Birds and Life

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June 1, 2008
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The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature by Jonathan Rosen Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages, $24

Reviewed by Haim WatzmanIt’s hardly surprising that Hayyim Nachman Bialik chose a bird as the central image of his first published Hebrew poem. For a Diaspora Jew caught in Europe, longing for another life, a bird symbolized freedom and the ability to soar over physical, political, and psychological barriers.

It’s also not surprising that Bialik didn’t know, or at least didn’t tell us, what kind of bird it was who brought him a message from his brothers in Zion. Bialik tells us all about his conversation with the bird, but nothing about the bird’s markings, habits, the shape of its beak, wings, and tail, or the peculiarities of its song.

Poor birds. We so frequently press them into use as symbols that we often forget to see them. It’s a rare writer who can combine an appreciation for the bird of literature with knowledge of the bird as an animal. One of those rare writers is Jonathan Rosen, who now offers us a wonderful account of his observations of and thoughts about, American woodpeckers, Israeli hoopoes, and many more in between.

Rosen is a writer by trade, a novelist, journalist, and editor. He tells us (perhaps once too often) that his upper middle-class Jewish upbringing prepared him for the life of an intellectual, not a naturalist. But his love of poetry came together with a love of science, and that led him to writers who wrote and thought about nature — in particular, Henry David Thoreau. So he was well-primed when, twelve years ago, a chance comment over a Shabbat lunch in Manhattan — “The warblers will be coming through Central Park soon” — induced him to sign up for a birdwatching course at the Audubon Society.

Thus began a saga that reached a climax when Rosen flew to Louisiana in the hopes of spying a bird that most people thought already extinct, the ivory-billed woodpecker. This, the largest of North American woodpeckers, occupied a narrow ecological niche, eating the grubs that attack recently dead trees. These birds require old-growth forests with plenty of trees several centuries old, so that enough old trees die regularly to be attacked by insects. And they need a warm and moist area where dead trees decay quickly. Ivory-bills used to flourish in the Mississippi delta, east Texas, and the Florida panhandle, but the last old forests in these areas were clear-cut in the mid-20th century. The last adequately documented sighting of an ivory-bill was in 1944, but occasionally birdwatchers and hunters report seeing them. It was one such sighting, in 1999, that impelled Rosen to embark from the Upper West Side to a mosquito-infested swamp in hopes that he, too, would be granted a view of this elusive, and possibly non-existent, bird.

He wasn’t. The ivory-bills either weren’t there or weren’t showing themselves. But Rosen tells a fascinating story of his sojourn. And like the whirling, intermixing flocks of migrants he sees on a trip to Israel’s rift valley, he interweaves his own story with Thoreau’s observations at Walden Pond; with the story of America’s great bird painter, John James Audubon; with the observations of naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace; with speculations on evolution and the nature of the world; and with much else besides. He also quotes a lot of fine poetry that helps the reader both see birds as natural objects and conceive of the meaning they bear in the human mind.

Impressively, and unusually for a book of this sort, Rosen explicitly rejects Thoreau’s pretense that a writer can negate himself, recording the landscape as it is untouched by human action, thought, history, and current events. “I cannot belong to that school of nature writing where you set off with a knapsack and nothing else — seemingly without parents or children or religion or tradition or friends or country.” The September 11 attacks and the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada are part of his birdwatching experience, as are his dying father, his family, his religion, and his own biography.

Factually, birds do not sing for us. “They sing not for our pleasure or their own, but for intensely practical reasons,” Rosen reminds us — they must mark out territory, attract mates, deter predators. But how can we not seek a message in their song? How can we not make them ours? “Sing, my bird, of wonders from a land in whose spring eternity resides,” Bialik pleads in his poem. Rosen seeks, and hears, a more subtle and complex message, one for the birds, and human beings, of our age.

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Haim Watzman is the author of Company C: An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel and of A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel's Rift Valley . He blogs at http://southjerusalem.com.

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