The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature

The Life of the Skies BY Jonathan Rosen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 336 pages. $24.

The cover of The Life of the Skies

Yeats’s swans. The owl of Athena. Keats’s nightingale. The hoopoe of King Solomon. Dickinson’s bobolink. The birds of gods and poets inhabit The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature, offering a way into the question Jonathan Rosen, a devoted birder in increasingly damaged habitats, wants to answer. It’s the one posed by Frost’s ovenbird: “What to make of a diminished thing?”

The book, an extended essay on the meeting of birds and humans in art, literature, politics, and natural history, consists of two core narratives. The first, “Backyard Birds,” follows Rosen’s trip in 2000 to Louisiana’s Pearl River Wildlife Management Area in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker. Nicknamed the “Lord God Bird,” the ivory bill had been believed extinct for sixty years, but purported sightings called this into doubt. This trek through the swamp launches Rosen’s ruminations about the place of birds and bird-watching in American culture. Thoreau, who peers through his spyglass and imagines hawks on a far ridge, is dubbed “the patron saint of backyard birdwatchers.” Theodore Roosevelt, the first president to create a wildlife reserve and perhaps the last person to see a wild passenger pigeon, is presented as leader of “the republic of feathers,” a nation turning increasingly toward bird-watching even as its birds disappear. Weaving an intricate web of anecdote and observation, Rosen tracks the fictions and elusions of these men as they try to define the relationship between human and natural worlds.

The second section, “Birds of Paradise,” describes Rosen’s trip to Israel in the steps of Henry Baker Tristram, the nineteenth-century ornithologist who wrote The Natural History of the Bible. Rosen’s stories explore bird-watching as a search for origins, whether by way of the Creator or by way of biology. It is in this section that the book finds its surest footing. Digressions cohere as poetic images that gather their own weight: Audubon, wooing his future wife in a cave where phoebes nest, envisons a ring on her finger while banding the birds with silver thread; Alfred Russel Wallace stands in a train station with a cage of birds of paradise, holding an Edenic symbol in his hands and the theory of natural selection in his head.

Here, too, the emotional drives that fuel Rosen’s search come into view. When he wanders into Central Park after visiting his father, who is losing his memory, he eagerly ticks off the names of orioles and warblers, and the urge to do so needs no explanation. Quests like these gain their meaning through the specific, as Peter Matthiessen showed in his classic animal-stalking book, The Snow Leopard, a story as much about his dead wife as a big cat. Jonathan Franzen was similarly revealing in the frank essay “My Bird Problem,” which covered divorce and anxiety alongside masked ducks.

The Life of the Skies becomes strained, though, when it moves from history and literary analysis to advocating for the importance of contemporary bird-watching. The trope of binocular vision is overstated, as is the depiction of humans struggling with dual urges to kill and to conserve. Rosen’s cursory glance at male/female brain differences in order to explain why birders are primarily male fails to convince. The argument for birding even becomes strident: “It isn’t a hobby, any more than I would call raising my daughters a hobby.”

It is in Israel that Rosen offers, finally, the creatures themselves. Their fluttering presence, captured in taut prose, expands the book and lets in the sky. We learn about the character of the hoopoe, the legendary guardian of a magic worm that eats through rock, but we also see the real animal, which builds smelly nests in holes in concrete. In one passage, Rosen waits beneath a cliff with a searchlight and a tape recording of a Hume’s tawny owl, hoping for a rare sighting: “And when it suddenly began hooting into the night, the sound was inhuman, chilling, like a stylus torn across the surface of a record. It sang straight into my bones.” The birds have their say, and the reader, even from an armchair, is immersed in bird-watching’s pleasures.