Birds in Books: THE LIFE OF THE SKIES, by Jonathan Rosen.

I’ve been busy reading about birds. Today I would like to start sharing some of that reading, officially opening the “Birds in Books” category in Ride Into Birdland.

Author Jonathan Rosen has written about birds since the 1990s for The New York Times and New Yorker magazine, covering hot topics such as the search for the ghost bird, as he calls the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, a species presumed extinct since the 1940’s until spotted again in 2000 by a Louisiana forestry student on a hunting trip.

The search for the ghost bird is but one of the stories Rosen artfully recounts in his deep and thought provoking book THE LIFE OF THE SKIES, and it is indeed a fascinating story to read as the Ivory-bill performs the ultimate trick and rises from the ashes of extinction.  Yet Rosen’s complete tale is a larger one of physical, intellectual and spiritual travel that takes the author from casual birdwatching in New York City’s Central Park to years of research looking for birds and people, facts and clues, experiences and inspiration. Along the way Rosen becomes a birder and ponders essential questions about humanity and our relationship with nature. “Birding collapses the space between what is far away and what is close…”, argues the author. “All birding is global, given the borderless world we live in, but it is also, like politics, always local.”

“THE LIFE OF THE SKIES – Birding at the end of nature”. By Jonathan Rosen. 2008. PICADOR – Farrar, Strauss and Giroux – 324 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-42819-8

With that global and local landscape as backdrop Rosen manages to flow gracefully in historical time, jumping back and forth as he weaves interesting ideas about birds, human society, ecology, science and religion. In the opening paragraph of his prologue he declares us all birdwatchers and defines two types: “those who know what they are and those who haven’t yet realized it”. He then takes us back in time to meet America’s original birders, men like John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, who were first and foremost hunters but are nevertheless considered the forefathers of the nature movement, a somewhat shocking discovery that forces us all to examine “the deep link between hunting and birding”.  “An important point that should keep us from judging Audubon’s generation too harshly-”, Rosen states with dramatic effect, “if the birds we eat today flew overhead on the way to slaughter, we might never see the sun

As the book progresses the author leads the way through a rich forest of historical, literary, scientific and religious references, a world populated with characters of grand stature like Charles Darwin, Albert Russell Wallace, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, assorted figures from the Old Testament and birds such as the Ivory-bill, Audubon’s Parrot, the hoopoe and the lesser birds of paradise, among others. The ensuing feast of ideas is made digestible by Rosen’s own insightful line of thought and his entertaining, reporter-style accounts of actual birding travels and experiences. He never pretends to be a bird expert or a tough wilderness adventurer, nor does he shy away from his own doubts or misconceptions. Rather, he embraces them and his work grows in consequence, becoming all the more heartfelt and intimate.

The book’s underlying theme is revealed in the subtitle “Birding at the end of nature”.  As anyone with an interest in birds soon learns, many avian species are gone forever and many more fly swiftly towards extinction. All observation of nature is therefore burdened with feelings of nostalgia, loss and urgency, feelings that beg the question: What, if anything, can we do? Paraphrasing a poem by Robert Frost, the author laments: “How do you relate to nature when so much of it is gone? What do we make of a diminished thing?”  But instead of finding clear-cut answers, he bumps against a  dilemma: “Environmentally, our fate is intertwined with the natural world around us, and so the more we protect it, the more we protect ourselves. But the impulse to destroy and the impulse to preserve are alive in us simultaneously. We needed to subdue the natural world in order to thrive in its midst, but subduing it too fully will ultimately destroy us.”

Part historical reference, part literary analysis, part reportage, part essay, part birding book, part book of faith, “The Life of The Skies” is many books in one and asks some rather large questions that don’t necessarily find answers but are still worth asking. Rosen searches for his own personal answers, which may or may not coincide with the reader’s, yet his search makes for some interesting traveling along. A recurring theme, for instance, has to do with the before-and-after effect of darwinian theory on western culture: has the connection between science and religion been ultimately severed by Darwin’s scalpel? At the end of this post I have linked to a video interview with Rosen where he touches on this and other topics.

One thing Rosen’s book isn’t is a picture book, even if it does include a few small and well-chosen monochrome images to illustrate points made in the text. It is essentially a reader’s book and therefore a special note is owed here to the “SOURCES” section that starts on page 301. In those twenty pages of annotated bibliography the author provides a most valuable resource for further reading and sketches a map of the intellectual paths and motivations he followed as his research evolved. I have lifted several references for my own wishful reading list, near the top of which I have saved a slot for a second reading of “The Life of the Skies” by Jonathan Rosen. May that second reading count as this reader’s recommendation.


As promised above, here goes the link to an interview with Jonathan Rosen.

Click to watch on YouTube


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