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Book Examines Connection Between Humans, Birds

JACKI LYDEN, host:

Spring bird migrations are picking up as shadows shorten on the winter landscape. So it's no surprise that recently in Silver Spring, Maryland, I stumbled on a group of birders with binoculars and notebooks. They were looking for a white-winged crossbill. It's a little finch that normally prefers to brave out the cold in the forests of Canada, maybe venturing down as far as New York State. It's a rare sighting for Maryland residents, which explains why reports of a sighting of the white-winged crossbill brought Dan Reuben and John Haslinger out one after. The two are self-described bird dweebs.

Mr. JOHN HASLINGER (Bird Dweeb): Dan and I saw a golden eagle last week down the eastern shore and we saw a dove (unintelligible). That is an artic bird that it was rare down here. But that's what I'm talking about when I say dweeb. You're willing to get in your car and go a distance to see a bird that you've never seen before.

LYDEN: Call it what you like - dweebiness, passion. It's a human instinct to watch birds. At least that's the premise of Jonathan Rosen's new book, "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature." Rosen is a novelist and essayist and a Manhattanite who began his life as a bird watcher in Central Park.

Mr. JONATHAN ROSEN (Author, "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature"): The single most powerful thing about birding for me is the fact that on the one hand you do it with a book. You have a guidebook in your pocket, you go out into the woods with your book and you are constantly trying to name the birds. You're gathering them into the library world, into the system of Norma Klatcher(ph) that dates to the 18th century.

At the same time that you're doing this intensely civilizing activity with a book in your hand the birds are luring you out into the wild world, deeper into the natural world. And it is the tension between those things that I find so stirring.

LYDEN: I was struck how many people, how many poets, have written about birds, how often birds come into mythology and history. And we're going discuss the lives of some of the great ornithologists in this book. But you also talk about the biologist Edward O. Wilson, and he said human beings need nature in order to be happy.

Mr. ROSEN: That's right. And actually one of the little-by-little ways that I got into birding was I had read Edward O. Wilson's autobiography called "Naturalist." And I was so stirred by it and so moved by it. He had a very poor childhood from a broken home and he simply wandered around Alabama gathering up snakes and looking at the wild world.

And it became his consolation and his comfort and it led him through life. And he has later devised this notion, which he called biophilia(ph), that it is actually part of our genetic makeup, that we need to be with nature. But that doesn't mean we only need to conserve nature. It may be the killing urge as well as the conserving urge.

But simply to fee whole and happy we need to be connected to the wide world, which is where after all we evolved as a species.

LYDEN: And you say that birds settle between what is urban enough and what is wild.

Mr. ROSEN: That's right. I mean, I often say when I'm asked why do you go watch birds in Central Park and the answer is, quite simply and sadly, birds are all that's left of the wild world. You know, if buffalo or caribou passed through Central Park I'd go out and see them for sure. But birds are really the only wild animals left that still migrate along these ancient migratory pathways.

LYDEN: And you talk about the father of American birding as being Alexander Wilson. And you had a very interesting story about him and a bird that everyone has come to be obsessed with, and that's the ivory-billed woodpecker, which is a lot more common. (unintelligible) exists at the time that Wilson had captured it.

Mr. ROSEN: Yeah. Wilson was a great ornithologist born in Scotland, acted at the very beginning of the 19th century. And he tells a story about capturing an ivory-billed, which he wounds in the wings, in order to paint it and he brings it to a hotel room. And he hides it under his cloak when he comes to the hotel room, and he asks for a room. He says for myself and my baby. The bird is crying like an infant.

And he brings it into the room and he ties it - well, first he lets it fly free and leaves for a little while. And when he comes back the bird has basically chiseled a hole in the wall and is very near escaping. So he ties it to a mahogany table. He has to go out again and this time when he comes back the table is completely ruined.

He's filled with admiration for the bird which actually dies a couple of days later, not because it was so badly wounded but because it seemed to Wilson that it just had this kind of proud defiant spirit and would not be tamed. But what I find so moving and telling about that story is here's a bird who Wilson shot, effectively he killed it and in those days everyone who was a bird watcher was a bird killer. You killed them to look at them.

At the same time he pretends the bird is his child. And although it's a joke it's a very telling joke because we have this intimate relationship to the natural world that we are simultaneously striving against and also simultaneously propping up. One of the reason hunters make such god conservationists is because they acknowledge that aspect of themselves. People who go duck hunting have been very early and active in preserving the places where ducks live because they want to keep shooting them.

LYDEN: You've woven a lot of poetry into this book and a little bit of philosophy. Could you tell us more about the title of this book, "The Life of the Skies," and where that came from?

Mr. ROSEN: Sure. "The Life of the Skies" comes from a D.H. Lawrence prose poem. It's part of a wonderful collection of poems called "Birds, Beasts and Flowers." And the poem begins birds are the life of the skies and when they fly they reveal the thoughts of the skies.

And I had been very taken with that line for a very long time, long before I knew how I was going to write this book. But I misremembered the line. I thought it was when they sing they reveal the thoughts of the skies, not when they fly. And I was happy when I discovered I was wrong because it's not anything that they say, it's not they can't articulate. Meaning it's the sheer fact that they exist at all that is so mysterious.

And I think it also liked it that the title, "The Life of the Skies," really has a kind of theological overtone. Because I do believe that looking for birds, looking for anything in the natural world, has not only those hunting urges which drives us out into the wild world but a desire to find meaning in nature and even perhaps meaning behind nature.

What is the life of the skies? After Darwin do we believe that the skies are empty of, you know, angels, thrones, powers, divine force? And that it's simply the animal world that fills it or is it in fact even though it may only be the animal world that fills it, does that animal world itself contain a suggestion of divinity?

LYDEN: Would you also say that if you're going to talk about the life of the skies and castles in the air so to speak that you need to preserve the foundation beneath the skies? And that even as you're discovering birds and thinking about nature sanctuaries, human beings often devour the habitat?

Mr. ROSEN: That's right. The birds I see passing through in spring time, they spend the winter in Central America or South America and they're on their way north to Canada perhaps. And so one of the great things about birding is that your mind expands outwardly into this wide web whether you travel or not. But it also forces you to realize there is no such thing as a single forest.

I may see birds in the equivalent of my backyard but actually if I don't think about how to preserve the forests where they spend the winter or the places where they go to breed then those birds won't be there.

LYDEN: Jonathan Rosen. His new book is called "The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature." Jonathan Rosen, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you.

Mr. ROSEN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Jonathan Rosen includes many poems in his book, "The Life of the Skies." Here's "The Oven Bird" by Robert Frost.

There's a singer everyone has heard, loud, a midsummer and a midwood(ph) bird who makes the solid tree trunks sound again. He says that leaves are old and that for flowers midsummer is to spring as one to 10. He says the early pedafall(ph) is past when pear and cherry bloom went down in showers. On sunny days a moment overcast. And confidant of fall we name the fall, he says the highway dust is overall. The bird would seek and be as other birds but that he knows in singing not to sing. The question that he frames in all but words is what to make of a diminished thing.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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