“All birding is global, given the borderless world birds live in, but it is also, like politics, always local,” writes bestselling author Jonathan Rosen in The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature (Picador, 2008). “And some of its greatest philosophers—yes, birdwatching has philosophers—hardly left home at all.”
Though this line doesn’t encapsulate Rosen’s book (it’s a dense read packed with content and meaning, as well as non fiction book should be) but it offers many clues into the nature of the book: Yes, this is about birdwatching. But it’s not a guide. No maps, a few pictures but none of the carefully colored plates labeled with Latin and common names of species. Instead, it’s one man’s journey to becoming a birdwatcher, coupled with a reporter’s take on the importance of birding—sociologically, historically and philosophically.
The crux of Skies is that Rosen lives and birdwatches in New York City. Though he admits from the outset that birding in one of the world’s largest metropolises seems unlikely, he quickly makes a case for urban birding (for instance, Audubon himself lived out his final years in Manhattan). Rosen also seeks to remove the taboo from “backyard birding.” “…Armchair mountain climbers aren’t climbing and weekend warriors aren’t fighting, but backyard birders really are birding,” he notes. “Travel is always involved in birdwatching, but in backyard birding it is the birds who do it.”
Though Rosen does journey beyond his own back yard, beyond Manhattan, even, Skies is decidedly not about physical travel as much as it is about mental journeys. As such, Rosen’s chapters are organized not chronologically or around geographic locales but rather around great philosophers (Audubon, Whitman, Thoreau) and their writings on the natural world.
Heady stuff, indeed, and not to be undertaken as a beach or bathroom read. Skies requires concentration, thought and a willingness to embark on Rosen’s search not just for rare species (the ivory-billed woodpecker, tracked through a Louisiana swamp,is a recurring theme) but for the connection between human and nature and the reason that people watch birds in the first place.
Still, tightly woven as Rosen’s text can get, his prose is deftly crafted and precisely balanced between the complex and the simple, the personal and universal, weightiness and levity. “As a rule I tend to avoid activities that require snake-proof boots,” he writes as introduction to the book’s first chapter. No matter how far removed from the birding community a reader might feel, it’s hard not to wonder where such an opening line might lead.
Jonathan Rosen reads and discusses The Life of the Skies at Malaprop’s on Sunday, Feb. 1. The 3 p.m. events is free. Info: 254-6734
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter