Aerial delights: A history of America as seen through the eyes of a bird-watcher
John James Audubon arrived in America in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president, and lived long enough to see his friend Samuel Morse send a telegraphic message from his house in New York City in the 1840s. As a boy, Teddy Roosevelt learned taxidermy from a man who had sailed up the Missouri River with Audubon, and yet as president presided over America's entry into the twentieth century, in which our ability to destroy ourselves and the natural world was no longer metaphorical. Roosevelt, an avid birder, was born a hunter and died a conservationist.
Today, forty-six million Americans are bird-watchers. The Life of the Skies is a genre-bending journey into the meaning of a pursuit born out of the tangled history of industrialization and nature longing. Jonathan Rosen set out on a quest not merely to see birds but to fathom their centrality—historical and literary, spiritual and scientific—to a culture torn between the desire both to conquer and to conserve.
Rosen argues that bird-watching is nothing less than the real national pastime—indeed it is more than that, because the field of play is the earth itself. We are the players and the spectators, and the outcome—since bird and watcher are intimately connected—is literally a matter of life and death.
In this eloquent book, Rosen "a novelist and editorial director of Nextbook, which promotes Jewish culture and literature "meditates on the fact that technology enables us to preserve wildlife and at the same time contributes to its demise. He laments that no sooner had he discovered bird-watching than he realized that nature has become a diminished thing, as Robert Frost put it in his poem The Oven Bird. Everywhere he looks "from a Louisiana swamp to the Israeli desert "he finds a paradox: we are attempting to preserve nature at the same time that we are destroying it. Cars, trains and planes, Rosen writes, have enabled us to find the birds of America for ourselves, even as these inventions have contributed to the fragmentation that endangers them. Birds sing back to us an aspect of ourselves, Rosen says, harking back to Audubon, and he confesses that this is why he came to bird-watching, making it even more poignant that so many birds are close to disappearing forever. Rosen's wide-ranging intellect (he is also the author of The Talmud and the Internet) flits gracefully from nature to history to poetry, and gentle meditations can be spiked with barbs ( 'Collecting' is the ornithological euphemism for killing ). This beautifully written book is an elegy to the human condition at a time when wilderness is becoming a thing of the past. Illus.