The Clueless Gardener

"fanaticus sine potestas"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Books and the Birdfeeder

I think I'm back in August mode again...feeling quite distanced from stuff going on out in the yard. So much to cut down and sweep up and drag away and compost....naaaaaah. But, watching the birdfeeder, and two lovely books have kept me in touch with the natural world, and what we humans make of it.
During a beach break late last summer, I read Marie Winn's "Central Park in the Dark," which is all about the surprisingly plentiful wildlife right there to be observed in New York City's biggest greensward. The emphasis of the book is what goes on with the creatures that are most active at night, and the merry band of curious, brainy, and gregarious humans who set out to find them, document them, and try to keep them safe. Therefore we meet lots of moths, moth-ers [those who are interested in them], owls, owl-prowlers, raccoons and their fans. Of course, we hear again about the subject of Winn's earlier book "Red Tails In Love," Pale Male, red-tailed hawk supreme, and his queen of Central Park, Lola. But best of all, and the heart of the book, is a reader's opportunity to enjoy many very touching anecdotes of one of the most interesting, and probably nearly invisible, homo sapien subcultures in New York City. Winn is in awe of the truly expert naturalists we meet in these pages, and is generous in sharing her enthusiastic admiration of them. In fact, by book's end, I felt like I was joining in the adventures of these folks as they marvel at how even in the middle of a gritty urban area, nature fights on and in fact, thrives. It's a very uplifting read, especially in these times of polar bears stranded on melting ice floes, and a certain Alaskan governor's attempt to ignore the diminishing population of beluga whales. At least there is life--in Central Park!-- though we humans are doing our best to kill it off everywhere else. Makes me very eager for spring migration season, and I can see all those pretty warblers again...
A copy of "Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson" by Elizabeth Rosenthal [The Lyons Press] fell into my lap via this very blog, and I've just finished reading it. My one or two readers may recall I wrote a post a while ago titled "Roger Tory Peterson vs. David Sibley," about my preference for the standard Peterson's bird guide in spite of the wild popularity among birders of the much-newer Sibley bird guide. I kept my Fourth Edition Peterson's nearby as I read about Peterson the man; I remember when I first became interested in birds and spotting them, that I could not believe this pioneer of identification technique and conservation, this Great Man, was still alive! I think it would be much like realizing Mr. Webster still walked among us as I looked up a word in the dictionary. Alas, now he's been gone for a while, but reading Rosenthal's biography brought that wonder freshly back to me.
I was astonished to learn Peterson didn't go to college--he went to NYC from his native Pennsylvania, and attended art school. In this man were blended extraordinary talents--for birding, for teaching birding, and for depicting in paint what those birds looked like so that all could find and identify them. Following his path to fame was fascinating, in no small measure because the fuel that fired Peterson wasn't so much ambition, but sheer love and enthusiasm for the birds, and the energy with which he devoted his life to them. His efforts to redefine methods of bird identification were a major reason the shotgun was put aside by ornithologists, and his great gift to us all as a result, is that conservation of birds became much more commonplace, not just a cause of a few society ladies wearing big funny hats. And later in the book, Rosenthal's discussion of Peterson's efforts to research and publicize the damage to birds by the insecticide DDT is a case study of determination.
Yes, to the birds he devoted his life--he did have a human family, but they were always a bit in the background, I learned. Goodness, he was married three times, but his second wife and the mother of his sons, Barbara, seemed to be the support the main trunk of his career required. In a model of marriage that has [thankfully] nearly disappeared in these times, Barbara Peterson kept Roger's house, raised his kids, organized his schedule and social life, planned his trips, and generally gave him tireless assistance while sidelining the possibility of a naturalist's career in her own right. She's also a hero of the book, as Rosenthal portrays her, even though her marriage to Roger fell apart, and he then married a younger woman. [Oh, no, my hero has feet of clay, I thought.]
But enough about the personal stuff...back to the birds!! I think what was most interesting to me was hearing about the birth of the early edition of the bird guide, and the subsequent books that came along in the early years. I became quite eager to search out a copy of the 1934 groundbreaking edition--I shall click over to eBay after writing this--and see what it was really like. "Birdwatcher" isn't a book about his books alone, but indeed that is the way Peterson spoke to most of us who never saw him or met him. Anybody interested in birding knows the name Peterson, and Rosenthal brings the name to life with this robust and deeply-detailed portrait of his life. As I march along in Central Park next spring [or sooner, if I can get off my butt], trailing behind my amazing Audubon bird leader Starr Saphir, I will feel even more strongly the sense of tradition, enthusiasm and devotion that Peterson, and his fellow naturalists, bring to our civilization. [You might want to visit Elizabeth Rosenthal's website about the book:]
By the way, the cover photo of the book is so apt--Peterson, interrupted sketching in the field, looks penetratingly at the camera. His life was about seeing, after all, and how to see---birds.
Well, the winter flock was almost all present and accounted for at the Berkshires feeder last week: chickadee, titmouse, white and red breasted nuthatches, cardinal, jays, and the welcome reappearance of the northern junco. Waiting now for a couple of white-throated sparrows to show up, and all will be well...good birding to all!