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 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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Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

Painted Redstarts, American Museum of Natural History

The Dovkie’s head flopped loosely as Paul showed it around the room, asking if anyone knew what it was. I’d already volunteered the “auk” part, and was trying to maintain the discipline of letting someone else have a chance, especially since there were a lot of kids on this tour. They seemed kind of overwhelmed, though. Maybe it was the hog-tied, half-mummified Jabiru on the table, waiting to be sent to the dermestid beetles. Maybe it was the fluorescent light. But I held my peace and gave them their chance.

Oh, who am I kidding. I wasn’t totally sure it wasn’t some obscure Murrelet from the west coast, or for that matter the world’s weirdest example of convergent evolution, an auk-alike that actually lives in the slow-flowing rivers of southern China or something. This was the AMNH. Anything, from anywhere, was possible. I mean, I was pretty sure that there was no such thing as the Cantonese Fresh-water Perching Penguin. But I haven’t memorized all 10,000 avian species. And stranger birds have happened.

I studied the CFPP carefully. Its stubby beak faded into the dark facial feathers, making it look even smaller. The plumage was pristine, and almost cuddly-looking. The eyes were slightly sunken, a little oozy, but that was the only gruesome note.

Paul eventually gave up trying to prompt the word Little out of us, and went on to explain the origin of the specimen. “I got a phone call from a guy in Jersey,” he said, with that casual NYC confidence that we would all understand he was talking about over-the-Hudson, not over-the-Atlantic. “He said he had a penguin running around in his living room. I knew right away what it was.” Not a penguin, freshwater, perching, or otherwise. Like many a pelagic bird before it, the Little Auk had been storm-swept into the unforgiving land, starved until it was too weak to flee human contact, and perished. Now it would be processed into immortality in this windowless basement room.

Like all the skinning-and-stuffing sorts I’ve known, Paul was a keenly enthusiastic man with a sense of humor that occasionally lost people. “They’re alcoholic specimens,” he said, gesturing at a pair of large mason jars. Each jar contained a liquid the color of old, cheap paper and a Tufted Puffin in a contorted head-down pose. “Some people call them spirit specimens, but all the specimens here are spirits.” He paused a beat. The kids looked at him, po-faced. “Because they’re dead.” Another beat. “Ok, moving on.”

I really liked this guy.

But then, I liked everything about this evening, from our cliff-hanger arrival at the museum just in time to catch the last members-only tour after overstaying at happy hour, to the ancient elevators – complete with operators! – that conveyed us first up to the research collections and then down to the subterranean den of preservation, to the smell. Call me ghoulish, but the preservative smell of a venerable museum has always triggered intense feelings in me. It’s too joyful to be properly described as Proustian, because instead of representing something lost forever, this smell stands for something that will continue long after I’m gone. It’s the smell, to me, of knowledge.

I inhaled deeply as we started the tour, and was inclined to linger among the infinite rows of sheet-metal cabinets. (The guide probably thought I was taking it easy on The Inimitable Todd, who was walking with a cane after a marathon-related mishap.) Our first meeting was with Peter, who pulled out drawers of Painted Redstarts and Hawaiian Honeycreepers, not-quite-perfect rows of party colors, black and red, yellow and green, each skin carefully stuffed with cotton and fitted with a tag that, in cramped curlicues of ink, transfigured a dead bird into a valuable cache of data. I wanted desperately to touch, but restrained myself.

He described collecting expeditions classic and contemporary, particularly his own work in the Solomon Islands. Correlated birds (green-and-purple pigeons, small falcons) to maps and field guides, catching each one neatly in a web that, if it was but a pale faded mimeograph of the mesh that holds an ecosystem together, at least offered the consolation of being comprehensible to the human mind.

And then he took questions.

“Do you have an Ivory-billed Woodpecker?” It wasn’t me. And in fact, I was a little irritated, because now I would look silly asking about Great Auks.

“Yes – in fact, you’ll be seeing one later in the tour.” All irritation vanished. And the crowd went wild – in a subdued, respectful way appropriate to dues-paying members of the Museum.

Our next stop was a book-lined office where Tom had set up a projector screen. Tom was the man in charge of the effort to get the ornithology collection electronically databased and online. A Powerpoint was in the offing. My heart quailed. But, sensitive to the potential pitfalls of his material, Tom managed to rally interest with a bit of slightly scandalous history – recounting some of the events surrounding the AMNH’s acquisition of Lord Rothschild’s collection – before launching into a cogent explanation of how his project was making it possible for researchers around the world to use the museum’s resources without ever setting foot in New York. Photos of specimens – only a few, since funding seemed always to be a roadblock – scans of documents, all sorts of things were making their way into the ether by way of this desk.
Like the next slide that appeared on the screen; a black-and-white photo. Two men sitting in a boat against a background of tangled vegetation. One staring somewhere off stage right, holding a gun. And the other, a slender man in a hat and an enormous beard, staring right at the camera as if to say, “Yeah? And what are you gonna do about it?” And well he might, for over his knee he holds a limp Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

The man is with the woodpecker was William M. Brewster; the man with the gun was Frank M. Chapman, who had just shot the woodpecker and would shortly bring it back to the museum. To be turned into a cache of data. An uncomfortable chill went through me.

But then, if you’re going to go, ending up a cache of data was at least no worse than being Christmas dinner or a kitten’s dinner, or beaten to death as a a witch…

Oh, who am I kidding? Granted, at the time the Ivory-bill was not yet the ornithological Elvis. Still, it was known to be in decline. And it’s one thing to point out that a healthy population should be able to sustain the loss of a few individuals, another to inflict the loss knowing that the population is not healthy. Even in a place that smells like heaven, there’s always the nagging little worm of contradiction.

But it’s not like that stopped me from leaning over schoolkids and even abandoning The Limping Inimitable Todd to get a front-row view of the Ivory-bill, the selfsame one that appeared in the photo, when we reached the basement. It looked small, its skeleton (including the iconic bill) having been removed and prepared separately. Chapman had read that there was no skeleton preparation of the Ivory-bill, and he’d set out to repair that lack. Now the skeleton was disarticulated and stored in a cardboard box. Its tail had also been removed, and its remaining skin folded rather haphazardly and dried. Not exactly a proud presentation of the Lord God Bird.

But when Paul started talking, the melancholy passed. The sad skin, he explained, had been used to prepare an extended wing specimen to compare with the alleged Ivory-bill photos and tapes trickling out of Arkansas and Florida. It didn’t excuse, but at least it wasn’t wasted. And here were some Sage Grouse study skins, plump with cotton. A Bufflehead pinned out neatly to dry. And here was a black-and-white bird that hadn’t been prepared yet. Did anyone know what it was?

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NB: For anyone who was wondering about the Hempstead Thick-billed Murre, I asked Paul, who confirmed that it had been received and processed.