. I haven’t seen any birds at it yet, but it’s only been up for a little while, so hopefully good things will come with patience.

The second was a book called Birds in Place: A Habitat-based Field Guide to the Birds of the Northern Rockies. I picked it up because I thought the concept was interesting, and only later noticed that it was by one Radd Icenoggle. The arrangement, though it makes a great deal of logical sense, will take some getting used to, and already I can feel myself flipping through and saying “but, but…” However, it’s not as though taxonomy is free of ambiguities either, and I do like that this guide forces you to be aware of where exactly you’re at. I’m pretty good at telling when I’m birding by a river (hint: there’s a big flowy wet thing nearby) but learning to distinguish the various types of conifer forests that occur at different elevations here is challenging, but very important if you want to understand what’s actually going on in the landscape rather than just pluck birds out of it. I’ll have more to say about this book, no doubt, when I’ve used it more.

Last but not least, I also grabbed a book called Magpie Rising: Sketches from the Great Plains. I was first attracted by the title, of course, but it looks like something that might be inspirational to many nature bloggers: a volume of very short place-based essays. The smaller ones could easily be blog entries, but the book is copyright 1988, long before there were blogs.

Winter is definitely upon us now, hopefully forcing many more interesting birds down from the higher elevations and latitudes. I trust I will soon have much more to report than my shopping.

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One thing that working in a used book store will teach you is that literary fame is strange and fickle. A decade’s, region’s, or genre’s superstar can become invisible just by traveling on in time, space, or to the next floor in Barnes and Noble. For instance – you’ve probably heard of Wallace Stegner and Tim O’Brien, but when’s the last time you picked up a novel by Mary Lee Settle? Yet she won the National Book Award for fiction in 1978, the year of my birth – right between Stegner’s 1977 win for The Spectator Bird and O’Brien’s 1979 win for Going After Cacciato.

But this isn’t about Mary Lee Settle, so godspeed, good lady. This is about Allan W. Eckert. Eckert, a native of Buffalo but an Ohioan by inclination, has had a career that includes an Emmy (for work on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom) and a nomination for the Newberry (for Incident at Hawk’s Hill), as well as controversy for playing fast and loose in nonfiction and an apparent inclination to bring up Pulitzer nominations that mean the same thing as Nobel Peace Prize nominations (e.g. nothing: anyone can be nominated, only finalists get props.) Outside the circle of people interested in the history, natural and otherwise, of the American midwest, hardly anyone knows about this action-packed resume.

I was not part of that hardly anyone – aside from a cover-deep familiarity with A Sorrow in Our Heart, his biography of Tecumseh – until I received The Silent Sky.

This is a book that plays to Eckert’s strengths. A novel based on the life of the last wild passenger pigeon, it allows scope for his imagination while letting him describe the flora, fauna, landscapes, and people of the midwest at length, something he does aptly and with heart.

As you may already know, I’m sensitive to anthropomorphism in this type of work, not because I believe animals are machines with no subjective experience, but because I feel certain that their subjective experience is in many cases as alien as a Martian’s, and as poorly represented in art as a man in a green rubber suit. I’m happy to report that, except for a few weirdly old-fashioned gender assumptions (perhaps understandable in light of the book’s original publication date in 1965), Eckert appears more interested in cramming as many facts as possible about the birds into his story than in making them human. Moreover, he attempts to capture – as nearly as human words can capture – the restless bewilderment that results when an animal finds itself completely out of its accepted element – alone when driven by instinct to flock, in a cage when driven by instinct to migrate.

Of course the end is foreordained, so suspense is not really a factor. There’s an old-fashioned vibe to this book, but one not inappropriate to the subject and setting.

The real strength of the work is in the way that it conveys on the story level how very essential sheer quantity was to the Passenger Pigeons’ whole way of life. Though some scholars now argue that the billions-strong flocks that Audubon reported were anomalies, there seems to be no doubt that even on a smaller scale the pigeons’ chief tactics were surprise – surprise and numbers. They showed up where food was plentiful, produced young so numerous that the local predators couldn’t hope to cut them all down, and next year, when those same predators had reproduced into more hazardous numbers, were somewhere far away. It was an excellent strategy – but not one that could hope to overwhelm the human mobility, rapid communication, and capitalist rapacity that came into play in the U.S. in the 19th century. Eckert recounts how death stalks the pigeons at every turn in a matter-of-fact way that eschews melodrama – and then contrasts that “natural” level of mortality with the mass destruction resulting from pigeon hunts.

The Silent Sky is lovely in a quiet way, distant but haunting – and in the last analysis, a rather emotionally draining experience. Which is my only excuse as to why I haven’t purchased Eckert’s book on the Great Auk.

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The ecology of fear is the idea that predators impact the ecosystem by impacting the behavior of prey. The classic example involves ungulates, a mountain lion or two, and a riverbank covered in tasty grass. The ungulates would like to eat the grass, but they are afraid to spend too much time too far from cover because of the lions, so they don’t eat it all and the bank remains stabilized by grassroots. Remove the lions, and the ungulates chow down at the river’s edge with impunity, resulting in denuded banks and erosion (this is distinct from, albeit often happening in concert with, generalized environmental damage caused by the prey population explosion that likely also accompanied the removal of the lions.)

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis applies this concept to the human ecology of the City of Los Angeles and surrounding suburbs. Humans – particularly, as Davis is at pains to point out, wealthy white politically-connected humans – fancy ourselves the apexiest of apex predators (largely accurately) while still retaining a species memory of the fact that we are soft and made of tasty meat. In the catastrophic landscape of Southern California, where coping strategies suited to more gradual landscapes of the eastern U.S. and Great Britain often fail, triumphant industrial capitalists have reacted to the removal of normal constraint by figuratively grazing right down to the water’s edge. They build collapsibly on faults and floodplains, flammably in chaparral. They strew their children and pets promiscuously in the paths of returning mountain lions and coyotes. At the same time, they re-imagine events that are par for the Californian course as apocalypses (a self-fulfilling prophecy when failure to plan makes the inevitable earthquake or wildfire worse). And they treat the masses as a new predatory force, seemingly prepared to use the same principals of “vermin control” that they once applied to grizzly bears on any unruly element of the urban populations they exploit.

Though this book is now more than a decade old, it’s still remarkably applicable. And, judging by the online reviews, remarkably misunderstood. Some of this is to be expected; when a Malibu real-estate baron feels the need to attack you under a pseudonym, you know you’ve hit a nerve. But many of the positive reviews are also sort of point-missing. Notably, in one of the odder cases of Truffaut Effect that I’ve encountered, many readers seem to have approached the book as exactly the sort of pop disaster lit* that Davis is among other things actually analyzing, leading to criticisms that his coverage of killer bees and tornadoes is ludicrous rather than being, as it were, a vision of the ludicrosity inherent in LA itself.

But while not every landscape is as over-the-top as The Village of Our Lady, the Queen of the Angels of the River of Porziuncola, the ecology of fear plays a role everywhere. The perceived possibility of predation has changed our airports and schools, the way we celebrate holidays, where we live, how we mate. And it impacts how we bird.

One of the fatal mountain lion attacks discussed by Davis was on a birder. Other birders have been killed by tigers, by heat and lack of water, by mountains and trees. But the stories we remember are often of attacks by our fellow humans.

I suspect that one considers this slightly more when one is (or presents as) a woman. People helpfully point out which parks I shouldn’t go to and when, remind me to be paranoid about the rides I accept (or the rides I forgo and the areas I walk through as a result), etc., etc., and this is constant and lifelong. It comes on both a personal and a societal level. It does get into one’s head. And it does, therefore, change one’s behavior. You do think twice before going down to the water’s edge.

On one level this is terrible. Not only does it make life more limited and less pleasant, but there’s something very un-humanist about taking your fellow humans as predators (let alone thinking of yourself as prey). And so very many aspects of the current human ecology of fear are ludicrously counterproductive, only serving to increase the general level of hostility and suspicion in a vicious spiral. And there’s always the temptation to victim-blame, to take the advantage of hindsight and turn it into an argument that the deceased was an idiot to take this or that previously-acceptable risk.

But neither is it useful to imagine ourselves invincible and immune, by virtue of our charming nerdish hobby, from the travails of the world. Like all ecologies, the ecology of our fear requires balance.

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*in full fairness, when I bought it that’s what I thought it was as well. But I managed to get past that impression in the interregnum between buying the book and writing about it by, you know, reading the damn thing.

The Curse of the Labrador Duck

Procrastination, as fun as it is, presents certain risks. For instance, you might be puttering around on the internet, attempting in a desultory way to decide if the 1878 Labrador Duck sighting/shooting/eating in Elmira New York represents the authentic last record of the bird or what, and you might suddenly see a search result you never noticed before – which means it must be new, seeing as how it’s right up on top of the rankings. And that search result might take you to Amazon. Where somebody might have just published a shiny new book about the heretofore-bookless Labrador Duck.

And you might sink to your knees and shake your fists at the sky and scream “Nooooooooooooooooo!” and somehow the lightening flashes and the thunder growls and the rain pours on your upturned, grimacing face, even though you are inside your apartment (you should probably talk to your landlord about that.)

Once you calm down and get a towel, of course, you will be happy to learn that the new book is not chiefly about the Labrador Duck in life. No, The Curse of the Labrador Duck: My Obsessive Quest to the Edge of Extinction is much more singular than that.

It’s about a guy, Glen Chilton, and his noble yet sort of OCD mission to examine every single extant specimen of Labrador Duck. This is not merely necrophiliac twitching. The species’ entire legacy consists of fifty-odd stuffed skins and taxidermy mounts, nine eggs, and two breast-bones. Or does it? The authenticity of some of the specimens is in doubt, and part of Chilton’s task is to sort out the sheep from the goats (or the Labradors from the cunningly painted white farmyard birds, to be more precise.) Moreover, these specimens have a disconcerting habit of being lost in air raids, vanishing behind the Iron Curtain, languishing in underfunded research facilities with leaks, getting swiped when their cases are left unlocked, and falling into the hands of collectors who are, in the polite British phraseology, eccentric.

Chilton is more scientist than writer (and properly so – I wouldn’t let Jonathan Lethem collect DNA samples out of the blow-hole of a hundred-and-fifty year old egg) and his account occasionally suffers from awkward phrasing and peculiar organizational choices – Errol Fuller accompanies Chilton to Germany, for instance, several chapters before he is actually introduced to the reader (although naturally I knew who he was.) Nevertheless, the story comes alive with Chilton’s own good humor and suspense, and if you love travelogues, museums, or both, it is well worth reading. (Also well worth reading if you have an old Labrador Duck of Great-grandpa’s sitting in the family attic – Chilton closes the volume by putting out a bounty on any specimens he has not yet examined.)

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Unfortunately, I awoke on my second day in Greenport in no fit state to do any biking. Call it a stomach virus, or just say I ate, drank, and was merry with too much verve – I suspect it was probably a bit of both. But anyway, birding was off the table.

So while Inimitable Todd went off to discover the Long Island wineries by bike, I walked around the quaint little Greenport downtown. I soon stumbled over the one thing to make me happy in a quaint little downtown, namely a quaint little used book store filled with stacks and stacks of idiosyncratically selected books. This one specialized, appropriately, in seafaring literature; I picked up a book about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes and an early edition of my homeboy William Beebe’s original account of his bathysphere explorations in Bermuda. But the most interesting volume I acquired, for the purposes of this blog, was an original 1888 copy of Names And Portraits Of Birds Which Interest Gunners, With Descriptions In Languages Understanded Of The People, by one Gurdon Trumbull.

The issue of bird-names is one which occupies every birder. The folk-process proposes, the ABA disposes. The Myrtle Warbler disappears and the prosaic Yellow-Rumped Warbler appears. The Northern Oriole is split, and the Baltimore Oriole emerges in glory. And birders return to the subject of bird names over, and over, and over again.

Trumbull comes at the subject from a different perspective, that of the “sportsman”; but the concern of sorting through a mass of idiosyncratic local names to figure out and communicate what the heck that was that just flew away is the same. Here is the American Woodcock as snipe, timberdoodle, mud hen, bog-sucker, shrups, mountain partridge, and hookumpake; and, of all confounding things, also as pewee. Each name is documented as to the locality it was found in, making an interesting reference for the folklorist. And, being a book for gunners, the birds are also rated by flavor. Apparently Ruddy Turnstones (aka sea dotterel, Hebridal sandpiper, horse-foot snipe) taste too much like whale oil to be palatable even to the destructively omnivorous nineteenth-century palate.

The descriptions, in common with most pre-Peterson works and in keeping with a reference for people who would shoot the bird and then inspect it in hand, are detail-focused to the exclusion of practicality; the entire plumage of the Northern Shoveler gets described before its bill is even mentioned. But it’s not like I’m going to cart a book from 1888 into the field with me anyway. It’s fascinating browsing, and an instructive look at a different era; and $20 is a small price to pay to know that on Long Island, the Common Merganser was once known as the weaser sheldrake.

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