January 2011

I don’t know how this keeps happening, but I’ve written and sold another story about birds. This one, “And Neither Have I Wings to Fly”, will appear in Bewere the Night, edited by Ekaterina Sedia. It’s coming out in the spring, but it’s available for pre-order now.

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.