Friday, April 6, 2007

Returning to Roost

Well, Andrew Blechman's Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird did turn out to be a good traveling book. Its casual writing style and uncomplicated reporting made it easy to follow even when air turbulence kept me from holding the book steady. But I can’t say that I’d recommend the book under all circumstances. It has quirky characters and insights into worlds where few travel (pigeon racing, pigeon showing, pigeon shooting, etc.), but for my taste, Blechman talks too much about people (will he or won’t he get an interview with famous fancier Mike Tyson?) and not enough about pigeon biology, ecology, or behavior. Anyone interested in learning more about pigeons as living creatures, rather than as objects of human obsessions, would probably learn more from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website Project PigeonWatch .

Or maybe I’m just miffed that Blechman doesn’t mention Aldo Leopold when he had the perfect chance. In my favorite section, a synopsis of passenger pigeon history, he quotes John Muir (who describes world’s then-most abundant birds as “a mighty river in the sky”) and Audubon (who spent three days in 1813 observing a flock’s progress, saying, “the light of noonday was obscured as by an eclipse”). But there’s nothing from Leopold’s splendid essay, “On a Monument to a Pigeon.” Leopold eloquently mourns the extinction of birds he calls “feathered lightning,” lamenting that “no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin.”

The essay, in A Sand County Almanac, is a poignant reminder to me that, while I believe words can be mighty weapons in the fight for environmental protection, even the finest nature books are poor substitutes for nature herself. As Leopold writes, “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. . . . They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.” If we don’t want nature books to be mere monuments to past glories, we need to use them in diverse, creative ways to protect—and restore—the future.

Such musings have put me in the perfect mood for my next book, recommended by a thoughtful reader: Return to Wild America, by Scott Weidensaul. In 2003, Weidensaul retraced a famous 1953 cross-country trek across North America by Roger Tory Peterson and British naturalist James Fisher. What will be left, 50 years after their big adventure? Stay tuned (& keep reading). . . .

1 comment:

Andrew said...

You're probably right about Leopold. Sorry about that! Best Wishes, Andrew