A wealth of literary treats arrived with my March-April issue of Audubon yesterday. There are book reviews for every patience level, such as a few-score words on Bruce Barcott’s The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird and an extended essay on Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas. Still more tempting, to me at least, are brief excerpts of some new books, notably Kenn Kaufmann’s forthcoming Flights Against the Sunset: Stories That Reunited a Mother and Son. How delicious to get to taste books themselves, rather than rely on someone else’s opinions (no, I'm not criticizing book reviews--I like both options).
Audubon’s editors deepen the content of the printed articles with online suggestions for further reading, including several about the wolves, woods, and waters of Isle Royale National Park. But the most literary pages of all are Jonathan Rosen’s “Life of the Skies.” Rosen caught my attention by quoting Whitman, Emerson, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, Henry James and E.O. Wilson in a 7-column article (and still had room to reflect on Sherlock Holmes’ detective methodologies and young Darwin’s penchant for beetle collecting). By bringing poetry, philosophy, and history into his observations of birds, Rosen enriches his understanding of their place in his life and culture. A late-comer to the hobby, Rosen writes:
Gradually the strange contradictory elements of birding seeped into me and deepened its rich appeal. Birdwatching, like all great human activities, is full of paradox. You need to be out in nature to do it, but you are dependent on technology—binoculars—and also on the guidebook in your back pocket, which tells you what you’re seeing. The challenge of birding has to do with keeping the bird and the book in balance.
The book you bring with you draws the birds you see into the library world—a system of names dating from the 18th century, when scientists ordered the plant and animal world and labeled them so that anyone in any country would know he was referring to the same bird. But at the same time that you are casting yoru scientific net over the wild world, the birds are luring you deeper into the woods or the meadow or the swamp. The library world and the wild, nonverbal world meet in the middle when you are birdwatching. We need both sides of this experience to feel whole, being half wild ourselves. Birdwatching is all about balance.
Rosen’s article, also a book excerpt, has sold at least one copy of his just-released The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. I hope that sales are most encouraging, both to Rosen and to Audubon so the magazine will continue to promote fine nature books in its own pages.