Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature by Jonathan Rosen

"Some days, of course, there's nothing but starlings." Jonathan Rosen 

Sometimes I come upon books without seeking, just finding them, similar to Gene Spandling spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker (he thinks) when he was just enjoying a outing in a cypress swamp. I came across a positive reference to The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature and borrowed it. For some reason, I expected the book to be more scientific, detailing what can be found in the atmosphere. Instead, I found it to be a literary history of birdwatching infused with Rosen's own story of becoming a birdwatcher (a term he seems to like better than birder).

The Life of the Skies is also a travel memoir. Rosen describes outings in the swamps of Louisiana, the woods of Central Park, and the valleys in Israel, all places with important environmental stories. Often in the company of local experts, he sought birds of note. His essays about these outings explain how global geopolitics and individual efforts for conservation have determined what birds birdwatchers see. He also populates his book with stories about famous birdwatchers, including John James Audubon, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Alfred Russell Wallace, Theodore Roosevelt, Robert Frost, Roger Tory Peterson, and E. O Wilson. He also quotes songwriters Lucinda Williams, Chris Hillerman, and Gram Parsons.

Rosen is an essayist for the New Yorker and the New York Times and has written other books that examine current life in philosophical, religious, and ethical terms. This book continues his diverse scholarly interests. In it I found many quotable passages, like one above.

In the world of books, The Life of the Skies is not common like a starling. It is also not an ivory-billed woodpecker of a book, for you will successfully find it in some libraries, if you look. I will call it an indigo bunting, an uncommon and delightful find.

Rosen, Jonathan. The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008. ISBN 9780374186302.

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