The Life of the Skies
Jonathan Rosen, an avid bird watcher, introduces the pastime in a never-before-seen way. In The Life of the Skies, he connects birds and bird watching to almost everything in his life, including the life of the United States and the problems of the world. In the process, he explores the history of ornithology and bird watching (though he denies that the book is such a history). He also contemplates aspects of the literature of North America, Jewish culture in North America and Israel, the creation-evolution debate, and the broader question of the existence of a spirit world. He considers human abuse of the natural world, and he argues for the preservation of that world. These and other topics are invariably connected to bird watching. Reader credulity is strained by some of these connections, but for Rosen they work in interesting ways.
The most poignant of those connections is his habit of walking in New York City’s Central Park after visits with his dementia-stricken father. While bird watching in the park, he simultaneously loses himself in the birds and consciously attempts to stave off his father’s fate by exercising his brain to remember bird names and bird songs. In this context, too, Rosen recalls the discovery that new nerve cells are formed in the brains of adult birds. Before that discovery, adult vertebrate brains were thought to be incapable of regenerating nerve cells and so incapable of repair. The discovery brings hope to victims of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases caused by brain-cell death, and it connects birds (and bird watching) to Rosen and his father even more firmly.
Though it would be incomplete as such, the book is a better history of bird watching, ornithology, and conservation than Rosen’s denial suggests. He outlines Alexander Wilson’s career, calling him the father of North American ornithology. He identifies John James Audubon as the father of North American bird watching. Both murdered birds with wild abandon so that they would have models to describe and paint. He finds it interesting that the Audubon Society, from its inception a bird-preservation organization, chose Audubon’s name for its namesake. Rosen reasons that Wilson and Audubon were acting out of love for the birds, but that the expression of that love differed because of the times in which they lived. For Audubon, Wilson, and other early naturalists, nature seemed to afford endless resources in need of study, and the key to understanding them was, at first, a specimen at hand for study. The Audubon Societies formed later, at a time when the finite nature of all natural resources was becoming evident. To them, nature was a treasure to be preserved from impending decimation. Undoubtedly, Audubon’s name was chosen for the organization because of his paintings, not his marksmanship. Rosen recognizes the important contribution hunters have made to conservation, paying considerable homage to U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt’s role in this regard. However, the destruction of birds by the eighteenth and nineteenth century collectors and hunters may have been the beginning of the “end of nature” scenario Rosen warns about in the book.
Judging from the book’s subtitle, a primary purpose of this work is to present the troubled state of nature and its birds and to encourage action to bring about their preservation. However, it is not always easy to identify this goal in the myriad subplots. Each subplot is interesting and informative in its own right, and losing the book’s theme (if the subtitle does reflect it) from time to time is probably harmless. The “Epilogue” brings the subtitle’s point into focus, and a look back through the book after reading the “Epilogue” illuminates the other chapters’ contribution to that point. Several of the subplots become themes and are revisited throughout the book.
One of the most persistent of these is the ivory-billed woodpecker story. The book contains a brief history of the ivory-bill’s presumed extinction and rediscovery in North America. Last seen there (at least last documented scientifically) in 1944, the bird was declared extinct, and that conviction was so profound that the ivory-bill is not included in some of the field guides to North American birds. It does appear in other field guides, but always with a note about its probable extinction. Rosen explores the claims of ivory-billed woodpecker sightings in Southern swamp forests in 1999 (by David Kullivan) and in 2004 (by Gene Sparling). He describes his own trips to those Southern swamps to get a good look...
(The entire section is 1876 words.)